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Ultima IV

There’s lots of somethings to be said for sheer audacity in art, for a willingness to stick your neck out and give your audience something they never, ever expected from you. I think sometimes about how the first folks who listened to Revolver must have felt when the erstwhile cuddly Fab Four unleashed the otherworldly chaos of “Tomorrow Never Knows”; how the first buyers of Achtung, Baby must have felt when they hit the play button and heard not the expected soaring anthem but the grinding industrial murk of “Zoo Station”; how, to choose something I’ve already written a bit about here on this blog, viewers who tuned into The Prisoner‘s “Living in Harmony” episode must have felt when instead of a spy drama they got a Western that refused to reveal itself as a dream sequence but instead just kept going and going right through the show’s running time. Lots and lots of people run screaming from these sorts of switcheroos. As for me, though… they always send a thrill up my spine. A willingness to rip it up and start again is pretty high on the list of things likely to draw me to a creator.

Ultima IV

I get some of that thrill when I think about those first people who booted up Ultima IV expecting to create a party via the usual min/maxing routine, only to be greeted with a simple story with the gravitas of a parable — a parable about, well, you.

The day is warm, yet there is a cooling breeze. The latest in a series of personal crises seems insurmountable. You are being pulled apart in all directions.

Yet this afternoon walk in the countryside slowly brings relaxation to your harried mind. The soil and stain of modern high-tech living begins to wash off in layers. That willow tree near the stream looks comfortable and inviting.

The buzz of dragonflies and the whisper of the willow’s swaying branches bring a deep peace. Searching inward for tranquility and happiness, you close your eyes.

A high-pitched cascading sound like crystal wind chimes impinges on your floating awareness. As you open your eyes, you see a shimmering blueness rise from the ground. The sound seems to be emanating from this glowing portal.

There’s the echo of another spiritual journey’s beginning, that undertaken by the narrator of Dante’s Inferno: “In this the midway of our mortal life, I found me in a gloomy wood, astray, gone from the path direct.”

Ultima IV‘s opening parable culminates in a mysterious gypsy fortune teller who poses a series of ethical dilemmas designed to determine not what class or race you’d like to play but what kind of person you are. Of the eight noble virtues of Compassion, Honesty, Honor, Humility, Justice, Sacrifice, Spirituality, and Valor, which ones matter most to you?

Ultima IV

Ultima IV

Ultima IV

By 1985 gaming had already seen its fair share of debates about who the player’s character in a role-playing game or interactive fiction really was. The very term “role-playing” would seem to imply that the player was not just playing herself thrust into another world, that she was playing a role there, performing as one of Gary Gygax’s idealized Shakespearian thespians. Infocom also had tried to sell their players, to decidedly mixed success and occasional howls of outrage, on seeing interactive fiction through the eyes of people who weren’t necessarily the same as them. For the grand experiment of Ultima IV to succeed it was critical that the opposite point of view prevail, that the player feel it to really be her in the game. Richard Garriott: “Since this is a game about the player’s personal virtues, it is very important that one always identifies with the character and feels responsible for the character’s deeds.”

In a computer game if you roll random dice, you’re just going to sit there and go roll, roll, roll. You get all maxed-out numbers and it’s, “Okay, I’ll take that one.” If you don’t let them roll out and you let them choose numbers, well, it’s kind of a fixed equation. Once they know the map and the game, they can make the perfect decision as to exactly what their stats should be if they are aware that the equations are internal. So I don’t want to give you either of those.

Ultima IV I wanted to be a very personal experience. The reason is because in most of these games you are the puppeteer running this puppet around the world. If this puppet is doing bad things it’s not you, it’s the puppet. You can detach. And I wanted this game to be about personal and social responsibility. It is very important that this be you in the world of Britannia, not something you’ve rolled up. If I’m the computer nerd at home wanting to be a big barbarian going around crushing things, I still want to be a computer nerd down there, in nice clothing. The essence of that character is really the essence of you as an individual.

The gypsy’s questions were designed to tease out the player’s real beliefs and place her in the role in the game that best suited her own personality — to whatever extent seven questions determining the most important to her of eight abstract virtues could manage such a feat, of course. Richard again:

We worked on the phrasing of those questions. Unfortunately, there’s no really perfect way to ask those questions that we’ve yet discovered. Here’s something else that’s interesting. When we were working on this system, I said, “Here’s what I want to do for character development.” I went around to everyone in the office, saying, “Here’s these eight virtues along with a short description as to what I mean by them. Give me your ranking, one to eight, as to how important you think they are.” And then about a week later, after we generated those questions, we went back to the same people and said, “Answer these questions.” Although our company was only about twenty people large, everybody except two people had the exact same outcome to the questions as they did to the judgment. And those two who were wrong only had two transposed in the list. And so it turns out you get the exact same responses as you do to an intellectual discussion of it.

For the record, every time I answer the questions Compassion trumps everything else, and thus I end up a bard starting just outside Lord British’s castle. I don’t know whether this necessarily represents the person I always am, but it’s certainly a good approximation of the person I’d most like to be. So, at least for me, the system does indeed seem to work pretty well.

After that radical opening, the screen which greets the player after the gypsy has passed her final judgment must have struck many as comforting in its familiarity.

Ultima IV

Yes, we’re back to our familiar view with our familiar alphabet soup of single-letter commands to explore the world. That world is now named Britannia rather than Sosaria; it was so renamed after Lord British united the land under his rule following the passing of the Three Ages of Darkness represented by Ultima I, II, and III. The fact that the geography is completely different from that of the previous game is similarly handwaved away, attributed to a great upheaval — must have been one hell of an upheaval — following the destruction of Exodus in Ultima III. The fact that Ultima II inexplicably took place on our Earth is, as per developing Ultima tradition, completely ignored; there are limits to what even the most dedicated ret-conner can accomplish. Also simply ignored is the last of the stupid attempts at anachronistic cleverness that dogged the early Ultimas, the big reveal at the end of Ultima III that Exodus was really a giant computer; in the Ultima IV manual’s version he was just your everyday world-domination-bent evil wizard.

