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Scientology and the Fellowship

 

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 psuedo-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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Ultima VII

From the time that Richard and Robert Garriott first founded Origin Systems in order to publish Ultima III, the completion of one Ultima game was followed almost immediately by the beginning of work on the next. Ultima VI in early 1990 was no exception; there was time only for a wrap party and a couple of weeks of decompression before work started on Ultima VII. The latter project continued even as separate teams made the two rather delightful Worlds of Ultima spinoffs using the old Ultima VI engine, and even as another Origin game called Wing Commander sold far more copies than any previous Ultima, spawning an extremely lucrative new franchise that for the first time ever made Origin into something other than The House That Ultima Built.

But whatever the source, money was always welcome. The new rival for the affections of Origin’s fans and investors gave Richard Garriott more of it to play with than ever before, and his ambitions for his latest Ultima were elevated to match. One of the series’s core ethos had always been that of continual technological improvement. Garriott had long considered it a point of pride to never use the same engine twice (a position he had budged from only reluctantly when he allowed the Worlds of Ultima spinoffs to be made). Thus it came as no surprise that he wanted to push things forward yet again with Ultima VII. Even in light of the series’s tradition, however, this was soon shaping up to be an unusually ambitious installment — indeed, by far the most ambitious technological leap that the series had made to date.

As I noted in my article on that game, the Ultima VI engine was, at least when seen retrospectively, a not entirely comfortable halfway point between the old “alphabet soup” keyboard-based interface of the first five games and a new approach which fully embraced the mouse and other modern computing affordances. Traces of the old were still to be found scattered everywhere amidst the new, and using the interface effectively meant constantly switching between keyboard-centric and mouse-centric paradigms for different tasks. Ultima VII would end such equivocation, shedding all traces of the interfaces of yore.

These screenshots from a Computer Gaming World preview of the game provide an interesting snapshot of Ultima VII in a formative state. The graphics are less refined than the final version, but the pop-up interface and the graphical containment model — more on that fraught subject later — are in place.

For the first time since Richard Garriott had discovered the magic of tile graphics in his dorm room at the University of Texas, the world of this latest Ultima was not to be built using that technique; Origin opted instead for a free-scrolling world shown from an overhead perspective, canted just slightly to convey the impression of depth. Gone along with the discrete tiles were the discrete turns of the previous Ultima games, replaced by true real-time gameplay. The world model included height — 16 possible levels of it! — as well as the other dimensions; characters could climb stairs to other floors in a building or walk up a hillside outdoors while remaining in the same contiguous space. In a move that must strike anyone familiar with the games of today as almost eerily prescient, Origin excised any trace of static onscreen interface elements. Instead the entire screen was given over to a glorious view of Britannia, with the interface popping up over this backdrop as needed. The whole production was designed with the mouse in mind first and foremost. Do you want your character to pick up a sword? Click on him to bring up his paper-doll inventory display, then drag the sword with the mouse right out of the world and into his hand. All of the things that the Ultima VI engine seemed like it ought to be able to do, but which proved far more awkward than anticipated, the Ultima VII engine did elegantly and effortlessly.

Looking for a way to reduce onscreen clutter and to show as much of the world of Britannia as possible at one time, Origin realized they could pop up interface elements only when needed. This innovation, seldom seen before, has become ubiquitous in the games — and, indeed, in the software in general — of today.

Origin had now fully embraced a Hollywood-style approach to game production, marked by specialists working within strictly defined roles, and the team which built Ultima VII reflected this. Even the artists were specialized. Glen Johnson, a former comic-book illustrator, was responsible for the characters and monsters as they appeared in the world. Michael Priest was the resident portrait artist, responsible for the closeups of faces that appeared whenever the player talked to someone. The most specialized artistic role of all belonged to Bob Cook, a landscape artist hired to keep the multi-level environment coherent and proportional.

Of course, there were plenty of programmers as well, and they had their work cut out for them. Bringing Garriott’s latest Ultima to life would require pushing the latest hardware right to the edge and, in some situations, beyond it. Perhaps the best example of the programmers’ determination to find a way at all costs is their Voodoo memory manager. Frustrated with MS-DOS’s 640 K memory barrier and unhappy with all of the solutions for getting around it, the programming team rolled up their sleeves and coded a solution of their own from scratch. It would force virtually everyone who played the game at its release to boot their machines from a custom floppy, and would give later users even more headaches; in fact, it would render the game unplayable on many post-early-1990s machines, until the advent of software emulation layers like DOSBox. Yet it was the only way the programming team could make the game work at all in 1992.

As usual for an Ultima, the story and structure of play evolved only slowly, after the strengths and limitations of the technology that would need to enable them were becoming clear. Richard Garriott began with one overriding determination: he wanted a real bad guy this time, not just someone who was misguided or misunderstood: “We wanted a bad guy who was really evil, truly, truly evil.” He envisioned an antagonist for the Avatar cut from the classic cloth of novelistic and cinematic villains, one who could stick around for at least the next few games. Thus was born the disembodied spirit of evil known as the Guardian, who would indeed proceed to dog the Avatar’s footsteps all the way through Ultima IX. One might be tempted to view this seeming return to a black-versus-white conception of morality as a step back for the series thematically. But, as Garriott was apparently aware, the moral plot twists of the previous two games risked becoming a cliché in themselves if perpetuated indefinitely.

Then too, while Ultima VII would present a story carrying less obvious thematic baggage than the last games, that story would be executed far more capably than any of those others. For, as the most welcome byproduct of the new focus on specialization, Origin finally hired a real writing team.

Raymond Benson and Richard Garriott take the stage together for an Austin theatrical fundraiser with a Valentines Day theme. Benson played his “love theme” from Ultima VII while Garriott recited “The Song of Solomon” — with tongue planted firmly in cheek, of course.

The new head writer, destined to make a profound impact on the game, was an intriguingly multi-talented fellow named Raymond Benson. Born in 1955, he was a native of Origin’s hometown of Austin, Texas, but had spent the last decade or so in New York City, writing, directing, and composing music for stage productions. As a sort of sideline, he’d also dabbled in games, writing an adventure for the James Bond 007 tabletop RPG and writing three text-adventure adaptations of popular novels during the brief mid-1980s heyday of bookware: The Mist, A View to a Kill, and Goldfinger. Now, he and his wife had recently started a family, and were tired of their cramped Manhattan flat and the cutthroat New York theater scene. When they saw an advertisement from Origin in an Austin newspaper, seeking “artists, musicians, and programmers,” Benson decided to apply. He was hired to be none of those things — although he would contribute some of his original music to Ultima VII — but rather to be a writer.

When he crossed paths with the rest of Origin Systems, Benson was both coming from and going to very different places than the majority of the staff there, and his year-long sojourn with them proved just a little uncomfortable. Benson:

It was like working in the boys’ dormitory. I was older than most of the employees, who were 95 percent male. In fact, I believe less than ten out of fifty or sixty employees were over thirty, and I was one of them. So, I kind of felt like the old fart a lot of times. Most of the employees were young single guys, and it didn’t matter to them if they stayed at the office all night, had barbecues at midnight, and slept in a sleeping bag until noon. Because I had a family, I needed to keep fairly regular 8-to-5 hours, which is pretty impossible at a games company.

A snapshot of the cultural gulf between Benson and the average Origin employee is provided by an article in the company’s in-house newsletter entitled “What Influences Us?” Amidst lists of “favorite fantasy/science fiction films” and “favorite action/adventure films,” Benson chooses his “ten favorite novels,” unspooling an eclectic list that ranges from Dracula to The Catcher in the Rye, Lucky Jim to Maia — no J.R.R. Tolkien or Robert Heinlein in sight!

Some of the references in Ultima VII feel like they just had to have come directly from the slightly older, more culturally sophisticated diversified mind of Raymond Benson. Here, for instance, is a riff on Black Like Me, John Howard Griffin’s landmark work of first-person journalism about racial prejudice in the United States.

