Scientology and the Fellowship

01 Mar


The people who believe in the Guardian, the masses who believe in him, are completely good people who are completely duped. And so this cult religion is building, in belief of the Guardian and the Guardian’s ends. The lowest level members of the Fellowship, which is this organization that believes in the Guardian, don’t hear him. The Guardian doesn’t even speak to them.

Do you remember the Time article about Scientology where the lowest level is the self-help group? And it isn’t until you’ve gotten into Scientology for a while that you are told that in fact your body is inhabited by Thetans that have been lying dormant in your body for 75 million years, and they got there when the evil ruler Zog kicked them off their planet Nimpto. I’m serious. This is Scientology. But you don’t find this out until you’re into Scientology.

— Richard Garriot, 1992

L. Ron Hubbard and John W. Campbell

Of all the things to come out of the golden age of pulp science fiction, the strange pseudo-religious cult of Scientology has been among the least welcome.

The man who would found the cult was a charismatic fabulist named L. Ron Hubbard. After dropping out of university at age 21 in 1932, he resolved to make his living by doing what he most enjoyed: telling tall tales. Luckily, he lived in New York City, the heart of the pulp-publishing industry.

Hubbard proved unusually prolific even by the standards of the pulps, churning out multiple stories every week. He wrote in any genre that paid, from westerns to mysteries, but he showed a particular affinity for science fiction. Although his prose was dubious, his stories had a gonzo over-the-top energy about them that soon made his name a significant draw on magazine covers. One might say that Hubbard was the pulpiest of pulp writers. While authors like Isaac Asimov, Jack Williamson, and Ray Bradbury sometimes defied the lurid blurbs and cover art that accompanied their work to present stories of surprising thoughtfulness and texture, an L. Ron Hubbard story was exactly what it appeared to be on the surface: all flashing ray guns, whizzing spaceships, and heaving female bosoms. And that sort of thing, of course, was exactly what so many of the eager adolescent boys who bought the pulps were looking for.

The beginning of the Second World War marked the end of the first heyday of the pulps, as most of their writers were inducted into one form or another of military service. Hubbard parlayed a peacetime reserve commission into a regular officer’s posting in the Navy, but his wartime record proved a decidedly inglorious one. He was given the command of a submarine chaser in 1943, only to be relieved of that duty within a month for using a populated island off the coast of Mexico for gunnery practice. He never came close to meeting the enemy in any of his postings, which saw him mostly sitting behind desks in port-side offices.

After the war, he made his way to Hollywood, where he became involved for some time with a semi-serious cult that embraced Thelema, Aleister Crowley’s egoistic and hedonistic take on mysticism. Here he learned hypnotism; indeed, the group became something of a training ground for his future as a cult leader. He moved back to New York City after a year or so and resumed writing for the pulp market, which was now enjoying a postwar second wind. But he already had grander schemes in mind.

In the December 1949 issue of Astounding, the most prestigious science-fiction magazine in the business, the already legendary editor John W. Campbell made the first mention in print of Dianetics, Hubbard’s new “science of the mind.” “This is not a hoax,” he wrote. “Its power is almost unbelievable.” Campbell hardly had a reputation for gullibility, and his willingness to take every word that fell from Hubbard’s lips on this subject as gospel truth became a source of considerable wonder among his stable of more skeptical writers. Nevertheless, believe in Dianetics he did, turning his magazine into a soapbox for Hubbard’s vaguely Freud-like — but, as Hubbard would be the first to point out, not Freudian — theories about an “analytical mind” and a “reactive mind,” the latter being the subconscious product of often unremembered traumas that constantly undermined one’s attempts to be one’s best self. The only way to become a “Clear” — i.e., free of the reactive mind’s toxic influence — was to undergo a series of “audits” aimed at locating and rooting out the hidden traumas, or “engrams,” as Hubbard called them.

Hubbard would teach ordinary people to become auditors, and together they would become the vanguard of a new, Clear society free of most current worldly woes. Every medical problem from near-sightedness to cancer, Hubbard claimed, could be cured by purging the reactive mind that was their wellspring. Ditto societal problems. What were wars, after all, but products of the mass reactive-mind psychosis?

Published in book form in May of 1950, Dianetics was roundly condemned from the start by professional psychologists, who saw it, reasonably enough, as unmoored to any shred of real scientific evidence and potentially dangerous to the mental health of its more vulnerable practitioners. This rejection spawned in Hubbard a lifelong hatred of traditional psychology; he would pass the sentiment on to the cult he would found, among whom it remains a fundamental tenet to this day.

Nonetheless, Dianetics enjoyed a substantial degree of mainstream attention and even acceptance for a few years. For war veterans in particular, dealing with an overtaxed Veterans Administration that still had little understanding of post-traumatic-stress disorders, its promise of a quick fix for their pain was very appealing indeed. Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health climbed high on the bestseller lists, and Hubbard, suddenly making more money than he had ever seen in his life, busied himself with making still more of it, by setting up a nationwide network of Dianetic Research Foundations peddling auditing sessions for neophytes and auditing courses for those who wished to make the leap from patient to therapist. In terms of sheer numbers of people actively engaging with his ideas, the early 1950s was by far the most successful period of Hubbard’s life.

But it wasn’t to last. As it became clear that Dianetics wasn’t actually allowing people to throw away their eyeglasses, much less curing cancer, the wave of earnest interest collapsed as quickly as it had built, to be replaced by scorn and ridicule. The research foundations went bankrupt one by one. Meanwhile John W. Campbell’s magazine never recovered from its editor’s tryst with pseudo-science. It gradually lost its status as science fiction’s most prestigious journal, declining into near irrelevance for the next generation of up-and-coming writers and readers.

With his Dianetics empire crumbling around him, Hubbard sent a telegram to his remaining loyalists announcing “important new material.” And with that material, at a stroke, he turned the pseudo-science of Dianetics into the pseudo-religion of Scientology. Spinning a yarn that he might once have sold to the pulps, he told of a race of immortal beings, existing outside the bounds of space and time, known as the Thetans. (The similarity of the name to Crowley’s Thelema was perhaps telling.) The Thetans had created the universe on a lark, only to get themselves trapped within it. Now, they constituted the souls of human beings, but had forgotten their true nature. But never fear: Hubbard could help a person unlock her inner Thetan, thereby attaining superpowers the likes of which immortality was only the beginning. The first official chapter of his Church of Scientology was founded on February 18, 1954.

Whereas Dianetics had aimed to clear the whole world as quickly as possible, Scientology was for a small group of chosen ones able to recognize its spiritual potency. The true believers lumped everyone else in the world — especially those who had been exposed to Scientology and had chosen to reject it — under the contemptuous category of “wog.” In other words — to put it into terms a cynic can understand — Hubbard had switched from extracting a little bit of money from each of many people to extracting a whole lot of money from each of relatively few people. Early Scientology courses were cheap or even free, but progressing down the “Bridge to Total Freedom” required paying more and more for each successive step. Soon the most dedicated members were giving virtually everything they earned to the church. And it never ended; there was always a further, even more expensive level of enlightenment to be achieved, courtesy of a founder who could always dash one off whenever it was needed. His training with the pulps, it seemed, was still paying dividends.