Importantly, this new world of Britannia that you enter is not under attack from yet another evil wizard, or an evil anything else for that matter. This is one of the few CRPGs ever made, and almost certainly the first, to neither have an evil wizard nor to take place in some melodramatic Age of Darkness. Richard has drawn parallels between the Britannia of Ultima IV and Renaissance Italy — or, even better, King’s Arthur’s Britain at the height of the golden age of Camelot; between the player’s quest to become an Avatar of Virtue and the similarly spiritual quest for the Holy Grail. This quest is necessary not despite the land being peaceful and prosperous but because of it, because times of peace and prosperity are the only ones that allow the luxury of pondering a philosophy for living.

That said, becoming an Avatar of Virtue actually represents only the first step of the two-step process of solving Ultima IV. The second step requires you to descend into the Stygian Abyss, a remnant of the Dante-inspired Hell that was the centerpiece of Richard’s first conception for the game, and recover something called the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom. The final dungeon serves to hammer home the game’s rhetorical message via a series of puzzles which require you to apply what you’ve learned about the system of virtues, but everything that happens after you become an Avatar is otherwise much less interesting than what happens before. Just as what the Holy Grail represents to Lancelot is far more important to the legend than Galahad’s eventual drinking from it, the recovery of the physical Codex comes as something of an anticlimax to your achievement of Avatarhood. Richard Garriott himself said as much in later interviews, calling the Codex “largely irrelevant” to the real message of Ultima IV, even admitting that he had trouble remembering where or what the Codex actually was. Mostly it just allows Ultima IV a bit more of a traditional CRPG structure, serving as a stand-in for the usual evil wizard’s Whatchamacallit of Infinite Power that can be recovered only by defeating him at the bottom of the last and cruelest dungeon.

Let’s talk, then, about that first, more interesting stage of the game. Becoming an Avatar of Virtue requires that you demonstrate your dedication to each of the eight virtues through your deeds over many hours of adventuring in Britannia. When you have proved yourself worthy of “ascension” in a particular virtue, and have collected a necessary entry rune and a mantra, you can visit a shrine to that virtue and meditate to achieve one-eighth of your eventual Avatarhood. Ultima IV boldly applies these sorts of mystical trappings to an ethical philosophy which carefully avoids the subject of God in favor of simple practicality. Richard Garriott: “If I beat you up, you are going to be angry at me and will be on my back. If I’m nice to you, you are likely to be nice back. It makes good rational sense.” This has been expressed more rigorously by philosophers for millennia now as the idea of enlightened self-interest: you do best for yourself by doing well by others. Parsing a distinction which admittedly really exists only in his mind, Richard claims to ignore morals, which to him represent decisions about right and wrong based on feelings or spiritual beliefs, in favor of ethics, which are grounded in simple, rational common sense. A similar determination to remove the supernatural from the fantastic is everywhere in Ultima, perhaps as a byproduct of Richard being the son of a scientist who would probably have become one himself had Dungeons and Dragons and computers not stepped in. Richard saw Ultima IV‘s magic system, for instance, not as something mystical and mysterious but as merely the natural science of a world that just happens to have different natural laws than our own.

In developing Ultima IV‘s system of ethics, Richard began with a long jumble of possible virtues. Among them were three rather extreme abstractions on this list of abstractions: Truth, Love, and Courage. Watching The Wizard of Oz one day, it struck him that L. Frank Baum may have started with a similar list: “I thought of the Scarecrow looking for a brain, which was Truth; the Tin Man looking for a heart, Love; and the Cowardly Lion, looking for Courage.” It then occurred to his scientist’s mind that these three could be seen as core principles which could be combined to form most of the other items on his list. Honesty is Truth alone; Compassion is Love alone; Valor is Courage alone; Truth tempered by Love is Justice; Love and Courage are Sacrifice; Courage and Truth are Honor; Truth and Love and Courage all together become Spirituality; the absence of all three is Humility. Richard, who loved his symbols, devised a cool-looking diagram to represent the relationships, which ended up inadvertently — or at least subconsciously — resembling Judaism’s Star of David.

The symbol of Ultima IV's system of virtues. The three traditional primary colors represent the core principles: blue is Truth, red Courage, yellow Compassion. They combine to form the eight virtues (including Humility, which contains none of the three and is thus the black border).

The symbol of Ultima IV’s system of virtues. The three traditional primary colors represent the core principles: blue is Truth, red Courage, yellow Love. They combine to form the eight virtues (including Humility, which contains none of the three and is thus the black border).

A more readable if less ornate diagram of the virtues

A more readable if less ornate diagram of the virtues.

As a system of belief, it’s perhaps not exactly compelling for an adult (although, hey, cults have been founded on less). As an ethical philosophy… well, let’s just say that Richard Garriott is unlikely to ever rival Kant in university philosophy curricula. There are plenty of points to quibble about: Honesty, Compassion, and Valor are, at least in this formulation, really just synonyms for the core principles that supposedly compose them; the idea that Spirituality is made up of all the virtues lumped together seems kind of strange, as does its presence at all given Richard’s determinedly materialist worldview; the idea of Humility as literally an ethical vacuum seems truly bizarre. (Richard later clarified in interviews that he would have preferred this latter to be Pride, but, “Pride not being a virtue, we have to use Humility”; make of that what you will.) And of course the names of the virtues themselves are rather painfully redolent of the life of a Dungeons and Dragons-obsessed teenager. But poking holes in the system is really missing the point. Ultima IV gave its audience permission to think about these things, laid out in a cool if only superficially logical way. The fact that these ethics still speak the language of Dungeons and Dragons was a good thing, because that’s the language most of Ultima IV‘s audience spoke. Richard himself didn’t claim any mystical truth for the system, freely admitting in interviews that it was essentially arbitrary, that dozens of other formulations could have served his purposes just as well. The one real overriding concern I have with the system is that it can lead to a possibly dangerous ethical absolutism; the only place where Ultima IV does even lip service to the idea that there can be conflicts between its virtues, debate about their merits, is in those questions that open the game. (To his credit, Richard Garriott also spotted the danger, and, indeed, dedicated Ultima V, in many ways an even more thoughtful work than its more heralded predecessor, to exploring the danger of ethical absolutism. Richard characterized that game as, “Now that you’ve shown everybody Avatarhood, let’s show everybody why it’s bad.”)