It’s precisely because of his different background and interests that Benson’s contribution to Ultima VII became so important. Most of the writing in the game was actually dialog, and deft characterization through dialog was something his theatrical background had left him well-prepared to tackle. Working with and gently coaching a team consisting of four other, less experienced writers, he turned Richard Garriott’s vague story outline, about the evil Guardian and his attempt to seize control of Britannia through a seemingly benign religious movement known as the Fellowship, into the best-written Ultima ever. The indelible Ultima tradition of flagrantly misused “thees” and “thous” aside, the writing in Ultima VII never grates, and frequently sparkles. Few games since the heyday of Infocom could equal it. Considering that Ultima VII alone has quite possibly as much text as every Infocom game combined, that’s a major achievement.

The huge contributions made by Raymond Benson and the rest of the writing team — not to mention so many other artists, programmers, and environment designers — do raise the philosophical question of how much Ultima VII can still be considered a Richard Garriott game, full stop. From the time that his brother Robert convinced him that he simply couldn’t create Ultima V all by himself, as he had all of his games up to that point, Richard’s involvement with the nitty-gritty details of their development had become steadily less. By the early 1990s, we can perhaps already begin to see some signs of the checkered post-Origin career in game development that awaited him — the career of a basically good-natured guy with heaps of money, an awful lot of extracurricular interests, and a resultant short attention span. He was happy to throw out Big Ideas to set the direction of development, and he clearly still relished demonstrating Origin’s latest products and playing Lord British, but his days of fussing too much over the details were, it seems, already behind him by the time of Ultima VII. Given a choice between sitting down to make a computer game or throwing one of his signature birthday bashes or Halloween spook houses — or, for that matter, merely playing the wealthy young gentleman-about-town in Austin high society more generally — one suspects that Garriott would opt for one of the latter every time.

Which isn’t to say that his softer skill set wasn’t welcome in a company in transition, in which tensions between the creative staff and management were starting to become noticeable. For the people on the front line actually making Ultima VII, working ridiculous hours under intense pressure for shockingly little pay, Garriott’s talents meant much indeed. He would swoop in from time to time to have lunch catered in from one of Austin’s most expensive restaurants. Or he would tell everyone to take the afternoon off because they were all going out to the park to eat barbecue and toss Frisbees around. And of course they were always all invited to those big parties he loved to throw.

Still, the tensions remained, and shouldn’t be overlooked. Lurking around the edges of management’s attitude toward their employees was the knowledge that Origin was the only significant game developer in Austin, a fast-growing, prosperous city with a lot of eager young talent. Indeed, prior to the rise of id Software up in Dallas, they had no real rival in all of Texas. Brian Martin, a scripter on Ultima VII, remembers being told that “people were standing in line for our jobs, and if we didn’t like the way things were, we could just leave.” Artist Glen Johnson had lived in Austin at the time Origin hired him to work in their New Hampshire office, only to move him back to Austin once again when that office was closed; he liked to joke that the company had spent more money on his plane fare during his first year than on his salary.

The yin to Richard Garriott’s yang inside Origin was Dallas Snell, the company’s hard-driving production manager, who was definitely not the touchy-feely type. An Origin employee named Sheri Graner Ray recounts her first encounter with him:

My interviews at Origin Systems culminated with an interview with Dallas Snell. He didn’t turn away from his computer, but sort of waved a hand in the general direction of a chair. I hesitantly took a seat. Dallas continued to type for what seemed to me to be two or three hours. Finally, he stopped, swung around in his desk chair, leaned forward, put one hand on his knee and the other on his hip, narrowed his eyes at me, and said, “You’re here for me to decide if I LIKE you.” I was TERRIFIED. Well, I guess he did, cuz I got the job, but I spent the next year ducking and avoiding him, as I figured if he ever decided he DIDN’T like me, I was in trouble!

Snell’s talk could make Origin’s games sound like something dismayingly close to sausages rolling down a production line. He was most proud of Wing Commander and Savage Empire, he said, because “these projects were done in twelve calendar months or less, as compared to the twenty-to-thirty-month time frame that previous projects were developed in!” Martian Dreams filled six megabytes on disk, yet was done in “seven calendar months!!! Totally unprecedented!!” Wing Commander II filled 15 megabytes, yet “the entire project will have been developed in eight calendar months!!!” He concluded that “no one, absolutely no one, has done what we have, or what we are yet still capable of!!! Not Lucasfilm, not Sierra, not MicroProse, not Electronic Arts, not anyone!” The unspoken question was, at what cost to Origin’s staff?

It would be unfair to label Origin Systems, much less Dallas Snell alone, the inventor of the games industry’s crunch-time culture and its unattractive byproduct and enabler, the reliance on an endless churn of cheap young labor willing to let themselves be exploited for the privilege of making games. Certainly similar situations were beginning to arise at other major studios in the early 1990s. And it’s also true that the employees of Origin and those other studios were hardly the first ones to work long hours for little pay making games. Yet there was, I think, a qualitative difference at play. The games of the 1980s had mostly been made by very small teams with little hierarchy, where everyone could play a big creative role and feel a degree of creative ownership of the end product. By the early 1990s, though, the teams were growing in size; over the course of 1991 alone, Origin’s total technical and creative staff grew from 40 to 120 people. Thus companies like Origin were instituting — necessarily, given the number of people involved — more rigid tiers of roles and specialties. In time, this would lead to the cliché of the young 3D modeller working 100-hour weeks making trees, with no idea of where they would go in the finished game and no way to even find out, much less influence the creative direction of the final product in any more holistic sense. For such cogs in the machine, getting to actually make games (!) would prove rather less magical than expected.

Origin was still a long way from that point, but I fancy that the roots of the oft-dehumanizing culture of modern AAA game production can be seen here. Management’s occasional attempts to address the issue also ring eerily familiar. In the midst of Ultima VII, Dallas Snell announced that “the 24-hour work cycle has outlived its productivity”: “All employees are required to start the day by 10:00 AM and call it a day by midnight. The lounge is being returned to its former glory (as a lounge, that is, without beds).” Needless to say, the initiative didn’t last, conflicting as it did with the pressing financial need to get the game done and on the market.

Simply put, Ultima VII was expensive — undoubtedly the most expensive game Origin had ever made, and one of the most expensive computer game anyone had yet made. Just after its release, Richard Garriott claimed that it had cost $1 million. Of course, the number is comically low by modern standards, even when adjusted for inflation — but this was a time when a major hit might only sell 100,000 units rather than the 10 million or so of today.

Origin had first planned to release Ultima VII in time for the Christmas of 1991, an impossibly optimistic time frame (impossibly optimistic time frames being another trait which the Origin of the early 1990s shares with many game studios of today). When it became clear that no amount of crunch would allow the team to meet that deadline, the pressure to get it out as soon as possible after Christmas only increased. Looking over their accounts at year’s end, Origin realized that 90 percent of their revenue in 1991 had come through the Wing Commander franchise; had Wing Commander II not become as huge a hit as the first installment, they would have been bankrupt. This subsidizing of Ultima with Wing Commander was an uncomfortable place to be, and not just for the impact it might have had on Lord British’s (alter) ego. It meant that, with no major Wing Commander releases due in 1992, an under-performing Ultima VII could take down the whole company. Many at Origin were surprisingly clear-eyed about the dangers which beset them. Mike McShaffry, a programmer and unusually diligent student of the company’s financial situation among the rank and file — unsurprisingly, he would later become an entrepreneur himself — expressed his concern: “The road ahead for us is a bumpy one. Many companies do not survive the ‘boom town’ growth phase that we have just experienced.”

Thus when Ultima VII: The Black Gate — the subtitle was an unusually important one, given that Origin had already authorized a confusingly titled Ultima VII Part Two using the same game engine — shipped on April 16, 1992, the whole company’s future was riding on it.


Classic games, it seems to me, can be plotted on a continuum between two archetypes. At one pole are the games which do everything right — those whose designers, faced with a multitude of small and large choices, have made the right choice every time. Ultima Underworld, the spinoff game which Origin released just two weeks before Ultima VII, is one of these.

