Posted by: Ben | April 14, 2011

Man vs Genre: Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar

The Facts

“Pride, then, seems to be a sort of crown of the virtues; for it makes them greater, and it is not found without them.” – Aristotle.

Reading through my original mission statement, it appears that when I started this project I was hopeful of finding a title which would make me finally understand the RPG, or failing that one which would induce me to wash my hands of the genre entirely.

Impressively, Ultima IV manages to do both both. It does this by being as enormous and detailed summary of 1985’s state of the art of RPGs as one could hope for, a Platonic RPG, if you will. It is compulsive and evocative. It simulates a fully realised world with a vast number of theoretical possibilities, none of which amount to anything. It is a complete and unqualified waste of time, and it’s hard to imagine what might induce me ever to play again.

Having consumed Star Wars, Time Bandits and Tron and wrapped them around easy-to-grasp swords ’n’ sorcery quest-structures, Richard “Lord British” Garriott took an unexpected left turn into Essex, sorry, ethics, for Ultima IV. Good for him, I say, although the left turn wasn’t sufficiently steep to conceive a game that wasn’t a third sequel. Still, Ultima IV turned out to be a pretty good idea, since it was raved about in various quarters. Mainly by Americans, who if I remember the 1980s correctly were pretty much the only people who could afford the computing behemoths to play it on. Meanwhile in California, Jay Miner was launching the Amiga, and in Hull I was still playing out in the street with other kids at the time, two years away from owning a machine capable of running Jet Set Willy or Lords of Midnight.

The Cover

“To cease from evil, to do good, and to purify the mind yourself, this is the teaching of all the Buddhas.” – Gautama Buddha

A picture of Jesus, parting the Red Sea with an Ankh. From which we can deduce that the game will have a Messianic feel while at the same time being agreeably non-denominational.

The Lore

“We have just emerged from the darkest period in recorded history. With the vanquishing of the Triad of evil, we need no longer anxiously watch our backs for fear that evil will fall upon us in the first unguarded moment. The stability achieved by the New Age seems to herald a Golden Age of Peace and Prosperity. What kind of people will inherit this New Age? Surely our destiny is not to perpetuall fight as warring tribes throughout all time. Is there not a higher calling – one worthy of our efforts and capabilities?” – Ultima IV manual

In a spectacular break with tradition, the world of Britannia (nee Sosaria) is no longer threatened by an evil mastermind, which rather begs the question of why attacks from wandering groups of monsters, rogues and pirates are if anything more frequent than in Ultima III. “Why doth Evil still stalk the world and can it ever be truly vanquished?” asks the manual, reasonably.

Having forseen the end of history, Lord British summons YOU to Britannia through the debatable margins of reality in order that you can set an example to the morally delinquent populace and thereby become the Avatar.

Despite the Hindu terminology and Euro-Medieval presentation, as seen in-game this presents itself as an essentially Buddhist concept. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to attain Enlightenment in the eight Virtues, those being Honesty, Humility, Spirituality, Sacrifice, Valour, Honour, Justice and Compassion. As you adventure through the world, as well as accumulating companions, attributes, hit points and money, the game monitors your actions and if you behave yourself you will gradually advance in each of these virtues. In the interests of preserving the illusion, the scoring system the game uses remains opaque rather than explicit, a design decision that makes your relationship with the world more analogue and – dare I say it – immersive than certain Bioware games I could mention.

Every time you hit the top score in a virtue you have to go and meditate at a shrine to prove it. Even with that lot out of the way your quest is not yet complete. You also have to explore eight dungeons, retrieving a number of stones, and piece together a series of cryptic clues before descending into the final (presumably bastard hard) dungeon, the Stygian Abyss, to claim the game’s Big Maguffin, the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom.

Oh, and none of this is explained in advance. You’ll only have any idea of what you’re supposed to be doing if you thoroughly explore the absolutely immense world and converse with the various people therein, some of whom have substantially more personality than others.

Character Building

“So too then is it with the Virtues: for by acting in the various relations in which we are thrown with our fellow men, we come to be, some just, some unjust: and by acting in dangerous positions and being habituated to feel fear or confidence, we come to be, some brave, others cowards.” – Aristotle

Although your ultimate goal is to excel in all eight of the Virtues, you will probably have priorities. Instead of choosing your character and deciding how strong / charismatic / wise they’re going to be on a scale of one to twenty-four, you are instead asked a series of questions about ethical dilemmas, like so:

Thou hast been sent to secure a needed treaty with a distant Lord. Thy host is agreeable to the proposal but insults thy country at dinner. Dost thou valiantly bear the slurs, or justly rise and demand an apology?