The full story of the Church of Scientology is as complicated as it is bizarre, encompassing pitched battles with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Internal Revenue Service, and many a foreign government, along with a culture of secrecy and paranoia that only got more pronounced from year to year. The church’s history intersects with that of late-20th-century history more generally in often surprising, usually sinister ways. For example, Charles Manson flirted with Scientology while in prison, and later applied some of the techniques of control and manipulation he had learned from it when he started The Family, his own murderous cult of personality.

Perhaps the strangest period of Scientology was that spanning from 1966 to 1975, during which Hubbard, still nursing unrequited dreams of naval heroism, sailed a “fleet” of dilapidated ships, crewed by enthusiastic and comely if dangerously unskilled young followers, all over the world. Much of the current church’s symbology and iconography, such as the “Sea Org” which serves as a sort of elite honor guard for its most precious people and secrets, still dates from this period, as does a policy of harsh paramilitary discipline. For Scientology, claimed Hubbard, was now at war with an outside world bent on destroying it. Journalists and psychologists were its greatest enemies of all, to be shown no mercy whatsoever.

Scientology could and did ruin the lives of its critics. The classic cautionary tale became that of the investigative journalist Paulette Cooper, who in 1971 published an extremely critical history of L. Ron Hubbard and his church under the title of The Scandal of Scientology. She was subjected to a years-long campaign of abuse, taking the form of some twenty separate lawsuits, along with constant harassing phone calls and even break-ins to her apartment. Scientologists wrote her phone number on bathroom walls (“For a good time, call…”), passed out fliers in her neighborhood peddling her alleged services as a prostitute, and sent bomb threats to their own church in her name; these they then referred to the FBI, leaving Cooper to battle criminal charges with a sentence of up to fifteen years in prison. “For months, my anxiety was so terrible I could taste it in my throat,” Cooper says. “I could barely write, and my bills, especially legal ones, kept mounting. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep.”

L. Ron Hubbard himself withdrew even further from public view when his declining health forced him to return to land in 1975. There was great concern within the church that he might soon be arrested on charges of fraud and tax evasion — indeed, this had been one of Hubbard’s ostensible motivations for taking to the sea in the first place — but there was also a degree of embarrassment that the pot-bellied old man was anything but a poster child for the perfect physical fitness and eternal youth he had so long promised his followers. He thus spent the last few years of his life in complete isolation at secret locations. Fading both physically and mentally, he was now being controlled by the church’s senior leadership rather than vice versa.

He died — or, as the church put it, “moved forward to his next level of research” — on January 27, 1986. By that time, a mad struggle for control of the organization he had founded had been underway for years, and had largely been won already by one David Miscavige, who was still just 25 years old at the time of Hubbard’s death. He consolidated his power in the aftermath, and remains in charge to this day of an organization that is more insular and secretive than ever.

Miscavige’s most far-reaching innovation, which he began to implement even well before Hubbard’s death, was the so-called “celebrity strategy.” Eager to attract prominent people with enviable lifestyles for promotional purposes, Miscavige opened a special “Celebrity Centre” in Hollywood. It boasted, as the journalist Janet Reitman describes it, “39 hotel rooms, several theaters and performance spaces, a screening room, an upscale French restaurant, a casual bistro and coffee bar, tennis courts, and an exercise room and spa.”

The profession of actor may appear glamorous from the outside, but it can be almost unbelievably brutal from the inside, even for those who have achieved a degree of success. In this respect, the profession defies direct comparison to almost any other. An actor must face constant, detailed, explicit critiques of her appearance, her voice, her way of holding herself and moving — in short, of her very being. Thus Scientology found in Hollywood a receptive audience for the doctrines of personal empowerment and self-belief that it had always used to lure new members into the fold. The movie stars John Travolta and Tom Cruise became the most visible celebrity faces of Scientology, but it spread its tendrils throughout the entertainment industry, snaring countless other names both recognizable and obscure — for in Hollywood, today’s obscurity may be tomorrow’s marquee name, as Miscavige understood very well. Better, then, to sign them all up.

Since the publication of Paulette Cooper’s book in 1971, most journalists, well aware of the pain said book had brought upon its author, had chosen to keep their distance from the church. But finally, in its issue dated May 6, 1991, Time magazine ran the first lengthy exposé of Scientology in a generation, under the byline of one very brave reporter named Richard Behar. The hook for his piece was the tragic story of Noah Lottick, a “normal, happy” 24-year-old who had given all of his money to the church in the span of seven months, then committed suicide by jumping from a tenth-story window. “We thought Scientology was something like Dale Carnegie,” said the young man’s grieving father. “I now believe it’s a school for psychopaths. Their so-called therapies are manipulations. They take the best and the brightest people and destroy them.”

Other affecting personal tragedies were sprinkled amidst the article’s accusations of financial malpractice, eavesdropping, and harassment, all products of what Behar labelled “a thriving cult of greed and power,” worthy of comparison to the Mafia. Like so many cults, the Scientologists showed a marked tendency to prey upon the most vulnerable:

Harriet Baker learned the hard way about Scientology’s business of selling religion. When Baker, 73, lost her husband to cancer, a Scientologist turned up at her Los Angeles home peddling a $1300 auditing package to cure her grief. Some $15,000 later, the Scientologists discovered that her house was debt free. They arranged a $45,000 mortgage, which they pressured her to tap for more auditing until Baker’s children helped their mother snap out of her daze. Last June, Baker demanded a $27,000 refund for unused services, prompting two cult members to show up at her door unannounced to interrogate her. Baker never got the money and, financially strapped, was forced to sell her house in September.

Predictably, the Church of Scientology sued Time for libel. It would take almost ten years for the magazine to win a final legal victory, on the basis that everything reported in the story was substantially accurate.

The timing of this article is highly significant for our purposes: it was read by Richard Garriott, who had recently decided that Ultima VII should have a “real bad guy” as the antagonist for the first time since Ultima III. “Richard came up with the initial idea,” remembers Raymond Benson, the game’s head writer, “but I’m pretty sure I came up with everything the Fellowship did, as well as their various tenets and beliefs.”

Of all the many and varied threads taken up by Ultima VII, that of the Fellowship is the most thoroughgoing. This isn’t surprising on the face of it, given how important the Fellowship is to the game’s overarching plot. What is surprising, however, is how subtle and even wise — not words I use often in connection with CRPGs, believe me! — the game’s depiction of the cult really is. Taken as a whole, the Fellowship’s practices demonstrate a canny understanding of how non-stupid people can be convinced to believe in really stupid things, and how they can be convinced — or coerced — to dedicate their lives to them. Indeed, although the direct inspiration for the Fellowship is Scientology, the understanding of cultish behavior which Ultima VII demonstrates applies equally to many of them. “It wasn’t just Scientology we were knocking,” says Benson, “but all kinds of religious cults.”

Separated at birth? L. Ron Hubbard…

..and Batlin.

The Guardian, the disembodied spirit of evil who’s the prime motivator behind the Fellowship, prefers to hide behind the scenes. The cult’s ostensible founder and public face is instead an unprepossessing fellow named Batlin, who carefully cultivates an everyman persona. In the Book of the Fellowship included with the game — quite possibly the only game manual ever to be written from the point of view of the eventual villain — he speaks of his “humble hope that these words may be for thee a dawning, or at least, a type of awakening.” He is a “traveller” just like you are, who has stumbled upon a form of enlightenment, and he “would very much appreciate sharing the rewards with you.”

