Game Changers: Ultima IV

Thank you for joining me once again, and welcome to the first entry under the banner “Game Changers”, a running account of the games I’ve played that have had a hand in changing my life. First up, is Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar, fourth in the series but first in the Avatar Trilogy. There were other games in the series that were better looking and more fun to play, but it was Ultima IV that took the radical step towards making morality a cornerstone of its gameplay.

At no point in the game do you get all Moses on the ocean so this was false advertising.

The 80s were a weird time. I mean the Twenteens are pretty weird, too, but man the 80s. Where to even begin. Eh, forget it. I won’t expound, many other smarter people have already done so. Wait ’til Ken Burns gets his hands on that shit. Until then you’re stuck with me. *middle finger*

Ultima IV came out mid 80s and my home life was already a mess. My father was incredibly ill before I was born, and that only got worse over the years. Dealing with a terminally ill parent was a traumatic experience, and this was even before we knew how serious his condition was. It caused untold stress in the house, and as I was only a little boy I certainly had no answers. All I could do was watch. The amount of time my mother had to focus on him which took away from the time we could have spent together, so I had to turn to outside sources for life lessons. There weren’t a lot of other grown ups around me I trusted enough to ask tough questions of, and most of the ones I did trust were busy with their own lives.

In order to find relief from the world around me and to figure out who I was supposed to be I buried myself in games, with a particular focus on role playing games. Now, in the 80s roleplaying games were still relatively new, and as such were grossly misunderstood by the parents of the time. I can remember when I was 7 or 8 my next door neighbor’s parents bought me my first ever Dungeons and Dragons set (The Frank Mentzer Red Box!) and how horrified my mother was because she assumed I was going to turn into a devil worshiper. Little did she know I was already well on the path thanks to Iron Maiden but that’s her fuckin fault, not mine.

Side note: Dungeons and Dragons is going to get it’s own Game Changer write up soon. Oh my God there’s going to be so many demons. SO many. Your fragile sensibilities are in for a surprise.

Anyway, back to Ultima 4. One of the things concurrent to the DND panic was the backlash that occurred for some computer games of the day. Richard Garriott, creator of Ultima, had received correspondence from parents who were dismayed by the portrayal of demons in earlier Ultima games. The cover of Exodus alone was enough to have mommies and daddies clutching prayer beads. As a parent today I can kinda see their point, though I’ve got my own set of shit to deal with where they’re concerned. I’d take a Balrog over Facebook or Tide Pod challenges 10 times out of 10. #BeBest

I mean, yeah, I guess I can see parents’ concern.

Even today games still rely on the mostly tired fantasy trope of good versus evil. You fired the game up, killed all the evil, assumed your actions were good and that was that. In previous Ultima games, though, sometimes doing objectively evil shit like killing townsfolk and looting their stores helped you ultimately win the game. Yay for the good guys? Confession: I committed mass murder in Ultima 1 to afford the fuel for my space ship so I could ultimately kill the bad guy Mondain. Noble was their sacrifice.

Them visuals were state of the art once. Gave me chills.

But Garriott decided Ultima was going to go in a new direction. He decided Ultima IV was going to ask the player to do good because it was a necessary function of the gameplay. Your mission in Ultima IV was to become the game world’s “Avatar”, the embodiment of good in Britannia. He broke up the tasks of doing what he considered good into a set of eight Virtues.

Honesty: While exploring Britannia, there are numerous opportunities to tell the truth or lie for your own advantage. You could steal gold from settlements around the map, which would certainly enrich the player in the short term, but the act itself would be detrimental for your overall ascendance to Avatarhood. My personal favorite expression of honesty is the blind merchant from whom you can purchase items for your quest. How much you render in payment will affect your honesty. Give him too little? You’re a dishonest asshole and you know it. Give the right amount? You Dudley Do-Right you. At the time, however, I remember thinking to myself, “Wow would someone really take advantage of a blind person like that?” I always paid the right amount. I ain’t about to stiff the poor old tavern keeper.

Compassion: Compassion was harder to express in terms of gameplay, but the best examples are the beggars throughout the realm who you can ignore like a shithead or give a few coppers to so they can get a hot meal.

My man here has no legs. You gonna just walk by him? That’s cold, Dan.

Valor: I can’t think of a single RPG that didn’t feature combat, so showing Valor during conflict was a necessity. This primarily is achieved by not running away from a fight. Doing so showed cowardice. Sometimes it was simply necessary to flee because your party was incapable of prevailing. Any time you fled you’d lose progress in your expression of Valor, but you could mitigate it somewhat by being the last one off the field.

Justice: Being Just in U4 required knowing when to fight and when to discourage conflict. Most of the combat scenarios in the game are pretty standard and lean more into Valor, but there are times when fighting isn’t the answer and avoiding combat should be the goal. Sometimes in combat, however, enemies attempt to flee. Letting them escape was sometimes preferable to being merciless. There are also a few moral dilemmas in the game that see you having to look to achieve the most just outcome, no matter the consequences for those involved.