Your character class and starting location will depend on your answers. Hint: don’t choose Humility. It’s all very well being a humble shepherd, but something nasty will probably come along and kill you straight away.

It’s said that Garriott developed Ultima 4’s ethical system after receiving the unwanted attentions of Christian parents who thought the demonic foes and magic spells common to the Ultima and Dungeons and Dragons universes might be encouraging an epidemic of devil worship across Middle America. Ironically the result was a system that (if the thoughts of assorted journalists and bloggers on the internet are anything to go by) had a substantial influence on the developing belief systems of impressionable teens. While Christian parents couldn’t complain about the virtues, there’s an empowerment to Garriott’s Avatar that’s lacking from most interpretations of Christianity. Like a Buddhist, the Avatar seeks to achieve enlightenment through his own actions and thoughts, with no need to involve an external Saviour in the process.

Although you do have to please this rather grumpy seer.

The Buddha taught the middle path between asceticism and indulgence, while Aristotle considered virtue to be the mean between two extremes, and thought humility a vice. By contrast, the direction of Ultima IV compels your character to strive for excellence. By the time I was considered worthy of elevation in the virtue of Sacrifice, for instance, I had given all my worldly goods to beggars and donated so much blood I could barely walk.

Back in Ultimas I to III, of course, you defeated evil by murdering jesters and stealing horses (and, if you’re like me, massacring priests as well). In order to justify that sort of behaviour, you’d have to roleplay those games as a kind of Nietzschian “noble man” from a line stretching back through Conan to Odysseus, levelling up through the “will to power” and using the population as stepping stones on the road to greatness. You might describe such a hero as beyond good and evil.

Conversely the in-game Lord British qualifies as Aristotle’s “proud” or “great-souled” man, of whom it is said “He is the sort of man to confer benefits, but he is ashamed of receiving them, for one is the mark of a superior, the other of an inferior. And he is apt to confer greater benefits in return, for thus the original benefactor besides being repaid will incur a debt to him.” The backstory says that Lord British won his kingdom after defeating one of the earlier villains, who nonetheless returned, but no matter how many times the Avatar returns to Britannia to defeat evil, he or she never gets so much as a single jester. As the ruler of the kingdom, Lord British is in no position to provide a moral example to his population, but he does choose a fellow American (implicitly) to come and do it for him.

Lord British is attempting to kick-start the struggling economy by investing in the public sector. This year alone has seen him employ two guards, two jesters, a bard and an outreach co-ordinator.

The Game

“He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.” – Friedrich Nietzche

In terms of what you actually do when you’re “playing” Ultima 4, it’s largely the same as its immediate predecessor. You’re a little man in a big world. You map, fight monsters and, with any luck, hijack a boat. When you’re strong enough you head down into the first-person dungeons and collect items. Talking to characters results in meaningless babble, direct instructions or cryptic hints, and if you want to finish the game you’re going to have to follow up every single one of them.

The graphics have been upgraded to spangly EGA but not substantially redesigned. The big change is the size of the world, which has increased exponentially since Ultima III.

This, of course, was a selling point when there was nowt else to play, so it’s hardly fair to pick on Ultima 4 for it now. For the average gamer in 1985, who’s paid top dollar for a boxed set and is not generally tempted by a multitude of other shiny things to play instead, this is wonderful news. In the absence of online FAQs, this game could probably have kept you occupied for years of your life.

Verdict

He enters a labyrinth, he multiplies by a thousand the dangers already inherent in the very act of living, not the least of which is the fact that no one with eyes will see how and where he gets lost and lonely and is torn limb from limb by some cave-Minotaur of conscience. And assuming a man like this is destroyed, it is an event so far from human comprehension that people do not feel it or feel for him: — and he cannot go back again! He cannot go back to their pity again! – Friedrich Nietzche

One of the hideous abominations of nature that awaits in the dungeons.

So yeah. This might be the last Man vs Genre for a while.

In these enlightened modern times, it can seem as though guiding your little man around the world and its dungeons, intermittently fighting orcs, is the very epitome of pointless tedium, going on as it does for bloody ever. This game is much too much too long, and it resorts to every little trick to slow you down. Combat takes hours, especially when your party swells to eight members, all of whom want the chance to bash a monster over the head if they’re to level up. My Ultima IV time so far is around the fifty-hour mark and although I’m sorted for virtues, if I went back to it I’d have to do the whole dungeon thing, and frankly I’m going to need to give it a few months to get it out of my system before I even think of going back.

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