The other archetypal classic game is much rarer: the game whose designers have made a lot of really problematic choices, to the point that certain parts of it may be flat-out broken, but which nevertheless charms and delights due to some ineffable spirit that overshadows everything else. Ultima VII is the finest example of this type that I can think of. Its list of trouble spots is longer than that of many genuinely bad games, and yet its special qualities are so special that I can only recommend that you play it.

Inventory management in Ultima VII. It’s really, really hard to find anything, especially in the dark. Of course, I could fire up a torch… but wait! My torches are buried somewhere under all that mess in my pack.

Any list of that which is confusing, infuriating, or just plain boring in Ultima VII must start with the inventory-management system. The drag-and-drop approach to same is brilliant in conception, but profoundly flawed in execution. You need to cart a lot of stuff around in this game — not just weapons and armor and quest items and money and loot, but also dozens of pieces of food to keep your insatiable characters fed on their journeys and dozens or hundreds of magic reagents to let you cast spells. All of this is lumped together in your characters’ packs as an indeterminate splodge of overlapping icons. Unless you formulate a detailed scheme of exactly what should go where and stick to it with the rigidity of a pedant, you’ll sometimes find it impossible to figure out what you actually have and where it is on your characters’ persons. When that happens, you’ll have to resort to finding a clear spot of ground and laying out the contents of each pack on it one by one, looking for that special little whatsit.

Keys belong to their own unique circle of Inventory Hell. Just a few pixels big, they have a particular tendency to get hopelessly lost at the bottom of your pack along with those leftover leeks you picked up for some reason in the bar last night. Further, keys are distinguished only by their style and color — the game does nothing so friendly as tell you what door a given key opens, even after you’ve successfully used it — and there are a lot of them. So, you never feel quite confident when you can’t open a door that you haven’t just overlooked the key somewhere in the swirling chaos vortex that is your inventory. If you really love packing your suitcase before a big trip, you might enjoy Ultima VII‘s inventory management. Otherwise, you’ll find it to be a nightmare.

The combat system is almost as bad. Clearly Origin, to put it as kindly as possible, struggled to adapt combat to the real-time paradigm. While you can assemble a party of up to eight people, you can only directly control the Avatar himself in combat, and that only under a fairly generous definition of “control.” You click a button telling your people to start fighting, whereupon everyone, friend and foe alike, converges upon the same pixel as occasional words — “Aargh!,” “To arms!,” “Vultures will pick thy bones!” — float out of the scrum. The effect is a bit like those old Warner Bros. cartoons where Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner disappear into a cloud of arms and legs until one of them pops out victorious a few seconds later.

The one way to change this dynamic also happens to be the worst possible thing you can do: equipping your characters with ranged weapons. This will cause them to open fire indiscriminately in the vague direction of the aforementioned pixel of convergence, happily riddling any foes and friends alike who happen to be in the way full of arrows. In light of this, one can only be happy that the Avatar is the only one allowed to use magic; the thought of this lot of nincompoops armed with fireballs and magic missiles is downright terrifying. Theoretically, it’s possible to control combat to some degree by choosing from several abstract strategies for each character, and to directly intervene with the Avatar by clicking specific targets, but in practice none of it makes much difference. By the time some of your characters start deciding to throw down all their weapons and hide in a corner for no apparent reason, you just shrug and accept it; it’s as explicable as anything else here.

You’ll learn to dread your party’s constant mewling for food, not least because it forces you to engage with the dreadful inventory system. (No, they can’t feed themselves. You have to hand-feed each one of them like a little birdie.)

Thankfully, nothing else in the game is quite as bad as these two aspects, but there are other niggling annoyances. The need to manually feed your characters is prominent among them. There’s no challenge to collecting food, given that there are lots of infallible means of collecting money to buy it. The real problem is that those means are all so tedious. (I spent literally hours when I played the game marching back and forth from one end of the town of Britain to the other, buying meat cheap and selling it expensive, all so as to buy yet more meat to feed my hungry lot.) The need for food serves only to extend the length of a game that doesn’t need to be extended, and to do it in the most boring way possible.

But then, this sort of thing had always been par for the course with any Ultima, a series that always tended to leaven its inspired elements with a solid helping of tedium. And then too, Ultima had always been a little wonky when it came to its mechanics; Richard Garriott ceded that ground to Wizardry back in the days of Ultima I, and never really tried to regain it. Still, it’s amazing how poorly Ultima VII, a game frequently praised as one of the best CRPGs ever made, does as a CRPG, at least as most people thought of the genre circa 1992. Because there’s no interest or pleasure in combat, there’s no thrill to leveling up or collecting new weapons and armor. You have little opportunity to shape your characters’ development in any way, and those sops to character management that are present, such as the food system, merely annoy. Dungeons — many or most of them optional — are scattered around, but they’re fairly small while still managing to be confusing; the free-scrolling movement makes them almost impossible to map accurately on paper, yet the game lacks an auto-map. If you see a CRPG as a game in the most traditional sense of the word — as an intricate system of rules to learn and to manipulate to your advantage — you’ll hate, hate, hate Ultima VII for its careless mechanics. One might say that it’s at its worst when it actively tries to be a CRPG, at its best when it’s content to be a sort of Britannian walking simulator.

And yet I don’t dislike the game as much as all of the above might imply. In fact, Ultima VII is my third favorite game to bear the Ultima name, behind only Martian Dreams and the first Ultima Underworld. The reason comes down to how compelling the aforementioned walking simulator actually manages to be.

I’ve never cared much one way or the other about Britannia as a setting, but darned if Ultima VII doesn’t shed a whole new light on the place. At its best, playing this game is… pleasant, a word not used much in regard to ludic aesthetics, but one that perhaps ought to crop up more frequently. The graphics are colorful, the music lovely, the company you keep more often than not charming. It’s disarmingly engaging just to wander around and talk to people.

Underneath the pleasantness, not so much undercutting it as giving it more texture, is a note of melancholy. This adventure in Britannia takes place many years after the Avatar’s previous ones, and the old companions in adventure who make up his party are as enthusiastic as ever, but also a little grayer, a little more stooped. Meanwhile other old friends (and enemies) from the previous games are forever waiting in the wings for one last cameo. If a Britannia scoffer like me can feel a certain poignancy, it must be that much more pronounced for those who are more invested in the setting. Today, the valedictory feel to Ultima VII is that much more affecting because we know for sure that this is indeed the end of the line for the classic incarnation of Britannia. The single-player series wouldn’t return there until Ultima IX, and that unloved game would alter the place’s personality almost beyond recognition. Ah, well… it’s hard to imagine a lovelier, more affectionate sendoff for old-school Britannia than the one it gets here.

The writing team loves to flirt with the fourth wall. Fortunately, they never quite take it to the point of undermining the rest of the fiction.

Yet even as the game pays loving tribute to the Britannia of yore, there’s an aesthetic sophistication about it that belies the series’s teenage-dungeonmaster roots. It starts with the box, which, apart from the title, is a foreboding solid black. The very simplicity screams major statement, like the Beatles’ White Album or Prince’s Black Album. Certainly it’s a long way from the heaving bosoms and fire-breathing dragons of the typical CRPG cover art.

When you start the game, you’re first greeted with a title screen that evokes the iconic opening sequence to Ultima IV, all bright spring colors and music that smacks of Vivaldi. But then, in the first of many toyings with the fourth wall, the scene dissolves into static, to be replaced by the figure of the Guardian speaking directly to you.


As you wander through Britannia in the game proper, the Guardian will continue to speak to you from time to time — the only voice acting in the game. His ominous presence is constantly jarring you when you least expect it.

The video snippet below of a play within the play, as it were, that you encounter early in the game illustrates some more of the depth and nuance of Ultima VII‘s writing. (Needless to say, this scene in particular owes much to Raymond Benson’s theatrical background.)