This is the modern face of the cult leader, couched in a superficial aura of approachability. Hubbard too dressed casually and encouraged those around him to call him “Ron.” Yet it is indeed a facade; the leader is in fact not an everyman. The affectation of humility is an act, meant to demonstrate the leader’s superior character. He may be a fellow traveler, but the fact remains that he became enlightened while the rest of the world did not; he is, by definition, special, as any cultist who takes his affectation of humility too seriously and challenges his edicts in any way will quickly learn. The Fellowship, like Scientology, is as hierarchical an organization as ever existed.

Still, the impression of casual normality conveyed by the leader is essential to the recruitment process. No one consciously signs up for a cult; people are captured by an innocuous pitch for self-improvement that seems to offer considerable rewards for little investment of time, energy, or money. It’s only after the recruit is inside that the balance begins to subtly shift and the cult begins to demand more and more of all three.

Scientology has studied the recruitment process long and hard, adopting approaches that lean more on theories of marketing than religion. The first pitch says nothing about Thetans; it restricts itself to the relatively more grounded pseudo-science of Dianetics, described as a self-help program that helps one to live a more effective life. The corporate banality of it all smacks of nothing so much as a dodgy vacation-timeshare pitch. In her book on Scientology, Janet Reitman describes her own first encounter with the church in New York City:

At various times during the year, clusters of attractive young men and women are posted on street corners, where they offer free “stress tests” or hand out fliers. Ranging in age from the late teens to the early twenties, they are dressed as conservatively as young bank executives.

On a hot July morning several years ago, I was approached by one of these clear-eyed young men. “Hi!” he said, with a smile. “Do you have a minute?” He introduced himself as Emmett. “We’re showing a film down the street,” he said, casually pulling a glossy, postcard-sized flier from the stack he held in his hand. “It’s about Dianetics — ever heard of it?”

I was escorted to a small screening room to watch the free introductory film. After the film, a woman came into the screening room and told me that she’d like me to fill out a questionnaire. She began her pitch gently. Laurie delivered a soft sell for Scientology’s “introductory package”: a four-hour seminar and twelve hours of Dianetics auditing, a form of consuling that cost $50. “You don’t have to do it,” Laurie said. “It’s just something I get the feeling might help you.” She patted my arm.

That initial request for $50 will grow in a remarkably short time to hundreds, then thousands of dollars, all absolutely required for one to reach the coveted status of Clear and commune with one’s inner Thetan.

The Fellowship recruitment process works much the same way. Every town you visit in Britannia has a Fellowship Hall — or, as it is known in the cult’s corporatese, a “Recreational Facility and Learning Center.” (One of the prime innovations of Scientology, and apparently of the Fellowship as well, was to turn religion into a corporate franchise operation.) While the towns themselves are diverse, every Fellowship Hall looks the same, right down to the Book of the Fellowship standing in a place of honor just inside each of their doorways. (“Books by L. Ron Hubbard lined the walls,” notes Reitman of her Scientology recruitment experience, “as did black-and-white photos of the man.”)

The people hanging about the Fellowship Halls all casually bring up the “Triad of Inner Strength”: “Strive For Unity,” “Trust Thy Brother,” “Worthiness Precedes Reward.” These three principles hardly represent major advances in moral philosophy; they simply say that people should work together whenever possible, should trust in the basic goodness of their fellow humans, and should do good work for the satisfaction of the work itself, understanding that external rewards will come of themselves in due course. The Triad of Inner Strength, in other words, is something most of us learned in grade school.

And yet, banally harmless though it sounds at first blush, the Triad of Inner Strength can all too easily be twisted into something less than benign, as Richard Garriott noted in an interview with Caroline Spector from around the time of Ultima VII‘s release:

And so the Fellowship is this cult religion that is founded upon three principles. The first is Unity. To work for a better world, we all need to work together. If we work together, we’ll be better. This is your “go out and evangelize and convert them to our beliefs” syndrome.

The next thing after Unity is Worthiness. You should always strive to be worthy of that which you wish to receive. Always try to deserve that which you wish to receive. Which is another way of saying, you get what you deserve. Which means, as far as the Guardian is concerned, if you’ve been bad, he kills you. You obviously got what you deserved.

The third principle is called Trust. If you and I are going to work together in the same organization, like me and my brother Robert, we have to trust each other. If I constantly think that Robert’s going to stab me in the back, I won’t get any work done. We’d be constantly checking on each other, making sure that what we’re telling each other is the truth. So, you have to trust the other members of the Fellowship. If I tell you to carry this box from here to there, don’t ask me what’s in it. Just trust me.

Spector: Trust has a condition on it, though. The condition is that you do whatever I tell you to do without question.

Trust! Just trust me!

Spector: That’s really not trust.

I didn’t say it was really trust. I said that’s the word they use.

In practice, then, the Triad of Inner Strength leaves the members of the Fellowship ripe for all sorts of psychological manipulation. “Strive for Unity” and “Trust Thy Brother” militate against critical thinking among the membership, while “Worthiness Precedes Reward” can be used to justify all sorts of acts which the membership would otherwise view as heinous.

The recruitment pitch of both Scientology and the Fellowship culminates in a much-vaunted but borderline nonsensical personality test. The Scientology version poses questions like “Do you often sing or whistle for the fun of it?” and “Do you sometimes feel that your age is against you (too young or too old)?” The Fellowship’s questions are at least a bit more elaborate, and actually do offer some food for thought in themselves. In fact, they might remind you of some of the questions posed by a certain gypsy fortune teller at the beginning of Ultima IV.

Thou art feeling depressed right now. Is it more likely because – A: Thou hast disappointed a friend, or B: A friend has disappointed thee?

At a festive gathering thou dost tell a humorous anecdote, and thou dost tell it very well, creating much amusement. Didst thou tell this comedic story because A: thou didst enjoy the response that thou didst receive from thine audience, or B: because thou didst want to please thy friends?

Thou art in a boat with thy betrothed and thy mother. The boat capsizes. In the choppy waters thou canst only save thyself and one other person. Who dost thou save from drowning, A: thy betrothed, or B: thy mother?

(Freud would have had a field day with that last one.)

Whatever answers you give, on either cult’s test, the end result is always the same: you have much potential, but you need the counseling that only Scientology or the Fellowship can provide. (“Thou art a person of strong character, Avatar, but one who is troubled by deep personal problems that prevent thee from achieving thy true potential for greatness.”)

As you wander Britannia talking to Fellowship members — whatever else you can say about Batlin’s cult, it’s achieved a degree of market penetration of which Scientology can only dream — they all parrot the same lines when speaking of the organization. At first, you might be tempted to chalk this up to laziness on the part of the writing team. But later, as you come to see that laziness simply isn’t a part of Ultima VII‘s writerly personality, you realize that it’s been done with purposeful intent, to illustrate the subtle process of brainwashing that occurs once one begins to open oneself to a cult. And as this realization dawns, the parroting that started out as merely annoying begins to take on a sinister quality.

