In this modern age of gaming, we often decry “sequelitis”. Nothing is new, everything is just another installment in an existing franchise. Just look at current releases like Final Fantasy XXIII-8 v2.5 part 7: Sephiroth Goes to Hell (UK Title: “The Finalest Fantasy”) and you’ll see my point.
Okay, maybe that game doesn’t actually exist (yet), but crying about franchise releases requires peril-sensitive nostalgia glasses in order to ignore that it’s been with us since the earliest days of computer gaming software. If developers managed to cap lightning in a bottle with a certain brand, they often stuck with it; and man, regardless of (or maybe because of) the sameness to what went before we snapped them right up. Sierra On-Line was one of the most, erm, “prolific” in this sense, which is why you’ll probably never witness me recollecting King’s Quest or Space Quest beyond what I’ve already done. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that the later games are necessarily bad, but they tend to not be as memorable, or as innovative, when straightjacketed by pre-existing expectations.
Is sequelitis inherently stifling? Well, there’s a lot of sameness in franchises like Call of Duty, but as a counterpoint there are games such as Final Fantasy VII, Grand Theft Auto 3 or Metal Gear Solid which really broke the boundaries of what had gone before. And while I can’t recall much innovation in the King’s Quest and Space Quest series beyond their first outings, the Ultima series is another story.
If you’re a non-gamer, your only knowlege of Richard Garriott, a.k.a. Lord British, might be that he’s filthy rich enough to buy himself a 30 million dollar vacation in outer space. Even if you are a gamer you might not have heard of the guy, since other than the space station jaunt he hasn’t been in the news much lately–his last gaming project, the MMOPRG Tabula Rasa, bombed and closed down without even reaching the 18 month mark, despite an attempt at going Free To Play; and this after nearly seven years of development. It was not necessarily what you might call a grand comeback, but still, that doesn’t change that during the 1980s the guy was some hot shit. The first Ultima game was released packaged in nothing more than ziploc bags, but it became a huge success, and Garriott’s star just went up from there.
Now if you’re going to ask me what the big f’ing deal about Ultima was, I’m afraid I’m going to have to outsource you. Short version is it (along with Wizardry) more or less shaped how the Computer Role-Playing Game would look and operate, especially by the time we get around to Ultima III, which among other things first introduced that feature still used by Final Fantasy where combat encounters occur on a sub-screen with your party arranged against multiple enemies.
I never personally played Ultima I or Ultima II, and while my young self did give Ultima III a try, my biggest impression was not of heroically struggling to save the world, but of my hero(es) constantly, frustratingly starving to death.
I have mentioned before that there are aspects of old-school gaming I don’t miss and would rather forget ever happened, right? I just could never break past the food barrier. Each tile move you made cost you food, and there were only certain places you could buy food, and the food seemed to be really, really expensive. Oh, and I seem to remember an early attempt at day and night cycling, which in practice meant that there were also only certain times a merchant would sell you food, even if you could afford it. I still have vague nightmares about the stereotype Asian cook in Lord British’s castle who would declare “Kitchen clost! Come back latah!”, apparently getting his kicks from watching Chosen Ones die of hunger before dawn.
I should probably go back to that whole “Lord British’s castle” thing. Yeah, the great hero (and later ruler) of the land is a blatant self-insert of Garriott’s fantasy alter ego. To be fair, he didn’t come up with it himself, and his early publishers encouraged the whole thing, but there you go. Who am I to judge when I occasionally loaf around the Internets as “Doctor Feh”, and I have a much stupider story of how that came about?
By the time Ultima III came out Garriott had leveraged his success and popularity to the point where he had established his own software company, Origin Systems, to publish the game. This is where the really cool packaging with the hand-drawn manuals and cloth maps started, as well; but like I said, the whole food system ended up being a deal-breaker. Ultima III is one of the first games I can remember where I just threw up my hands and walked away. Little did I know that its successor would prove to be one of those crazy boundary breakers, dispensing with three games’ worth of “gather your party, loot the monsters and defeat the evil wizard” (and try not to starve) to provide a rather different set of goals, indeed.
