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Ultima V

Ultima V

Ultima V is a story about freedom of choice. You can’t put these [the eight Virtues] down as laws. It does not work to put these down as laws. They’re fine as a point of discussion, but it’s a completely personal issue. I would never try to build a pseudo-science of truth. This is never meant to be THE TRUTH. This is really meant to be, “Hey, by the way, if you just happen to live by these standards, it works pretty well.” It was never meant to be the one great truth of the universe that you must abide by.

— Richard Garriott

An awful lot of people get awfully exercised over the lore and legends of Britannia and the many failings of Richard Garriott’s stewardship thereof. Some of them spend their time in tortured ret-conning, trying to explain why the geography of the place kept changing from game to game, why its name was changed overnight from Sosaria to Britannia, or, even more inexplicably, why it suddenly turned into our own Earth for a little while there during the time of Ultima II. Others prefer to just complain about it, which is fair enough.

I have to say, though, that it’s hard for me to really care. For me, the Ultima series isn’t most interesting as the saga of Britannia, but rather as something more intimate. It’s the CRPG equivalent of the film Boyhood. As we play through the games we see its creator grow up, from the giddy kid who stuck supercomputers, space shuttles, and Star Wars in his fantasy games — because, hey, those things are all just as cool as Dungeons and Dragons to a nerdy teenager — to the more serious young man who used Ultima IV and, now, Ultima V to try to work out a philosophy for living. Taken as a whole, the series can be seen as a coming-of-age tale as well as a fantasy epic. Having reached a stage in my life where the former is more interesting than the latter, that’s how I prefer to see it anyway. Rather than talk about the Ages of Britannia, I prefer to talk about the ages of Richard Garriott.

What makes the process so gratifying is that the changes that Richard Garriott undergoes are, one senses, the changes that a good-hearted, thoughtful young man ought to undergo. Which is not to say that Garriott is perfect. Lord knows it’s easy enough to mock the sheer one-percenter excess of paying Russia a reputed $30 million to haul him into space for twelve days, and some of his public comments do rather suggest he may be lacking in the Virtue of Humility. But then, given how much his (alter) ego has been stroked over the years,1 it’s not surprising to find that Garriott regards himself as a bit of a special snowflake. Ironically, it wasn’t so much his real or imagined exceptionalism as it was the fact that he was so similar to most of his fans that allowed him to speak to them about ideas that would have caused their eyes to glaze over if they’d encountered them in a school textbook. Likewise, the story of the Richard Garriott whom we glimpse through his games is interesting because of its universality rather than its exceptionalism; it fascinates precisely because so many others have and continue to go through the same stages.

In Ultima IV, we saw his awakening to the idea that there are causes greater than himself, things out there worth believing in, and we saw his eagerness to shout his discoveries from every possible rooftop. This is the age of ideology — of sit-ins and marches, of Occupy Wall Street, of the Peace Corps and the Mormon missionary years. Teenagers and those in their immediate post-teenage years are natural zealots in everything from world politics to the kind of music they listen to (the latter, it must be said, having at least equal importance to the former to many of them).

Yet we must acknowledge that zealotry has a dark side; this is also the age of the Hitler Youth and the Jihad. Some never outgrow the age of ideology and zealotry, a situation with major consequences for the world we live in today. Thankfully, Richard Garriott isn’t one of these. Ultima V is the story of his coming to realize that society must be a negotiation, not a proclamation. “I kind of think of it as my statement against TV evangelists,” he says, “or any other group which would push their personal philosophical beliefs on anybody else.” The world of Ultima V is messier than Ultima IV‘s neat system of ethics can possibly begin to address, full of infinite shades of gray rather than clear blacks and whites. But the message of Ultima V is one we need perhaps even more now than we did in 1988. If only the worst we had to deal with today was television evangelists…

Garriott often refers to Ultima IV as the first Ultima with a plot, but that strikes me as an odd contention. If anything, there is less real story to it than the Ultimas that preceded it: be good, get stronger, and go find a McGuffin called the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom pretty much sums it up. (It’s of course entirely down to the first of these that Ultima IV is such a revolutionary game.) I sense a false conflation here of games with a plot with games that are somehow more worthwhile or socially relevant. “I’m writing stories,” he said during the late 1980s, “stories with some socially significant meaning, or at least some emotional interest.” But if we strip away the value judgments that seem to be confusing the issue, we’re actually left with Ultima V, the first Ultima whose premise can’t be summed up in a single sentence, as the real first Ultima with a plot. In fact, I think we might just need a few paragraphs to do the job.

Thanks to Denis Loubet, Origin's newly installed artist, Ultima V looks much better than the previous games in the series even on a graphically limited platform like the Apple II.

Thanks to Denis Loubet, Origin’s newly installed artist, Ultima V looks better than the previous games in the series even on a graphically limited platform like the Apple II.

So, after you became an Avatar of Virtue through the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom at the bottom of Ultima IV‘s final dungeon, you were rewarded for your efforts by being sent back to boring old twentieth-century Earth to, as the ending text so famously put it, “live there as an example to thy people.” In Britannia, the Council of Wizards raised the Codex to the surface by essentially turning the volcano that housed it inside-out, creating a mountain with a shrine to the Codex on its top. But this process created a huge underground void, an Underworld as big as Britannia’s surface that among other things allows Ultima V to make the claim that it’s fully twice as big as its predecessor. (No, the proportions of one volcano, now matter how immense, don’t quite add up to the whole of Britannia, but just roll with it, okay?)

Everything was still going pretty well in Britannia, so Lord British decided he’d like to embark on an adventure of his own instead of always sending others off to face danger. He got a party together, and they entered the new Underworld on a mission of exploration. Bad idea. He and his party were all killed or captured, only one scribe escaping back to the surface with a tale of horrors in the depths. “And this,” I can just hear Lord British saying, “is why I should have continued to let others do the adventuring for me…”

It happens that Lord British left one Lord Blackthorn as his regent. Now, with Lord British presumed dead, it looks like the post will become permanent. That’s bad news because Blackthorn, concerned that not enough people in Britannia are “striving to uphold the virtues,” has instituted a Code of Virtue to force them to do so.

  1. Thou shalt not lie, or thou shalt lose thy tongue.
  2. Thou shalt help those in need, or thou shalt suffer the same need.
  3. Thou shalt fight to the death if challenged, or thou shalt be banished as a coward.
  4. Thou shalt confess to thy crime and suffer its just punishment, or thou shalt be put to death.
  5. Thou shalt donate half of thy income to charity, or thou shalt have no income.
  6. If thou dost lose thine own honor, thou shalt take thine own life.
  7. Thou shalt enforce the laws of virtue, or thou shalt die as a heretic.
  8. Thou shalt humble thyself to thy superiors, or thou shalt suffer their wrath.

A number of your old companions from Ultima IV, opposing this Britannic version of the Spanish Inquisition, have become outlaws against the crown. They arrange to transport you back to Britannia from Earth to hopefully save the day. Garriott:

So, where Ultima IV was fairly black-and-white — I mean good guys are good guys and bad guys are bad guys — Ultima V unfolds in a gray area. Lots of characters try convincing you that Blackthorn is doing things just right, some say he’s an evil force, and others realize he’s wrong but are taking advantage of the situation for personal profit and are willing to fight anyone who opposes Blackthorn. You now have to operate more or less like a Robin Hood-style outlaw, working against the system but from within the system, which you must bring down philosophically as well by convincing key people in the government that they are wrong about Blackthorn.

Now we can better understand where the plot is really going. Crazily elaborate by previous Ultima standards though it is, the part of the backstory involving Lord British’s trip to the Underworld is mainly there to get him out of the picture for a while so Garriott can tell the story he wants to tell. “Rescuing Lord British in Ultima V is not really the focus of the game,” Garriott admits. “It’s just the final physical activity you have to do, like recovering the Codex in Ultima IV. It is how you do it that’s important.” Garriott wants to turn Britannia, all sweetness and light in Ultima IV (albeit with something of a monster-infestation problem), into a place every bit as horrifying in its own way as the Underworld. And, more accepting of shades of gray though he may have become, he isn’t quite willing to make Lord British — i.e., himself — responsible for that.

If all this isn’t enough plot for you, there’s also the story of one Captain John, whose ship got sucked into the Underworld by a massive whirlpool. There he and his crew stumbled upon one of those Things of Which Man Was Not Meant to Know, which drove him insane and caused him to murder his entire crew, then unleashed the three Shadowlords upon Britannia: personifications of the anti-Virtues of Falsehood, Hatred, and Cowardice. It does seem that you, noble Avatar, have your work cut out for you.

It’s a much clunkier setup in many ways than that of Ultima IV. A big part of that game’s genius is to equate as closely as possible the you sitting in front of the monitor screen with the you who roams the byways of Britannia behind it. Opening with a personality test to assess what kind of a character you are, Ultima IV closes with that aforementioned exhortation to “live as an example to thy people” — an exhortation toward personal self-improvement that hundreds of thousands of impressionable players took with considerable seriousness.

All that formal elegance gets swept away in Ultima V. The newer game does open with a personality test almost identical to the one in Ultima IV, but it’s here this time not to serve any larger thematic goal so much as because, hey, this is an Ultima, and Ultimas are now expected to open with a personality test. Instead of a very personal journey of self-improvement, this time around you’re embarking on just another Epic Fantasy Saga™, of which games, not to mention novels and movies, certainly have no shortage. Garriott’s insistence that it must always be the same person who stars in each successive Ultima is a little strange. It seems that, just as every successive Ultima had to have a personality test, he reckoned that fan service demanded each game star the selfsame Avatar from the previous.

The gypsy and her personality test are back, but the sequence has a darker tone now, suiting the darker tone of the game as a whole.

The gypsy and her personality test are back, but the sequence has a darker tone now, as suits the shift in mood of the game as a whole.

But whatever its disadvantages, Ultima V‘s new emphasis on novelistic plotting allows Garriott to explore his shades of gray in ways that the stark simplicity of Ultima IV‘s premise did not. The world is complicated and messy, he seems to be saying, and to reflect that complication and messiness Ultima has to go that way too. Nowhere is his dawning maturity more marked than in the character of Blackthorn, the villain of the piece.

CRPG villains had heretofore been an homogeneous rogue’s gallery of cackling witches and warlocks, doing evil because… well, because they were evil. In tabletop Dungeons and Dragons, the genre’s primary inspiration, every character chooses an alignment — Good, Neutral, or Evil — to almost literally wear on her sleeve. It’s convenient, allowing as it does good to always be clearly good and those hordes of monsters the good are killing clearly evil and thus deserving of their fate. Yet one hardly knows where to begin to describe what an artificial take on the world it is. How many people who do evil — even the real human monsters — actually believe that they are evil? The real world is not a battleground of absolute Good versus absolute Evil, but a mishmash of often competing ideas and values, each honestly certain of its own claim to the mantle of Good. Our more sophisticated fictions — I’m tempted here to say adult fictions — recognize this truth and use it, both to drive their drama and, hopefully, to make us think. Ultima V became the first CRPG to do the same, thanks largely to the character of Blackthorn.

Blackthorn is not your typical cackling villain. As Garriott emphasizes, “his intentions are really very good.” Setting aside for a moment the message-making that became so important to Garriott beginning with Ultima IV, Ultima V‘s more nuanced approach to villainous psychology makes it a more compelling drama on its own terms. The fact that Blackthorn is earnestly trying to do good, according to his own definition of same, makes him a far more interesting character than any of the cacklers. Speaking from the perspective of a storyteller on the lookout for interesting stories, Garriott notes that a similar certainty of their own goodness was the “best part” about the Moral Majority who were dominating so much of the political discourse in the United States at the time that he was writing Ultima V.

And yet, Garriott acknowledges, legislating morality is according to his own system of values “just the wrong thing to do.” He has held fast to this belief in the years since Ultima V, proving more than willing to put his money where his mouth is. The version of Richard Garriott known to the modern political establishment is very different from the Richard Garriott who’s so well known to nerd culture. When not playing at being a Medieval monarch or an astronaut, he’s a significant donor and fundraiser for the Democratic party as well as for organizations like Planned Parenthood, a persistent thorn in the side of those people, of which there are many in his beloved Texas, who would turn their personal morality into law.

As for Blackthorn, his evil — if, duly remembering that we’re now in a world of shades of gray, evil you consider it to be — is far more insidious and dangerous than the cackling stripe because it presents itself in the guise of simple good sense and practicality. A long-acknowledged truth in politics is that the people you really need to win over to take control of a country are the great middle, the proverbial insurance underwriters and shop owners — one well-known ideologue liked to call them the bourgeois — who form the economic bedrock of any developed nation. If you can present your message in the right guise, such people will often make shocking ethical concessions in the name of safety and economic stability. As the old parable goes, Mussolini may have been a monster, but he was a monster who made the trains run on time — and that counts for a hell of a lot with people. More recently, my fellow Americans have been largely willing to overlook systematic violations of the allegedly fundamental right of habeas corpus, not to mention unprecedented warrantless government spying, in the same spirit. The citizens of Britannia are no different. “In a society that is very repressive like this,” Garriott notes, “many good things can happen. Crime is going down. Certain kinds of businesses [military-industrial complex? surveillance-industrial complex?] are going to flourish.”