Honor: For me, Honor bleeds into most of the other Virtues, too. Honesty, Sacrifice, Compassion, Valor, even Justice. For gameplay purposes, however, Honor was narrow and tough to model in the game. It was achieved primarily by staying true to your quest and fulfilling your commitment to the realm by exploring dungeons despite the dangers they faced. Scattered throughout the game were also relics and other items that the people of Britannia could look to as examples of your accomplishments. Tangible reminders that you honored your quest.

Sacrifice: Sacrifice was modeled in U4 a couple of ways. Earlier I said if you left the field of battle last you’d still lose some progress in Valor, and that’s true. But lingering to ensure all of your companions escape safely gives you a bump in sacrifice. Something else one could do would be to donate blood for those in need. It would cost you some of your own precious health, but there were plenty of ways to heal yourself back into fighting form. Give blood, mmK?

Spirituality: Another tough Virtue to model in terms of gameplay, but mostly achieved through quasi-religious acts like meditating at the shrines of Virtue, staying true to the other Virtues. Roman Catholicism was what I was raised on, so at the time I associated this with prayer and devotion. I don’t drink from that fountain anymore, so the definition of spirituality I ascribe to is more humanistic. Regardless, in the game you gotta pray just to make it today.

Humility: This is the one. Humility is the Virtue that is toughest to embody in U4, because of the concept’s nuance. Most of your progress in Humility will come from your interactions with the citizens of Britannia. The conversation system in U4 was primitive by today’s gaming standards but it included keywords you could use to talk to the game’s inhabitants. If you spend your time talking about yourself or regaling others with your accomplishments, that’s hardly humble. Not that being proud of yourself is in itself a sin. It’s hubris that does us all in.

Virtue Fig. 1: I forgot combat was real time, and got up to go pee. This goblin was Unjust and Dishonest and used my potty break to fuck my shit up. Fear not, I Valor’d his ass to death once I sat back down.

Of all of the virtues in the game, Humility was the one that fascinated me most. It’s also the one I didn’t understand when I read it. The definition of Humility as provided by Ultima 5’s Lore Book is “perceiving one’s place in the world, not according to one’s own accomplishments, but according to the intrinsic value of all individuals.”

The fuck did you just say?

I remember sitting at the dining room table and reading the definitions of all of the other virtues and thinking “Yep, got it, got it, yep, sure, I guess, right on, …. huh?” I asked my parents, and their responses were mostly along the lines of, “Gosh that’s tough to explain.” No shit, guys. *sigh* Eat your spaghetti.

Most churches and religions seem to define humility as an act of self-debasement before others. Worse, some definitions suggest humility should be the practice of holding oneself in lower regard. That’s a garbage way of describing it.

And this is where Ultima IV changed my life. I had to discover for myself what humility meant. I think I’ve finally reached my own conclusion.

Humility is acknowledging that every life is precious, that every person is worthy, and our lives are the most fulfilled when we live it in service of others. Humility is looking at someone who has wronged us and taking the time to ask ourselves why they did it and if it’s possible to understand their motives and reasoning. Humility is being able to recognize ours are not the only convictions that stand up to scrutiny, and that we must, however we can, honor the convictions of others so long as those convictions aren’t weaponized for the sole purpose of personal gain.

There’s people in the world right now who are so sure of their own self worth it has been weaponized against the rest of us. You know who I mean, and I’m not going to get into it on this site. Suffice it to say, the hubris of a few undermines the earnest humility of all.

Let’s take a look at a Humility example in terms of gameplay: I beat the Thunderjaw in Horizon Zero Dawn with 3 seconds to spare. I was pretty proud of myself. That mother fucker is hard enough to beat in 20 minutes much less in 2 minutes 37 seconds. I’m proud of that feat. I didn’t change lives, but I get to say I was I showed the Thunderjaw who worked for whom.

Now, I don’t go looking at people who did it with 2 seconds to spare and think those people are losers (except for Dan who probably wouldn’t be able to do it whatsoever because he’s basically inept). Not everyone can do it. It’s hard. My wife will never, in all of her years of life, succeed at defeating a Thunderjaw. She’d be lucky to get past the first Goomba in Super Mario Bros. I’m sorry but it’s true.

The lesson in it all was knowing how to be proud of oneself and finding joy and peace in who we are without trying to measure our worth against the accomplishments of others.

I hope this makes sense to you, and I hope to discuss humility much more over the life of the blog.

Ultima IV is a classic game, and one of the earliest, best examples of the medium as art and social commentary.

The coolest part? If you wanted to play this game for yourself you can do so. And for free! That’s right! Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar is available through Good Old Games for the low low price of nothing.

This is the game’s original MS-DOS tileset, state of the art for 1985!

Take a look at those virtues and see how many of them could apply to your daily life. Not a lot of blind merchants, I know, just humor me, ok?

I love you.

Lower your shoulder and wade in.