The way that you build (or lose) mastery of the various virtues is by far the most interesting mechanic in the game, the core thing that makes Ultima IV Ultima IV and the core reason for the game’s stellar reputation today. As you go about your business in its world, Ultima IV is quietly monitoring your actions. If you cheat the blind magic-store proprietor by sneakily paying her less than you should, you lose Honesty; if you’re square with her, you gain it. Running away from enemies costs you Valor; standing and fighting gains it. Giving blood to the healer gains you Sacrifice; refusing costs it. Giving money to beggars gains you Compassion; refusing them… well, you get the picture. Unsurprisingly, the idea has its roots in an admittedly not-widely-used rule in Dungeons and Dragons, which recommends that Dungeon Masters monitor and chart the actions of their players in relation to their professed alignment — “lawful evil,” “chaotic good,” etc. Drift enough and the Dungeon Master could actually impose a new alignment on you, possibly with drastic consequences if, say, your god demanded a certain alignment. In Ultima IV, your progress in the virtues is, inevitably, nothing more than a system of numerical attributes not fundamentally unlike other character attributes — Strength, Experience, Gold, etc. Still, just as Ultima IV tries to make character creation more than a series of dice rolls, it strains mightily to make the virtues an honest reflection of your attitudes and behaviors rather than just a system to be optimized. It hides all of the numbers from you. The only way to learn of your progress in the virtues is to visit the Seer Hawkwind in Lord British’s castle, and even then he just describes your progress in vague generalities. Especially in this day and age, when all of the virtue system’s mechanics have been meticulously documented, we understand all too well that it’s possible to, say, raise Compassion to Avatar level just by giving over and over to the same beggar in the same town. But back in the day particularly, when the system’s underpinnings were not so well understood, it really did feel organic.

The other mechanics of solving Ultima IV — the minutiae of classes and equipment and monsters and leveling up, the puzzles and quests and how to solve them, the locations of towns and dungeons and shrines and artifacts, the seven companions (each representing one of the seven virtues you didn’t choose as most important to you at the beginning of the game) you must eventually round up to complete your adventuring party, etc., etc. — have likewise already been documented as extensively as those of any videogame ever produced. In addition to the countless FAQs, blogs, and web sites generated by the franchise’s many still-rabid fans, at least half a dozen entire books have been published with detailed descriptions of exactly how to best play and solve the game. Most of the nuts and bolts of Ultima IV‘s engine merely extend the technology that Richard had already built through Ultima III in fairly commonsense ways; Richard has often stated that Akalabeth through Ultima III were mostly about improving his technology, Ultima IV about applying his technology at long last to a really worthwhile design. So, I’m not going to talk about most of that in a great deal of depth here; there’s little or nothing I could add to the mountain of practical data at every web surfer’s fingertips, and few fundamental changes to note in the mechanics I described in earlier articles about the franchise. You’ve got a (larger) world map to traverse along with cities, towns, castles, and dungeons; you’ve got horses, ships, and other vehicles to acquire; you’ve got food and equipment to manage (along with, this time, spell reagents, and for a party that will eventually number eight rather than the four of Ultima III); you’ve got lots of people to talk to (this time with a keyword-based pseudo-parser to deepen the interactive possibilities); and of course you’ve got monsters to fight. By now you know the drill.

At this point I probably should confess something: I’m far from sold on Ultima IV as a holistic, playable game. Oh, the concept of the virtues that overlays and underlies the whole is as brilliant and inspiring as I and so many others have already said it is. But you don’t spend all that large a percentage of your time in Ultima IV directly engaging with that concept. You rather spend a whole lot of time, easily hundreds of hours worth if you play the game “straight,” without walkthroughs or spoilers, on lots of things that are often less than compelling at best, dull at average, horrifically, unfairly cruel at worst. Take (please!) the much-vaunted new magic system, in which you have to prepare every single spell you cast by buying its reagents and mixing them together one at a time, a process absolutely devoid of interest after you figure out a given spell’s recipe, one that entails about half a dozen key presses for every single spell you prepare; you can easily spend ten minutes just getting the spells ready for a major dungeon expedition. Combat, never a strong point for Ultima, is more infuriating here than ever; you now have to micromanage up to eight characters through the busywork of taking out the endless hordes of uninteresting monsters that constantly attack when you just want to, you know, walk to the next damn town already. (The number of monsters in each attacking group is actually keyed to the number of characters in your party. In an interesting example of unintended consequences, this means that just about all guides to the game recommend keeping to a party of one as long as possible to try to stave off some of the soul-killing boredom of combat for as long as possible.)

Ultima IV itself doesn’t do a very good job of evincing virtues like Compassion, Justice, even Honor. This is a staggeringly difficult game, a fact that gets rather obscured by the fact that most people playing the game and/or writing about it today are mostly replaying it, and usually with the benefit of that aforementioned copious store of FAQs and walkthroughs. Taken without all that, the way a kid who found it under the tree at Christmas 1985 would have had to approach it, it’s honestly hard to imagine anyone solving it unaided. The design is a spiderweb of all but invisible strands; fail to trace any one of them and you won’t win. Most of the cities in the game are marked on the cloth map that came in the package, but just enough are left unmarked that you’ll need to scour the whole map square by tedious square to find everything. One village sits at the center of a huge inland lake, its existence impossible to detect unless you happen to meet a pirate ship on the lake — a vanishingly unusual occurrence — fight it, steal it, and take it for a sail. Or you can find the village if you manifest an apparent death wish and sail a ship on the open ocean directly into a whirlpool. Many of the towns and castles contain critical secret doors that are distinguished by the presence of one extra pixel amidst the grainy graphics.