The ethics of Ultima IV are easy. Really, how hard is it to decide whether it’s ethical to cheat a blind old shopkeeper of the money she’s due? This time around, Garriott doesn’t let us off so easy. He puts us through the ethical wringer every chance he gets, showing us that sometimes there is no clear-cut ethical choice, only… yes, you guessed it, infinite shades of gray. Just like antagonists, ethical dilemmas become more interesting when they pick up a little nuance. Maybe they become a little too interesting; Garriott proves willing to go to some uncomfortable places in Ultima V, places few big commercial CRPGs of today would dare to tread.

At one point, Blackthorn captures Iolo, one of your boon companions in Virtue from Ultima IV who summoned you back to Britannia. He binds him to a table beneath a razor-sharp pendulum lifted out of Edgar Allan Poe. Betray the plans of your burgeoning resistance movement, Blackthorn tells you, and he will free Iolo. Refuse and… well, let’s just say that soon there will be two Iolos. Scenes like this are familiar fare in movies and television, culminating always in a last-second rescue just before blade bites flesh. In this case, however, there will be no rescue. Do you watch your dear friend die or do you betray everything he stands for? If you let him die, Ultima V erases Iolo entirely from the disk, to deny you the hope of resurrecting him and remind you that some choices really are final.

At another point, you meet a character who holds a vital piece of information, but he’ll part with it only if you exorcise his personal grudge by turning in one of your own friends to Blackthorn’s Inquisition. Personal loyalty or the greater good? Think fast, now! Which will it be? Garriott:

There is no other solution. I agree it was a dirty trick, having to turn in one of the good guys to get information. Now, admittedly, the game never really goes and lynches the guy, but you must presume that is the ramification of what you have done. That is a tough personal thing that I put in there, not because I knew the answer myself, but because I knew it would be a tough decision.

The most notoriously memorable of all Ultima V‘s ethical quandaries, still as shocking when you first encounter it today as it was back in 1988, is the room of the children. Like so much in game design, it arose from the technical affordances (or lack thereof) of the Ultima V engine. Unlike the surface of Britannia, dungeons can contain only monsters, not characters capable of talking to you. Looking for something interesting to put in one of the many dungeons, Garriott stumbled across the tiles used to represent children in Britannia’s towns and castles.

When you walk into the room of the children, they’re trapped in jail cells. Free them by means of a button on the wall, and they prove to be brainwashed; they start to attack your party. You need to get through the room — i.e., through the children — in order to set matters right in Britannia. Once again it’s a horrid question of the greater good — or smaller evil? Garriott:

Well, I thought, that is an interesting little problem, isn’t it? Because I knew darn well that the game doesn’t care whether you kill them or whether you walk away. It didn’t matter, but I knew it would bring up a psychological image in your mind, an image that was in my mind — and any conflict you bring up in anybody’s mind is beneficial. It means a person has to think about it.

In this situation, Garriott — or, perhaps better said, the game engine — thankfully did allow some alternatives to the stark dichotomy of killing children or letting Britannia go to ruin. The clever player might magically charm the children and order them out of the room, or put them to sleep (no, not in that sense!) and just walk past them.

The room nevertheless caused considerable discord within Origin. Alerted by a play-tester whom Richard Garriott calls “a religious fundamentalist,” Robert Garriott, doubtless thinking of Origin’s previous run-ins with the anti-Dungeons and Dragons contingent, demanded in no uncertain terms that his little brother remove the room. When Richard refused, Robert enlisted their parents to the cause; they also asked why he couldn’t be reasonable and just remove this “little room.” “Why,” they asked, “are you bothering to fight for this so much?”

And I said, “Because you guys are missing the point. You are now trying to tell me what I can do artistically — about something that is, in my opinion, not the issue you think it is. If it was something explicitly racist or sexist or promoting child abuse, I could stand being censored. But if it is something that provoked an emotional response from one individual, I say I have proven the success of the room. The fact that you guys are fighting me over this makes me even more sure I should not remove that room from the game.”

And so it remained. Much to Robert’s relief, the room of the children attracted little attention in the trade press, and none at all from the sort of quarters he had feared. Buried as it is without comment deep within an absolutely massive game, those who might be inclined toward outrage were presumably just never aware of its existence.

Ultima V looks superficially all but identical to its predecessor, but a second glance reveals a new depth to the interaction. Note that I'm sitting in a chair here. In addition to the chair, the bed, the torches, the barrel, and the stone are implemented as objects with which I can interact.

Ultima V‘s screen layout and interface appear superficially all but identical to its predecessor, but a second glance reveals a new depth to the interaction. Note that I’m sitting in a chair here. In addition to the chair, the bed, the torches, the barrel, and the stone are all implemented as objects with which I can interact.

Having now spent almost 4000 words discussing the greater themes of Ultima V, I have to acknowledge that, just as with its predecessor, you spend a relatively small proportion of your time directly engaging with those themes when actually playing. Whatever else it is, this is still a conventional CRPG with all the expected mechanics of leveling-up and monster-killing. As usual for the series, its code is built on the base of its predecessor’s, its screen layout and its alphabet soup of single-letter commands largely the same. Ditto its three scales of interaction, with the abstract wilderness map blowing up into more detailed towns and still more detailed, first-person dungeons. The graphics have been noticeably improved even on the graphically limited 8-bit machines, thanks not least to Denis Loubet’s involvement as Origin’s first full-time artist, and the sound has been upgraded on suitably equipped machines to depict the splashing of water in fountains and the chiming of clocks on walls. Still, this is very much an Ultima in the tradition stretching all the way back to Akalabeth; anyone who’s played an earlier game in the series will feel immediately comfortable with this one.

That means that all the other things that Ultima fans had long since come to expect are still here, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. The hilariously awful faux-Elizabethan diction, for instance, is still present and accounted for. (One of my favorite examples this time out is a father telling his son he needs an attitude adjustment, a slang phrase very en vogue at the time of Ultima V‘s release courtesy of countless harried sitcom parents: “Thou shalt take a year off from magic, Mondain, to improve thy attitudes.”) And there’s still the sense of an earnest but not yet hugely well-traveled young man — physically or intellectually — punching a bit above his weight in trying to create a new world out of whole cloth. For instance, with Garriott apparently starting to feel uncomfortable with the whole divine-rule-of-kings thing, Britannia has now become a republic with an an uncanny resemblance to the only republic with which Garriott is at all familiar, that of the United States; Lord British, naturally, sits in for the President. Even the story of the government’s founding mirrors that of the American Constitutional Convention. Tolkienesque world-building, needless to say, this is not.

For all its additional complexities of theme and plot, Ultima V actually exhibits more continuity with its predecessor than any earlier Ultima. For the first time in an Ultima, it’s possible to import your character from the previous game, an innovation dating back to the second Wizardry game that most other CRPG series had long embraced. And the overland map of Britannia in Ultima V is, apart from that new volcano that popped up where a dungeon used to be, almost exactly the same as that of Ultima IV.

At the same time, however, Ultima V is a vastly bigger and even more ambitious game than its predecessor. Positioned in the same places on the overland map though they are, all of the towns, castles, and dungeons have been extensively remodeled and expanded during the (Britannic) years that have passed between the two games. And if that’s not enough space for adventure, there’s of course also the huge Underworld that’s been added. The magic system has been revamped and better systemized, now sporting almost twice as many spells — almost fifty in total — that are divided into eight “circles” of power. The parser-based conversation system, while superficially unchanged from that of Ultima IV, now understands much, much more, and delivers more text back in response to every query.

But the heart of Ultima V‘s ambition is not in the sprawl but in the details. Ultima V‘s Britannia must still stand as one of the more impressive virtual worlds ever made. Many of its complexities are seldom seen even in games of today. To see them in a game that runs in 64 K of memory feels nothing short of miraculous. Every object in every room is now an object of its own in the programmatic as well as visual sense, one that can be realistically manipulated: torches can be taken off walls, chairs can be sat in, harpsichords can be played. Just as impressive is the game’s implementation of time. As you play, not only does day cycle to night and back again, but the seasons change, the fields filling with crops over the course of the growing season and then appearing bare and forlorn again when winter comes. Unbeknownst to many players, even the cycles of the heavens are scrupulously modeled, two moons and eight other planets moving across the sky, each according to its own orbit. Every five and a half years comes a full planetary alignment, which you can witness if you happen to look through a telescope at just the right instant. This Britannia is a land bursting with secrets and wonders, truly an unprecedented achievement in its day in virtual world-building.

In keeping with the new focus on temporal change, characters now follow daily schedules instead of standing endlessly in one spot. Consider Jeremy, who lives and works in the inn in the city of Yew. He gets up from his back-room lodgings at 9:00 each morning to go to the prison to visit his brother, who’s been incarcerated there under Blackthorn’s heresy laws. He gets back to the inn in time for the lunch rush, and spends the whole day working in the kitchen. After closing time, he visits his brother once more, then returns to his room to sleep. Meanwhile the entire town is following similar patterns; virtually everyone stops at Jeremy’s inn for a bite to eat and a bit of gossip at some point during the day. Guard shifts change; drawbridges and portcullises go up and down; shops open and close. Coupled with the richer conversations, it’s enough make the inhabitants of the town feel like real people living real lives rather than conversation vending machines waiting for the Avatar to step up and trigger a clue, a joke, or a non sequitur.

Indeed, this version of Britannia as a whole is a less artificial place than Ultima IV‘s. While all of the towns from that game remain, each still corresponding to a Virtue, the correspondence is less neat. Garriott:

When you walk into a town it should look like a bustling Medieval village, with all the normal kinds of things you’d expect to find in a town, but there are only six characters that you have a chance to meet and talk to. These six characters don’t tell you straight out that “Moonglow is the city of Honesty,” for example. It’s not like honesty awards are plastered everywhere. It’s more that because of the nature of commerce in this town, because of what is important to these people, honesty is a consistent trait. You might hear, “By the way, everyone around here is pretty honest. It’s one of the things that we pride ourselves on around here.” Like “everything is bigger in Texas,” that kind of thing.

There are welcome signs that Garriott and his development team have themselves taken note of many of the things I complained about in my article on Ultima IV — those things that, at least in my contrarian opinion, made that game a fascinating one to talk about but not always a terribly compelling to play. Major steps have been taken to reduce the tedium factor. As Garriott attests above, the non-player characters in the towns and castles are among a few things in Ultima V that have wisely been reduced in number in comparison to its predecessor. Instead of having to lawnmower through dozens of pointless conversations in every town, you’re left with a smaller number of personalities who fit with the world and who are actually interesting to speak to — in other words, no more Paul and Linda McCartney wandering around quoting lyrics from their latest album. The pain of the endless combat in Ultima IV is similarly reduced, and for similar reasons. There are far fewer monsters roaming the Britannic countryside this time around (another result of Blackthorn’s law-and-order policies?), and when you do have to fight you’ll find yourself dropped into a more complex combat engine with more tactical dimensions. The dungeons, meanwhile, are stuffed with interesting scripted encounters — perhaps too interesting at times, like that room of the children — rather than endless wandering monsters. Mixing regents for spells is still incredibly tedious, and Garriott has devised one entirely new recipe for aggravation, a runic alphabet used by most of the printed materials you find in the game that must be laboriously decoded, letter by letter, from a chart in the manual. Nevertheless, on balance he has given us a much more varied, much less repetitive experience.

Ah, runes, how I do hate thee...

Ah, runes, how I do hate thee…

But alas, many of Ultima IV‘s more intractable design problems do remain. Solving Ultima V is still a matter of running down long chains of clues, most of them to be found in only one place in this vast world, and often deliberately squirreled away in its most obscure corners at that. Even if you can muster the doggedness required to see it through, you’re all but guaranteed to be completely stymied at at least one point in your journeys, missing a clue and utterly unsure where to find it in the whole of Britannia. The cycles of time only add to the difficulty; now you must often not only find the right character to get each clue, but also find the right character at the right time. Ultima V is in the opinion of many the most difficult Ultima ever made, a game that’s willing to place staggering demands on its player even by the standards of its own day, much less our own. This is a game that plops you down at its beginning, weak and poorly equipped, in a little cottage somewhere on Britannia — you have no idea where. Your guidance consists of a simple, “Okay, go save the world!” The Ultima series has never been known for coddling its players, but this is approaching the ridiculous.

I think we can find some clues as to why Ultima V is the way it is in Garriott’s development methodology. He has always built his games from the bottom up, starting with the technical underpinnings (the tile-graphics engine, etc.), then creating a world simulated in whatever depth that technology allows. Only at the end does he add the stuff that makes his world into a proper game. Ironically given that Ultima became the CRPG series famed for its plots, themes, and ideas, said plots, themes, and ideas came in only “very, very late in the development” of each game. The structure of play arises directly from the affordances of the simulated world. A classic example, often cited by Garriott, is that of the harpsichord in Ultima V. After adding it on a lark during the world-building phase, it was natural during the final design phase to give it some relevance to the player’s larger goals. So, he made playing it open up a secret panel; therein lies an item vital to winning the game. Garriott:

[This approach] makes a great deal of sense to me. The worst example of this is exactly the wrong way to design your game. If I say, “Here’s a story, pick any book at random, make me a game that does that,” it won’t work. The reason why is because that story is not written with “Is the technology feasible?” in mind. By definition it will not be as competitive as my game is because I have chosen specific story elements that the technology shows off particularly well. It required little, if any, extra work, and it works well with all the other elements that can exist. It is designed to adhere to the reality that you can pull off technologically. By definition, it fits within the reality of Britannia.

