This Old Game: Ultima

Hast thou attained enlightenment in all eight virtues?

If there is one thing that is generally considered a bad idea to put into a video game, it’s morality. Religious-themed video games have a pretty dismal history and an even more dismal sales record. The words ‘Christian Action Game’ don’t exactly inspire most people to rush down to the local Best Buy to pick up a copy.

However, there is one game (a series of games, more accurately) that actually managed to build itself around concepts of ethics. And it not only succeeded, but established itself as one of the classic computer game series of all time.

Back in the early 80s, Richard Garriott released Ultima. It was, by the standards at the time, a fairly in-depth game. Playing it today, of course, would not leave one with such a great impression. It was a story of adventure to save a far-off kingdom known as Sosaria from an evil wizard. Simple, yes, but popular. Popular enough to warrant two sequels, Ultima II: Revenge of the Enchantress (things go a little crazy in this one — Time Bandits, anyone?), and Ultima III: Exodus.

All in all, things seemed right on track for Ultima to keep pumping out sequels now and then, and to generally drift along as a relatively stable, (if uninspired) role-playing game series.

In 1985, though, things took a bit of an unexpected turn. Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar, took a great departure from the previous Ultimas, as well as from most other RPGs of the time. Suddenly the world of Sosaria (now called Britannia) was in need of a different kind of hero: A hero of virtue. Britannia is in need of spiritual guidance, and Lord British wishes for the player to become the Avatar, a living embodiment of the eight guiding virtues of the land. Compassion, honesty, valor, humility, sacrifice, honor, justice, and spirituality: Not exactly a hit list of things you see in most computer games, then or now.

With this guiding concept of ethics, suddenly the player’s actions in the game meant something. Do good deeds and you would be rewarded. Do bad things and you weren’t going to get anywhere fast. In fact, it was impossible to win the game if you strayed too far from the guiding principles.

Though to some the idea of becoming the Avatar sounds like it just skirts the line of being messianic, it is important to note that Garriott always made sure that religion per se never played a part in the games. The virtues were codes of ethics, not morals. There was no god handing down the dictates; they were all borne of humanity. And once the player became the Avatar, they were still just another human. The Avatar was regarded as a role model by the people of the land, not as a savior.

As the Ultima series continued, so did the various quests of the Avatar. In later games, as technology became more advanced, so did the storylines and the ethical dilemmas faced by the player. Steal some food, and your companions would chide you. Do it again, and they may storm off in a huff for a while until they think you’ve learned your lesson. Murder an innocent bystander and you’d better watch out, because your companions will be trying to take you down next.

The Ultima series totals nine games, with several side games that were not an official part of the overall storyline. Sadly, as the series went on, most fans began to feel that the designers strayed from their own past virtues, and popularity began to wane with number eight. The Avatar was made to act less than virtuously in eight, much to the disappointment of many.

With nine, the designers swore they would be returning to the roots of the series, getting back to basics. This gave great hope to past Ultima fans, and many people eagerly awaited what looked like it could shape up to be on the great RPGs of all time.

Unfortunately, Ultima IX: Ascension is now widely regarded as a prime example of how not to make a computer game. Those that were lucky enough to even get it running after purchasing it were met with a sub-par plot, constant game bugs, and little evidence of the concepts of ethical play that made the games of the past so great.

Perhaps Ultima was just a victim of the changing times. As I said, a game based on concepts of ethics would probably crash and burn with today’s younger audience. Even Ultima Online, a massive, multi-player RPG based on the Ultima world, is devoid of any sort of code of virtue. Tell someone in U.O. that their actions are unvirtuous, and their most likely response will be “fuck u, n00b.” So goes video games, so goes society…

Regardless, the Ultima series will always hold a place in computer game history, and place in the cherished memories of many. If you’ve never played an Ultima, I suggest you seek them out and give them a try. Ultima VI is the one I started with, and I would suggest it to most as though it looks quite dated, it is still modern enough to be playable. Hail Britannia!

Article © 2003 by Joel Haddock