See that single white dot above the character that looks kind of like a graphics artifact of some sort? That's a game-critical secret door.

See that single white dot above the character that looks kind of like a graphics artifact of some sort? That’s a game-critical secret door.

Conversations can be another nightmare. Every character in the game responds to three keywords given in the manual: “Name,” “Job,” and “Health” (no, I don’t know how Richard settled on that particular inexplicable trio). You’re expected to find other keywords by asking about things the character mentions in those three generic openers, in addition to following up on clues gained in other places of the “Ask XX about YY” variety. But, inevitably, the vast majority of promising-looking words any character mentions are actually not keywords at all. Conversations quickly devolve into a rote entering of every noun or active verb a character uses, with 90 percent of them resulting in “That, I cannot help thee with.” Miss one critical word in a conversation out of sloth or negligence, and that’s a clue overlooked, a thread untraced, and your chance for victory undone. Each town or castle, which number sixteen in total, is populated with dozens of individuals. Miss that critical fellow hiding out in a visually impenetrable glade at the extreme edge of the map, and you’re screwed. Miss the single pixel representing a secret door, and you’re screwed. When you finally get to the very bottom of the Stygian Abyss and stand before the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom, if you fail to answer correctly an out-of-left-field question whose answer requires the ability to read Richard Garriott’s mind, you’re screwed — teleported back to the surface to battle your way down through eight levels of the fiercest creatures in the game and try again. If you were playing in 1985, without the benefit of emulator save states, you would get to do this again and again until you gave up or, as many people finally did, called Origin’s hint line for the answer. If none of what I’ve just described sounds like all that much fun, that’s because for all but the most dogged of players of today it’s really not. Like so many old-school adventure designs, it rewards not cleverness but sheer persistence, a willingness to lawnmower through map after conversation after battle no matter how boring it is.

That, then, is the flip side to Ultima IV the transcendent masterwork: Ultima IV the fiddly, borderline unplayable, tedious mishmash. It’s absurdly easy to make any adventure game impossible, which is one of the many reasons that a designer needs playtesters, and lots of them. Richard Garriott, however, had basically no feedback on many parts of his design. In an interview for Computer Gaming World published shortly after the game, he let drop the bombshell that he was the only person who had managed to complete the game when Origin put it in a box and unleashed it on the world.

A few years ago Michael Abbott, academic and “Brainy Gamer,” sparked quite some conversation with a blog post telling how his students had rejected Ultima IV as “boring.” Predictable outrage toward those kids today followed in the comments and the heaps of reaction posts from other bloggers. Yet my own reaction is to side with Dr. Abbott’s students; Ultima IV is, most of the time, pretty boring. Good on them for recognizing this, I say, for refusing to get sucked into doing boring things for the sake of it. I think kids today are at a minimum every bit as smart as those of my generation were when Ultima IV first hit store shelves, thoroughly capable of deciding that a game is mostly just wasting their time. We shouldn’t begrudge them that freedom if more refined entertainments make their verdict an uncomfortable one for us. Ultima IV stands for me as a hugely important work in the history of its medium, but also one that hasn’t stood the test of time all that well. I love to think about it, love the fact that it exists, that Richard Garriott had the courage to make it — but just thinking about playing it makes me tired. Like a work of conceptual art, to some extent the real power of Ultima IV today is just the fact of its existence.

Of course I’m well aware as a digital historian that my modern take on Ultima IV is a fundamentally anachronistic one. In 1985, the game represented an all but unrivaled gateway to imagination. Solving an Ultima wasn’t really the point; these were worlds to explore, to revisit over a period of months or years until the next Ultima came out (Ultima V would be almost three years in arriving). Everything about Ultima IV — packaged in its big, grandiose box with two big, ornate manuals, with its die-cast ankh that countless boys stuck on a chain and wore to school around their necks, with its big cloth map — marked it as something special, something to be cherished and savored.

The ankh would join the Silver Serpent as one of the enduring symbols of Ultima, a supposed visual representation of the Way of the Avatar to stand alongside the diagram of the virtues. It was yet another bit of pop-culture detritus that made its way into Ultima: Richard first saw it in the movie Logan’s Run, where it served as the symbol of an underground resistance movement, thought it looked cool and “positive,” and stuck it in the game. When he learned that it meant “life and rebirth” to ancient Egyptians, that just made it that much cooler.

The ankh would join the Silver Serpent as one of the enduring symbols of Ultima, a supposed visual representation of the Way of the Avatar to stand alongside the diagram of the virtues. It was yet another bit of pop-culture detritus that made its way into Ultima: Richard first saw it in the movie Logan’s Run, where it served as the symbol of an underground resistance movement, thought it looked cool and “positive,” and stuck it in the game. When he learned that it meant “life and rebirth” to ancient Egyptians, that just made it that much cooler.

When you discovered a new village tucked away in some corner of the map you didn’t complain about the unfairness of it all, you rejoiced at having uncovered another corner of this fantastic world. Actually solving the game was something that few managed, but it didn’t really matter that much anyway. The point was the journey. Even the price contributed: showing an instinct for manipulating perception through pricing that would have done Apple proud, Origin’s suggested list price gave the game a street price of $50 to $55, about $20 more than the typical title. Far from cutting into its sales, the high price just made the game all the more desirable, all the more special. This experience of Ultima IV was absolutely specific to its time and place, not something we can recapture today no matter how much we blog or commentate or notate. Yes, the magic of Ultima IV was ephemeral, but in its day it was very, very powerful.