And every time a new management person comes in and says, “Richard, you’re doing it all wrong,” I make my case, and eventually they either give up on me or become a convert.

It’s interesting to note that Garriott’s process is the exact opposite of that employed by a designer like, say, Sid Meier, who always comes up with the fictional premise first and only then figures out the layers of technology, simulation, and gameplay that would best enable it. While I’m sure that Garriott is correct in noting how his own approach keeps a design within the bounds of technical feasibility, the obvious danger it brings is that of making the actual game almost a footnote to the technology and, in the case of the Ultima games in particular, to the elaborate word-building. A couple of other landmark CRPGs were released during 1988 (fodder for future articles) whose designers placed more and earlier emphasis on the paths their players would take through their worlds. In contrast to the fragile string of pearls that is Ultima V, these games offer a tapestry of possibilities. Later CRPGs, at least the well-designed ones, followed their lead, bringing to an end that needle-in-a-haystack feeling every 1980s Ultima player knows so well. Among those later CRPGs would be the later Ultimas, thanks not least to some new voices at Origin who would begin to work with Garriott on the designs as well as the technology of his creations. If you’re dismayed by my contrarian take on the series thus far, know that we’re getting ever closer to an Ultima that even a solubility-focused old curmudgeon like me can enjoy as much as he admires. For now, suffice to say that there’s enough to admire in Ultima V as a world not to belabor any more its failings as a game design.

That said, there are other entirely defensible reasons that Ultima V doesn’t hold quite the same status in gaming lore as its illustrious predecessor. Ultima IV was the great leap, a revolutionary experiment for its creator and for its genre. Ultima V, on the other hand, is evolution in action. That evolution brings with it hugely welcome new depth and nuance, but the fact remains that it could never shock and delight like its predecessors; people had now come to expect this sort of thing from an Ultima. Certainly you don’t find for Ultima V anything like the rich, oft-quoted creation story of Ultima IV, the story of how Garriott first came to think about the messages he was putting into the world. And that’s fine because his eyes were already open when he turned to Ultima V. What more is there to say?

Nor did Ultima V have quite the same immediate impact on its fans’ hearts and minds as did its predecessor. Ultima V‘s message is so much messier, and, Garriott himself now being a little older, is less tuned to the sensibilities of the many teenagers, as craving of moral absolutism as ever, who played it when it first appeared. Far better for them the straightforward Virtues of the Avatar. One can only hope that the message of this game, subtler and deeper and wiser, had its effect over time.

Whatever you do, don’t let my contrariness about some of its aspects distract from Ultima V‘s bravest quality, its willingness to engage with shades of gray in a genre founded on black and white. The game never, ever veers from its mission of demonstrating that sometimes Virtue really must be its own reward, not even when it comes to the traditional moment of CRPG triumph. When you finally rescue Lord British and save Britannia at the end of Ultima V, you’re ignominiously returned to Earth. In the anticlimax, you return to your apartment to find it broken into, your things stolen. Sigh. Hope you had insurance. It’s a messy old world out there, on Earth as on Britannia.

(Sources are listed in the preceding article. Ultima V is available from GOG.com in a collection with its predecessor and sequel.)


  1. The classic hagiography of Garriott still has to be Shay Addams’s 1990 Official Book of Ultima. Here’s Garriott the teenage Lothario, deigning to allow some of his many girlfriends to sit with him while he programs his fantastic creations:

    “My girlfriends, who understood what was going on in those days and were a big part of my life, and who always showed up in the games, would sit right behind me in the same chair at my desk.” Resting her head on Garriott’s shoulder, she would “just sit there watching me program a few lines and test it, and watch the creation unfold.”

    And here’s Garriott the scholar, plumbing musty old tomes to come up with a magic system:

    A full moon hovered over the skyline, casting a pale gold glow on the crinkled pages of the leather-bound tome as Garriott slowly thumbed through it at his desk. Magic was in the making, for his task was nothing less than to coin the language of magic that would be spoken by the mages and wizards of Ultima V. Planning to quickly ferret out a suitable synonym for poison and call it a night, he’d hauled the massive 11-language dictionary from the shelf hours ago. But so engrossed did he become with the subtle nuances and shades of meaning, so captivated by the alluring assortment of nouns and adjectives and verbs, that he sat over its faded pages long after choosing the Latin “noxius,” from “noxa,” to harm, and abbreviating it to “nox.”

     

 
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Posted by on February 12, 2016 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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The Road to V

Ultima V

It’s not easy having a software superstar for a little brother. That’s something that Robert Garriott, president of Origin Systems, had more and more cause to realize as the 1980s wore on. Whilst Richard Garriott quite literally lived out his fantasies, it was Robert who was left to deal with all the mundanities of running a small game developer in an industry that was ever becoming a more precarious place. Whilst Richard wrote the games and gave all the interviews and reveled in his Lord British persona, it was Robert who dealt with the sort of people who might not be terribly impressed by a wispy 25-year-old that liked to affect the personality and the dress code of a Medieval monarch. It was Robert who negotiated the business deals, Robert who represented Origin’s interests with the Software Publishers Association, Robert who put a sober, businesslike face on a company that to a lot of outsiders looked like little more than a bunch of nerds with too much time on their hands. And sometimes it was Robert who found himself trapped between the practicalities of running a business and the desires of a famous younger brother who was just slightly full of himself — what young man wouldn’t be slightly full of himself in his situation? — and was used to having things his own way.

Honestly, now... would you feel comfortable investing in a company run by this guy?

Honestly, now… would you feel comfortable investing in a company run by this guy?

The most dangerous of these conflicts was the great sibling squabble over just where Origin Systems should be located. Back at the end of 1983, you may remember, Robert had been able to convince Richard to move the company from their parents’ garage in Houston, Texas, up to New Hampshire, where his wife Marcy had found a fine position of her own working for Bell Labs. The deal was that they would remain there for at least three years. Robert, who had spent the months before the move commuting cross-country in his private plane, hoped that during the three years something might change: Marcy might get a transfer, or Richard might decide he actually liked New England and wanted to stay there. Well, at the end of 1986 the three years were up, and neither of those things had happened. Richard, who persists to this day in describing his exile in the “frozen wasteland” of New Hampshire in terms lifted straight out of Ethan Frome, figured he had fulfilled his side of the deal, had done his three years as he’d said he would. Now he wanted to move. And he knew exactly where he wanted to move to: back to warm, sunny Austin, the city that had felt like the only place he wanted to make his home almost from the day he arrived to attend university there back in 1979.

A deal being a deal notwithstanding, Robert tried to nix the move, at least for the time being. In addition to his own marriage — he and Marcy certainly didn’t relish going back to commuting cross-country — there were the other Origin employees to think about. Sure, most of the technical staff remained the same group of youngsters that had trooped up north with the Garriotts three years before; they were almost one and all in agreement with Richard that it was time to be southbound again. But there were also the support personnel to think of, New Englanders hired in New England who had been doing good work for the company for quite some time. Robert proposed that they put Origin’s future location to a simple company-wide vote.

That proposal really pissed Richard off. New Englanders now well outnumbered Texas transplants, meaning the outcome of any vote must be a foreordained conclusion — which was, Richard believed, exactly why Robert was asking for one. The two had screaming rows that spilled out of their offices into the hallways of a suddenly very tense suite of offices, while the occupants of those offices, northerners and southerners crammed together under one roof for years, now felt free to let loose on each other with all of the frustrations they’d been keeping under wraps for so long. It was civil war — the staid New Englanders who were loyal to Robert against Lord British’s merry band of anarchists. In a fit of pique and homesickness, Richard’s right-hand man Chuck Bueche, music composer and programmer for the Ultima games, porting expert, and designer of games in his own right, announced he’d had enough and headed for Texas on his own. Richard and Robert each threatened to break with the other, to do his own thing with his own splinter of the company.

Such threats were ridiculous. Richard and his crew were no more capable of taking full responsibility for a company than Robert and his were of writing the next Ultima. These two needed each other for more reasons than just the ties of blood. It was finally left to older and cooler heads, in the form of the brothers’ parents, to broker a compromise. Richard would move back to Austin with most of the technical team, to set up a small studio there that would make the games; Robert would remain in New Hampshire with Marcy, a couple of programmers working on ports and ancillary projects, and the larger support staff that was responsible for packaging and marketing the games and running the business as a whole.

Thus Richard and company, reunited again with Bueche, found themselves a minimalist office in Austin in early 1987, fifteen desks ranged along a single long hallway. And Richard himself, now becoming a very wealthy young man indeed thanks to the huge success of Ultima III and IV, started work on Britannia Manor, a custom-built house-cum-castle worthy of Lord British; it came complete with secret passageways, a cave, a wine cellar, and a stellar observatory. It was pretty clear he wasn’t planning to go anywhere else anytime soon.

Carried out though it was for very personal reasons, Richard’s return to Austin would prove the single best business move Origin ever made. Eastern Texas may not have had as sexy a reputation as Silicon Valley, but there was plenty of high technology in the environs of Dallas, Houston, and Austin, along with a booming economy and low taxes to boot. Austin itself, in addition to being home to a prestigious university boasting almost 50,000 students of diverse talents, was something of the cultural as well as government capital of the state. Along with a lively music scene and tattoo parlors and all the other attributes of a thriving college town, Weird Austin boasted a diverse tapestry of nerdier culture, including Richard’s beloved SCA chapter and the hugely influential tabletop-game publisher Steve Jackson Games. What Austin, and Texas in general for that matter, rather oddly lacked was any notable presence in the computer-games industry. Richard himself was shocked at the hungry talent that washed up unbidden at Origin’s doorstep almost as soon as they hung their shingle, all eager to work for the house that Ultima had built. “Austin as a location was fundamental to the success of Origin,” remembers Richard, “because there was so much talent here in this town.” The atmosphere inside Origin’s new Austin office was soon so exciting, so positively bursting with possibility, that Robert had to admit defeat. More and more of Origin’s operations steadily moved south. Within a couple of years, Robert would convince Marcy to make the move with him, and Origin’s operations in New Hampshire would come to an end.

But hardly was the great Texas/New Hampshire crisis resolved than another raised its head. This time the dispute wasn’t intra-family or even intra-company. It rather involved Electronic Arts, a much bigger publisher with which little Origin would have quite the love-hate relationship over the years.

The origin of Origin’s EA problem dated back to August of 1985, about a month before the release of Ultima IV. By this point distribution was starting to become a real issue for a little publisher like Origin, as the few really big publishers, small enough in number to count on one hand, were taking advantage of their size and clout to squeeze the little guys off of store shelves. Knowing he had a hugely anticipated game on his hands with Ultima IV, one that with the proper care and handling should easily exceed the considerable-in-its-own-right success of Ultima III, Robert also knew he needed excellent distribution to realize its potential. He therefore turned to EA, one of the biggest of the big boys of the industry.

The agreement that resulted was quite the coup for EA as well as Origin. Thanks to it, they would enjoy a big share of the profits not just from The Bard’s Tale, the hit CRPG they had just released under their own imprint, but also from Origin’s Ultima IV. Together these two games came to dominate the CRPG field of the mid-1980s, each selling well over 200,000 copies. For a company that had never had much of anything to do with this genre of games before, it made for one hell of a double whammy to start things off.

While it’s been vaguely understood for years that the Origin and EA had a mid-1980s distribution agreement that broke down in discord, the details have never been aired. I’m happy to say that I can shed a lot more light on just what happened thanks to documents housed in the Strong Museum of Play‘s collection of Brøderbund papers. (The reason I was able to find them in a Brøderbund archive will become clear shortly.) I unfortunately can’t make these documents publicly available, but I can summarize and quote extracts from them. I do want to look at the contract that EA and Origin signed and the dispute that would eventually result from it in some detail, both because it’s so very illustrative of how the industry was changing as it entered the second half of the 1980s and because it provides a great example of one of the most dangerous of the potential traps that awaited the small fry who still tried to survive as independents. Origin would escape the trap, but many another small publisher/developer would not.

At first glance the distribution contract might seem more generous to Origin than to EA. Origin is obligated to remain the distributee only as long as EA has bought product from them totaling a stipulated amount over the course of a rolling calendar. By the end of the contract’s first year, which comes on September 1, 1986, EA must have bought $3.3 million worth of Origin games. The goal for the second year of the contract doubles; EA must have bought games worth $9.3 million in total from Origin by September 1, 1987, in order for the latter company to be obligated to honor the third and final year of their distribution contract. That’s a very ambitious sales goal for a little company like Origin whose entire reason for existence was a single series of games with a sporadic release schedule. (Origin had already released some non-Ultima titles and would continue to do so, but it would be years yet before any of them would make an impact on their bottom line to even begin to rival that of Ultima.)