I’m not a big fan of the vocal Religious Right, especially the ones who to this day see roleplaying games as a gateway to Satan, but it’s an arguable point that if they hadn’t been on one of their periodic rampages against the corruption of the youth of America, Ultima IV might not have been nearly as cool. It all started with Ultima III coming under fire for rewarding players that killed and stole indiscriminately. Yes, anyone who’s ever done tabletop or computer gaming is aware this is a phenomenon hardly unique to Ultima, but the success of the series conspired against it, not to mention an admittedly unfortunate choice of box image.
Remember, this was the time of Patricia Pulling and BADD (Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons) being considered legitimate enough to warrant airtime on 60 Minutes–when Mazes & Monsters was still in the mainstream mindset as a very serious, cautionary tale. But ludicrous as the claims of Satanism and moral bankruptcy were, in the wake of several angry letters from parents Garriott did sit back and have a think. Yes, there was truth to the argument that in the Ultima games so far, ”immoral actions like stealing and murder of peaceful citizens had been necessary or at least very useful actions in order to win the game”.
So what if that weren’t the case? What if, instead, a fantasy CRPG could be made that deliberately encouraged virtue instead of vice? In theory, that sounds like the kind of thinking that gets us watered-down Christian Rock. In practice, it gave us Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar.
Name me another CRPG whose final quest goal is to become the best person you can be. Not the strongest or most powerful, but the most decent. Because that’s basically what Ultima IV is all about–it’s a spiritual journey that somehow takes place amid all the standard fantasy trappings of world exploration and dungeon delving, and from the very beginning you know you’re in for something different as you encounter a gypsy fortuneteller who asks you several questions designed to test your moral choices, like the age-old conundrum of what to do when you catch a man who is stealing bread to feed his starving family. The game doesn’t rate your answers here as right or wrong, but it does weight them towards certain aspects, out of which you’ll end up with your character class (for example, if you trend towards Honor you’ll be a Paladin, while Compassion is the mark of a Bard).
Shortly after the game begins, Lord British (there’s that guy again!) explains that now that the Dark Triad (of the first three games) has been vanquished, he worries about the spiritual well-being of the people in a land which is now at relative peace after suffering for so long. You are given the task, basically, of becoming a good example. In the course of your journeys and meditations, you will explore and nurture the eight virtues of Honesty, Compassion, Valor, Justice, Sacrifice, Honor, Spirituality, and Humility, which in turn comprise the Principles of Truth, Love, and Courage, all bound together by the Axiom of Infinity.
This was insane shit to throw at your average gamer. There was a blind merchant who offers needed items, and although the prices were listed the player was allowed to specify how much gold they would actually pay. Cheat the man and you could get quite a discount, but your Honesty would suffer. If your party ran into monsters they couldn’t handle and had to retreat, your personal character had better cover the butts of the rest and be the last off of the field or your Valor would take a hit. Conversely, if the monsters lost morale and started to flee, a truly Just person needed to refrain from killing them.
I did go on about the manuals before, but I should note that none of the specifics of these actions are spelled out, so a player is left with trial-and-error, or more hopefully (once they realize their actions are having karmic consequences) acting in accordance with certain basic notions of goodness that occur repeatedly throughout human history and culture.
Perhaps the craziest accomplishment is that all this goody two-shoes business and spiritual meditation actually ended up occurring within the framework of what I remember as a fun and rewarding game. You felt like you were accomplishing something more than just leveling and killing, and more than that it was the first game of its kind that really questioned the underpinnings of the genre and examined if being good could be just as much fun as being bad (or at least indulging in ”end justifies the means” amorality). It’s a testament to this change in emphasis that I was driven to finish Ultima IV despite it still having a food and starvation system (although thankfully a much less stringent one than the previous titles).
Any RPG since which has indulged in moral questions as part of its narrative owes a debt to the courage (or is that Valor?) of Ultima IV, and even then it stands unique as a game you literally could not win unless you committed to a virtuous path. It was, after all, the whole point, since there was no convenient Evil Overlord to defeat–only the Evil within.
Available for free(!) from Good Old Games, with the manuals and map included (though sadly not in physical form).