This sequence offers a rather extraordinary layer cake of meanings, making it the equal of a sophisticated stage or film production. We have the deliberately, banally bad play put on by the Fellowship actors, with its “moon, June, spoon” rhymes. Yet peeking through the banality, making it feel sinister rather than just inept, is a hint of cult-like menace. Meanwhile the asides of our companions tell us not only that the writers know the play is bad, but that said companions are smart enough to recognize it as well. We have Iolo’s witty near-breaking of the fourth wall with his comment about “visual effects.” And then we have Spark’s final verdict on the passion play, delivered as only a teenager can: “This is terrible!” (For some reason, that line makes me laugh every time.) No other game of 1992, with the possible exception only of the text adventure Shades of Gray, wove so many variegated threads of understanding into its writing. Nor is the scene above singular. The writing frequently displays the same wit and sophistication as what you see above. This is writing by and for adults.

The description of Ultima VII‘s writing as more adult than the norm also applies in the way in which the videogame industry typically uses that adjective. There’s a great extended riff on the old myths of unicorns and virgins. The conversation with a horny unicorn devolves into speculation about whether the Avatar himself is, shall we say, fit to ride the beast…

For all of the cutting-edge programming that went into the game, it really is the writing that does the bulk of the heavy lifting in Ultima VII. And it’s here that this early million-dollar computer game stands out most from the many big-budget productions that would follow it. Origin poured a huge percentage of that budget not into graphics or sound but into content in its purest form. If not the broadest world yet created for a computer at the time of the game’s release, this incarnation of Britannia must be the deepest and most varied. Nothing here is rote; every character has a personality, every character has something all her own to say. The sheer scale of the project which Raymond Benson’s team tackled — this game definitely has more words in it than any computer game before it — is well-nigh flabbergasting.

Further, the writers have more on their minds than escapist fantasy. They use the setting of Britannia to ponder the allure of religious cults, the social divide between rich and poor, and even the representation of women in fantasy art, along with tax policy, environmental issues, and racism. The game is never preachy about such matters, but seamlessly works its little nuggets for thought into the high-fantasy setting. Ultima VII may lack the overriding moral message that had defined its three predecessors, but that doesn’t mean it has nothing to say. Indeed, given the newfound nuance and depth of the writing, the series suddenly has more to say here than ever before.

Because of how much else there is to see and do, the main plot about the Guardian sometimes threatens to get forgotten entirely. But it’s enjoyable enough as such things go, even if its main purpose often does seem to be simply to give you a reason to wander around talking to people. In the second half of the game, the plot picks up steam, and there are a fair number of traditional CRPG-style quests to complete. (There are also more personal “quests” among the populaces of the towns you visit, but they’re largely optional and hardly earth-shattering. They are, however, often disarmingly sweet-natured: getting the shy lovelorn fellow together with the girl he worships from afar… that sort of thing.) The game as a whole is very soluble as long as you take notes when you’re given important information; there’s no trace of a quest log here.

While a vocal minority of Ultima fandom decries this seventh installment for the perfectly justifiable reasons I mentioned earlier in this article, the majority laud it as — forgive the inevitable pun! — the ultimate incarnation of what Richard Garriott began working toward in the late 1970s. Even with all of its annoying aspects, it’s undoubtedly the most accessible Ultima for the modern player, what with its fairly intuitive mouse-driven interface, its reasonably attractive graphics and sound, and its relatively straightforward and fair main quest. Meanwhile its nuanced writing and general aesthetic sophistication are unrivaled by any earlier game in the series. If it’s not the most historically important of the main-line Ultima games — that honor must still go to the thematically groundbreaking Ultima IV — it’s undoubtedly the one most likely to be enjoyed by a player today.

Indeed, it’s been called the blueprint for many of the most popular epic CRPGs of today — games where you also spend much of your time just walking around and talking to a host of more or less interesting characters. That influence can easily be overstated, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t something to the claim. No other CRPG in 1992, or for some time thereafter, played quite like this one, and Ultima VII really does have at least as much in common with the CRPGs of today as it does with its contemporaries. On the whole, then, its hallowed modern reputation is well-earned.


Richard Garriott (far left) and the rest of the Ultima VII team toast the game’s release at Britannia Manor, the former’s Austin mansion.

Its reception in 1992, on the other hand, was far more mixed than that reputation might suggest. Questbusters magazine, deploying an unusually erudite literary comparison of the type of which Raymond Benson might have approved, called it “the Finnegans Wake of computer gaming — a flawed masterpiece,” referring to its lumpy mixture of the compelling and the tedious. Computer Gaming World‘s longtime adventure reviewer Scorpia had little good at all to say about it. Perhaps in response to her negativity, the same magazine ran a second, much more positive review from Charles Ardai in the next issue. Nevertheless, he began by summing up the sense of ennui that was starting to surround the whole series for many gamers: “Many who were delighted when Ultima VI was released can’t be bothered to boot up Ultima VII, as though it goes without saying that the seventh of anything can’t possibly be any good. The market suddenly seems saturated; weary gamers, sure that they have played enough Ultima to last a lifetime, eye the new Ultima with suspicion that it is just More Of The Same.” Even at the end of his own positive review, written with the self-stated goal of debunking that judgment, Ardai deployed a counter-intuitive closing sentiment: “After seven Ultimas, it might be time for Lord British to turn his sights elsewhere.”

Not helping the game’s reception were all of the technical problems. It’s all too easy to forget today just how expensive it was to be a computer gamer in the early 1990s, when the rapid advancement of technology meant that you had to buy a whole new computer every couple of years — or less! — just to be able to play the latest releases. More so even that its contemporaries, Ultima VII pushed the state of the art in hardware to its limit, meaning that anyone lagging even slightly behind the bleeding edge got to enjoy constant disk access, intermittent freezes of seconds at a time, and the occasional outright crash.

And then there were the bugs, which were colorful and plentiful. Chunks of the scenery seemed to randomly disappear — including the walls around the starting town of Trinsic, thus bypassing the manual-lookup scheme Origin had implemented for copy protection. A plot-critical murder scene in another town simply never appeared for some players. Even worse, a door in the very last dungeon refused to open for some; Origin resorted to asking those affected to send their save file on floppy disk to their offices, to be manually edited in order to correct the problem and sent back to them. But by far the most insidious bug — one from which even the current edition of the game on digital-download services may not be entirely free — were the keys that disappeared from player’s inventories for no apparent reason. Given what a nightmare keeping track of keys was already, this felt like the perfect capstone to a tower of terribleness. (One can imagine the calls to Origin’s customer support: “Now, did you take all of the stuff out of all of your packs and sort it out carefully on the ground to make sure your key is really missing? What about those weeks-old leeks down there at the bottom of your pack? Did you look under them?”) Gamers had good cause to be annoyed at a product so obviously released before its time, especially in light of its astronomical $80 suggested retail price.

A Computer Gaming World readers’ poll published in the March 1993 issue — i.e., exactly one year after Ultima VII‘s release — saw it ranked as the respondents’ 30th favorite current game, not exactly a spectacular showing for such a major title. Wing Commander II, by way of comparison, was still in position six, Ultima Underworld — which was now outselling Ultima VII by a considerable margin — in a tie for third. It would be incorrect to call Ultima VII a flop, or to imply that it wasn’t thoroughly enjoyed by many of those who played it back in the day. But for Origin the facts remained when all was said and done that it had sold less well than either of the aforementioned two games after costing at least twice as much to make. These hard facts contributed to the feeling inside the company that, if it wasn’t time to follow Charles Ardai’s advice and let sleeping Ultimas lie for a while, it was time to change up the gameplay formula in a major way. After all, Ultima Underworld had done just that, and look how well that had worked out.

But that discussion, of course, belongs to history. In our own times, Ultima VII remains an inspiring if occasionally infuriating experience well worth having, even if you don’t normally play CRPGs or couldn’t care less about the lore of Britannia. I can only encourage all of you who haven’t played it before to remedy that while you wait for my next (and last) article about the game, which will look more closely at the Fellowship, a Britannian cult with an obvious Earthly analogue.