All went well between Origin and EA for the first eighteen months. The trouble started shortly after Richard’s move back to Austin, when he got word of EA’s plans to release a rather undistinguished CRPG called Deathlord that was even more derivative of Ultima than was the norm. As Strategic Simulations, Incorporated, had learned to their chagrin a few years earlier in the case of their own Ultima clone Questron, Richard didn’t take kindly to games that copied his own work too blatantly. When EA refused to nix their game, and also proved uninterested in negotiating to license the “game structure and style” as SSI had done, Richard was incensed enough to blow up the whole distribution deal.

Richard and Robert believed that Origin would be on firm legal ground in withdrawing from the distribution agreement at the onset of the third year because EA was projected to have purchased just $6.6 million worth of product from Origin by September 1, 1987, way short of the goal of $9.3 million. Origin informed EA of their intentions and commenced negotiating a new distribution agreement with another of the big boys, Brøderbund, currently riding even higher than EA on the strength of The Print Shop and Carmen Sandiego.

The notice was greeted with shock and outrage by EA, who felt, and by no means entirely without reason, that it was hardly their fault that they were so far from the goal. That goal had been predicated on not just one but two or three or possibly even four new Ultima games being released during those first two years. Foreshadowing the way that Origin would handle Ultima VII years later, Richard’s plan at the time the contract was signed had been to release an Ultima IV Part 2 that would reuse the same engine in relatively short order, and only then to turn to Ultima V. But those plans had fallen by the wayside, undone by Richard’s idealistic need to make each Ultima clearly, comprehensively better than its predecessor. And now Ultima V was taking even longer than had Ultima IV. Having long since missed the original target of Christmas 1986, it now looked almost certain to miss Christmas 1987 as well; it still looked to be a good six months away from release as of mid-1987.

Yet it was the Ultima I situation that most ruffled EA’s feathers. When the rights to the first game of the series, having passed through the hands of the long-defunct California Pacific and then Sierra, reverted back to Richard in 1986, Origin assigned several programmers to rewrite it from scratch in assembly language rather than BASIC, adding graphical upgrades and interface enhancements along the way to bring it at least nominally up to date. Already a semi-legendary game, long out of print on the Apple II and never before available at all on the Commodore 64 or MS-DOS, the new and improved Ultima I carried with it reasonably high commercial hopes. While not the new Ultima, it was a new Ultima for the vast majority of Lord British fans, and should ease some of the disappointment of not being able to get Ultima V out that year. But in the wake of the Deathlord dust-up it became clear to EA that Origin was deliberately holding Ultima I back, wanting to tempt their prospective next distributor with it rather than give EA their fair share of its earnings. This… well, this pissed EA right the hell off. And, then as now, pissing off EA wasn’t usually a very good idea.

EA’s lawyers went through the contract carefully, looking for anywhere where they might knock a few dollars off the requirement of $9.3 million in orders inside two years.

The original goal for 9/1/87 was stated in Exhibit A as $9,300,000. This amount “is reduced by $40,000 for every month in which any of the software products listed in Exhibit B are not available according to the schedules set forth in Exhibit B.” Moebius/Apple was listed as being available in September 1985, and was not available until November 1985, a slip of two months. Ogre/Apple was listed as being available in November 1985 and was not available until June 1986, a slip of seven months. Moebius/C64 was listed as being available in November 1985 and was not available until October 1986, a slip of eleven months. Taking into account only those titles listed in Exhibit B, a total of 22 months are applicable to the $40,000 provision, equaling a deduction of $880,000 from the $9,300,000 goal mentioned earlier, leaving a net goal of $8,420,000 for 9/1/87.

The adjusted goal of $8.4 million still left EA $1.8 million short. No problem. They attached to the same letter a purchase order for a random hodgepodge of Origin products totaling the full $1.8 million. EA didn’t really care what Origin shipped them, as long as they billed them $1.8 million for it: “If Origin is unable to ship any of the products in the quantities stated on the purchase orders, please consider this an order for a similar dollar volume of any of your products that can be shipped in sufficient quantities to meet our 9/1/87 objectives.”

You’re probably wondering what on earth EA is thinking in throwing away almost $2 million on any old anything at all just to retain Origin as a distributee. Far from cutting off their nose to spite their face, they’re playing hardball here; what they’ve just done is far more dangerous for Origin than it is for them. To understand why requires an understanding of “overstock adjustments,” better known as returns. It’s right there in the original contract: “Vendor [Origin] agrees to issue credit to EA based on the original purchase price for the return of resalable overstock made any time beyond 90 days of original receipt.” This provision gives EA the ability to crush Origin, accidentally or on purpose, by over-ordering. Origin can honor the order, only to have it all come back to them along with a bill big enough to bury them when EA doesn’t sell it on. Or Origin can refuse to honor the order and get buried under a nasty breach-of-contract lawsuit. Or they can come back to EA hat in hand and ask nicely if both parties can just forget the whole thing ever happened and continue that third year of their agreement as was once planned.

Many small publishers like Origin were becoming more and more angry and/or terrified by the logistics of distribution by the latter half of the 1980s. This is why. Nevertheless, with the big publishers squeezing out any other means of getting their games onto store shelves, most of the small companies were forced to get in bed with one of the big boys against their better judgment. Although several other big publishers had affiliate distribution programs, Activision and EA became the most aggressive of the bunch, both in recruiting and, if things didn’t work out, destroying affiliated labels by returning hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars worth of product along with a bill for same. The battlefield of the industry’s history is fairly littered with the corpses of companies who signed distribution deals much like Origin’s with EA.

Origin, however, was lucky. In rushing to become a distributee of Brøderbund, they’d found shelter with a company with the resources to go toe-to-toe with EA; Doug Carlston, founder and president of Brøderbund, was himself a lawyer. Brøderbund took Origin’s cause as their own, and a settlement agreement presumably entailing the payment of some sort of penalty from Origin and/or Brøderbund to EA was reached in fairly short order. (The actual settlement agreement is unfortunately not included in the Strong’s collection.) Origin signed a two-year distribution contract with Brøderbund, and all of EA’s worst suspicions were confirmed when the revamped Ultima I shipped on the very first day of the new agreement. And that wasn’t even Origin’s last laugh: Deathlord, the match that had lit the whole powder keg, got mediocre reviews and flopped. True to his tradition of adding references to his contemporary personal life into each Ultima, Richard added the words “Electronic Arts” to the in-progress Ultima V’s list of forbidden swear words (“With language like that, how didst thou become an Avatar?”). Just for good measure, he also built a mausoleum for “Pirt Snikwah” on the grounds of Britannia Manor. Like most monarchs, Lord British apparently didn’t forget a slight quickly.

The Garriotts were still living charmed lives. Much as so many love to romanticize Trip Hawkins’s “electronic artists” of the 1980s, complete with crying computers and all the rest, EA has always been a rough customer when it gets down to the brass tacks (knuckles?) of doing business. Few others have tangled with them like Origin did and lived to tell the tale.

Behind all this drama there lurked always the real point of the whole endeavor that was Origin Systems: Ultima, specifically Ultima V. Just like all the other games in the series, it was well on the way to dwarfing its predecessor in terms of scale and technical ambition, with all the birthing pains that must imply.

Beginnings and endings can be tricky things for an historian to come to grips with. Certainly the middle period of the eventual nine-game Ultima series is full of them. There’s the beginning marked by the great conceptual leap that is Ultima IV, when the series became about more than killing monsters, collecting loot, and leveling up — a leap that changed the series’s character to such an extent that plenty of fans will tell you that you needn’t even bother with anything that came before, that the real Ultima starts right here. And there’s the ending that is Ultima VI, the first Ultima not built on the code base of its predecessor, the first not developed and released first and foremost for the Apple II, the first for which Richard did none of the programming.

In between the two lies Ultima V, a crossroads game if ever there was one. It marks the end of the line for the 8-bit Ultimas, the basic structure that began with Akalabeth pushed to a complex extreme that would have been unthinkable back in 1980. How extraordinary to think that this game runs on essentially the same computer as Akalabeth, plus only 16 K of memory here or an extra disk drive there. The series’s glorious last hurrah on the Apple II, it also marks the beginning of a radically different development methodology that would carry forward into the era of the MS-DOS-developed Ultimas. Starting with Ultima V, new Ultimas would no longer be the end result of Richard Garriott toiling alone in front of a single Apple II for months or years until he emerged with bleary eyes and disk in hand. From now on, Richard would direct, design, and supervise, while other people did most of the grunt work.

It was an obviously necessary step from the perspective of even the most minimally informed outsider. Ultima IV had taken him two years, twice as long as originally planned, and had nearly killed him in the process. If the series was to continue to grow in scale and ambition, as he himself always demanded it should, something had to give. Yet Richard resisted the obvious for quite some time. He struggled alone, first with the abortive Ultima IV Part 2 and then with Ultima V, for almost a year while while everyone fretted at the lack of progress. He genuinely loved programming, took pride in knowing each new Ultima was truly his personal expression, top to bottom. But at last he accepted that he needed help — an acceptance that would change everything about the way that Ultimas got made forevermore.

The process started with two new programmers, Steve Meuse and John Miles. The former started writing tools to make it easier to create the world, to put a friendly interface on all of the tasks that Richard normally managed by hand using nothing more than a hex editor. Meuse’s “Ultima Creation Package” would grow into something that, according to Richard, “almost anyone could use.” Meanwhile Miles took over most of the actual game-programming tasks from Richard; more than half of the code that shipped in the finished game would be his. “The transition of doing it all yourself to doing it as a team was very painful,” Richard says of this landmark change of late 1986 that marked the abrupt end of his days as a working programmer. “However, once you had a team in place, and especially once you were no longer sharing the duties of both doing it and managing it, the pain went away.”

Richard’s team only continued to expand after the move to Austin, as all of that pent-up Texas talent began arriving on Origin’s doorstep. The finished game credits no fewer than six programmers in addition to Richard himself. With so many more people involved, this Ultima needed a project manager — the role also commonly referred to as “producer” — for the first time as well. That role went to Dallas Snell, late of Penguin Software, who, nobody being too specialized yet at this stage, did some of the programming as well. Snell lobbied for months for the hiring of a full-time artist, but Richard remained skeptical of the need for one until quite some time after the move to Austin. But at last Denis Loubet, an Austin artist who had been doing cover art for Richard’s games since the days of Akalabeth, joined the Origin staff to do all of the art for Ultima V, whether the media be paper or cardboard or pixels. Loubet’s work, blessedly free of the chainmail bikinis and other cheesecake tendencies that make most vintage CRPG art so cringe-worthy, would now become even more integral to the series, helping to maintain its aura of having just a little more class than the standard CRPG fare. Finally, and also largely thanks to Snell’s determination to professionalize the process of making Ultimas, there are fourteen people — fourteen! — credited solely for play-testing Ultima V, more than enough to ensure that there wouldn’t be any more blatant screw-ups like the vital clue that was left out of Ultima IV.

Denis Loubet on the job at Origin.

Denis Loubet on the job at Origin.

Freed from the pressure of programming, Richard could make Ultima V a much more consciously designed game than its predecessors. From an interview conducted almost a year before the game was published:

In previous Ultimas the combat systems were not designed out on paper ahead of time. I kind of ranked weapons in order of strength… the higher up the list of weapons you got, the better the weapon. Now I’ve actually designed an entire gaming system, including magic and combat, that is just as good to play on paper as on the computer. It’s extremely well-balanced, both [sic.] the weapons, armor, and magic, and we’ve been balancing the costs and uses of those things for six months — essentially by playing Ultima on paper.

Origin was so proud of this system of rules that they planned for some time to make an Ultima tabletop RPG out of them. That project fell by the wayside, but just the fact that Richard was thinking this way represented a huge step forward for a series whose mechanics had always felt ad hoc in comparison to those of its original rival, Wizardry. “I can tell you in numbers the probabilities of your being able to do something,” said Richard, “whereas in previous Ultimas I probably wouldn’t be able to do so. I just kind of did it until it looked right.”

While all of the extra care and thought that was going into this Ultima was welcome, it was also time-consuming. A series of release dates spouted by an overoptimistic Richard in interview after interview fell by the wayside, as subscribers to adventurer-catering magazines like Questbusters read for a year and a half of a game that was perpetually just a few months away. Still, the game they kept reading about sounded better with every mention: it would fill no less than eight Apple II disk sides; it would offer twice as much territory as Ultima IV to explore; each non-player character would have three times as much to say; non-player characters would have realistic day-and-night schedules that they followed; just about every single thing in the world, from table and chairs to torches and even a harpsichord, would be a discrete, manipulable object.

An early public preview of Ultima V at Dragon Con, October 1987.

An early public preview of Ultima V at Dragon Con, October 1987.

More philosophically-minded fans wondered about a subject on which there was less concrete information available: what would the new Ultima be about? After the great conceptual leap that had been Ultima IV, would Lord British be content to return to monster-killing and evil-wizard-bashing, or would there be another — or perhaps the same? — message on offer this time out?