Indeed, the control of language constitutes an important part of a cult’s overall control of its members. Scientology has developed a veritable English dialect all its own, a strange mixture of tech speak, corporate speak, and messianic grandiosity. The word “love” is replaced by “affinity”; the verb “to audit” now means “to listen and compute.” Hubbard’s own writings — Scientology’s version of holy scripture — is the church’s “technology” or “tech.” More ominously, a “suppressive person” is someone who speaks critically of the church, thereby suppressing the truth of Hubbard’s wisdom in herself and in those around her; these people, Scientology’s version of heretics, are fair game for any sort of punishment. One former member and current suppressive person describes Scientology’s manipulation of language thusly:

It’s very, very subtle stuff, changing words and giving them a whole different meaning. It creates an artificial reality. What happens is, this new linguistic system undermines your ability to even monitor your own thoughts because nothing means what it used to mean. I couldn’t believe that I could get taken over like that. I was the most independent-minded idiot that ever walked the planet. But that’s what happened.

The Fellowship too manipulates language for its own ends, preferring convoluted purple prose to directness in such linguistic pillars as the Triad of Inner Strength. The core of the group’s philosophy is “sanguine cognition.” This is just another way of saying “cheerful knowledge,” Batlin helpfully tells us, which rather begs the question why he doesn’t instruct his followers to simply say the latter. The answer is that clear language illuminates its subject, whereas a cult’s mission is always to obscure the sheer banality of its teachings.

The languages of Scientology and the Fellowship alike are meant to highlight their status as modern belief systems suitable for the modern world. This is important, for any argument for the absolute truth of a religion or life philosophy must carry with it the implied corollary that all other current religions and life philosophies are false, or at least of lesser utility. Batlin has this to say about the system of virtues that arrived in Britannia at the time of Ultima IV, more than 200 years ago in the series’s internal chronology:

As one who has followed the Eight Virtues, I know whereof I speak when I say that it is impossible to perfectly live up to them. Even the Avatar was unable to do so continuously and consistently. Can anyone say that they have been honest every moment of their lives? Can anyone say that they are always compassionate, valorous, just, sacrificing, honorable, humble, or spiritual at all times? The philosophy of the Eight Virtues does little more than emphasize our own personal deficiencies. I have met many adherents to the ways of the Virtues who are racked with guilt over what they perceive to be their spiritual failures, for that is what the Virtues are based upon. Having been shown our weaknesses, now is the time to strengthen them. The philosophy of The Fellowship has been created to eradicate the failures from one’s life. It is a philosophy based upon success and it enhances everything that has come before it.

It’s right here that Ultima VII levels its most subtle but perhaps most important critique of Scientology and similar movements in our own world. A religion, some wag once said, is another person’s cult, and vice versa. I would push back against that notion to the extent that the great religions of the world, regardless of their claim to objective truth, engage with the full scope of the human condition, including its fundamentally tragic nature. Religion engages with failure and weakness at least as much as it does with success and strength; it engages with pain and loss, with aging and death — because, as another wag once said, none of us gets out of this life alive.

So, a true religion grasps that it cannot deny the tragic realities of life, replacing them with some shallow notion of “success,” as if the ineffable mysteries of life were just a series of bullet points on a CV. As Sophocles and Shakespeare understood, much of life is pain, and true spiritual enlightenment is the ability to laugh in spite of that pain, not to deny its existence. True enlightenment requires one to get outside of one’s self. Scientology and the Fellowship, on the other hand, are egotism masquerading as spirituality. What can I get out of this? It’s in this way, it seems to me, that they’re most depressingly modern of all.

And yet moral judgments, as the Ultima series did such a good job of teaching us over the years, are seldom absolute. Me-focused self-help programs doubtless do some people a great deal of good, as do Scientology and the Fellowship. For decades now, Scientology has run addiction-treatment programs that have changed at least some lives. The Fellowship too runs homeless shelters and treats serpent-venom addicts (serpent venom being Britannia’s version of cocaine).

Assuming we believe in the notion of people as sovereign individuals, we must give them permission to believe strange things if they wish to do so. And, assuming we believe in the right of free speech, we must give them permission as well to try to convince others of their beliefs — even to try to convince others to join their group and behave as they do. Where do the boundaries lie? Efforts to outlaw Scientology in some countries of our own world have struck many as overreaching. But, likewise, the organization’s ongoing tax-exempt status in other countries strikes many as a travesty in its own right.

Of course, there are limits to the parallels between Scientology and the Fellowship. At the end of the day, the fact remains that Ultima VII is a work of genre fiction. Our ingrained media literacy assures that, from the time when we first meet the Fellowship just minutes after starting the game, we know that they can’t possibly be up to anything good. Indeed, it’s almost a comfort to learn that the Fellowship is being directed by a spirit of manifestly bad intent. That’s the sort of thing we know how to deal with as players of CRPGs. By contrast, very few people in our real world — not even cult leaders — believe themselves to be evil. Evil here is far more subtle, and often occurs in spite of — or sometimes because of — our best intentions. Those who pull the levers of Scientology are not the Guardian — not disembodied spirits of evil cackling over their nefarious plans — but ordinary humans who, I would guess, honestly feel in their heart of hearts that they’re doing good.

Still, if it’s comfort we Scientology skeptics are looking for, we can find some in the fact that the church is by all indications a shadow today of what it was at the time of Ultima VII‘s release. It’s always been damnably difficult to collect hard numbers about the church’s membership at any point in its history, due to its consistent determination to exaggerate its size and influence. Yet, tellingly, even the exaggerations are much smaller today than they were two or three decades ago. Scientology today may have as few as 50,000 active members worldwide, down from a peak of perhaps 500,000 at the time of the Time magazine article. Even its stranglehold on Hollywood has been noticably weakened, with many of its superstar converts having quietly backed away. Much of the veil of secrecy around the organization has been pierced, and Scientology’s penchant for retaliation against its critics doesn’t have the same silencing effect it once did. Today, tell-all memoirs about “my life in Scientology,” of wildly varying degrees of veracity and luridness, have became a veritable cottage industry in publishing. Their authors have found a form of safety in numbers; when Scientology has so many critics, it’s hard for it to go after each one of them with the old gusto, especially given its current straitened membership rolls.

I suspect that Scientology will die out entirely in another generation or three. For all but the people whose lives it has ruined (or saved) and those close to said people, it will go down in history as just another kooky cult, another proof of the eternal human penchant to believe weird things and to cede control of their lives to others in the name of those beliefs. Even as Scientology slowly dies, however, other cult-like belief systems promising love, wealth, and happiness — for a small price — will continue to arise. So, there will never be a shortage of real-world analogues for the Fellowship. Sadly, Ultima VII‘s claim to thematic relevance is never likely to be in doubt.

(Sources: the books Inside Scientology: The Story of America’s Most Secretive Religion by Janet Reitman, The Scandal of Scientology by Paulette Cooper, The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, edited by Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn, and Ultima: The Avatar Adventures by Rusel DeMaria and Caroline Spector; Time of May 6 1991. Online sources include The Ultima Codex interview with Raymond Benson, the comprehensive anti-Scientology resource Operation Clambake, and Frederick Pohl’s memories of Hubbard on The Way the Future Blogs. I owe a special thank you to Hoki-Aamrel, whose “The Fellowship and the Church of Scientology Compared” served as my spirit guide for researching this article. And my thanks go as well to Peter W., who pointed out in a comment to my previous article that The Book of the Fellowship may be the only game manual ever written from the point of view of the villain.)