By way of illustration, let me tell you about Brian. Brian was one of my best friends in middle and high school, his attitudes fairly typical of the cracking and pirating underground in which he was quite thoroughly immersed. Like most of his friends in the scene, Brian didn’t so much play games as collect them. He had hundreds, maybe thousands of Commodore 64 floppies containing virtually every remotely notable game released for the platform in North America or Europe. Most got booted once or twice, to see what the graphics were like; a few action games would grab his attention in a bigger way for a while, but were soon set aside in favor of haunting the pirate BBS network and enjoying the social dramas of the cracking scene (let me tell you, teenage girls had nothing on this crew). Ultima IV, though, was different. It’s the only game I can ever remember Brian actually buying, the only one more complicated than Boulderdash for which he read the manual, into which he put a real effort. Like a hundred thousand other kids, he hung the map on his bedroom wall, wore the ankh to school. Oh, I’m pretty sure he never came close to finishing it. He probably played it much less, all told, than most similar kids who didn’t have the same embarrassment of gaming riches from which to choose. But the fact that his teenage heavy-metal nihilism went away when he talked about the virtues, that it awoke some other — better? — part of him that was impervious to every other game… I’ve always remembered that. Ultima, and Ultima IV in particular, was just like that.

Chester Bolingbroke, better known as the CRPG Addict, was another Brian.

I wrote each [virtue] with its definition on an index card and every morning I shuffled the cards and chose one at random. That one, I did my best to practice for the day. If honesty came up, I was careful to tell no lies throughout the day. If it was sacrifice, I looked for ways to do something charitable.

Not many, I suspect, would admit to deriving what amounts to their religion from a computer game. But I had rejected conventional religion even as a pre-teen. I balked at Judeo-Christian doctrines that seemed both haphazard and arbitrary: meticulous rules about food and dress, but none about the need to actively seek out and destroy evil (my interpretation of “valor”); commandments against adultery and sabbath-breaking, but none against assault and slavery. Ultima IV, on the other hand, offered a comprehensive and completely nondenominational — secular, even — system of virtue. It fit me like a glove.

There were hundreds of thousands of kids just like Brian and Chester. Ultima IV caused its players to set aside their angst and their irony and try to improve themselves in school lunch rooms and family dinner tables across the land. It was far from the first game with artistic aspirations, far from the first to want to be about something more than escapism; 1985 alone also brought Mindwheel, A Mind Forever Voyaging, and Balance of Power. But those admittedly more philosophically sophisticated efforts appealed mostly to a different, older audience; the average age of the average Infocom buyer was north of thirty, while very few kids indeed had the wherewithal to corner a Macintosh long enough to play Balance of Power even had they been interested in the vagaries of geopolitics. Part of the magic of Ultima IV was that it had been created by a kid just like the ones who mostly played it, raised on Dungeons and Dragons and Star Wars, more comfortable with a movie than a novel. Richard Garriott spoke their language, came from the same place they were coming from. Ultima IV, the last of the one-man-band Ultimas, still stands as the most personal expression he would ever create. When he said that ethics matter, that we have the power to choose our values and to live according to them, it resonated because it reflected, as art should, his own lived experience. Yes, many of its players would outgrow Ultima IV‘s simplistic take on ethics, just as many would outgrow the game itself. But hopefully few of that small minority who completed it ever forgot its closing exhortation, delivered as it was in Richard Garriott’s best teenage-Dungeon-Master diction:

Thou must know that the quest to become an Avatar is the endless quest of a lifetime. Avatarhood is a living gift. It must always and forever be nurtured to flourish. For if thou dost stray from the paths of virtue, thy way may be lost forever. Return now unto thine own world. Live there as an example to thy people, as our memory of thy gallant deeds serves us.

(You can download Ultima IV for free from Sources for this article are the same as for the last. I borrowed the diagram of the virtues from Eliott Wall.)


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The Road to IV

Ultima IV

Late in the fall of 1983, when it was clear that Ultima III was turning into a huge success and thus that their new company Origin Systems was going to be a viable operation, Robert Garriott came to his little brother Richard with a forlorn plea. Robert, you may remember, had for months been commuting via his private Cessna between the Garriotts’ family home in Houston, whose garage served as Origin’s development studio and assembly line, and North Andover, Massachusetts, where his wife Marcy worked for Bell Labs. It wasn’t, to say the least, an ideal way to run a marriage. Would Richard and the rest of the fledgling company agree to move to North Andover for three years? After that, Marcy expected a promotion that should make it much easier for her and Robert to move, and, assuming the company was still alive, they’d then move wherever Richard and the rest liked. Young, unattached, and ready for adventure as they were, just about everyone agreed. They packed their cars with their personal possessions and rented two trucks to fill with supplies, computers, and other equipment — most notably the precious shrink-wrap machine — and headed northeast just weeks later.

That winter was a bad one, with some of the worst storms of the decade. They hit major snow before they got out of Arkansas. Anyone who’s ever seen a Texan trying to drive on snow and ice can perhaps attest to what a miracle it was that they got to North Andover at all. Once there, the snow and bitter cold just continued for months. That first winter wasn’t the best introduction to the place that Richard still calls “the frozen wastes of New England.” He totaled his car on the icy streets within days; his house right next door to his brother Robert’s, which he rented with Chuck Bueche and Mary Fenton, was burglarized not once but twice, resulting in the loss of thousands of dollars worth of computers and home electronics; he and his buddies couldn’t seem to connect with any of the locals, who viewed their Texas accents and strange business of making computer games with suspicion. Things wouldn’t get much better; Richard in particular remained a hopeless fish out of water throughout his time in New England.

The only thing to do was to throw himself into life inside the Origin bubble. He made his own fun, instituting a daily five o’clock ritual called “Rubbaser war,” using $75 graphite-and-steel guns that could shoot rubber bands at speeds of up to 120 miles per hour; they hit with such force that the combatants had to wear helmets. He also continued to celebrate his favorite holiday with elaborate Halloween parties, even if the number of people around him eager to attend them had rather dwindled since the move. The moment when the locals decided once and for all that they wanted nothing to do with him may well have been the first of these: Richard, who was great at preparing for such big events but not so great at cleaning up after himself, left unnervingly realistic-looking bloody body parts strewn across his lawn through much of the following winter.