All of their questions were answered on March 18, 1988, when Origin released Ultima V: Warriors of Destiny for the Apple II; versions for MS-DOS and the Commodore 64 followed in July and October respectively, with ports to a handful of other platforms trickling out over the following year or so. We’ll dive into the virtual world that awaited Ultima V‘s army of 200,000-plus eager buyers next time.

(Sources for this article and the next: Questbusters of June 1987, July 1987, August 1987, March 1988, July 1988; Game Developer of September 1994; Computer Gaming World of March 1986, December 1987, July 1988, January 1989, November 1991, November 1992. The books The Official Book of Ultima by Shay Addams; Dungeons and Dreamers by Brad King and John Borland; Ultima: The Avatar Adventures by Rusel DeMaria and Caroline Spector. See also Richard Garriott’s extended interview with Warren Spector. And of course the Strong’s collection; my thanks to Jon-Paul Dyson and his colleagues for hosting me there for a very productive week!

Ultima V is available from GOG.com in a collection with its predecessor and sequel.)

 
 

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Silicon Hollywood: Cinemaware’s Transitional Period

Cinemaware

Bill Williams’s Sinbad and the Throne of the Falcon marked the end of the first era of Cinemaware’s existence. Bob Jacob’s original vision for his company had been as a sort of coordinator and advisory board, helping independent developers craft games inspired by the movies — an approach to game development as conceptually original as he hoped the games themselves would prove. The finished results from his initial stable of four such development contracts, however, quickly disabused him of the scheme. The mishmash of styles, platforms, and technical approaches among his developers resulted in games that shared little in common either visually or philosophically — and that was without even considering the near-disaster that had resulted from Sculptured Software’s mishandling of the most ambitious of the four projects, Defender of the Crown. The rescue operation that Cinemaware had been forced to mount to get that game out in time for the Christmas of 1986, involving as it did the taking over of day-to-day management of the project, had proved the old adage that if you want something done properly you just have to do it yourself. By the time that Sinbad, the last of those original contracts by far to reach fruition, trickled out in mid-1987, Jacob was already well along in the task of remaking Cinemaware into a full-fledged development house. This mid-course correction necessitated a dramatic expansion of the operation in terms of assets, office space, and personnel — in other words, the addition of all of the headaches he had hoped to avoid via his original vision. But needs must, right?

Jacob now stopped hedging his bets among the combatants in the 68000 Wars. Cinemaware the full-fledged development house would be built around the Amiga, becoming in the process the American game developer most closely identified with the platform during its best years in its homeland. Given Defender of the Crown‘s huge success, it was natural for Cinemaware to turn to that game among their early titles as their technical and artistic model for the future. Indeed, Cinemaware’s in-house tools were built on the broad base of a reusable “game-playing engine” for the Amiga that R.J. Mical had started developing in the process of making that game. Each Cinemaware game would be developed and released first on the Amiga, with the Amiga graphics and sound then degraded as artfully as possible to the variety of other platforms the company continued to support. Cinemaware’s programmers developed quite a variety of tools to automate this process as much as possible, yielding, if not quite a true cross-platform game engine, a standard approach with many of the benefits of one. It gave Cinemaware what seemed the best of both worlds: the prestige of being the premier developer for the most audiovisually impressive platform of its day combined with the ability to still sell games on the other, less capable but more numerous machines whose owners lusted after a taste of the Amiga’s magic.

Thanks to Defender of the Crown‘s huge success on the Amiga, Jacob had some time and a solid incoming revenue stream to use in executing the transition. He would need it, especially as both artist Jim Sachs and programmer R.J. Mical, the two masterminds who had together brought Kellyn Beck’s Defender design to life at the last, had severed all relations with Cinemaware as soon as their work was done, angered over the extreme pressure Jacob had put on them and what they considered to be a paltry financial reward for their herculean efforts. Rather than hiring computer people who happened to be good at drawing graphics, as most companies did at the time, Cinemaware began to hire conventional artists and to train them if necessary on how to use computerized tools, a key to what would become an almost uniquely refined visual aesthetic. One Rob Landeros, who had worked under Sachs on Defender, became the new art director, while several programmers toiled, as they increasingly would in a transitioning industry in general, in relative anonymity. The days of people like Bill Budge becoming stars for their programming skills alone were quickly fading by the late 1980s, as Design as a discipline unto itself came more and more to the forefront. And no company was closer to the leading edge of that movement than Cinemaware.

Jacob’s first goal for his re-imagined company must be a practical one: to port each of those first four games, a set of one-off designs custom-programmed for the particular platform on which each had been born, to the full suite of machines that Cinemaware planned to support. Doing so was no simple task, involving as it did not only developing the tool chain that would allow it but also effectively re-writing each title from scratch using the new technologies. The process could lead to some strange outcomes. The ports of Defender of the Crown, for instance, had many of the elements that had had to be ruthlessly cut from the Amiga original restored, resulting in games that played much better than the Amiga version even if they didn’t look quite as nice. Purchasers of the Amiga original of Sinbad, meanwhile, didn’t even have the comfort of knowing that their version still looked better: Cinemaware redid Bill Williams’s crude “folk-art” graphics from scratch for the ports, resulting in the very unusual phenomenon of a game that was prettier on the Atari ST and even Commodore 64 than it was on the Amiga. To add a further dollop of irony to the situation, the graphics for those better-looking versions had actually been drawn on Cinemaware’s Amigas, in keeping with their standard practice for all of their art. Ah, well, at least the Amiga version of King of Chicago both looked and played better than the Macintosh original.

In addition to all the ports, Jacob of course also needed to think about new games. With his company now established as a big name in the industry, he turned to licensed properties. This may have marked the joining-in with a mania for for licenses that many industry observers were already beginning to find distressing, but it did make a certain degree of sense for Cinemaware, a company whose stated goal was after all to bring movies to monitor screens. Jacob found what he thought was a nice little property to start with, not particularly huge but with its fair share of name recognition and public familiarity thanks to countless television reruns: the old slapstick comedy trio the Three Stooges, a vaudeville act that had made the leap from stage to screen in the 1930s and remained active through the 1960s, creating more than 200 films — mostly shorts of twenty minutes or so, ideal for later television broadcast — in the process. It didn’t hurt that Jacob, something of a connoisseur of B-grade entertainment in all its multifarious forms, had a genuine, abiding passion for Larry, Moe, and Curly, as shown by the unusually lengthy manual he commissioned, dominated by a loving history of the trio that has little to do with how one actually plays the game.

Eager to get his Three Stooges game finished to maintain Cinemaware’s momentum but with his small programming team swamped by the demands of all that infrastructure and porting work, Jacob made the counter-intuitive and potentially dangerous decision to place a game’s programming in outside hands just this one last time. The Three Stooges went to Incredible Technologies, a small programming house based in Chicago. This project, though, would be different from Cinemaware’s previous outside contracts: Incredible wouldn’t be paid to be creative. Instead Cinemaware would provide all of the art and sound assets as well as a meticulously detailed design document, courtesy of Jacob’s right-hand man John Cutter, describing exactly how the game should look and play on the Amiga, the Commodore 64, and the IBM PC. As he had during the latter stages of the Defender of the Crown project, Cutter would then closely supervise — read, “ride herd over” — Incredible’s development process.

Cutter, who wasn’t a fan of the Stooges going into the project but developed a certain affinity for them over the course of it, was inspired by the games of Life he remembered from his childhood to make of The Three Stooges a computerized roll-and-move board game. Many squares lead to one of half-a-dozen or so arcade sequences, each based on an iconic Three Stooges short. About half of these minigames are reasonably entertaining, the other half unspeakably, uncontrollably awful. Among other potential fortunes and misfortunes on the game board, there’s a Three Stooges trivia contest that’s persnickety enough to be daunting even in the age of Google and Wikipedia. The rather noble first goal of the game is to earn enough money during your thirty turns on the game board — it’s single-player only, despite the board-game theme — to save “Ma’s Orphanage.” The rather creepy second goal is to go so far above and beyond that Ma gives her three beautiful daughters to the Stooges, one each for Larry, Moe, and Curly.

Released in early 1988, The Three Stooges is easily the most simplistic of all the Cinemaware games, enough so as almost to read as a caricature of Cinemaware by one of their critics who were always so eager to decry their work as a bunch of pretty graphics and sound all dressed-up with no particular place to go (a criticism that was, it must be admitted, far from entirely unfounded for Cinemaware’s games in general). Cutter has little good to say about his own design today, citing as its greatest strength a brilliant fake-out of a cold open that remains the funniest single instant Cinemaware ever put on disk.


Back in the day as well, Cinemaware was at great pains to emphasize the graphics and sound in The Three Stooges as opposed to the actual gameplay, and understandably so. It marked the first game from Cinemaware to make use of digitized images and sounds, captured from the Stooges’ own films, thus becoming perhaps the first game to deserve to be called a truly multimedia production for this the world’s first multimedia computer. Like all of Cinemaware’s games, it looked and sounded absolutely spectacular in its day on the Amiga. But all that multimedia splendor did come at a cost. Programmed with competence but, one senses, not a lot of inspiration by Incredible, you spend most of your time waiting for all that jaw-dropping media to be shuffled into memory off of floppy disk rather than actually playing. Just to add insult to injury and to further illustrate where Cinemaware’s priorities really lay, the set-piece sequences that introduce each minigame can’t be skipped. No matter how impressive they are (or were in their day), they get a little tedious by the time you’ve seen each a dozen times or more.

Larry finds his "Stradiverius" is busted, in the opening to an arcade game based on Punch Drunks.

Larry finds his “Stradivarius” is busted, in the opening to a minigame based on Punch Drunks.

And yet, despite all these problems, I have an odd fondness for the game, counting it among the few Cinemaware productions I still find tempting to play from time to time today. My fondness certainly isn’t down to any intrinsic interest in the subject matter. The manual opens with a quote from movie critic Leonard Maltin, stating that there are two groups of people in the world: “one composed of persons who laugh at the Three Stooges and one of those who wonder why.” Among the former group was Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, who, according to news reports from 1988, “sat in his tent day after day — sulking and staring at old Three Stooges movies.” As for myself… well, what can I say? I’m afraid I’m among the perplexed.

What saves the game, to whatever extent that’s possible, is the real passion for the Stooges that one can sense on the part of its creators, even if one doesn’t quite share it. Passion — or lack thereof — always comes through in a game, as it does in any creative work. Jacob emphasizes that he wanted to create a game that was “100 percent pure” to the Stooges — a game from Stooges lovers for Stooges lovers, if you will. To this day he speaks with real delight of a visit by Moe’s widow to Cinemaware’s offices, and most of all of the approval she expressed of the game’s anarchic spirit.

And there is at least a modicum more strategy in The Three Stooges than you’ll find in the likes of Life. Replacing Life‘s spinner to determine where you go next is a disembodied hand that you can stop just where you want it as long as it’s moving slowly enough. By this means you can avoid the terrible arcade games and the other undesirable squares on the board and maximize your earnings. Unfortunately, the hand gradually gains speed unless you periodically devote a turn to playing a Moe-beating-on-Larry-and-Curly minigame to slow it down. (No, I have no idea why that should have any effect.) The key strategic question of the game, such as it is, is thus when to beat and when to stay your hand. Hey, when you’re playing Cinemaware you have to take your depth where you can find it. The Three Stooges is only slap and stroll, but I like it.

Curly in a cracker-eating contest, based on Dutiful but Dumb.

Curly in a cracker-eating contest, based on Dutiful but Dumb.

In very limited doses, that is.

For Cinemaware’s next game, Jacob again turned to an existing property, albeit a  more obscure one: the Commando Cody serials of the early 1950s, which portrayed the adventures of the titular hero as he flew around with his personal rocket pack to battle against enemies both terrestrial and extraterrestrial. Commando Cody not exactly being a hot property in the late 1980s, Jacob thought the license a slam dunk, to such an extent that he allowed the game to get very far along in the development process without signing a final contract with the owners of the property. He even gave at least one extended preview to a magazine of Cinemaware’s upcoming “Commando Cody” game. But when he returned to Cody’s holding company to finally settle the legalese, he found that none other than Steven Spielberg had “stolen it” from him by making a deal of his own. Jacob then turned to the contemporary comic-book character The Rocketeer, whose creator Dave Stevens had himself been heavily influenced by Commando Cody in creating his own rocket-pack-equipped flyboy. But that also fell through because Stevens was already in talks with Disney, talks that would eventually lead to the 1991 movie The Rocketeer. (I suspect that the explanation for Spielberg never doing anything with his Commando Cody license can be found here as well.) And so Rocket Ranger was completed as an entirely original, unlicensed work — hardly a huge loss, as the various flying rocketmen that preceded Cinemaware’s weren’t really notable for their vibrant personalities anyway.