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70 Responses to Scientology and the Fellowship

  1. Lt. Nitpicker

    March 1, 2019 at 5:32 pm

    eager adolescents boys

    Did you mean adolescent there?

    • Jimmy Maher

      March 1, 2019 at 9:11 pm

      Yes. Thanks!

  2. Alex Freeman

    March 1, 2019 at 6:01 pm

    He thus spent the last few years of his life in complete isolation at secret locations, apparently being controlled by more than he continued to control the church’s senior leadership.

    That might be easier to read if you had it as “He thus spent the last few years of his life in complete isolation at secret locations, apparently being controlled more by the church’s senior leadership than vice versa.”

    for in Hollywood, today’s obscurity may be tommorow’s marque name


    irregardless of their claim to objective truth


    • Jimmy Maher

      March 1, 2019 at 9:16 pm

      Thanks! (I’d prefer to leave the first sentence alone.)

      And yes, this is the last I have to say on Ultima VII.

      • Alex Freeman

        March 1, 2019 at 9:24 pm

        In that case, I’d like to draw people’s attention to Exult:

        It addresses many of the problems with playing Ultima 7.

    • Sniffnoy

      March 2, 2019 at 6:28 pm

      Also in that sentence, there’s “marque” in place of “marquee”.

      • Jimmy Maher

        March 2, 2019 at 8:10 pm


  3. Alex Freeman

    March 1, 2019 at 6:09 pm

    Come to think of it, the Republican Party is a lot like Scientology. It uses carefully crafted messages to get non-stupid people to believe stupid things. Its members use harassment and character attacks to silence its critics. It even creates an artificial reality for its members (though it uses “alternative facts” to create an “alternative reality”). If it gets enough power, it can even end up ruining places and institutions like Kansas and its educational system. That can even ruin people’s lives in some extreme cases.

    Is this your final article on Ultima VII BTW?

    • Jacen

      March 2, 2019 at 5:50 pm

      Don’t forget about demonizing vulnerable populations and minorities so they can whip their members into vastly overinflated panic voting

    • Tom

      March 10, 2019 at 12:19 am

      You do realize that I could replace “Republican” with “Democrat” and “Kansas” with “California” and it would make just as much sense, right?

      • Alex Freeman

        March 15, 2019 at 8:27 pm


      • Corey Cole

        April 4, 2019 at 11:04 pm

        No, Tom. That’s a false equivalence. Democrats and the Democratic Party make lots of mistakes, but they do not willfully spread lies and require their adherents to accept them as truth. They promote science, research, and facts.

        As for California being ruined, that’s totally laughable. We have an economy so strong that, if California were a country, it would be in the top ten largest economies in the world. (I’ve read fifth, but I haven’t researched it myself.) There are problems in California as there are in every large state and country, but they are problems caused by great success, not statewide bankruptcy.

        However, trying to sneeringly pin a buzzword rap on a person or state is exactly the sort of misinformation practiced by current Republicans, Fox News, and Trump. When Democrats make similar accusations, they provide links to facts and often quote the sources directly. It’s a completely different thing from the baldfaced lies and personal attacks coming from the “Right.” Don’t promote false equivalence.

        • Yop

          April 2, 2020 at 8:19 am

          “Democrats and the Democratic Party make lots of mistakes, but they do not willfully spread lies and require their adherents to accept them as truth. They promote science, research, and facts.”

          This is a shocking level of delusion.

          • Reginald Allouchery

            December 7, 2023 at 6:21 pm

            No, actually, since we use facts and intelligence to process things, not much delusion on our side. You guys, well…..

      • Reginald Allouchery

        December 7, 2023 at 6:19 pm

        The whole point of this article just flew over your head, didn’t it?

  4. whomever

    March 1, 2019 at 7:12 pm

    Heh. You know it literally was only reading this that I got the entire Scientology/Fellowship comparison, but it makes a LOT of sense. (I’d kind of pegged them as a random Cult, of which there are a bunch)

  5. whomever

    March 1, 2019 at 7:14 pm

    Also I have a horrible feeling that the normal super civilized comments section of this blog (marred only but the occasional nutjob who objects to something about your extremely reasonably and balanced discussion of the development of nuclear weapons) is about to get…hot. The Scientologists don’t take stuff like this lying down :-(

    • Infinitron

      March 1, 2019 at 7:41 pm

      *looks above* It might not be Scientologists.

    • Jimmy Maher

      March 1, 2019 at 9:18 pm

      We’ll see. I kind of suspect they have more urgent problems to deal with than being criticized on one obscure technology-history site, given the number Scientology tell-alls currently available for sale on Amazon. That’s what I’m hoping, anyway. ;)

  6. Infinitron

    March 1, 2019 at 7:36 pm

    It’s worth noting the appearance of the Fellowship in Serpent Isle – a small group that travelled there with Batlin and are camped out (IIRC) south of the city of Fawn.

    In the context of that strange land of corrupt city-states, they suddenly appear benign – fellow Britannians eager to do good.

    • stepped pyramids

      March 2, 2019 at 3:47 am

      I’ve always assumed that Batlin intentionally sent low-ranking members with no understanding of the Fellowship’s true goals, for two reasons: first, because he knew that they might not survive; second, because if he sent one of his lieutenants they might end up betraying him. No honor among cult leaders, after all.

  7. Tim Kaiser

    March 1, 2019 at 8:24 pm

    “For decades now, Scientology’s addiction-treatment programs have been recognized, sometimes reluctantly, as among the most effective in the world.”

    Are you talking about Narconon, their drug rehabilitation programs? They have not been recognized as the most effective in the world.

    According to wikipedia, there is no independent data that shows that narconon is better than other programs and there have been multiple deaths reported of people in narconon facilities.

    Narconon is just another part of the scientology scam. I hope you will do some research into this and correct or remove that line.

    • Jimmy Maher

      March 1, 2019 at 9:27 pm

      Hmm… Janet Reitman’s book, which is highly critical of Scientology overall, singles out the addiction-treatment program as one place where they have done some good. But I was probably overstating the case. I’ve changed that paragraph. Thanks!

      • David Bullock

        March 1, 2019 at 10:31 pm

        Janet’s book is WAY out of date, and was written at a time when there was little knowledge of how Narconon actually operates. Narconon has been long exposed as abusing the system and providing no value. Like a lot of CoS efforts, it benefits from not playing up it’s connection to CoS, and aggressive sustained marketing messaging touting success, without actually achieving it.

  8. Nate

    March 1, 2019 at 11:59 pm

    There’s a whole another interesting connection between Scientology and the birth of Remote Viewing – the ‘STAR GATE’ and related programs at Stanford Research Institute in the 1970s, the ones with Russell Targ and Harold Puthoff.

    Some of the highest-rated psychics that were involved in this program were OT-level Scientologists. Ingo Swann and Pat Price, for instance. I think Puthoff himself was also, briefly, in the organization. For a group that was a few years later to be at war with the US government, they sure had some high-level access to secrets.

