August 11th, 2010

Retrospective: Richard Garriott's Ultima Series

One of my favorite computer game series is Richard Garriott's Ultima series, which at its artistic peak, from Ultima IV through Ultima VII, achieved the highest level of ambition and art that I'm aware of in video games.

I never played the first three Ultima games, but I know the general outlines. In Ultima, you have to kill an evil wizard named Mondain. He's created a gem that makes him immortal, so the only way to kill him is to travel back in time to before he made the gem. In Ultima II, you have to kill Mondain's protege/lover, the sorceress Minax. In Ultima III, you have to kill a demonic being named Exodus, who is actually some sort of AI machine who can only be destroyed by inserting into his body the proper Tarot cards, a la computer punch cards. So far it's pretty standard RPG stuff.

Ultima IV is different. In that one there's no big bad guy you have to kill. Instead, the main focus of the game is on moral self-improvement. As you journey through the game world, completing quests and acquiring items, you're constantly tested on your adherence to eight virtues -- honesty, compassion, valor, honor, justice, sacrifice, humility, and spirituality. Only a character who behaves in an exemplary fashion can successfully complete the game.

Ultima IV established a model that would be repeated in Ultima V and Ultima VI. Each game begins with you living your ordinary life on earth:

You then encounter a glowing gateway which transports you into a magical realm:

You are then presented with a series of ethical dilemmas, each of which pits two of the eight virtues against each other:

The type of character you'll be in the game depends on what choices you make. For example, a person who values valor above all other virtues will play the game as a warrior.

In Ultima IV, the final quest you have to complete is to venture into a volcanic labyrinth called the Stygian Abyss and retrieve an artifact called The Codex of Ultimate Wisdom, a magical book that always falls open to the page containing exactly what you wanted to know. In true Indiana Jones fashion, claiming the Codex causes massive tectonic upheavals, and a vast catacomb opens beneath the earth. The benevolent ruler of the realm, Lord British (an alter ego of series creator Richard Garriott), leads an expedition to chart this new environment, but his party never returns. In his absence, his aide Lord Blackthorn goes mad and imposes an absolutist interpretation of the eight virtues, e.g. be honest or have your tongue ripped out. You then find yourself, in Ultima V, acting as a sort of Robin Hood-style outlaw, trying to take down the system that your example helped inspire.

In Ultima VI, Lord British has been restored to the throne, but problems persist. Strange new creatures called gargoyles have been emerging from the underground catacombs and wreaking havoc. The gargoyles even lure you through a moongate and attempt to sacrifice you in ritual fashion:

Fortunately you're rescued by your loyal friends. Ultima VI is subtitled "The False Prophet," and it's not initially clear who or what the false prophet is, but presumably he's some sort of villain, probably a gargoyle. In Ultima VI, the earth is literally flat -- you can sail to the edge and look over the side -- and you eventually discover that the catacombs you inadvertently opened in Ultima IV lead all the way through the earth and emerge on the opposite side, where the gargoyles dwell. You then discover that the tectonic upheavals that created the catacombs are destroying their world, causing their cities to sink into the sea, and only a small island yet remains to them. It turns out that the Codex was their greatest treasure, and that you are the False Prophet who stole it from them, and that your sacrifice will save their world. Fortunately you are able to negotiate a peace between humans and gargoyles, and to arrange for the Codex to be shared between them:

In Ultima VII, you return to the magical realm of Britannia and immediately get caught up in trying to solve a string of ritual murders. You soon cross paths with Batlin, the leader of a new self-help organization called the Fellowship, who disdain healers in favor of willing yourself back to health and who promote their own ethical system as an alternative to the eight virtues. The Fellowship is obviously a satire of the Church of Scientology, right down to their leader Batlin, who bears a striking resemblance to L. Ron Hubbard:


If you live in New York, you constantly encounter Scientologists in the subway stations offering to give you free "stress tests" which invariably reveal that you're terribly stressed out and can only be cured by Scientology. Likewise, in Ultima VII Batlin administers a personality test to you, sort of a warped echo of the eight virtues questions, except in this test every choice you pick is the wrong answer and reveals deep flaws in your personality that only the Fellowship can help you overcome. There's a Fellowship hall in each town, and the members gather there each night and tell their stories. You quickly realize that all the biggest jerks in any given town are members of the Fellowship, and that their tales of how the Fellowship has helped them are deeply unreliable -- for example, the town bully might talk about how the Fellowship has helped him to assert himself. The Fellowship also engages in scuzzy behavior like trying to coerce the poor into joining by offering charitable services only to its members. As with any cult, most of the low-level members are well-meaning dupes, but Batlin and the upper echelons of the leadership have a very sinister agenda -- to use member donations to finance the construction of a black moongate that will allow the evil godlike being they worship to cross into Brittannia:

Throughout the game, this evil entity, called the Guardian, talks to in your head, playing cruel mind games with you.

Ultima IV, Ultima V, Ultima VI, and Ultima VII were true works of art and obvious labors of love. Ultima VII in particular featured just a staggering amount of detail. You could pick up and use just about any object in the game, and there were a hundred or more characters each with their own personality, daily schedule, and conversation tree. Unfortunately creating something like that wasn't cheap, and Garriott faced the constant prospect of financial ruin if one of the games underperformed. He eventually agreed to sign up with his biggest rival, Electronic Arts (EA). Hints of this rivalry are woven into the plot of Ultima VII . The ritual murders are being committed by a couple named Elizabeth and Abraham (initials E & A), and the Guardian is exerting malign magical influence on the realm through the use of three giant monoliths -- a cube, a sphere, and a pyramid (at the time, EA's logo consisted of a cube, a sphere, and a pyramid). Unfortunately the merger turned out to be basically the end of Ultima. Future installments were rushed out the door to make a quick buck, and were buggy and disappointing.

I understand that the rights to the Ultima IP are so tangled that we're unlikely to ever see another installment, which is a terrible shame. It would be great to play a new Ultima adventure that returned to the quality of Ultima VII. Failing that, it would be great to see more games that incorporated the sort of fully-realized world, emphasis on storytelling, and thoughtful consideration of ethical issues that made the Ultima games so powerful and unique.