With Chuck Bueche’s action game Caverns of Callisto having failed to set the industry on fire, Origin now concentrated on, as their tagline would eventually have it, “creating worlds” in the form of big, ambitious games. Soon after the move to New England, they hired Dave Albert away from Penguin Software. Albert, who had majored in journalism at university and served as editor and writer for SoftSide magazine before coming to Penguin, would help Robert Garriott to put a professional face to this collection of young hackers. Albert also brought with him Greg Malone and his game in progress, the very original if polarizing oriental CRPG Moebius. Before releasing their next slate of games after Ultima III and Caverns of Callisto, Origin signed a distribution deal with Electronic Arts, becoming one of the first of what would eventually be quite a number of EA “Affiliated Labels.” This gave the still tiny Origin a badly needed presence in mass-market chains like Toys “R” Us and Sears.

Origin stretched out its tendrils in many intriguing directions during these early days. They entered into a contract with Steve Jackson Games — Steve Jackson was a friend of Richard’s from his Austin SCA troupe — to adapt that company’s popular board game Car Wars for the computer. They also agreed to make a computer game to accompany a planned film version of Morgan Llywelyn’s novel Lion of Ireland; Richard would get to spend two weeks on the set in southern Ireland soaking up the ambiance in the name of research. Richard also made tentative plans with none other than Andrew Greenberg of Wizardry fame to collaborate on “the ultimate fantasy role-playing game.” Most of this came to naught: the movie’s financing fell through and it never got made; the ultimate collaboration remained nothing more than talk. Only the Car Wars project survived, and only after a fashion: Chuck Bueche turned the turn-based board game into the real-time CRPG Autoduel over the considerable misgivings of Steve Jackson.

Meanwhile and preeminently, there was Ultima IV, the game that would change everything for Ultima and for Origin. As was his routine by now, Richard started working on it almost from the moment that Ultima III shipped, starting once again from the previous game’s code base and once again designing and coding virtually everything himself on his trusty Apple II. But, like the fourth Wizardry game that was its obvious competitor, it took much longer to complete than anyone had anticipated. Originally slated for Christmas 1984, it took a final desperate dash just to get it out in time for Christmas 1985.

Anticipation grew all the while. For a game to remain in active, continuous development for two years at that time was virtually unprecedented. Truly Richard Garriott must be doing something amazing. The hints and tidbits that he let drop during interviews certainly sounded good: Ultima IV‘s world map would consist of 256 X 256 tiles, 16 times the size of Ultima III‘s 64 X 64-tile world; there would be a full parser-based conversation engine for talking with others; spells would now require reagents to cast, with the finding of their recipes and ingredients a mini-game within the game; dungeons would now contain “rooms” that opened into a tactical map. Yet the thing that Richard kept bringing up most was none of these incremental improvements, but something he insisted marked a change in the very nature of the game. There would be, he said, no evil character to defeat. Instead the player must become a better person, an “Avatar of Virtue.” What was that all about?

Richard Garriott has told many times the story of how Ultima IV came to be. Akalabeth, Ultima I, and Ultima II had, he says, existed for him in a vacuum — or, maybe better said, an echo chamber. Any fan mail or other feedback from players of those games had never reached him because neither California Pacific nor Sierra had bothered to forward it to him. Once Ultima III came out under his own company’s aegis, however, he started getting a flood of letters telling him how fans really played his games. This generally entailed lots of murdering, stealing, and all-around reprehensible behavior. Now, it’s perhaps a bit surprising that this should come as such a shock to Richard, since those early games essentially forced this behavior on the player if she wished to succeed. Still, the letters set it all out in unmistakeable black and white, as it were. And then there were the truly crazy letters from religious fundamentalists and anti-Dungeons and Dragons activists, which included such lovely epithets as “Satanic perverter of America’s youth.”

The first few of those letters that I got at the age of 22 really bothered me. You sit back and go, “Gosh, I know I’m not a wicked individual, I know I’m not teaching Satan worship, I know I’m not doing any of these things.” But the fact that someone would think so bothered me. It made me want to call the person up and say, “Look, you’re wrong, you just misinterpreted it.” But of course it would do no good to do so.

“People,” Richard said in another interview, “read things into my games that were simply statistical anomalies in the programming. They thought I was putting messages into the game.” To his mind, those first four games were all simply “here’s some money, here’s some weapons, here’s some monsters, go kill them and you win.” Like the Beatles a generation earlier, he now decided to give those who wanted hidden messages something that actually, you know, existed to think about it. Less facetiously, all of this feedback did make him begin to think seriously for the first time about the sorts of messages his games were delivering, to begin to understand they were not “just games,” that they could and did say something about the world. He began to understand that every creative work says something, whether its creator intends it to do so or not. It says something about the person who created it, the culture he came from, the audience to which it’s expected to appeal. Richard wasn’t sure he liked what his games were saying — albeit all but unbeknownst to their creator — so he decided to take conscious control of his message with Ultima IV.

It makes for kind of a beautiful story about a young man discovering himself as an artist, discovering that the work he puts into the world really does matter. And there’s no reason to believe it isn’t true in the large strokes. That said, there are indications that the full story may be at least a bit more complicated than the glib summary that Richard has given in almost thirty years worth of interviews.

In the November 1983 issue of Softline magazine is an interview with Richard in which he describes his plans for the nascent Ultima IV. Already at this stage the player’s goal was to become an enlightened avatar by acquiring sixteen attributes — twice as many as in the finished game.

Fifteen attributes represent powers over forces of nature and life, and the final attribute is clairvoyance. The first fifteen attributes may be obtained through certain great deeds in the physical world: areas like those portrayed by all the previous Ultima games. For the final attribute, the adventurer must make a quest into the ninth plane of Hell (presumably through all the lesser planes as well).