    A lot of the weirdness around Scientology, including its deep paranoia about secrecy, perhaps makes *slightly* more sense when you consider that one of its goals may have been to reliably produce psi functioning in an intelligence/paramilitary styled organisation, but that they also really didn’t know how to do that other than just trying to run people through sets of exercises borrowed from other groups. Also that Scientology was only one of many groups with similar aims (est, Silva Mind Control, etc) that overlapped with the science fiction, military and sales-motivational-speaking communities. Lots and lots of self-hypnosis cults, there in the underbrush of post-WW2 America. Hubbard was just the one who made the most money.

  9. Keith Palmer

    March 2, 2019 at 1:52 am

    Remembering the other hobbyhorses I’ve heard John W. Campbell tried to ride (to Mars and beyond) in Astounding Science Fiction after he’d stopped covering Dianetics in the 1950s meant I needed a moment to convince myself “Campbell hardly had a reputation for gullibility” wasn’t an error. I’ve read enough science fiction from the 1940s, though, to suppose in that decade the seeds of the decade following were then mostly “getting in on the ground floor of J.B. Rhine and extra-sensory perception” and “talking up Alfred Korzybski and General Semantics.”

    • Corey S Cole

      April 4, 2019 at 11:08 pm

      A. E. van Vogt actively promoted General Semantics in some of his works including The World of Null-A. I think Korzybski was also an influence on Ayn Rand and her novel Atlas Shrugged. That all made a great deal of sense to me as an impressionable 20-year-old, but I now recognize that those approaches were too simplistic.

  10. stepped pyramids

    March 2, 2019 at 4:00 am

    One of the things I thought was clever about the Fellowship is that they’re ideologically amorphous (in the first game that really bothers to try to be reflective about the ideology of Britannia). Nanna credits the Fellowship with teaching her the evils of the class system, while Feridwyn and Brita talk about poverty being a result of poor character. (I just want to say that the Tobias and Garritt quest is one of the most satisfying of any game I’ve played, even though it kind of makes me want to do some very unvirtuous things to Garritt’s parents.)

    The Fellowship seems to adjust its approach to tease out whatever makes its members feel resentful and bitter toward the world, whether it’s economic injustice (Nanna), racial oppression (the gargoyles), teen angst (Sasha), or just not being recognized as the great artist you know you are (Owen).

    I appreciate that Ultima Underworld II follows up on the stories of some Fellowship members from Black Gate. I have some quibbles with it as a game, but it’s neat as a story sequel. I think it’s a shame that the Ultima series started falling apart just as they’d started to get a grip on building a coherent world with interconnections between games.

    • Jimmy Maher

      March 2, 2019 at 7:36 am

      Yes, Garritt is a miserable little brat, isn’t he?

  11. Nate

    March 2, 2019 at 9:40 am

    Cults are often more about the systems of control they use rather than the actual beliefs they hold.

    You try to draw a distinction from true religion based on motivation of personal gain, but I don’t think that holds more generally. The attributes of strong hierarchy, exclusive ownership of truth, and isolation from family/friends are exhibited by offshoots of mainstream religions too. The International Churches of Christ was one group I got involved with that had these characteristics but largely stuck to mainstream Christian doctrine. Fortunately I figured it out quickly and left.

    Extra “by” in:

    “apparently being controlled by more than he continued to control the church’s senior leadership.”

    Should be “may”:

    “Scientology today many have as few as 50,000 active members worldwide”

    This is a ponderous opening clause and hard to parse:

    “Still, if it’s comfort which those of us who don’t believe Scientology on balance is a force for good are looking for”

    • Jimmy Maher

      March 2, 2019 at 11:15 am

      Thanks! The first was as intended, but this sentence appears to be a real stumbling block for readers, so we’ll try something else. ;)

      A better way to frame the distinction might be to make it between religion in the abstract and the practice of religion. A religion like Christianity is practiced in many different ways, some as shallow and self-serving as Scientology — I’m looking at you, happy-clappy megachurches — some beautiful and profound.

      On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine Scientology as a system of belief absent the *cult* of Scientology. The two are effectively one and the same. I think this description is true of cults in general. As you say, the systems of control in a “religion” like Scientology are far more important than the actual beliefs, the supposed point of it all.

      • Scurra

        March 2, 2019 at 12:10 pm

        There’s also the business of keeping secrets. Cults tend to be highly opaque, with their “truths” only being granted to those who rise highly in the ranks; Religions tend to be fairly open about their Holy Books, giving access to all who wish to learn.
        Come to think of it, that’s another difference – Religions are able to wildly disagree internally about what the Holy Books “mean” (sometimes with disastrous consequences); Cults will not allow dissent from the single truth, even as that truth may be changed by the ‘leader’.
        As noted, that doesn’t mean there can’t be Cults within Religions, of course…

        But yeah, Scientology is a fabulous model for anyone wanting to implement a Cult in a game (I’ve used it in several RPGs in the past and it’s always fun seeing players figuring out the inconsistencies.)

        • Laertes

          March 2, 2019 at 1:01 pm

          I am not so sure. For example it was forbidden to translate the bible, and many religious people have not read their own book and are surprised (or directly deny that they belong to it) when you show them the gruesome bits.

          • Ilmari

            March 2, 2019 at 8:34 pm

            I guess you mean Middle Ages and catholic church? If this Wikipedia article with a good set of references ( is a reliable source, this might be mostly a myth – a) there seems to have been no consistent policy against Bible translations, and b) in cases where individual translations were banned, it was more because these translations were considered faulty and heretical. Illiteracy and rarity of books in general were probably the major reasons for people not reading Bible in Middle Ages.

          • Laertes

            March 2, 2019 at 9:42 pm

            @ilmari, in the second part of my statement I was referring to the present times. The first one yes, mostly catholic church in middle ages. But I think there is also a belief the Koran can only be truly read in Arabic.

            • Jimmy Maher

              March 3, 2019 at 7:48 am

              The last is a perfectly reasonably belief which is frequently advanced about many works of literature. Plenty of people have learned ancient Greek just to read Homer, or Italian to read Dante. None of this — much less Christians who *choose* not to read the Bible — has much to do with the idea of *forbidden* knowledge. Most devout Muslim sects actually encourage their members to learn Arabic specifically in order to *read the Prophet’s words for themselves*.

          • Laertes

            March 3, 2019 at 12:43 pm

            Yes, I also try to read always in the original language whenever I can in the few languages I know but I don’t think the reasons are the same. Something about not altering God’s words in the holy books as oposed to the literary value of books in general.

          • Ilmari

            March 3, 2019 at 6:39 pm

            @Laertes It’s not just about literary value, but authenticity – if I want to see what Isaac Newton really said, when discussing theory of gravity, I should read his Latin original and not English translations, since translation often involves choices and interpretation (what did they mean by this word with multiple possible meanings etc.?). (In case of works as old as Bible there’s the added complexity that we have no “first authentic” version, but in the best case a variety of manuscripts with variant readings, since copying writings by hand is very prone to mistakes.)

            I would be more concerned when religious groups use certain translations and don’t take into account the possible mistakes in these translations. In Christian tradition there’s a good example of such a stubborn adherence. There’s a passage in Isaiah, which according to first Greek translation speaks of virgin having a baby and which early Christians regarded as a prophecy concerning Jesus, although Jews kept on insisting that the original Hebrew spoke simply of a young woman – Church Fathers went so far as to suggest that Jews had forged their own writings, because they couldn’t just admit that perhaps they had understood this passage wrongly.

