“Let's Reboot” takes a look back at a classic in need of a new outing or a beloved series gone stale and asks how it might be best redesigned or given a kick up the backside for today's gaming audience. The Rules: Assume a free hand, and a decent budget, but realistic technology and expectations. This week's sacred cow – the RPG with its sights set on honour... and eight other virtues too.
The next few months are either going to be really good, or really, really heartbreaking for Ultima fans. Officially on its way, we've got Ultima Forever , which will... ah... hopefully be better than it looks so far. Original creator Richard "Lord British" Garriott is also launching an independent revival of the series' core themes, if not the Ultima brand itself, with the online/offline Kickstarter project Shroud Of The Avatar: Forsaken Virtues . What neither of them are though is a classic RPG casually redesigned for the sake of a quick thought experiment. So, in the name of Britannia... Let's Reboot!
First up, our Ultima is going to be a single-player game - for a couple of reasons. First is the classic reason, that it makes it easier to be a hero. Second... the ethics of Ultima and the realities of online life are as bad a mix as an angry swarm of bees and an offensive balloon animal trying to live as roommates. Ultima was a series predicated on virtues of honesty and humility and valour and compassion. Ultima Online took that tradition... and became a charnel house nightmare. Subsequent attempts like A Tale In The Desert and Second Life haven't exactly convinced me that anonymity and virtual worlds are the best way to explore questions of honour rather than A/S/L.
(This is not to say I wouldn't like to see another big MMO pick up where Ultima Online left off, especially in terms of world simulation. It's just probably not the best way to do Ultima specifically.)
So, where do we begin? Quick primer. Simplifying things down for the sake of time, and ignoring things like the first three games, Ultima is the story of the Avatar - a regular guy (or gal, until the later games) from our world who gets repeatedly drawn into a land called Britannia to save it from destruction/moral collapse. He's the paragon of the Eight Virtues - Honesty, Compassion, Valor, Justice, Sacrifice, Honor, Spirituality and Humility - but importantly, just a regular guy. No superpowers, save being able to learn magic like anyone else over there. He has good friends, and a noble heart. That's all.
The moral collapses defined the Ultima quests as something more than just slaying monsters and rescuing princesses... ignoring the first at least, where you not only saved princesses, but at one point went into space to fight TIE Fighters. They were a little weird. As of Ultima V though, the pattern was there. IV in fact had no big threat, and was entirely about living up to the challenge of becoming the Avatar and embodying the virtues. V span that on its head, showing them corrupted by three figures called the Shadowlords to turn Britannia into a fascist state. VI was about racism and tolerance, in the wake of a mysterious gargoyle invasion. VII was an extended riff on groups like Scientology and how easily good works can be corrupted. Finally, VIII was about putting the Avatar into a situation where he had no choice but to allow the means to justify the end, and IX was a rancid pile of horseshit.
What always fascinated me about Ultima though is that if you ignore taking out a couple of despots and their son in the first three games (assuming the Stranger of those games is also the Avatar - things are a little messy there), the Avatar is the worst thing that ever happened to Britannia.
This is never addressed in the game, but essentially the moment 'wise' Lord British put out a call for an Avatar, he doomed his entire world. Every single sequel - every single one - can be traced back to this one guy. The Shadowlords of Ultima V are the result of him vanquishing an earlier foe without cleaning up properly, the gargoyle invasion is his fault for dooming their homeland, and the dimension-conquering villain of Ultima VII-IX is literally his evil self, as split off and made super-powerful when he achieved Avatardom. In fairness, this wasn't actually the original plan for the trilogy, but it's canon now.
Even if we give Lord British the benefit of the doubt though, and say that something bad would probably have happened anyway, the concept still fails. The Avatar inspires faith and respect, but everything from the religious trappings surrounding him to the timing of his return means that it's mis-channeled. The Avatar is meant to be an example to actively live up to, not a symbol to worship. Over literally centuries of history - Britannian time being a little screwy - not one single other person manages to step up to the plate. We're not even really talking becoming a second Avatar. When the world is in peril, pretty much everyone just sits back and waits for a stranger from another one.
Our reboot is about someone else trying to become that hero. Not necessarily successfully.
For a couple of reasons, we're going to call this one "Trial Of The Avatar" - though it takes place during one of his or her many absences from Britannia. The exact timing doesn't really matter, given that canonically Britannia was blown up at the end of the series anyway. (Consider that carefully swept under the rug.) As with Ultima Forever, and to acknowledge that Lord British is Richard Garriott's alter-ego rather than simply character, we're also putting him on a bus. Something came up elsewhere, he's disappeared, but everyone is sure that one day he will return. In his place, Britannia is ruled by a reformed Great Council - eight regents, one from each of Britannia's major cities.
The actual game is based on a few key concepts - doing good for its own sake, the fallibility of heroes, and the consequences of heroism. As the Avatar, you get a certain implied moral authority. But you're not the Avatar this time. You're just a regular Britannian - either gender, of course - growing up in the Humility focused town of New Magincia. For character creation, we see slices of that - vignettes of your upbringing where you faced situations others would walk away from, and not always in your favour. At fourteen for instance, you might intervene in a mugging in a city's alley and get a choice of intervening and buying the victim time to escape, earning yourself a thrashing, or launching an attack that leads to a few days in the cells after the victim runs and the town guard arrests everyone left.