(Sources: the book Ultima: The Avatar Adventures by Rusel DeMaria and Caroline Spector; Origin Systems’s internal newsletter Point of Origin dated August 7 1991, October 25 1991, December 20 1991, February 14 1992, February 28 1992, March 13 1992, April 20 1992, and May 22 1992; Questbusters of July 1991 and August 1992; Computer Gaming World of April 1991, October 1991, August 1992, September 1992, and March 1993; Compute! of January 1992; online sources include The Ultima Codex interviews with Raymond Benson and Brian Martin, a vintage Usenet interview with Richard Garriott, and Sheri Graner Ray’s recollections of her time at Origin on her blog.

Ultima VII: The Black Gate is available for purchase on GOG.com. You may wish to play it using Exult instead of the original executable. The former is a free re-implementation of the Ultima VII engine which fixes some of its worst annoyances and is friendly with modern computers.)

 
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Posted by on February 15, 2019 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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Ultima VI

After Richard Garriott and his colleagues at Origin Systems finished each Ultima game — after the manic final crunch of polishing and testing, after the release party, after the triumphant show appearances and interviews in full Lord British regalia — there must always arise the daunting question of what to do next. Garriott had set a higher standard for the series than that of any of its competitors almost from the very beginning, when he’d publicly declared that no Ultima would ever reuse the engine of its predecessor, that each new entry in the series would represent a significant technological leap over what had come before. And just to add to that pressure, starting with Ultima IV he’d begun challenging himself to make each new Ultima a major thematic statement that also built on what had come before. Both of these bars became harder and harder to meet as the series advanced.

As if that didn’t present enough of a burden, each individual entry in the series came with its own unique psychological hurdles for Garriott to overcome. For example, by the time he started thinking about what Ultima V should be he’d reached the limits of what a single talented young man like himself could design, program, write, and draw all by himself on his trusty Apple II. It had taken him almost a year — a rather uncomfortable year for his brother Robert and the rest of Origin’s management — to accept that reality and to begin to work in earnest on Ultima V with a team of others.

The challenge Garriott faced after finishing and releasing that game in March of 1988 was in its way even more emotionally fraught: the challenge of accepting that, just as he’d reached the limits of what he could do alone on the Apple II a couple of years ago, he’d now reached the limits of what any number of people could do on Steve Wozniak’s humble little 8-bit creation. Ultima V still stands today as one of the most ambitious things anyone has ever done on an Apple II; it was hard at the time and remains hard today to imagine how Origin could possibly push the machine much further. Yet that wasn’t even the biggest problem associated with sticking with the platform; the biggest problem could be seen on each monthly sales report, which showed the Apple II’s numbers falling off even faster than those of the Commodore 64, the only other viable 8-bit computer remaining in the American market.

After serving as the main programmer on Ultima V, John Miles’s only major contribution to Ultima VI was the opening sequence. The creepy poster of a pole-dancing centaur hanging on the Avatar’s wall back on Earth has provoked much comment over the years…

Garriott was hardly alone at Origin in feeling hugely loyal to the Apple II, the only microcomputer he’d ever programmed. While most game developers in those days ported their titles to many platforms, almost all had one which they favored. Just as Epyx knew the Commodore 64 better than anyone else, Sierra had placed their bets on MS-DOS, and Cinemaware was all about the Commodore Amiga, Origin was an Apple II shop through and through. Of the eleven games they’d released from their founding in 1983 through to the end of 1988, all but one had been born and raised on an Apple II.

Reports vary on how long and hard Origin tried to make Ultima VI work on the Apple II. Richard Garriott, who does enjoy a dramatic story even more than most of us, has claimed that Origin wound up scrapping nine or even twelve full months of work; John Miles, who had done the bulk of the programming for Ultima V and was originally slated to fill the same role for the sequel, estimated to me that “we probably spent a few months on editors and other utilities before we came to our senses.” At any rate, by March of 1989, the one-year anniversary of Ultima V‘s release, the painful decision had been made to switch not only Ultima VI but all of Origin’s ongoing and future projects to MS-DOS, the platform that was shaping up as the irresistible force in American computer gaming. A slightly petulant but nevertheless resigned Richard Garriott slapped an Apple sticker over the logo of the anonymous PC clone now sitting on his desk and got with the program.

Richard Garriott with an orrery, one of the many toys he kept at the recently purchased Austin house he called Britannia Manor.

Origin was in a very awkward spot. Having frittered away a full year recovering from the strain of making the previous Ultima, trying to decide what the next Ultima should be, and traveling down the technological cul de sac that was now the Apple II, they simply had to have Ultima VI finished — meaning designed and coded from nothing on an entirely new platform — within one more year if the company was to survive. Origin had never had more than a modestly successful game that wasn’t an Ultima; the only way their business model worked was if Richard Garriott every couple of years delivered a groundbreaking new entry in their one and only popular franchise and it sold 200,000 copies or more.

John Miles, lacking a strong background in MS-DOS programming and the C language in which all future Ultimas would be coded, was transferred off the team to get himself up to speed and, soon enough, to work on middleware libraries and tools for the company’s other programmers. Replacing him on the project in Origin’s new offices in Austin, Texas, were Herman Miller and Cheryl Chen, a pair of refugees from the old offices in New Hampshire, which had finally been shuttered completely in January of 1989. It was a big step for both of them to go from coding what until quite recently had been afterthought MS-DOS versions of Origin’s games to taking a place at the center of the most critical project in the company. Fortunately, both would prove more than up to the task.

Just as Garriott had quickly learned to like the efficiency of not being personally responsible for implementing every single aspect of Ultima V, he soon found plenty to like about the switch to MS-DOS. The new platform had four times the memory of the Apple II machines Origin had been targeting before, along with (comparatively) blazing-fast processors, hard drives, 256-color VGA graphics, sound cards, and mice. A series that had been threatening to burst the seams of the Apple II now had room to roam again. For the first time with Ultima VI, time rather than technology was the primary restraint on Garriott’s ambitions.

But arguably the real savior of Ultima VI was not a new computing platform but a new Origin employee: one Warren Spector, who would go on to join Garriott and Chris Roberts — much more on him in a future article — as one of the three world-famous game designers to come out of the little collective known as Origin Systems. Born in 1955 in New York City, Spector had originally imagined for himself a life in academia as a film scholar. After earning his Master’s from the University of Texas in 1980, he’d spent the next few years working toward his PhD and teaching undergraduate classes. But he had also discovered tabletop gaming at university, from Avalon Hill war games to Dungeons & Dragons. When a job as a research archivist which he’d thought would be his ticket to the academic big leagues unexpectedly ended after just a few months, he wound up as an editor and eventually a full-fledged game designer at Steve Jackson Games, maker of card games, board games, and RPGs, and a mainstay of Austin gaming circles. It was through Steve Jackson, like Richard Garriott a dedicated member of Austin’s local branch of the Society for Creative Anachronism, that Spector first became friendly with the gang at Origin; he also discovered Ultima IV, a game that had a profound effect on him. He left Austin in March of 1987 for a sojourn in Wisconsin with TSR, the makers of Dungeons & Dragons, but, jonesing for the warm weather and good barbecue of the city that had become his adopted hometown, he applied for a job with Origin two years later. Whatever role his acquaintance with Richard Garriott and some of the other folks there played in getting him an interview, it certainly didn’t get him a job all by itself; Spector claims that Dallas Snell, Robert Garriott’s right-hand man running the business side of the operation, grilled him for an incredible nine hours before judging him worthy of employment. (“May you never have to live through something like this just to get a job,” he wishes for all and sundry.) Starting work at Origin on April 12, 1989, he was given the role of producer on Ultima VI, the high man on the project totem pole excepting only Richard Garriott himself.