      • Avian Overlord

        March 3, 2019 at 4:52 am

        Funnily enough there are splinter Scientologist groups that decry the main church’s practices and try to practice Scientology independently. And, well, if you take how the church responds to critics imagine how they feel about heretics. Or as they call them, “squirrels.”

        As for fictional references to Scientology, I suspect this is one of those “time travel” perspective things, because as far as I’m concerned, making your fictional cult obviously based on Scientology has just been done so much it’s become a dull cliche at this point.

      • Nate

        March 3, 2019 at 11:25 pm

        I’m sure religion will come up frequently on your analog blog. :-)

        Every religion is made up of humans, so all the traits you describe will show up within some group of adherents in every religion, given enough time. There was a “secret knowledge” sect of Christianity early on (the Gnostics) and self-serving in terms of selling indulgences later on in the Middle Ages. There was an incident referred to by Paul of someone going around claiming to be able to heal people even though the nascent Christian church didn’t know this person.

        I’d say that every cult borrows from some preceding religion in the same way movie plots tend to share the same hero arcs. As you say, some cults appear with the mythology and system of control at the same time but others evolve as an offshoot that isn’t that far different from the original religion, but with a focus on centralized control and isolation of their members.

        There’s a fine line between simple zealotry (e.g. movements that call a religion to reconsider its path) and a full-blown cult, and I think the main distinction comes down to virulence.

    • Ross

      March 2, 2019 at 2:58 pm

      The phrase “Scientology today many have as few as 50,000 active members worldwide” reminds me of how the Debian installer back around the turn of the turn of the century used to include in its splash screen “Used by perhaps as many as 1000 people worldwide!”

  12. Elzair

    March 2, 2019 at 2:03 pm

    I am not sure Campbell was as non-gullible as you say. In the essay Starship Stormtroopers Michael Moorcock claims that, in addition to supporting Dianetics, he also supported “a perpetual motion machine known as the ‘Dean Drive’, a series of plans to ensure that the highways weren’t ‘abused’, and dozens of other half-baked notions, all in the context of cold-war thinking. He also, when faced with the Watts riots of the mid-sixties, seriously proposed and went on to proposing that there were ‘natural’ slaves who were unhappy if freed.”

    • Jimmy Maher

      March 2, 2019 at 2:16 pm

      I’m certainly not an expert on his history, but my understanding is that all of this is post-Dianetics. He became more and more reactionary as he aged.

      • Elzair

        March 2, 2019 at 8:12 pm

        Ah! That explains it. Thanks for the clarification.

  13. Aula

    March 2, 2019 at 2:09 pm

    “While the town themselves”

    should be “towns”

    “doubtless do do some people”

    no need to repeat “do”

    “Online sources include online sources include”

    again, no need to repeat

    “Frederick Phol’s memories of Hubbard”

    should be “Pohl”

    • Jimmy Maher

      March 2, 2019 at 2:13 pm


  14. Adamantyr

    March 2, 2019 at 5:55 pm

    My favorite part in the game is when you retrieve the Cube and then you can go around to all the Fellowship leaders over the world and more often than not, the cube will force them to reveal the truth. They’re all despicable people who know exactly what they’re doing too. The only one you can’t do this to is Batlin, who teleports away the moment he sees you with it.

    I enjoyed the Fellowship as the adversary of the game… It’s unfortunate that most modern CRPG’s have regressed back to simplistic over-the-top cinematic villains instead of the truly scary and evil things. Cults are always poorly done too; what every fantasy trope writer seems to forget is that cults are made up of people who still have every day lives.

  15. Lisa H.

    March 2, 2019 at 10:28 pm

    Thelema, Aleister Crowley’s egoistic and hedonistic take on spiritualism.

    Maybe you meant “spirituality”? (Although I would have said magic, mysticism, esotericism, or something along those lines.) Spiritualism is something else.

    known as the Thetans. (The similarity of the name to Crowley’s Thelema was perhaps telling.)

    Ehhhh. “Thelema” means “will”. Other than that the first letter of the word “thelema” is theta, I find this dubious. I would sooner have connected it to the way that alien or extradimensional beings in sci-fi (not to mention conspiracy theories) are often named after our names for certain stars – Beta this, Theta that, Delta what-have-you.

    • Jimmy Maher

      March 3, 2019 at 7:40 am

      Yes, poor choice of words on my part. Thanks!

      To your other point, I’m not sure etymologies and the like are super-relevant here. My strong impression is that Hubbard just wanted a word that *sounded cool*. It doesn’t strike me as a big stretch that Hubbard would have grabbed onto a word vaguely similar to the cult he had been a part of a few years before when dashing off his new religion. Nor, for that matter, does your own guess about the name’s origin, or a combination of the two…

  16. Carl

    March 4, 2019 at 2:45 am

    Jimmy, you missed an opportunity to touch on the fascinating fact that the leader of the Crowley-esque (although Crowley himself didn’t take it seriously) cult that L. Ron Hubbard was associated with in Pasadena was run by Jack Parsons, an early proponent of liquid-fueled rockets, and one of the founders of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Aerojet Corporation.

    In letters from Crowley it is clear he considered Hubbard to be a grifter and a putz. This is a pretty accurate assessment I would say.

    • Jimmy Maher

      March 4, 2019 at 9:23 am

      Interesting, given that Crowley himself was a noted grifter, constantly asking acquaintances whether they could spare a fiver. ;)

      I didn’t want this to turn into a multi-article series, and so needed to keep the Scientology history at a summary level. Janet Reitman’s book spends a fair amount of time on Hubbard’s year in Hollywood. I highly recommend it to readers wishing to know more.

  17. Max

    March 4, 2019 at 9:36 am

    Aaaaaand 27 years later Garriott himself is in charge of the Shroud of the Avatar, a buggy crappy MMO where people have bought virtual property for thousands of real US dollars apiece and continue to write glowing reviews on the Steam page and protect it on the forums. Not to mention the broken promises to the Kickstarter backers and shady money-raising ventures. How the mighty have fallen, eh? I wonder if you’ll write an article about that piece of work when the chronology comes.

    • Jimmy Maher

      March 4, 2019 at 10:01 am

      I do find Garriott to be a fascinating character, although I tend to take a more jaundiced view of even his early career than most Ultima fans. (I’m not sure I could call him a great game designer even at his peak — more a great game conceptualizer.) Certainly his career since Ultima VII has been a classic cautionary tale in the dangers of believing your own hype, and of wanting to be recognized for doing great creative work without being willing to put in the time and effort that great work requires.

      That said, I don’t think he’s a bad guy, just a rather undisciplined one who tends to get led in unfortunate directions by his more hands-on partners. There’s an interesting contrast to be drawn with Warren Spector, whose own post-Ultima career turned into everything Richard Garriott’s didn’t.

      • Max

        March 5, 2019 at 8:00 am

        To be frank, all RPGs of that era feel somewhat amateurish just because the industry has not matured yet. Amateur art, amateur music, amateur plots and scripts, and, worst of all, amateur development practices were a staple back then.The fans who grew up on this and accepted itare okay with the many flaws but if you’re looking from a modern perspective, a lot of it does not hold up unless you make a significant effort.