Like Defender of the Crown, the mechanics of Rocket Ranger were designed by Kellyn Beck under the watchful thematic eye of Jacob himself. Its basic structure is also the same: a light strategy game surrounded by action games that stand in for the dice rolls in the likes of Risk. And once again it plays with the tropes of history without making a whole lot of sense as history. This time we’re in an alternate version of the 1940s where the Nazis have developed space travel and made it all the way to the Moon. Unsurprisingly given advantages like that, they’ve already won World War II. But never fear! Now we’re in the future, time travel has been invented, and we’ve been sent back with a few trusty hi-tech tools — most notably, a personal rocket pack — to sway the balance of power and change the course of history. No, it doesn’t make much sense, but don’t worry about it. The important thing is that you get to fly around the world and — maybe, if you’re good enough — to the Moon to fight evil Nazis. And, this being a Cinemaware game, there’s also the usual sultry love interest along with a whole army of fetching female slaves to rescue, plenty of fuel for the libido of Cinemaware’s many teenage fans.

Whatever Rocket Ranger‘s structural similarities to Defender of the Crown, the criticisms of the latter game and other Cinemaware titles as all show and no substance were beginning to hit home for Jacob and company. This they demonstrated both by their somewhat prickly defensiveness when the subject came up and by their determination to emphasize the greater depth of this latest game. Rocket Ranger is indeed longer, more varied, and much more challenging — more on that in a moment — than the games that preceded it.


At the same time, though, it is still a Cinemaware game, which means the majority of the team’s efforts were still expended on presentation. Unlike so many flashy games then and even today, there’s a real aesthetic behind all of its screens, echoing the gargantuan Futurist sets of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis almost as much as the pulpy serials of Jacob’s childhood. It remains to this day lovely to look at, while the music — composed and programmed by Bob Lindstrom, editor of the Apple II magazine A+ but a “secret Amiga fanatic” in his free time — is also pitch perfect, owing a lot to John Williams’s work for movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark. As in The Three Stooges, digitized sound is used sparingly but effectively, including real airplane noises recorded at Los Angeles Airport, just down the road from Cinemaware’s offices. There’s also a bit of digitized speech here and there, performed by whomever was judged to have the right chops among Cinemaware’s staff; John Cutter’s wife Melanie, for instance, played the love interest. To pack all of these elements onto the game’s two Amiga disks and, just as importantly, to move it all it in and out of memory during play with reasonable alacrity, Cinemaware developed a custom data format they called “Quick-DOS.” It let them compress 4 Mb of code and data into less than 2 Mb of standard Amiga disk space, and to read it in at three times the usual speed.

Rocketman versus Zeppelin.

Rocketman versus Zeppelin.

Cinemaware was very proud of Rocket Ranger, the first original game they’d developed completely in-house using all of their shiny new tools. And no employee was prouder than their leader and founder, who viewed the game as something of a coming to fruition of the original vision for interactive movies that had prompted him to start the company in the first place. “We really got the format right with Rocket Ranger,” he said. Never one to mince words, Jacob declared Rocket Ranger nothing less than “the best game ever done” and, as if that wasn’t hyperbole enough, “the biggest project ever tackled by a computer company” to boot. To his mind the game had “so many twists and turns, permutations of the story, and branch points that you can’t believe it.” John Cutter, who oversaw this project as he did all other Cinemaware games as the company’s only producer, said he was “more satisfied with Rocket Ranger when it was done than any other project I have ever worked on.” Both men remain very proud of the game today, especially Jacob, for whom it quite clearly remains his personal favorite of all the Cinemaware games.

For my part, I think it comes very, very close to nailing the gameplay as thoroughly as it does the presentation, but is ultimately undone by balance issues — ironically, balance issues of the exact opposite kind to those that plagued Defender of the Crown. Simply put, this game is just too hard. The arcade-style minigames are mostly entertaining but also extremely punishing, while the strategic game feels all but impossible in itself, even without the added pressure of needing to succeed at every single minigame in order to have the ghost of a chance. Just an opportunity to practice the minigames — as usual for Cinemaware games of this era, in-progress saving isn’t possible — would have made a huge difference. As it is, very few players have ever beat Rocket Ranger. It feels like a game whose difficulty level has been set to “Impossible” — except that there are no difficulty levels. An extreme over-correction in response to the criticism of the ease with which Defender of the Crown can be won, it serves as one more object lesson on the need to test games with real players and to work however long it takes to get their balance exactly right.

Cinemaware's trademark sultry damsel in distress, 1940s version.

Cinemaware’s trademark damsel in distress, World War II edition.

Cinemaware’s final release of 1988 marked both a major departure from their usual brand of interactive movies and an innovation easily as prescient in its own sphere as Defender of the Crown had been in its. It was called TV Sports: Football, and it introduced a whole new approach to the idea of the sports simulation.

Those wishing to trace the history of the modern “EA Sports” stripe of sports simulations, cash cows that generates billions of dollars every year, generally reach back to one of Electronic Arts’s first titles, a little 1983 basketball game called One on One: Dr. J vs. Larry Bird. From there the history proceeds to John Madden Football, the 1988 genesis of the series that would come to personify the whole genre of mainstream sports games when it reached Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo in 1991. All of this is valid enough, but it nevertheless misses the other important blueprint for sports gaming as it would come to be known in the 1990s. “Early on,” says Jacob, “I saw that people relate to sports through television and the way to do it was to emulate the TV broadcast. I think of EA Sports and I go, ‘Yes, that was my idea.'”

TV Sports: Football

On the field, complete with a television-style perspective and helpful caption.

What’s striking about TV Sports: Football and all those games that would follow is that these aren’t really simulations of their sports as real players or coaches know them. They’re rather simulations of the televised presentations of their sports, interactive spectacles that cleave as closely to the programs we see on our televisions as they possibly can. This is, when you stop to think about it… well, it’s kind of weird, isn’t it? Cinemaware went so far as to include spoof commercials (“Stop Sine Nasal Spray: We’re not #1… but we’re right up there!”) in their game. The modern sports-simulation landscape is an amalgamation of Electronic Arts’s early forays into league licensing and star-athlete branding with TV Sports: Footballs faux-television presentation.

Electronic Arts may have had John Madden, but Cinemaware had Don Badden.

Electronic Arts may have had John Madden, but Cinemaware had Don Badden.

There’s much of social or philosophical import that we might say about lives that have become so mediated that we crave an extra layer of it even within our mediated simulations. But then, for many — most? — of us this is what sports are today: not a beat-up glove, a homemade bat, and a brand new pair of shoes out there on the field, but rather afternoons gathered around the television. We’re the people who go to a real event and find that it just doesn’t feel right without the comforting prattle of the announcers, the people who make it a point to remember to bring a radio next time. Is this part of the tragedy of the modern condition? I don’t know. You can debate that question for yourself. Suffice to say that Cinemaware struck a rich cultural vein with TV Sports: Football that continues to geyser to this day. Sports as spectacle, sports as multimedia entertainment… this is what the people really want, not sports as icky sweat and effort.

How appropriate then that it was the Amiga, the world’s first multimedia computer, that first brought it to them. Another design by the stalwart John Cutter, TV Sports: Football comes complete with everything you’d expect from a Cinemaware take on football: two disks worth of thrilling graphics and sound, buxom cheerleaders to keep the old spirits up, and gameplay that’s a little sketchy but serviceable enough until you figure out the can’t-miss tricks that can yield a touchdown on every drive and rack up scores of 70-0.

The inevitable cheerleaders.

The inevitable cheerleaders.

Although no later Cinemaware game would ever approach the sales numbers of Defender of the Crown, each of this new generation of titles did quite well in its own right, not only in North America but also in Europe, where Cinemaware was becoming just as well known as they were on their home continent thanks to a distribution deal with the major British publisher Mirrorsoft. Like Americans, Europeans found Cinemaware’s games just too sexy to pass by even if they ought to have known better — and, with Amigas already selling so much better in some European markets than they were in North America, there were a lot more customers there with the computer best equipped to strut Cinemaware’s stuff. It was easily enough to overcome some subject-matter choices that weren’t terribly well-calibrated to European sensibilities. The Three Stooges, for instance, were virtually unheard of even in English-speaking Britain, and American football also remained a mystery to most Europeans, much less the television broadcasts on which Cinemaware was riffing in TV Sports: Football. (One British reviewer decided there was nothing for it but to start from first principles: “The ball has to cross an imaginary barrier that rises horizontally from the opposition’s base line. This move is known as a Touchdown.”) Rocket Ranger represented the most uncomfortable culture clash of all; Cinemaware was forced to strip out all of the Nazi imagery and make the bad guys into generic aliens in order to sell the game in the Amiga hotbed of West Germany.

Sizzle without steak or hat without cattle though their games still to some extent may have been, Cinemaware was clearly doing something right. Jacob was happy to reinvest their earnings in yet bigger, bolder plans, all still in service of his vision of games as overwhelming multimedia experiences. We’ll see where that vision took him and his company next in future articles.

(Sources: Amazing Computing of July 1988, November 1988, and June 1989; Amiga Power of November 1991; Commodore Magazine of November 1988; Computer and Video Games of April 1988; The Games Machine of April 1988; The One of January 1989 and June 1989; Retro Gamer 123; the book On the Edge by Brian Bagnall; Matt Chat 292; two Gamasutra interviews of Bob Jacob, one by Matt Barton and the other by Tristan Donovan.

Rocket Ranger and TV Sports: Football are available as part of a Cinemaware anthology on Steam. You can download the Amiga version of The Three Stooges from here if you like.)

 
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Posted by on January 29, 2016 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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1987 Ebook Now Available

As the title says… enjoy!

 

Bill Williams: The Story of a Life

I’ve already devoted a couple of articles to the early history of Cinemaware, the American publisher and developer whose games anticipated the future of interactive multimedia entertainment. I plan to continue that history in later articles.

This, however, isn’t quite one of those articles, even if it does touch upon the next title in our ongoing Cinemaware chronology. Rather than the story of that game, this is the story of the man who created it — a man whose pain-wracked yet extraordinary life demands a little pause for thought. It may serve as a welcome reminder that the story of games is ultimately the story of the real people who make and play them. Escapism is no escape, only a temporary reprieve. In the end we all have to wrestle with the big questions of our own reality — questions of Life and Death and Love and Hate and God — whether we want to or not. Because none of us — no, not even you, over there in the back with the game controller in your hand — gets out of this life alive.

Bill Williams

Once again the day came when the members of the court of heaven took their places in the presence of God, and Satan was with them. God asked him where he had been. “Ranging over the earth,” Satan said, “from end to end.” Then God asked Satan, “Have you noticed my servant Job? You will find no one else like him on earth: blameless and upright, fearing God and setting his face against evil. You incited me to ruin him without good reason, but his integrity is still unshaken.”

Satan answered, “Skin for skin! There is nothing that fellow will grudge to save himself. But stretch out your hand and touch his bone and his flesh, and see if he will not curse you to your face.”

Then God said, “All right, then. All that he has is now in your hands, but you must spare his life.”

— The Book of Job

Cystic fibrosis is a genetic disease for which there is still no cure. One aspect of the body’s delicate internal balance, the regulators that govern mucus production, are out of whack in the cystic-fibrosis patient. What begins as a tendency to contract respiratory infections and a general frailness during childhood progresses at different rates in different cases to a body that is drowning in its own mucus. If the lungs don’t fail first, the pancreas eventually will. When that happens, the patient, unable to produce the digestive enzymes necessary to break down her food, can starve to death no matter how much she stuffs in her mouth. While there is no cure, there are various complicated treatments that can delay the inevitable. Today a cystic-fibrosis sufferer may make it as far as age 50. In earlier decades — the disease was only first definitively identified in 1938 — that number was drastically less.

As a genetic disease, cystic fibrosis is passed down via a defective gene most commonly found in people of Northern European extraction. Each person carries two copies of the gene in question, of which only one need be correct to enjoy a healthy, normal life. Thus most carriers of the disease have no idea of their status. For a child to be born with cystic fibrosis, two carriers or full-blown sufferers — although cases of the latter having children are extremely rare, as infertility in males is an almost universal common side-effect of the disease — must be the parents. Even then, in the case of two healthy carriers as parents the risk of the child being born with the disease is only one in four.

The parents of Bill Williams experienced a run of bad luck of Biblical proportions. Unwitting carriers before marrying and having children, all three of their offspring were born with the disease. The two eldest, a boy and a girl, died in childhood. The last was little Bill, born in 1960 in Pontiac, Michigan, and promptly pronounced by his doctors as unlikely to reach age 13.

Right from the beginning, then, Bill’s experience of time, his very view of his life, was different from that of the rest of us. We are born in hope. We spend our childhood and adolescence dreaming of becoming or doing, and if we are diligent and bold we gradually achieve some of those early dreams, or others that we never quite knew we had. Then, when we reach a certain age, we begin to make peace with our life as it is, with the things we’ve done and with those that we never will. Perhaps we learn, maybe for the first time ever, to accept and enjoy our life as it is rather than how we wish it could be. And then, someday, the final curtain falls.

But what of Bill, born with the knowledge that he would likely never see adulthood, much less a reflective old age? How must it affect him to hear his classmates discussing college funds, hopes and dreams for travel, for love, for that shiny new Porsche or that shiny new Bunny found inside a father’s Playboy? “I never thought I’d have a job or a spouse, or a house, or anything that most little boys think is their birthright,” remembered Bill.