Does that deter you? No. Because that's what the Avatar would have done.
Of course, deciding you have what it takes to be a hero isn't exactly humble, is it?
After all this, which determines character class like the gypsy in the old days, and sets a few flags to call back to later on, the game actually starts by removing those training wheels. You're now an adult, but still not willing to put 'be like the Avatar' away with your other childish things. With basic training in a suitable discipline, you head to the capital, Britain - not to seek your fortune, but your destiny. Of course, first you have to get there, and many things can happen to unwary travellers on the road...
And when you arrive, don't expect it to be as Compassionate as it claims.
Something I always hated about the later Ultima games was how often people had some excuse for doing the wrong thing - Shadowlords or an interdimensional deity specialising in manipulation or something. For that reason, while the plot may involve outside elements in various ways, everyone is responsible for their own behaviour this time... and most of the time, that behaviour isn't good. This is a cynical time in Britannia, with your character there to - as a general rule - try to cast a light into the darkness. Britain (the capital city) is much bigger and hostile in design terms, with dark streets and bad neighbourhoods and less than Compassionate guards. Anyone claiming Valor likely does it with a strong sense of arrogance and personal privilege. Similarly, those who claim Honor and Justice will often claim the automatic high moral ground, even if they're a corrupt travelling judge or similar. It's not a nightmare world or anything that strong, just one where standards have been allowed to keep slipping.
As a would-be hero, it's your job to lead by example - a quest system built around observations more than direct requests. An old lady for instance wouldn't give you the quest to go find her grandson lost in the woods, you'd hear the story and make a note in your journal - "I should go look for him." Your basic starting goal in town might simply be to improve your neighbourhood by doing a few quick quests, which draws the attention of someone on the council for a more heavy job, and an honour like a knighthood or ambassadorship - allowing Britain to remain a base of operations and hub of character/faction relationships, but still travel out to other cool places like a revamped Buccaneer's Den.
Part of being a hero in this world is deciding how to help, not simply leaping in with a quick fix. Actions have consequences. Defending a peasant against a knight on a random encounter for instance leads to him and his friends burning down the village as payback; something you can avenge, but not necessarily fix. Challenging him on equal terms later on though, retrieving and returning the peasant's stuff on the quiet, is a clean way of handling it. The competing pulls of different factions means making enemies as well as friends, especially when you're inevitably sucked into a big RPG scale threat that the Avatar is too busy watching TV back in Texas to pop over to handle for everyone.
What would that big conspiracy be, exactly? Doesn't really matter too much for thought experiment purposes, but let's say... oooh... Britannia has been compassionately but reluctantly taking in interdimensional refugees via the moongates, leading an isolationist part of the Council to conspiracy up and start working on a way of severing the world's connection to the universe completely. That seems a suitably grey social issue to play with, as well as one that allows for lots of fun magic.
As with regular Ultima, you end up stumbling upon this and tracking it back to the source, until finally getting the opportunity to put a stop to it. There's a catch though. It's a set-up, and you fail. Some of your powerful friends turn out to be enemies in disguise, you get stabbed and left for dead or forced to run. Calling in some favours in your home neighbourhood though, you get a chance to make things right by finding evidence to convince the remaining members of the council that what's going on is a) actually happening and b) a really bad idea for everyone concerned, including them.
The only way to speak before them though is to get arrested, and appeal.
And so the Trial begins.
If you've played Chrono Trigger or Conquests of the Longbow, you'll have an idea where this is going - but essentially it's about asking the question "Have you really been playing as the hero you could have been?" This is where items stolen from the museum will be brought up, friends and enemies from quests big and small brought back as character witnesses, and conduct rated. It's a concept that would have worked better before the internet, when there'd have been no way to know it was coming up. Even so, it's a chance to officially explore moral decisions more than usual. The game would finish up whatever happened of course. It just wouldn't necessarily end well, with results varying from being banished through a random moongate a la Lord Blackthorn to getting the chance to humbly turn down the title of Avatar itself - if only on the grounds that nobody in Britannia has the authority to grant it.
Within all this, there's obviously plenty of scope for classic RPG action - dungeons, fights, magic, and so on. What made Ultima special though was that while you could get that in any game of its ilk, it always had that additional element to it. You could make something like Skyrim in Britannia, play Stones a few times, and have it recognisably be Ultima - and that's the path the series' single player incarnations at least would no doubt have gone down if it had continued being a top-tier franchise.
To really be Ultima though, you need to mix that action with something more. In this case, what's the role of a traditional hero, now all our worlds and perspectives have become so complex? It's not the kind of question you'll see answered in the likes of Skyrim or World of Warcraft. Ultima though might be able to answer it, or at least offer a new perspective. While also allowing you to bake bread, of course.
Without that, it would all be for nothing...