        I agree with you on Spector, he always seemed much more focused and pragmatic, in my opinion. Imagine Deus Ex not having that last half-year of polish or the philosophical NPC dialogues, probably would’ve been a trainwreck instead of GOTY.

      • Brian Bagnall

        March 11, 2019 at 3:44 pm

        Have you played the Epic Mickey games? Those were a huge step backward from his previous games.

        • Jimmy Maher

          March 11, 2019 at 4:02 pm

          No, I haven’t.

        • Sam

          May 6, 2019 at 6:07 am

          I haven’t played those games, but it seemed like they were massively lauded at the time?

    • Corey Cole

      April 4, 2019 at 11:36 pm

      Max and other commenters: Be careful to what degree you “flip the bozo bit” on Richard Garriott and other game authors. I see a modern tendency to declare everything as either perfect and amazing or as complete shit, with most work relegated to the latter category.

      In fact, modern games (and even those of the late 1990’s) have teams of dozens to hundreds of developers. There is only so much influence any single individual – even the creator, director, or lead designer – has on a game. They are all compromises, and they all have flaws.

      Jimmy has pointed out a number of problems with “my” games Quest for Glory III and Quest for Glory IV, and they’re valid concerns. Yet others lavish praise on either or both as some of the most amazing games ever written. The truth lies somewhere in between, and the ridiculously short production cycles of those games obviously prevented too much polish.

      But don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Shroud of the Avatar may be flawed – I expect it is – but it’s probably a pretty sincere attempt at making a better MMO. It just didn’t have the time, budget, or perhaps insight required to get all the way there.

      I have fans of “my” latest game, Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption, who claim it’s the best game they ever played. I also have critics – including one who was one of our biggest dollar backers in the Kickstarter – who claim it’s absolute shit with no redeeming qualities. Once again, the truth is somewhere in between. We’re generally getting 80% ratings, which are good but not spectacular; I tend to think they’re about right.

      Since very few games make any money these days, it’s hard to justify pouring too many millions of dollars into a game budget attempting to get absolutely everything right. I’m pretty sure that even those that do – Star Citizen and (to a lesser degree) Broken Age come to mind – are/will be flawed.

      Once again, enjoy the parts of the game you enjoy. Accept the imperfections as parts of necessarily imperfect processes of creative work.

      • Lisa H.

        April 5, 2019 at 2:32 am

        I also have critics – including one who was one of our biggest dollar backers in the Kickstarter – who claim it’s absolute shit with no redeeming qualities.

        Sounds like someone didn’t get exactly what they fantasized about for their money.

    • Sam

      May 6, 2019 at 6:12 am

      I think a lot of that can be attributed (sadly) to human nature. Some people, when confronted with information that goes against their established worldview, will retreat into their worldview and deny the information. So the fact that a cult-like following has formed around Garriot isn’t really any fault of Garriot’s, except for the part where he made a bad game and his fans refuse to admit it.

      (Although Garriot these days comes off as being pretty deluded about himself, too.)

  18. Dan

    March 4, 2019 at 6:21 pm

    “straitened membership roles”

    Should be “rolls.”

    • Jimmy Maher

      March 4, 2019 at 7:41 pm


  19. Operating Pedant

    March 29, 2019 at 2:51 pm

    Where are you getting this stuff that Hubbard learned hypnotism via Crowley’s OTO group? That’s just nonsense. Cite your sources and what exactly you’re talking about.

    • Jimmy Maher

      March 29, 2019 at 2:57 pm

      Mmm… sources are cited at the bottom of the article. It begins with the word “Sources” in boldface. ;)

  20. metzomagic

    April 3, 2019 at 10:43 pm

    I’ve been following the antics of Scientology for as long as I can remember, probably for the last 20 years or so. This is a really good amateur (but not in the least amateurish) exposé of them, written in earnest by an ex-Scientologist:

    Countless lives have been ruined by this cult. L. Ron’s most infamous quote is probably this:

    “You don’t get rich writing science fiction. If you want to get rich, you start a religion.”

    Hats off to Jimmy for another great article that blends gaming with reality.

  21. Corey Cole

    April 4, 2019 at 11:19 pm

    I read somewhere (more than once) that Scientology came about from a bet – or at least a challenge – between L. Ron Hubbard and two or three other science fiction writers. The story was that Robert Heinlein proposed that religions have a protected status in the U.S. that could lead to a fake religion getting a lot of money and power. Heinlein later used this idea in several of his stories and novels including If This Goes On and Stranger In A Strange Land.

    Searching for that, I came across this debunking of the “bet” story, but support for the discussion that might have led to Hubbard creating his own religion:

    My brother got caught up in Dianetics for a while. He took one of their free audits/assessments, then got talked into taking several fairly expensive courses (I think he mentioned $500 for one). When he eventually backed out, he got a lot of pressure to continue. Of course, that’s difficult to distinguish from well-meaning people trying to help a friend who is making a mistake (by leaving).

    I did the audit thing once in between rounds of a chess tournament in Hollywood. I was singularly unimpressed by their “technology” (the E-Meter or an earlier version of it). It looked like a basic Ohm meter (to measure skin resistance). I declined to do anything more with them.

  22. Wolfeye M.

    October 25, 2019 at 9:01 pm

    Hubbard wrote one of my favorite books, Battlefield Earth. I read it before I found out about his involvement with Scientology, and, well, it didn’t change my opinion of the book, just my opinion of him. The movie based on that book makes for a funny story. What I heard was that Travolta wanted to use it to promote Scientology, and they got involved in funding it. But, the movie was so bad (the movie left me wondering if the screenwriters had even bothered to read the book) it bombed in theaters. Scientology distanced themselves from the movie, so it just ended up costing them lots of money.

  23. vykromond

    July 24, 2023 at 11:28 am

    I don’t doubt that Batlin is meant to stand in for L Ron Hubbard in the game’s fiction, but at least to me there’s a lot more of Travolta just visually in that illustration used in the “separated at birth” comparison above. I think he might have even had a facial hair situation somewhat like that contemporaneously to the game.

    Since if memory serves Batlin is rather more grotesque in game than the Book of the Fellowship feelie illustrations indicate, I wonder if there was supposed to be some intimation that looking like John Travolta rather than like L Ron was a bit of wish fulfilment on Batlin’s part.

  24. Max

    July 25, 2023 at 3:40 am

    RE: “I now believe it’s a school for psychopaths. Their so-called therapies are manipulations. They take the best and the brightest people and destroy them.”

    That school only mirrors a much bigger school for psychopaths: so-called civilized societies because by FAR the most vital urgent and DEEP understanding everyone needs to gain is that a mafia network of manipulating PSYCHOPATHS are, and always have been, governing big businesses (eg official medicine, big tech, big banks, big religions), nations and the world — the evidence is OVERWHELMINGLY ROBUST: (or

    And psychopaths are typically NOT how Hollywood propaganda movies have showcased them. And therefore one better RE-learns what a psychopath REALLY is. You’ll then know why they exploit/harm everyone, why they want to control everyone and have been creating a new world order/global dictatorship, and many other formerly puzzling things will become very clear.

    “We’ll know our Disinformation Program is complete when everything the American public believes is false.” —William Casey, a former CIA director=a leading psychopathic criminal of the genocidal US regime


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