As a boy with no future and thus no need to choose a direction in life for himself, Bill learned from an early age how it felt to always have things done to him rather than doing for himself. His own body was never quite his own, being treated as a laboratory by the doctors who, yes, hoped to keep him alive as long as possible, but who also wanted him for the more horrifyingly impersonal task of learning from his illness.

Many of those diagnostics were scary and incomprehensible to a small child: tubes, wires and circling graphs, dark little closets with windows. I remember being surrounded by terrifying tangles of equipment, isolated from my family, hearing beeps and hisses. I remember hating the pulmonary-function machine.

“Why do I have to sit in the pressure chamber again?”

“Because…”

“Why do I have to have another enema, doctor?”

“Because…”

So you lie down and take it.

The doctors’ curiosity only grew when, unlike his two siblings, Bill didn’t die as they had expected. Indeed, apart from the death sentence always hanging over his head and the endless hours spent in doctors’ offices, his childhood was almost normal. For some time he could even run and play like other children.

One day whilst sitting in a doctor’s office awaiting yet another round of tests, Bill met another boy with cystic fibrosis, one who wasn’t so blessedly free of the disease’s worst symptoms as he was at the time. As he watched the boy cough and gag into a thick wad of Kleenex, his reaction was… disgust. He felt toward the boy the anger the healthy sometimes can’t help but feel toward the sick, as if they are the way they are on purpose. When, soon after, his own cough began to manifest at last, it felt like a divine punishment for his act of judgment that day. He returned to the scene in the waiting room again and again, cursed with the knowledge of how others must see him.

Bill was now a teenager, afflicted with all of a teenage boy’s usual terror of being perceived as different in the eyes of his peers. As his coughing worsened, he desperately tried to cover up his condition, even though for a cystic-fibrosis sufferer to deliberately choose not to cough is to slowly commit suicide; coughing is actually the most welcome thing in the world, because it gets the mucus that will otherwise drown him up and out. Sometimes he could duck into a restroom when he felt a coughing fit coming on, where he could crouch spitting and puking in privacy over a toilet. But then sometimes his classmates would come in and ask what was wrong: “Should I call someone?” Those times were the worst because of the curse Bill bore of being able to see himself through their eyes. He started to swallow cough drops by the handful, poisoning himself and stripping his tooth enamel away right down to the gum line; the dentist whom he would finally visit in his twenties would say he had never seen so much erosion in anyone’s mouth before.

He found solace and camaraderie only with the burnouts, the kids in the torn denims out smoking in the school parking lot — even though smoking or even being around smokers was pretty much the stupidest thing a cystic-fibrosis sufferer could do. “They had no ambition, they knew they were on the outside,” he later wrote. “They had been told in various ways that they would never amount to much. We had something in common!”

Together with the burnouts, he got into punk rock, the sound of powerlessness empowered. He formed a band with three of his friends. They called themselves “Sons of Thunder,” and made a glorious racket in dives all around Detroit. Philip, the guitarist, had a 900-watt amp that made as much noise as “a jet taking off,” as Bill later remembered it, giving the whole band a lifelong case of tinnitus. But no matter; that was the least of Bill’s health problems. He played keyboards and screamed himself raw on the mic. His music restored his voice in the metaphorical sense even as it destroyed it in the literal. He exorcised his pain and frustration — at the world, at himself, at God — via many of his own compositions.

They’ll find me in the morning,
With a razor in my hand,
My faded jeans stained with scarlet blood,
The aftermath of slashing pain,
That cut my cord of life and,
Tore all the fibers that it could.

If you’ve read the papers lately,
Only good kids die.
I wonder where the others are,
And where their bodies lie.
Maybe they’ve been buried,
In some field far away,
Forgotten, faded memories,
Of tainted yesterdays.

I had a dream last night,
Filled me with fright that dream.
In that dream,
God spoke to me:

“I hated you,
From the day you were conceived.
From that point on,
I had decided you’d bleed.
Now you stand before me,
On your judgment day.
I need no excuses.
I’ll just throw you away, away.”

One morning in town, he lapsed into one of his coughing fits, whereupon an old busybody started to lecture him on taking better care of himself, wrapping up properly, etc. If he had done that, she said, he wouldn’t have that awful cough. The old Bill would have listened dutifully and slunk away in shame. The new Bill replied, “No, actually it isn’t a cold, it’s a terminal disease that causes a progressive deterioration of the lungs, no matter how I dress… and thank you very much for reminding of that fact. I’d almost forgotten it for a second.” Powerlessness empowered.

Making music led to making computer programs. Trying to find new sounds for the band, Bill bought a synthesizer kit that included a programmable controller built around the MOS 6502, one of the two little 8-bit chips that made the PC revolution. Despite having no technical training whatsoever, he discovered a “weird affinity” for 6502 assembly language. His father, an engineer with General Motors, was eager for him to find a more stable line of work than screaming himself hoarse every night in bars, and therefore bought him an Atari 800 with the understanding that he would use it to develop some software tools that might prove useful in GM’s factories.

He never got very far with that project. Instead he started working on a game. It felt like coming home. “Computer-game designer,” he came to believe, was somehow inscribed into his very genes, just as much an indelible part of who he was as his cystic fibrosis: “It was my destiny.” His first game was a little thing called Salmon Run (1982), in which the player had to guide a salmon upstream, dodging waterfalls, bears, seagulls, and fishermen all the while, to arrive at the spawning grounds where True Love and Peace awaited. Sweet and simple as it was, it already bore all the hallmarks of a Bill Williams game: nonviolent, laden with metaphor, subtly subversive, and thoroughly original. He was, he would come to realize, “the computer equivalent of an art-folk singer: I couldn’t write a pop hit if my life depended on it.”

Bill had written Salmon Run on a lark, just for fun. But one day he saw an advertisement for a unique new Atari division called The Atari Program Exchange, which promised to publish — paying actual royalties and everything! — the best programs submitted to them by talented amateurs like Bill. He jumped at the chance. Salmon Run was not only accepted, but became one of the Atari Program Exchange’s most popular games, as well as Bill’s own entrée into the industry. Softline magazine, impressed by Salmon Run‘s many and varied sound effects, came to him to write a monthly column on Atari sound programming. And then Ihor Wolosenko came calling from Synapse Software, a company that was making a name for itself as the master of Atari 8-bit action games.

Doing a little catlateral damage in Alley Cat.

Doing a little catlateral damage in Alley Cat.

Alley Cat (1983), one of the three games that Bill wrote for Synapse, is his most accessible and enduring game of all, with a cult following of fans to this day. Impossibly cute without ever being cloying, it casts you as the titular tomcat seeking his One True Love (sensing a theme?). Unfortunately, she’s one of those sheltered inside cats, trapped inside her owner’s apartment. To reach her you have to run a gauntlet of garbage cans, fences, clotheslines, and felicitously feline minigames: stealing fish from a human, stealing milk from dogs, catching mice, knocking over vases.

In 1984, Ihor Wolosenko wrangled for Bill an early prototype of the Commodore Amiga, along with a development deal to die for from Commodore themselves. Desperate for software for their forthcoming machine, they would let Bill develop any game he wanted: “No specifications whatsoever. Complete creative freedom.” He found the Amiga rather terrifying at first — “Oh, my God, what have I got myself into?” — but soon came to see its connection to the Atari 8-bit machines he was used to; Jay Miner had designed the chipsets for both machines. “It was like picking up a conversation with someone who had been thinking for a couple of years and had figured out a lot more stuff,” he later said.

Bill had grown entranced by the new scientific field of chaos theory, an upending of the old Newtonian assumptions of a mechanistic, predictable universe into something more enigmatic, more artistic, more, well, chaotic — and possibly something admitting of more spiritual possibility as well. In a chaotic world, there is no Platonic ideal of which everything around us is an imperfect shadow. There is only diversity, a riot of real beauty greater than any theoretical idea of perfection. For a man like Bill, whose own body’s systems were so different from those of the people around him, the idea was oddly comforting. He spent months curating little organic worlds inside the Amiga, grown from randomness, noise, and fractal equations, whilst Wolosenko fretted over his lack of tangible progress in making a concrete game out of his experiments. Bill could spend hours “cloud-watching” inside his worlds: “Oh, that one looks like…” What he saw there was as different from the structured, ordered, Newtonian virtual world of the typical computer game as “a snowflake is from a billiard ball.”

The game that finally resulted from his explorations made this landscape of Bill’s imagination into the landscape of the broken mind of a physics professor. To restore him to sanity, you must reconnect the four shards of his personality — Strong Man, Wizard, Spriggan, and Water Nymph — and clear out Bad Thoughts using your Fractal Ray. By the time Bill was finished Synapse Software was no more, so Commodore themselves released the game as Mind Walker (1986), the first and only Amiga game to appear under the platform’s parent’s own imprint and one of the first commercial games to appear for the Amiga at all. Heady, dense, and unabashedly artsy, it fit perfectly with the Amiga’s early image as an idealized dream machine opening up new vistas — literal vistas in Mind Walker‘s case — of possibility. Whether it really qualifies as a great or even good game to, you know, play is perhaps more up to debate, but then one could say the same about many a Bill Williams creation.

Battling Bad Thoughts armed with Nihlism Beams in Mind Walker.

Battling Bad Thoughts armed with Nihilism Beams in Mind Walker.

Having long since retired from his band to write games full-time, Bill was now beginning to do quite well for himself. By the metrics by which our society usually judges such things, these would prove to be the most successful years of his life; his yearly income would top $100,000 several times during the latter 1980s. His disease was still in relative abeyance. Friends and colleagues who weren’t aware of the complicated rituals he had to go through before and after facing them each day could almost forget that he wasn’t healthy like they were — unless and until he lapsed into one of his uncontrollable coughing fits, that is. Best of all, he now had for a wife an extraordinary woman who loved him dearly. Martha had come into his life around the time of his first computer, and would stand by him, working to keep him as mentally and physically healthy as he could be, for the rest of his days.

Through an old colleague from Synapse, Bill was put in touch with Bob Jacob, just in the process of starting Cinemaware. Along with Doug Sharp, Bill was signed to become one of Cinemaware’s two lone-wolf developers, given carte blanche to independently create a game based on the movies without being actually being based on a movie; the newly formed Cinemaware was hardly in a position to negotiate licenses. Bob had plenty of ideas: “Bob is a generation older, and he would be recommending movies that were more the stuff that really jazzed him when he was twelve or so. I knew if I didn’t come up with a counter-idea, I was going to have to do one of his.” A big fan of the stop-motion visual effects of Ray Harryhausen, Bill settled on an homage to the 1958 adventure classic The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.

Bill’s Cinemaware game didn’t turn out to be terribly satisfying for either designer or player. While plenty of his games might be judged failures to one degree or another, the others at least failed on their own terms. Sinbad and the Throne of the Falcon (1987) marked the first time that Bill seemed to forfeit some of his own design sensibility in trying to please his client. It attempts, like most Cinemaware games, to marry a number of disparate genres together. And, also like many other Cinemaware games, the fit is far from seamless. Whilst trekking over a large map as Sinbad, talking with other characters and collecting the bits and pieces you need to solve the game, you also have to contend with occasional action games and a strategic war game to boot. None of the game’s personalities are all that satisfying — the world to be explored is too empty, the action and strategy games alike too clunky and simplistic — and taken in the aggregate give the whole experience a bad case of schizophrenia.

Sinbad also attracted criticism for its art. Created like every other aspect of the game by Bill himself, I’ve heard it described on one occasion as “gorgeous folk art,” but more commonly as garish and a little ugly. Suffice to say that it’s a long, long way from Jim Sachs’s lush work on Defender of the Crown. It didn’t help the Amiga original’s cause when Cinemaware themselves ported the game in-house to other platforms, complete with much better art. Nothing was more certain to get Amiga users up in arms than releasing Atari ST and even Commodore 64 versions of a game that looked better than the Amiga version.

Libitina, Sinbad's rather painfully pixelatted lust interest.

Libitina of Sinbad and the Throne of the Falcon, the most painfully pixelated of all Cinemaware’s trademark love/lust interests.

Bill himself was less than thrilled with Sinbad when all was said and done, recognizing that he had lost his own voice to some extent out of a desire to please his publisher. He agreed to do sound programming for two more Cinemaware games, as he had for Defender of the Crown before Sinbad‘s release, but backed away from the relationship thereafter.

As a palate cleanser from the big, ambitious Sinbad — or, as the musically-minded Bill liked to put it, as his Get Back project — he wrote a simple top-down shooter called Pioneer Plague (1988). Published by the tiny label Terrific Software, its big technical gimmick was that it ran in HAM, the Amiga’s unique graphics mode that allowed the programmer to place all 4096 colors on the screen at once. Pioneer Plague marked the first time that anyone had seen HAM, normally used only for still images because of its slowness and awkwardness to program, in an action game. Not for nothing did Bill have a reputation among the Amiga faithful as a technically masterful programmer’s programmer.

Bill’s next and, as it would transpire, last game for the Amiga would prove the most time-consuming and frustrating of his career. He called it Knights of the Crystallion (1990).