The article goes on to state that the resolutely non-bookish Richard had read Dante’s Inferno by way of preparation, “so we can expect the depictions of the planes to be vivid and graphic.”

This is fascinating stuff on a couple of levels. It’s of course always interesting to see how a major work like Ultima IV evolved (if you didn’t find it so, I assume you wouldn’t be reading this blog). It’s interesting that sixteen “attributes” — a word that positively reeks of Dungeons and Dragons — became a more manageable eight virtues. It’s interesting to note how Dante’s Hell turned into the more abstract Stygian Abyss of the final game, doubtless a very wise decision in light of the easily outraged folks already convinced that fantasy role-playing in general and Ultima in particular were the work of Satan. It’s interesting just to note the influence Dante had on Ultima IV, an influence which, for all the words that have been spilled about the game since its release, appears to have gone completely unremarked in all of them.

But perhaps most interesting of all is the timeline of all this. Given magazine lead times, the interview that led to this article must have been done bare weeks or days after Ultima III‘s release — hardly enough time to let Richard receive lots of fan mail and other feedback on the game, internalize it all, and proceed so far down the road to a response in the form of Ultima IV. If we take that as a given, it leaves open just two alternative possibilities: that Sierra at least had in fact been forwarding to Richard his fan mail (this wouldn’t hugely surprise me; demonizing those first two publishers who did so much to give him his start has unfortunately become one of Richard’s less noble hobbies in recent years), or that this feedback, when it arrived, would be a contributory factor to Ultima IV but not quite the prime motivator it’s become in Richard’s telling. With that in mind, let’s look at some of the other factors that may have been at play here.

It seems likely that the real point of genesis of Ultima IV was not a fan letter but rather a television documentary about the Dead Sea Scrolls. This program, mentioned by Richard in interviews but which I unfortunately haven’t been able to identify more specifically, apparently mentioned in passing the belief held by some Christians and Hindus that Jesus Christ visited India during the so-called “unknown years” of his life, that period between about age twelve and thirty which is not described in the New Testament or any other accepted record. Some such folks believe that Jesus was a Hindu “avatar,” a god descended to earth in human form. Richard was captivated by the concept. He wasn’t the first bright young person to seek in the religions of the East a spiritual alternative to the dogmatic rigidity of the Christianity that he saw around him in his daily life. His august company includes the likes of Roger Zelazny, Steve Jobs, and of course a certain four lads from Liverpool. “I am not a religious individual,” he once said, “but I do have difficulty with the scare tactics that religions use to teach ethics, saying you must be good or something bad will happen to you.”

But what was the religious history of the “not religious” Richard? He described it at greatest length to Shay Addams for The Official Book of Ultima:

My family did go to church when I was very young, but by the time I was in my teens we really didn’t. So I went to Sunday school at an interdenominational church, which was a very interesting upbringing because it was extremely interdenominational. I mean, all sorts of different sects of Christianity as well as Judaism and who knows what else — I was too young to know what else might have been there. But it was very interesting the way Sunday school was taught in this church, which I really believe was an amazingly responsible thing to do: they would read a Biblical story that had a moral to it, and they would tell you why this means achieved this end, and then say, “This is a story put in the Bible to teach this lesson.” Christians believe it because it was recorded in this way, and so on, and they would explain it to you not as “this is fact” but as “this is a story that exists for this purpose.”

Although I was a child, I accepted it as fact, literally, but they didn’t tell me this was fact — that you must believe or you are going to Hell. As an adult, I could reflect upon it and say, “I don’t have to believe that. I understand why it was told, and why it was recorded. But it is my choice as to whether I believe it or not.” My eldest brother is religious; myself and Robert are not. We had a choice, though, which is the point. That is why I find it amazingly responsible, the way they brought us up. My father, for instance, was not religious and my mother only somewhat religious, but they believed it was important that their children have that upbringing as a knowledge base, and they found a place where they could get it. So, we all got to make those choices as adults. I thought that was very responsible on my parents’ part and pretty rare.

The factors that made the notion of an interdenominational church so appealing to the pragmatic Richard were likely the same that drew him to the story of Jesus as Hindu avatar: an emphasis on shared spirituality and shared ethics over the niceties of religious dogma. He became fascinated with Hinduism and in particular with Hindu Yoga. Their influence would be all over that first conception of Ultima IV he outlined for Softline, and internalized somewhat more subtly into the finished game.

They have a belief that there are sixteen ways you could purify yourself. In one of these sixteen ways you would get some sort of power, spiritual power, based on that. Some Yogis can kind of like stop their heart and other bodily functions and things of this nature, and I believe these people can literally do those physical things. I’m not saying why they can do them, but apparently the biggest, most powerful Yogis can even do things like teleport themselves to other places on the planet, which I have never seen personally and am somewhat skeptical of, but you never know. But it’s a very interesting thing that the Hindus believe Christ was a very powerful Yogi who, when he studied with them, attained the most powerful level, the avatar. The culmination of Yogis is to become an avatar, and the definition of an avatar is someone who has purified themselves in all sixteen of these ways.

There are five ways of purifying your physical body, for example, and five ways of purifying your spirit, and so on, and the last one, the sixteenth way, was to become one with God Himself. Interestingly enough, to this day Hindus say there have been two avatars in existence throughout history: one was a woman who predates written history, and the second one was Christ.

Garriott’s conception of Hinduism and Yoga is, shall we say, a somewhat idiosyncratic and confused one, steeped at least as much in Dungeons and Dragons and his work-hard-and-achieve upbringing as Hindu or Biblical scripture; this was after all still the kid who had named the villain in Ultima III “Exodus” just because it sounded cool. Thus we have Christ “leveling up” until he becomes an avatar — a word which itself means something different in Hinduism from what Richard seems to think it means — at level 16. Still, what Richard learned or thought he learned about Hinduism and Yoga would remain a critical piece of Ultima IV.