Age 33 and married, Spector was one of the oldest people employed by this very young company; he realized to his shock shortly after his arrival that he had magazine subscriptions older than Origin’s up-and-coming star Chris Roberts. A certain wisdom born of his age, along with a certain cultural literacy born of all those years spent in university circles, would serve Origin well in the seven years he would remain there. Coming into a company full of young men who had grand dreams of, as their company’s tagline would have it, “creating worlds,” but whose cultural reference points didn’t usually reach much beyond Lord of the Rings and Star Wars, Spector was able to articulate Origin’s ambitions for interactive storytelling in a way that most of the others could not, and in time would use his growing influence to convince management of the need for a real, professional writing team to realize those ambitions. In the shorter term — i.e., in the term of the Ultima VI project — he served as some badly needed adult supervision, systematizing the process of development by providing everyone on his team with clear responsibilities and by providing the project as a whole with the when and what of clear milestone goals. The project was so far behind that everyone involved could look forward to almost a year of solid crunch time as it was; Spector figured there was no point in making things even harder by letting chaos reign.

On the Ultima V project, it had been Dallas Snell who had filled the role of producer, but Snell, while an adept organizer and administrator, wasn’t a game designer or a creative force by disposition. Spector, though, proved himself capable of tackling the Ultima VI project from both sides, hammering out concrete design documents from the sometimes abstracted musings of Richard Garriott, then coming up with clear plans to bring them to fruition. In the end, the role he would play in the creation of Ultima VI was as important as that of Garriott himself. Having learned to share the technical burden with Ultima V — or by now to pass it off entirely; he never learned C and would never write a single line of code for any commercial game ever again — Garriott was now learning to share the creative burden as well, another necessary trade-off if his ever greater ambitions for his games were to be realized.

If you choose not to import an Ultima V character into Ultima VI, you go through the old Ultima IV personality text, complete with gypsy soothsayer, to come up with your personal version of the Avatar. By this time, however, with the series getting increasingly plot-heavy and the Avatar’s personality ever more fleshed-out within the games, the personality test was starting to feel a little pointless. Blogger Chet Bolingbroke, the “CRPG Addict,” cogently captured the problems inherent in insisting that all of these disparate Ultima games had the same hero:
 
Then there’s the Avatar. Not only is it unnecessary to make him the hero of the first three games, as if the Sosarians and Britannians are so inept they always need outside help to solve their problems, but I honestly think the series should have abandoned the concept after Ultima IV. In that game, it worked perfectly. The creators were making a meta-commentary on the very nature of playing role-playing games. The Avatar was clearly meant to be the player himself or herself, warped into the land through the “moongate” of his or her computer screen, represented as a literal avatar in the game window. Ultima IV was a game that invited the player to act in a way that was more courageous, more virtuous, more adventurous than in the real world. At the end of the game, when you’re manifestly returned to your real life, you’re invited to “live as an example to thine own people”–to apply the lesson of the seven virtues to the real world. It was brilliant. They should have left it alone.
 
Already in Ultima V, though, they were weakening the concept. In that game, the Avatar is clearly not you, but some guy who lives alone in his single-family house of a precise layout. But fine, you rationalize, all that is just a metaphor for where you actually do live. By Ultima VI, you have some weird picture of a pole-dancing centaur girl on your wall, you’re inescapably a white male with long brown hair.

Following what had always been Richard Garriott’s standard approach to making an Ultima, the Ultima VI team concentrated on building their technology and then building a world around it before adding a plot or otherwise trying to turn it all into a real game with a distinct goal. Garriott and others at Origin would always name Times of Lore, a Commodore 64 action/CRPG hybrid written by Chris Roberts and published by Origin in 1988, as the main influence on the new Ultima VI interface, the most radically overhauled version of same ever to appear in an Ultima title. That said, it should be noted that Times of Lore itself lifted many or most of its own innovations from The Faery Tale Adventure, David Joiner’s deeply flawed but beautiful and oddly compelling Commodore Amiga action/CRPG of 1987. By way of completing the chain, much of Times of Lore‘s interface was imported wholesale into Ultima VI; even many of the onscreen icons looked exactly the same. The entire game could now be controlled, if the player liked, with a mouse, with all of the keyed commands duplicated as onscreen buttons; this forced Origin to reduce the “alphabet soup” that had been previous Ultima interfaces, which by Ultima V had used every letter in the alphabet plus some additional key combinations, to ten buttons, with the generic “use” as the workhorse taking the place of a multitude of specifics.

Another influence, one which Origin was for obvious reasons less eager to publicly acknowledge than that of Times of Lore, was FTL’s landmark 1987 CRPG Dungeon Master, a game whose influence on its industry can hardly be overstated. John Miles remembers lots of people at Origin scrambling for time on the company’s single Atari ST in order to play it soon after its release. Garriott himself has acknowledged being “ecstatic” for his first few hours playing it at all the “neat new things I could do.” Origin co-opted  Dungeon Master‘s graphical approach to inventory management, including the soon-to-be ubiquitous “paper doll” method of showing what characters were wearing and carrying.

Taking a cue from theories about good interface design dating back to Xerox PARC and Apple’s Macintosh design team, The Faery Tale Adventure, Times of Lore, and Dungeon Master had all abandoned “modes”: different interfaces — in a sense entirely different programs — which take over as the player navigates through the game. The Ultima series, like most 1980s CRPGs, had heretofore been full of these modes. There was one mode for wilderness travel; another for exploring cities, towns, and castles; another, switching from a third-person overhead view to a first-person view like Wizardry (or, for that matter, Dungeon Master), for dungeon delving. And when a fight began in any of these modes, the game switched to yet another mode for resolving the combat.

Ultima VI collapsed all of these modes down into a single unified experience. Wilderness, cities, and dungeons now all appeared on a single contiguous map on which combat also occurred, alongside everything else possible in the game; Ultima‘s traditionally first-person dungeons were now displayed using an overhead view like the rest of the game. From the standpoint of realism, this was a huge step back; speaking in strictly realistic terms, either the previously immense continent of Britannia must now be about the size of a small suburb or the Avatar and everyone else there must now be giants, building houses that sprawled over dozens of square miles. But, as we’ve had plenty of occasion to discuss in previous articles, the most realistic game design doesn’t always make the best game design. From the standpoint of creating an immersive, consistent experience for the player, the new interface was a huge step forward.

As the world of Britannia had grown more complex, the need to give the player a unified window into it had grown to match, in ways that were perhaps more obvious to the designers than they might have been to the players. The differences between the first-person view used for dungeon delving and the third-person view used for everything else had become a particular pain. Richard Garriott had this to say about the problems that were already dogging him when creating Ultima V, and the changes he thus chose to make in Ultima VI:

Everything that you can pick up and use [in Ultima V] has to be able to function in 3D [i.e., first person] and also in 2D [third person]. That meant I had to either restrict the set of things players can use to ones that I know I can make work in 3D or 2D, or make them sometimes work in 2D but not always work in 3D or vice versa, or they will do different things in one versus the other. None of those are consistent, and since I’m trying to create an holistic world, I got rid of the 3D dungeons.

Ultima V had introduced the concept of a “living world” full of interactive everyday objects, along with characters who went about their business during the course of the day, living lives of their own. Ultima VI would build on that template. The world was still constructed, jigsaw-like, from piles of tile graphics, an approach dating all the way back to Ultima I. Whereas that game had offered 16 tiles, however, Ultima VI offered 2048, all or almost all of them drawn by Origin’s most stalwart artist, Denis Loubet, whose association with Richard Garriott stretched all the way back to drawing the box art for the California Pacific release of Akalabeth. Included among these building blocks were animated tiles of several frames — so that, for instance, a water wheel could actually spin inside a mill and flames in a fireplace could flicker. Dynamic, directional lighting of the whole scene was made possible by the 256 colors of VGA. While Ultima V had already had a day-to-night cycle, in Ultima VI the sun actually rose in the east and set in the west, and torches and other light sources cast a realistic glow onto their surroundings.

256 of the 2048 tiles from which the world of Ultima VI was built.