Knights was the game I threw the most of my soul into, out of all the games I ever did. Knights was my attempt to draw the industry into a different direction. It was going to be my epic, it was going to be my masterpiece — we called it a cultural simulation — and I thought I could pull it off.

Such abstracts aside, it’s very hard to describe just what Knights of the Crystallion is or was meant to be, always a dangerous sign when discussing a game. Like Sinbad, it’s a hybrid, and often a baffling one, incorporating action, adventure, resource management, grand strategy, pattern-matching, puzzle-solving, and board games among other, less definable elements. The complicated backstory is drawn from a science-fiction novel Bill had been contemplating writing, the art style from the old Yes album covers of Roger Dean. The package included a cassette of music and 18 pages of poetry — all, like everything in the game proper, created personally by Bill. It was also a game with a message, one that subverted the typical ludic economic model: “I got into designing an economy in which all of the rules necessary to actually doing well provide an economic reward for thinking charitably and being part of the community, rather than selfishly grabbing all of the resources for yourself.”

It was a long way from the days of Salmon Run and Alley Cat — and, one could argue, not entirely for the better. And yet for all that Knights of the Crystallion‘s overstuffed design contained, Bill estimated that “limits of time, machine, publisher” meant that less than 20 percent of what he’d wanted to put in there was in fact present in the finished product.

Neither of Bill’s last two games did very well commercially, and by the time Knights of the Crystallion was finished in late 1990 the Amiga market in general in North America was quite clearly beginning to fade; the latter game was made available only via mail order in its homeland, a far cry from Bill’s high-profile days with Cinemaware. Looking at his dwindling royalty checks, he made the tough decision to abandon the Amiga, and with it his career as a lone-wolf software auteur. He accepted a staff position, his first and only, with a company called Sculptured Software, who were preparing a stable of games for the forthcoming launch of the Super Nintendo console in North America. (Sculptured was ironically the same developer that had failed comprehensively in creating Defender of the Crown for Cinemaware back in 1986, necessitating a desperate effort to rescue the project using other personnel.) Trying to put the best face on the decision, Bill imagined his discovery of the Super Nintendo as another adventure like his discovery of the Amiga, “a black box with a whole bunch of unknowns and a completely new field to play in.” But he was given nothing like the room to explore that Synapse and Commodore had arranged for him in the case of Mind Walker. Instead a series of disheartening licensed properties came down the pipeline, each exhaustively specified, monitored, and sanitized by the management of Sculptured, the management of Nintendo, and the management of whatever license happened to be in play. It wasn’t quite the way this art-folk singer of software was used to working. Something called The Simpsons: Bart’s Nightmare (1993) — Bill promptly started referring to it as “Bill’s Nightmare” — proved the last straw. He walked on the project when it was “92 percent” complete, ending his career as a maker of games in order to take the most surprising and remarkable step of his life.

The change had begun with Martha. In the early years of their relationship, Bill affectionately called her “Pollyanna” because of what he took to be her naive faith in a God who “liked matter, still cared for body and soul, still actively loved the world.” How could she believe in a benign God in the face of the suffering inflicted upon him and, perhaps even more so, upon his parents, they of the two dead children and the other who was destined not to live very long? But, observing Martha’s steadfast faith as the years passed, he began to question whether he wasn’t the naive, unsophisticated, ungrateful one. There’s an old saying that God never allows more suffering than we can handle. Looking back on his own life, he saw, apart from that great central tragedy of cystic fibrosis, a multitude of benign serendipities.

I “just happened” to build a synthesizer kit that “just happened” to have an optional computer controller; “just happened” to discover a weird affinity for 6502 machine code, which “just happened” to the heart of the first home videogame system; “just happened” to do a game for my own enjoyment and “just happened” to see an ad from a new Atari division, looking for products… and “just happened” to discover a career that could be done at home, at my own body’s pace and schedule. The royalties, savings, and disability insurance I “just happened” to make from that career just happen to feed us to this day.

One day, after being married to Martha for several years, my eyes were opened, and I saw what I had rather than what I feared I would not have. In fact, I had to admit that none of my fears had panned out. I kept waiting for doom to fall, and bounty kept falling instead.

It’s all just a trick of the eyesight, you know. It all depends on what you’re looking for. As a new acquaintance of mine, Ed Rose, has remarked, you can just as well ask why good happens in the world. In the worst of situations — he served in Vietnam — good keeps breaking out with insane persistence.

Maybe we need a doctrine of Original Charity to balance the weight of Original Sin. Correct the assumptions. In a universe where all the facts seem to point to evolutionary aggression, self-interest, and evil, maybe we need to start wondering why this place isn’t worse, rather than better.

By the time these realizations were breaking through Bill had spent years living a life typical of his profession, “uncomfortable around people,” forever “spelunking his own caverns” inside the computer. For Bill, the life of the technical ascetic had a particular appeal. He had virtually since birth regarded his body as his enemy. The computer provided an escape from his too, too solid flesh. He spent twelve or sixteen hours many days in front of the screen; Martha saw only the back of his head most days.

It’s a symptom — perhaps a blessing? — of the human condition that we all live as if we’re immortal, happily squandering the precious hours of our lives on trivialities. But, noted Bill — echoing in the process the sentiments of another famed game designer — “when you’re dying, no one looks back and says, ‘My God, I wish I’d spent more time at the office.'” In the long term, of course, we’re all dying. But Bill’s long term was much shorter than most.

To say that the life of a chronic-disease sufferer is a hard one is to state the obvious, but the full spectrum of the pain it brings may be less obvious. There’s the guilt that comes with the knowledge that your loved ones are suffering in their own right every day as well from your illness, and the sneaking, dangerous suspicion that knowledge carries with it that everyone would be better off if you would just die already. And accompanying the guilt is the shame. Why can’t you just get better, like everyone wants you to? What did it say about the young Bill when his parents took him to church and the whole congregation prayed for him and the next day he still had cystic fibrosis? Was he not worthy of God’s grace? To suffer from a genetic disease isn’t like battling an infection from outside, but rather to have something fundamentally wrong with the very structure of you. Bill felt a profound connection to other marginalized people of any sort, those who suffered or who saw their horizons limited — which is often pretty much the same thing, come to think of it — not from anything they had done but from who they were.

And so, perhaps also inspired a bit by the universe of chaotic beauty he had glimpsed inside the virtual world of Mind Walker, he started to open up to the physical world again. He took small steps at first. He volunteered to work in a charity soup kitchen, and he and Martha sponsored a child through Christian Children’s Fund: $25 per month to feed and clothe a fisherman’s son in South America. Writing letters to little Alex, Bill didn’t know how to explain what he did for a living to a boy who had never seen a computer or a computer game. There was something elemental about the concerns of Alex’s life — food, shelter, family, community — that felt lacking in his own. When other people asked him about his job, he caught himself adopting a defensive tone, as if he was “a rep for a tobacco company. And I heard that and I thought, ‘Oh, my God, that’s what you think of yourself?'” So at last he quit to attend seminary in Chicago — to become a pastor, to help people, to connect with life.

It proved the most rewarding thing he had ever done. He spent much time counseling patients in a hospital, a task to which a lifelong “professional patient” like himself could bring much practical as well as spiritual wisdom. The experience was many things.

It was listening to a gentle, soft-spoken woman tell me how she met her husband, while he lay in a bed and died.

It was listening to inner-city parents tell of their life’s greatest achievement: keeping their kids out of the gangs.

It was being awed and humbled by the faith of everyday people in outrageous circumstances.

It was listening to folks be brave and strong on the outside while the inside crumbled.

It was standing up for meek patients being railroaded into choices they didn’t have to make.

It was spending five minutes talking about the broken body, and two hours talking about the spouse that died last year. I was amazed to discover how poorly our society provides for psychic hurts — and I began to see how the need for help drives people’s health into the ground, just to obtain some socially acceptable caring.

It was hurting with a woman who didn’t want to get out of the hospital because of what was waiting for her at home.

It was days when an odd, risky thought popped into my head… and a patient’s eyes widened in relief and recognition because I’d said it.

It was the dying man who wanted to confess something, but couldn’t. I pronounced a blessing over his head, trying to work in an absolution for what had not been revealed… and felt so very, very small and human.

It was saying the Psalms as prayers for the first time in my life.

It was reviewing events and tearing myself up for hours, both at the hospital and at home.

The city air of Chicago sadly didn’t agree with Bill’s disease. His condition rapidly worsening, he was forced to give up the four-year program after two years. He and Martha moved to Rockport, Texas, where the warm, dry breezes coming off the Gulf of Mexico would hopefully soothe his frazzled lung tissue.

Warm breezes or no, his condition continued to deteriorate. The death he had been cheating since age 13 was quite clearly now approaching. Most of the hours of most days now had to be devoted to his new job, that of simply breathing. He could sleep for no more than two or three hours at a stretch; to sleep longer would be to drown in the mucus that built up inside his lungs. He was now diabetic, and had to take insulin every day. As with many cystic-fibrosis suffers, his strain of diabetes was peculiarly sensitive and ever-changing, meaning he flirted constantly with an insulin coma. (“To avoid the coma I was letting my blood sugars float way too high, which was killing me slowly instead — but frankly, cystic fibrosis is likely to get me before the organ damage is much of an issue. It takes about ten years to show up.”) He had to take a complicated regimen of enzymes each day to digest his food; otherwise he would have starved to death. (“‘Oh, I wish I had that problem,’ dieters have sometimes said to me. No. You don’t.”) He had a permanent catheter embedded in his chest to deliver the constant assault of antibiotics that kept the prospect of an immediately fatal lung infection at bay; the hole in his chest had to be carefully cleaned every week to prevent a fatal infection from that vector instead. He inhaled a drug called Alupent every day that delivered a shock to his system like a “bottled car accident” and hopefully caused him to cough up some of the deadly mucus in his lungs. His colon had been widened by his surgeons to allow the too-solid waste his body produced passage out; despite the re-engineering, constipation would often leave him writhing in “the most potent pain I experience.” He spent much time each day “communing with Flo,” a big tank of bottled oxygen. (“When she starts to work, my legs tingle, my back stops aching, and I stretch as luxuriously as a cat in the sun. Martha laughs at me. She thinks I enjoy it too much.”) And in order to loosen the mucus inside his lungs he got to endure percussion therapy every day — otherwise known as a righteous beating about the chest and back from Martha that undoubtedly hurt her more than it did him. (A cystic-fibrosis in-joke: “It’s a little perk I get from marrying him. How many women have their husbands ask them for a beating?”) Unable to breathe for very long standing up, he spent most of his days and nights sprawled out on a couch with a 9-degree slope, perfectly calibrated to maximize his air intake.

Bill Williams (right), Marsha Williams, and a friend in a snapshot taken shortly before Bill's death.

Bill Williams (right), Marsha Williams, and a friend in a snapshot taken shortly before Bill’s death.

Despite it all, Bill Williams continued to create. He had a special desk rigged up for his 9-degree couch, and, his days in front of a computer now long behind him, wrote out his final creation with a pencil in longhand. Naked Before God: The Return of a Broken Disciple (1998) is a 132,000-word last testament to his suffering and his joy, to his faith and his doubt. Like the books of the Bibilical prophets on which it’s modeled, it’s raw, knotty, esoteric, and often infuriatingly elliptical. It is, in other words, a classic Bill Williams creation. This isn’t the happy-clappy religion of the evangelical megachurches any more than it is the ritualized formalism of Catholicism. It’s Christ as his own disciples may have known him, dirty and scared and broken, struggling with doubt and with the immense burden laid upon him — yet finally choosing love over hate, good over evil all the same. Writing the book, Bill said, was like undergoing “a theological meltdown.” “It was a near thing,” he wrote at the end, “but I’m still a Christian.” Whatever our personal takes on matters spiritual, we have to respect his lived faith, formed in the crucible of a short lifetime filled with far more than its fair share of pain.

Since he had been a child, Bill had persevered through all the travails of his disease largely for others: first for his parents, who might not be able to bear losing yet another child; later for Martha as well. “My love,” he said, “is the tether that keeps this balloon tied to earth, even when I’d rather just float away.” As he thought about leaving his wife now, the concerns that popped into his head might have sounded banal, but were no less full of love for that. How would she work the computer without him? Would she be able to do their their… woops, her taxes?

This final period of his life was, like that of any terminally ill person, a slow negotiation with death on the part of not just the patient but also those who loved him. As Bill watched Martha, he could see the dawning acceptance of his death in her, as gratifying as it was heartbreaking. One day after another of his increasingly frequent seizures, she quietly said the words that every dying person needs, perhaps above all others, to hear. She told him that he was free to slip the tether next time, if he was ready. She would be okay.

Bill Williams died on May 28, 1998, one day shy of his 38th birthday. “I was pretty privileged,” he said of his life at the last. “I really lucked out.”

(This article is drawn from a retrospective of Bill Williams’s career published in the February 1998 and March 1998 issues of Amazing Computing, and most of all from his own last testament Naked Before God. Sinbad and the Throne of the Falcon is available as part of a Cinemaware anthology on Steam.)

 
 

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