If we postulate a new concern with the messages that his games were sending and a renewed interest in religion — particularly Hinduism — as two legs of the three-legged stool on which rests Ultima IV, the last must be something even more universal: the simple life experience of growing up. Richard had, truth be told, lived a pretty sheltered existence to this point in the bosom of his family and NASA and his Dungeons and Dragons buddies and later of the University of Texas and his SCA troupe. Escapism, whether into fantasy or just the well-scrubbed safety of high-school science fairs, is an obvious running theme. By Richard’s own admission, he was if anything quite immature for his age when Origin decamped for New England. But now he was suddenly living in a house he and his friends were renting for themselves, far from home in the “frozen wastes” of Massachusetts. He was becoming an adult at last, with adult responsibilities.

Lord British in leather

Lord British in leather

Richard started to feel his oats a bit during this period. He found his rather mild rebellious streak later than do many of us, but this did give him the luxury of something teenage rebels mostly lack: money. And so he replaced the practical car he had totaled in the snow with a new Mitsubishi Starion painted a striking jet black. He took to dressing in black leather pants and jacket, with studded bracelets around his wrists. He grew a single strand of hair into a long, braided pony tail that stretched beyond his shoulder blades. His relationship with his “extraordinarily conservative” brother and next-door neighbor Robert became decidedly strained; it seems Robert was usually more inclined to agree with his other neighbors than Richard regarding the latter’s parties and other antics. Warren Spector, a game designer who would become an important contributor to later Ultimas, was working as an assistant editor at Steve Jackson Games in Austin at this time. He describes the version of Richard that he glimpsed for the first time during one of the latter’s occasional return visits to Austin thus: “In drove this rock star in his Mitsubishi, all black. Got out, all black, bling everywhere. I was thinking, okay, I’m in the wrong line of work, I’ve got to find a way to work with this guy!”

The changes were not just external. Richard went through something of a minor existential crisis: “I wasn’t sure I knew what I was doing anymore. I tried to figure out who I was and what I was going to do next.” Trivial as it may sound, when Robert Garriott shook his head in embarrassment and the neighbors scowled at the body parts strewn across his lawn after Halloween or the empty trash cans that remained unretrieved at roadside for days on end, he was learning that actions — or, as the case may be, inaction — has consequences. All of these factors led Richard, like so many idealistically-inclined young men before him, to try to develop a philosophy of life that made sense to him. Richard was unique, however, in that he planned to put it all into a computer game — indeed, he saw doing so almost as a duty. He was well aware that the audience for his games was a pretty young and impressionable one, the most common demographic category being an adolescent boy.

If someone spends 100 hours playing my game, I have 100 hours of the input that makes that person what they are. With that comes, in my mind, a sense of responsibility regarding the content of what I’m going to pipeline into that individual for 100 hours. That was really the kernel thought that started what has now really changed Ultima henceforth and probably forever.

He set himself no less a task than the development of a complete code of ethics, a set of rules for living. As interesting as he found Hinduism and other religious traditions, it was very important to him that his rules for living must be explicitly divorced from any sort of supernatural agency. Some of the most brilliant thinkers in history, a list including Plato, Kant, and Nietzsche just for starters, devoted their lives to wrestling with the same task. Now the 22-year-old college drop-out Richard Garriott hung up a whiteboard, bought a stack of books, and prepared to do the same. The biggest issues he’d wrestled with for previous Ultimas were how many hit points this or that monster should have or how many experience points it should take to raise a character’s level. Now he was trying to devise a complete, internally consistent system of moral philosophy. It was a heady change indeed. Rather typically, Richard found the basic building blocks of the system of ethics he would finally include in Ultima IV not in any of the aforementioned highbrow philosophers but in The Wizard of Oz.

And that makes a pretty good place to stop for today. Next time we’ll look more closely at the ethical system he devised, along with much else in the finished game. Before I let you go, though, I do want to ask you to think about just what a remarkable conceptual leap Richard Garriott was making here, a leap made all the more remarkable by the fact that he did it all on its own, in a vacuum that still contained barely a whiff of our contemporary notions of serious games or ludic rhetoric, and in the genre of the CRPG that had heretofore been about little more than killing monsters and taking their stuff, with none of the higher-toned literary aspirations that Infocom and their competitors had brought to the text adventure.

Above all, it was — and I think this is a very important point with which to close — a tremendously brave choice. Richard was desperately worried about how it would be received by a public who expected just a bigger version of Ultima III. Should enough of those players accustomed to “kill, kill, kill” reject the game, it could bring down his company and put most of his closest friends out of work. The stress actually caused him to suffer the occasional panic attack while he programmed; his stomach would suddenly cramp up and he would have to lie down, willing himself to just breathe. “To succeed in this game,” he notes, “you had to radically change the way you’d ever played a game before.” This was the leap that the creators of Wizardry were unable to make, the one that transformed Ultima forevermore into something just a little bit nobler, a little bit more important, a little bit better than competing franchises. The fact that Richard was willing to make that leap, and that — yes, I’m sparing you the suspense — his public responded to it in huge numbers, makes it in its way as inspiring a story as any you’ll find in gaming history. Robert Gregg’s comments in Dungeons and Dreamers, describing the revelation that Ultima IV was to him when he first encountered it, offer the perfect closing thoughts: “The game was commenting on society, and on the observer himself, just like other forms of art. That was the most exciting part to me — watching the emergence of a new form of art, coming right off the computer.” You and me both, Robert.

(Sources for this article and the next include the books The Official Book of Ultima by Shay Addams, Dungeons and Dreamers by Brad King and John Borland, and Ultima: The Avatar Adventures by Rusel DeMaria and Caroline Spector; the Computer Gaming World issues of September/October 1984, November/December 1985, and March 1986; the Questbusters of August 1985; the Softline of November/December 1983; and the Commodore Power Play of August/September 1985. Also useful were Warren Spector’s video interview with Richard Garriott, and Matt Barton’s with Richard Garriott and with Chuck Bueche.)


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