In a clear signal of where the series’s priorities now lay, other traditional aspects of CRPGs were scaled back, moving the series further from its roots in tabletop Dungeons & Dragons. Combat, having gotten as complicated and tactical as it ever would with Ultima V, was simplified, with a new “auto-combat” mode included for those who didn’t want to muck with it at all; the last vestiges of distinct character races and classes were removed; ability scores were boiled down to just three numbers for Strength, Dexterity, and Intelligence. The need to mix reagents in order to cast spells, one of the most mind-numbingly boring aspects of a series that had always made you do far too many boring things, was finally dispensed with; I can’t help but imagine legions of veteran Ultima players breathing a sigh of relief when they read in the manual that “the preparation of a spell’s reagents is performed at the moment of spellcasting.” The dodgy parser-based conversation system of the last couple of games, which had required you to try typing in every noun mentioned by your interlocutor on the off chance that it would elicit vital further information, was made vastly less painful by the simple expedient of highlighting in the text those subjects into which you could inquire further.

Inevitably, these changes didn’t always sit well with purists, then or now. Given the decreasing interest in statistics and combat evinced by the Ultima series as time went on, as well as the increasing emphasis on what we might call solving the puzzles of its ever more intricate worlds, some have accused later installments of the series of being gussied-up adventure games in CRPG clothing; “the last real Ultima was Ultima V” isn’t a hard sentiment to find from a vocal minority on the modern Internet. What gives the lie to that assertion is the depth of the world modeling, which makes these later Ultimas flexible in ways that adventure games aren’t. Everything found in the world has, at a minimum, a size, a weight, and a strength. Say, then, that you’re stymied by a locked door. There might be a set-piece solution for the problem in the form of a key you can find, steal, or trade for, but it’s probably also possible to beat the door down with a sufficiently big stick and a sufficiently strong character, or if all else fails to blast it open with a barrel of dynamite. Thus your problems can almost never become insurmountable, even if you screw up somewhere else. Very few other games from Ultima VI‘s day made any serious attempt to venture down this path. Infocom’s Beyond Zork tried, somewhat halfheartedly, and largely failed at it; Sierra’s Hero’s Quest was much more successful at it, but on nothing like the scale of an Ultima. Tellingly, almost all of the “alternate solutions” to Ultima VI‘s puzzles emerge organically from the simulation, with no designer input whatsoever. Richard Garriott:

I start by building a world which you can interact with as naturally as possible. As long as I have the world acting naturally, if I build a world that is prolific enough, that has as many different kinds of natural ways to act and react as possible, like the real world does, then I can design a scenario for which I know the end goal of the story. But exactly whether I have to use a key to unlock the door, or whether it’s an axe I pick up to chop down the door, is largely irrelevant.

The complexity of the world model was such that Ultima VI became the first installment that would let the player get a job to earn money in lieu of the standard CRPG approach of killing monsters and taking their loot. You can buy a sack of grain from a local farmer, take the grain to a mill and grind it into flour, then sell the flour to a baker — or sneak into his bakery at night to bake your own bread using his oven. Even by the standards of today, the living world inside Ultima VI is a remarkable achievement — not to mention a godsend to those of us bored with killing monsters; you can be very successful in Ultima VI whilst doing very little killing at all.

A rare glimpse of Origin’s in-house Ultima VI world editor, which looks surprisingly similar to the game itself.

Plot spoilers begin!

It wasn’t until October of 1989, just five months before the game absolutely, positively had to ship, that Richard Garriott turned his attention to the Avatar’s reason for being in Britannia this time around. The core idea behind the plot came to him during a night out on Austin’s Sixth Street: he decided he wanted to pitch the Avatar into a holy war against enemies who, in classically subversive Ultima fashion, turn out not to be evil at all. In two or three weeks spent locked together alone in a room, subsisting on takeout Chinese food, Richard Garriott and Warren Spector created the “game” part of Ultima VI from this seed, with Spector writing it all down in a soy-sauce-bespattered notebook. Here Spector proved himself more invaluable than ever. He could corral Garriott’s sometimes unruly thoughts into a coherent plan on the page, whilst offering plenty of contributions of his own. And he, almost uniquely among his peers at Origin, commanded enough of Garriott’s respect — was enough of a creative force in his own right — that he could rein in the bad and/or overambitious ideas that in previous Ultimas would have had to be attempted and proved impractical to their originator. Given the compressed development cycle, this contribution too was vital. Spector:

An insanely complicated process, plotting an Ultima. I’ve written a novel, I’ve written [tabletop] role-playing games, I’ve written board games, and I’ve never seen a process this complicated. The interactions among all the characters — there are hundreds of people in Britannia now, hundreds of them. Not only that, but there are hundreds of places and people that players expect to see because they appeared in five earlier Ultimas.

Everybody in the realm ended up being a crucial link in a chain that adds up to this immense, huge, wonderful, colossal world. It was a remarkably complicated process, and that notebook was the key to keeping it all under control.

The chain of information you follow in Ultima VI is, it must be said, far clearer than in any of the previous games. Solving this one must still be a matter of methodically talking to everyone and assembling a notebook full of clues — i.e., of essentially recreating Garriott and Spector’s design notebook — but there are no outrageous intuitive leaps required this time out, nor any vital clues hidden in outrageously out-of-the-way locations. For the first time since Ultima I, a reasonable person can reasonably be expected to solve this Ultima without turning it into a major life commitment. The difference is apparent literally from your first moments in the game: whereas Ultima V dumps you into a hut in the middle of the wilderness — you don’t even know where in the wilderness — with no direction whatsoever, Ultima VI starts you in Lord British’s castle, and your first conversation with him immediately provides you with your first leads to run down. From that point forward, you’ll never be at a total loss for what to do next as long as you do your due diligence in the form of careful note-taking. Again, I have to attribute much of this welcome new spirit of accessibility and solubility to the influence of Warren Spector.

Ultima VI pushes the “Gargoyles are evil!” angle hard early on, going so far as to have the seemingly demonic beasts nearly sacrifice you to whatever dark gods they worship. This of course only makes the big plot twist, when it arrives, all the more shocking.

At the beginning of Ultima VI, the Avatar — i.e., you — is called back to Britannia from his homeworld of Earth yet again by the remarkably inept monarch Lord British to deal with yet another crisis which threatens his land. Hordes of terrifyingly demonic-looking Gargoyles are pouring out of fissures which have opened up in the ground everywhere and making savage war upon the land. They’ve seized and desecrated the eight Shrines of Virtue, and are trying to get their hands on the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom, the greatest symbol of your achievements in Ultima IV.

But, in keeping with the shades of gray the series had begun to layer over the Virtues with Ultima V, nothing is quite as it seems. In the course of the game, you discover that the Gargoyles have good reason to hate and fear humans in general and you the Avatar in particular, even if those reasons are more reflective of carelessness and ignorance on the part of you and Lord British’s peoples than they are of malice. To make matters worse, the Gargoyles are acting upon a religious prophecy — conventional religion tends to take a beating in Ultima games — and have come to see the Avatar as nothing less than the Antichrist in their own version of the Book of Revelation. As your understanding of their plight grows, your goal shifts from that of ridding the land of the Gargoyle scourge by violent means to that of walking them back from attributing everything to a foreordained prophecy and coming to a peaceful accommodation with them.

Ultima VI‘s subtitle, chosen very late in the development process, is as subtly subversive as the rest of the plot. Not until very near the end of the game do you realize that The False Prophet is in fact you, the Avatar. As the old cliché says, there are two sides to every story. Sadly, the big plot twist was already spoiled by Richard Garriott in interviews before Ultima VI was even released, so vanishingly few players have ever gotten to experience its impact cold.

When discussing the story of Ultima VI, we shouldn’t ignore the real-world events that were showing up on the nightly news while Garriott and Spector were writing it. Mikhail Gorbachev had just made the impossibly brave decision to voluntarily dissolve the Soviet empire and let its vassal states go their own way, and just like that the Cold War had ended, not in the nuclear apocalypse so many had anticipated as its only possible end game but rather in the most blessed of all anticlimaxes in human history. For the first time in a generation, East was truly meeting West again, and each side was discovering that the other wasn’t nearly as demonic as they had been raised to believe. On November 10, 1989, just as Garriott and Spector were finishing their design notebook, an irresistible tide of mostly young people burst through Berlin’s forbidding Checkpoint Charlie to greet their counterparts on the other side, as befuddled guards, the last remnants of the old order, looked on and wondered what to do. It was a time of extraordinary change and hope, and the message of Ultima VI resonated with the strains of history.

