If a single positive resulted from the work of that woefully misinformed but correctly acronymed organization BADD (Bothered about Dungeons & Dragons), a group that waged a crusade to stop children from jumping into the Bags of Holding that they learned to construct from an $11.99 hardcover rulebook purchased at a hobby store, it was the computer RPG Ultima IV: The Quest of the Avatar. To this day, it’s only video RPG I’ve ever loved. And I’m not the only one who got sucked into this fantasy computer game when it was first published by Origin Systems in 1985 for a variety of platforms. (This was also the year of The Bard’s Tale from Electronic Arts; a major time for computer RPGs.)
By the middle of the decade, Richard Garriott, who programs under the pseudonym “Lord British,” had completed the first three of the Ultima games, featuring standard RPG plots where heroes had to vanquish a series of Dark Lords and their descendants. He had received complaints from parents about the demonic nature of these games—and the cover of Ultima III: Exodus in particular—and certainly knew about BADD’s anti-fantasy game campaign. But Garriott did something interesting instead of shrugging off the complaints. He used them to see if he could devise a new challenge for a computer game that wouldn’t use the standard “defeat the Big Bad Guy” of fantasy RPGs. What if the players had to actually live up to the extraordinary standards of acting as great, chivalric heroes? In fact, what if that was the whole point of the game: achieve the highest level of moral heroism so the players turned into ethical cynosures for the whole world? What was called, in game terms, an “Avatar”?
(Today the word “avatar” is common computer lingo, but in 1985 only people familiar with Hinduism had any familiarity with it.)
After two years of development, Garriott released Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar, which follows the story of what happens to a fantasy world after the vanquishing of a great evil. The land of Britannia now struggles toward enlightenment, with the player character as the center of the development. “I thought people were going to think I was going way off the deep end with the ethical, moral, parable stuff,” Garriott later said, but if he had any serious concerns about how players of the first three games would react to this “moral, parable” campaign, they quickly evaporated when Ultima IV turned into a huge best-seller.
What I’ve always appreciated about Ultima IV was that it moved consciously against a common technique in fantasy games from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, both tabletop and computer: “Let’s go sack some monsters’ lairs and take their stuff.” When role-playing games started as an extension of wargaming, the “attack ‘n’ pillage” approach made sense. But after a while, doesn’t something seem anti-heroic about running into somebody’s home, killing them, and taking their money? Because, really, that’s what a lot of early D&D consisted of. And the first Ultima games rewarded players for grabbing other people’s chests of treasure and killing non-evil creatures guilty only of existence. In Ultima III, one of the best ways to raise the experience levels of your party members was to travel to a town filled with clerics and no guards and simply kill them all. Hey, it was just game… if you needed to do something to get ahead, go ahead and do it.
I don’t mind rapacious-minded playing once in a while. Would we have a Grand Theft Auto series without it? Dangerous, morally ambiguous heroes often make great characters. But before Ultima IV came along, it seemed that no one had thought of much of an alternative to the kill-and-grab style; it was simply the easiest way to construct a game.
But Ultima IV attempted to emulate actual ancient and medieval myths and fables that tried to impart values to their readers and listeners. The player in Ultima IV faces the task of achieving the highest levels of eight virtues: Valor, Compassion, Honesty, Spirituality, Humility, Sacrifice, Justice, and Honor. The goal isn’t the defeat of a great enemy, but reaching a level of achievement in all the virtues so the player character can obtain the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom from the Abyss. The player, through an opening tarot-carding reading “cinematic,” takes on a class aligned with one of the virtues: fighter for Valor, bard for Compassion, mage for Honesty, ranger for Spirituality, shepherd for Humility, tinkerer for Sacrifice, druid for Justice, and paladin for Honor. The player travels the land of Britannia, visiting cities, fortresses, and ruins associated with the Eight Virtues and gathers together a party of the other classes. The player gradually raises his or her levels in the virtues through actions such as giving alms to beggars, never running from battle, avoiding killing non-evil creatures, leaving alone the possessions of others, meditating at shrines, and not cheating the blind. As the game progresses, the party moves through dungeons that oppose the Virtues as they seek the enlightenment that will allow them to enter the Abyss to find the Codex that will make the player the Avatar that Lord British (a character in the game, not the programmer) needs to serve as a guide for all the people of the land.
Ultima IV offered a much more open-ended challenge as an RPG, letting the players wander over an extensive world—far larger than seen in the previous three games—and learning about their quests through many conversations with NPCs in towns and castles. A simple conversation system (“Your interest?” the NPC asks) takes up the majority of actions in the game. A lot of fighting occurs as well, with wandering monsters in the wilderness besetting the party and providing a steady stream of revenue to purchase weapons and the reagents needed for the spells (make sure you have Cure on hand; poison landscape is everywhere).
Ultima IV had my friends and I riveted to our Apple //e monitors for hours and hours. I actually managed to win the game as a shepherd, which amazed everybody, who preferred to start as mages so they could immediately start casting fireball spells. For writing this article I tried playing the game using one of its Mac OS X reconstructions. I discovered that the game still has some of its engrossing qualities, but I also recalled why I tired of computer RPGs very fast: the combats tend to turn into an endless dull blur of attack-defend-attack-defend. Wandering around facing monster assaults gets wearisome when you can’t find a town to explore or you just need to up your Valor or experience points. To win the game involves a lot of backtracking, visiting healers and blind herb sellers (don’t cheat ‘em, you’ll lose Honesty), dropping money to beggars, and then running off to Lord British’s castle so he can raise your party members up to the next level of advancement. But back in 1985, it was a revelation, a game that asked players to live up to a chivalric code—and considering the other games we had played, that was the most intriguing challenge of all.
The Ultima series has continued on, and Ultima Online gave birth to the MMORPG phenomenon, but I don’t think any of the series could beat Quest of the Avatar for sheer innovation.
And, in the other realm of my life, Frankie Manning has died…