Plot spoilers end.

When Garriott and Spector emerged from their self-imposed quarantine, the first person to whom they gave their notebook was an eccentric character with strong furry tendencies who had been born as David Shapiro, but who was known to one and all at Origin as Dr. Cat. Dr. Cat had been friends with Richard Garriott for almost as long as Denis Loubet, having first worked at Origin for a while when it was still being run out of Richard’s parents’ garage in suburban Houston. A programmer by trade — he had done the Commodore 64 port of Ultima V — Dr. Cat was given the de facto role of head writer for Ultima VI, apparently because he wasn’t terribly busy with anything else at the time. Over the next several months, he wrote most of the dialog for most of the many characters the Avatar would need to speak with in order to finish the game, parceling the remainder of the work out among a grab bag of other programmers and artists, whoever had a few hours or days to spare.

Origin Systems was still populating the games with jokey cameos drawn from Richard Garriott’s friends, colleagues, and family as late as Ultima VI. Thankfully, this along with other aspects of the “programmer text” syndrome would finally end with the next installment in the series, for which a real professional writing team would come aboard. More positively, do note the keyword highlighting in the screenshot above, which spared players untold hours of aggravating noun-guessing.

Everyone at Origin felt the pressure by now, but no one carried a greater weight on his slim shoulders than Richard Garriott. If Ultima VI flopped, or even just wasn’t a major hit, that was that for Origin Systems. For all that he loved to play His Unflappable Majesty Lord British in public, Garriott was hardly immune to the pressure of having dozens of livelihoods dependent on what was at the end of the day, no matter how much help he got from Warren Spector or anyone else, his game. His stress tended to go straight to his stomach. He remembers being in “constant pain”; sometimes he’d just “curl up in the corner.” Having stopped shaving or bathing regularly, strung out on caffeine and junk food, he looked more like a homeless man than a star game designer — much less a regal monarch — by the time Ultima VI hit the homestretch. On the evening of February 9, 1990, with the project now in the final frenzy of testing, bug-swatting, and final-touch-adding, he left Origin’s offices to talk to some colleagues having a smoke just outside. When he opened the security door to return, a piece of the door’s apparatus — in fact, an eight-pound chunk of steel — fell off and smacked him in the head, opening up an ugly gash and knocking him out cold. His panicked colleagues, who at first thought he might be dead, rushed him to the emergency room. Once he had had his head stitched up, he set back to work. What else was there to do?

Ultima VI shipped on time in March of 1990, two years almost to the day after Ultima V, and Richard Garriott’s fears (and stomach cramps) were soon put to rest; it became yet another 200,000-plus-selling hit. Reviews were uniformly favorable if not always ecstatic; it would take Ultima fans, traditionalists that so many of them were, a while to come to terms with the radically overhauled interface that made this Ultima look so different from the Ultimas of yore. Not helping things were the welter of bugs, some of them of the potentially showstopping variety, that the game shipped with (in years to come Origin would become almost as famous for their bugs as for their ambitious virtual world-building). In time, most if not all old-school Ultima fans were comforted as they settled in and realized that at bottom you tackled this one pretty much like all the others, trekking around Britannia talking to people and writing down the clues they revealed until you put together all the pieces of the puzzle. Meanwhile Origin gradually fixed the worst of the bugs through a series of patch disks which they shipped to retailers to pass on to their customers, or to said customers directly if they asked for them. Still, both processes did take some time, and the reaction to this latest Ultima was undeniably a bit muted — a bit conflicted, one might even say — in comparison to the last few games. It perhaps wasn’t quite clear yet where or if the Ultima series fit on these newer computers in this new decade.

Both the muted critical reaction and that sense of uncertainty surrounding the game have to some extent persisted to this day. Firmly ensconced though it apparently is in the middle of the classic run of Ultimas, from Ultima IV through Ultima VII, that form the bedrock of the series’s legacy, Ultima VI is the least cherished of that cherished group today, the least likely to be named as the favorite of any random fan. It lacks the pithy justification for its existence that all of the others can boast. Ultima IV was the great leap forward, the game that dared to posit that a CRPG could be about more than leveling up and collecting loot. Ultima V was the necessary response to its predecessor’s unfettered idealism; the two games together can be seen to form a dialog on ethics in the public and private spheres. And, later, Ultima VII would be the pinnacle of the series in terms not only of technology but also, and even more importantly, in terms of narrative and thematic sophistication. But where does Ultima VI stand in this group? Its plea for understanding rather than extermination is as important and well-taken today as it’s ever been, yet its theme doesn’t follow as naturally from Ultima V as that game’s had from Ultima IV, nor is it executed with the same sophistication we would see in Ultima VII. Where Ultima VI stands, then, would seem to be on a somewhat uncertain no man’s land.

Indeed, it’s hard not to see Ultima VI first and foremost as a transitional work. On the surface, that’s a distinction without a difference; every Ultima, being part of a series that was perhaps more than any other in the history of gaming always in the process of becoming, is a bridge between what had come before and what would come next. Yet in the case of Ultima VI the tautology feels somehow uniquely true. The graphical interface, huge leap though it is over the old alphabet soup, isn’t quite there yet in terms of usability. It still lacks a drag-and-drop capability, for instance, to make inventory management and many other tasks truly intuitive, while the cluttered onscreen display combines vestiges of the old, such as a scrolling textual “command console,” with this still imperfect implementation of the new. The prettier, more detailed window on the world is welcome, but winds up giving such a zoomed-in view in the half of a screen allocated to it that it’s hard to orient yourself. The highlighted keywords in the conversation engine are also welcome, but are constantly scrolling off the screen, forcing you to either lawnmower through the same conversations again and again to be sure not to miss any of them or to jot them down on paper as they appear. There’s vastly more text in Ultima VI than in any of its predecessors, but perhaps the kindest thing to be said about Dr. Cat as a writer is that he’s a pretty good programmer. All of these things would be fixed in Ultima VII, a game — or rather games; there were actually two of them, for reasons we’ll get to when the time comes — that succeeded in becoming everything Ultima VI had wanted to be. To use the old playground insult, everything Ultima VI can do Ultima VII can do better. One thing I can say, however, is that the place the series was going would prove so extraordinary that it feels more than acceptable to me to have used Ultima VI as a way station en route.

But in the even more immediate future for Origin Systems was another rather extraordinary development. This company that the rest of the industry jokingly referred to as Ultima Systems would release the same year as Ultima VI a game that would blow up even bigger than this latest entry in the series that had always been their raison d’être. I’ll tell that improbable story soon, after a little detour into some nuts and bolts of computer technology that were becoming very important — and nowhere more so than at Origin — as the 1990s began.

(Sources: the books Dungeons and Dreamers: The Rise of Computer Game Culture from Geek to Chic by Brad King and John Borland, The Official Book of Ultima, Second Edition by Shay Addams, and Ultima: The Avatar Adventures by Rusel DeMaria and Caroline Spector; ACE of April 1990; Questbusters of November 1989, January 1990, March 1990, and April 1990; Dragon of July 1987; Computer Gaming World of March 1990 and June 1990; Origin’s in-house newsletter Point of Origin of August 7 1991. Online sources include Matt Barton’s interviews with Dr. Cat and Warren Spector’s farewell letter from the Wing Commander Combat Information Center‘s document archive. Last but far from least, my thanks to John Miles for corresponding with me via email about his time at Origin, and my thanks to Casey Muratori for putting me in touch with him.

Ultima VI is available for purchase from GOG.com in a package that also includes Ultima IV and Ultima V.)

 

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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 to 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 one 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 reagents 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 in 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 world-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 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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