Every Saturday, Richard Cobbett digs into the world of story and writing in games - some old, some new.
This week saw Richard Garriott's Shroud of the Avatar enter Early Access over on Steam (read Leif's first impressions of it here), which to my mind is the second best reason to talk about the Ultima series today. The first is that it's a day of the week ending in the letter 'y'. Ultima is a series very close to my heart, and for many reasons. It wasn't the first RPG series I played, but very few before or since have been as meaningful. When I think of 'my favourite RPG', Ultima VII: The Black Gate snaps instantly into my head, albeit with a couple of others like Planescape Torment hot on its heels. To put this in context, Ultima VII came out in 1992. There's not many games that can even be in contention for holding the crown twenty years after they came out. A couple of adventures spring to mind. That's about it. Oh, and Qix, of course; the game of kings.
There's many reasons that Ultima is special, from the pants-on-head insanity of the early games to the sandbox nature of the world, where there was technically a plot to follow in a specific order, but no real penalty for deciding balls to it, finding a magic carpet or jumping into a moon-gate and simply getting lost in both the stories and, later on, the ability to do things like bake bread. At one point, albeit patched out, doing so with the blood of a murdered man and feeding it to his grieving son. Or hire a prostitute for a talking mouse. Or find a hundred ways to break the game systems over your knee for fun and profit. Pretty much all of them are included in one of my favourite Lets Play series ever - the adventures of Steve the Druid.
What really defined Ultima IV-VIII though (let's not speak of the final game, Ascension) and depressingly few games since have picked up on is that each of them was an attempt to be about something. In Ultima IV: Quest Of The Avatar, Garriott moved away from stories about beating up the latest threat to his world (at the time, Sosaria, later renamed Britannia) in favour of a story about a land more or less at peace and in need of a symbol to represent the best that it can be - the Avatar, the only one capable of bending all eight virtues of Honesty, Compassion, Valor, Justice, Honour, Sacrifice, Spirituality and Humility. The goal was to set a good example for the world, albeit an inevitably primitive one that was limited to 1985-vintage technology. Each Virtue was basically 'do a thing', with Honour a simple matter of completing quests and remembering that Honour is spelled with a 'u', and others a bit gimmickey. Cheating blind merchants for instance, or stealing, was something of an Honesty no-no.
From there though, the series began getting more involved. Ultima V for instance, while adding in a trio of evil called the Shadowlords, was narratively based on the subversion of those virtues - that there's a difference between the spirit and the letter of the law, as shown in the form of Lord Blackthorne. He takes over Britannia and enforces the Virtues with an iron fist that turns them into tools of tyranny rather than merely aspects of the three cardinal principles of Truth, Love and Courage.
Ultima VI though was the first to really nail it. Dubbed The False Prophet, it sees the Avatar returning to Britannia and immediately being set upon by a demonic looking group of gargoyles who have been terrorising the realm. You're assigned to take care of them, as heroes do, and that works for a while. Midway through though, the whole thing is recast as an allegory for racism and xenophobia; the gargoyles both being far from evil and having a very good reason for what they're doing - that in finding enlightenment for Britannia, the Avatar accidentally (and inadvertently) doomed them. Dealing with the situation then becomes one of atonement and diplomacy, up to and including being willing to face justice for that, and building a bridge between the two sides to restore a sense of balance the 'good guys' don't really want.
What I find fascinating about the Avatar though isn't that he/she (it was a choice up until Ultima VIII, at which point he became canonically male and started wearing a bucket on his head) is able to accomplish that, but that you can argue that despite saving the world on at least four separate occasions, the Quest Of The Avatar was the single worst thing that ever happened to Britannia. This is never really gone into in the games, where he quickly becomes a mix of Superman and mythical god due to games that feature up to 200 year jumps between instalments, but looking back it's tough to argue that what it led to was worth the benefits.
In the first place, damn near everything that goes wrong is entirely, literally, the Avatar's fault. Never intentionally! There's no arguing that. Canonically at least, everything he does is righteous and it's not until Ultima VIII: Pagan that he's forced into doing horrible things for the greater good - that being the theme of the game, which takes place on a dark realm from which he has to escape with urgency.
It's true though. Initially, the Quest for the Avatar ends up with him simply taking a powerful artefact called the Codex Of Ultimate Wisdom, which turns out to destroy the gargoyle home and set up Ultima IV. It also however results in the creation of his nemesis, a godlike force of ultimate evil called The Guardian that conquers at least ten worlds while the Avatar is saving just the one, as well as creating no fewer than two evil religions as dark mirrors of his own. If we assume that the Avatar is also the Stranger From Another World who starred in Ultima I-III, Ultima V is also his fault, the Shadowlords and their brutal dictatorship having been spawned from shards left behind by his earlier monster hunting. Making things worse, by the time we get to Ultima IX, the Avatar ends up being responsible for not only the final destruction of the gargoyles' new home, the entire land of Pagan (to the point that in an early version of Ultima IX's story, the Guardian was able to torture Lord British just by showing him a clip-show of what his champion had gotten up to), and the ending is him nuking Britannia and leaving its surviving population as intergalactic refugees who survive the devastation at the cost of everything they love.
Looking back, there is literally one threat that the Avatar isn't directly responsible for, and it's Ultima VII: Part 2, Serpent Isle. Even then: Kinda. I'm willing to give it to him though, because while TECHNICALLY it only happened because Ultima III villain Exodus turned one of the three great serpents of reality into his personal doorman because the Avatar had killed his mommy and daddy, their crimes are on them. A Sosaria ruled by them would be no world at all. A Britannia without an Avatar however is arguably a far, far safer one in the long run. At the very least, its problems would be less likely to be 'rip the cosmos apart' level threats as faced in the series.
(I should add that a few of these things waver a bit in canon - the Avatar's nemesis in Ultima VII for instance, The Guardian, had a couple of suggested identities before being revealed as the Avatar's dark half. But since we've got the games as they are, let's treat them as such for simplicity. This column is long enough.)
None of this is intended as a criticism of Ultima, a series that I love deeply. It's just fascinating to me how the series that set out to hail the Avatar ultimately... not a pun, that word was inevitable at some point... became the case for the prosecution. But that's just the start. To see what a failure the Avatar truly was, you just need to look at the point of the whole enterprise in the first place.
Ultima is not a story about perfection. That's important. Lord British, despite being creator Richard Garriott's author avatar, is regularly wrong, often pig-headed, and at times, damn near blind. In Ultima VII for instance, you know from the very start that the world is under siege by the machinations of The Guardian, but the one time he even acknowledges his existence is if you cast a spell called Armageddon - and even then, only to muse (as one of the few people powerful enough to survive that spell) that at least now he might not want Britannia after all. The people of Ultima VII: Part 2: Serpent Isle call him "Beast British". If you know where to look... as an easter egg, admittedly... you can also find out that he's knocked up one of his maids.
The Avatar too is, canonically, just a guy. He's from Texas. He makes mistakes. Between adventures in Britannia he comes back home and he lives a regular life, to the point that one of the games ended with him getting back and realising a perfectly mundane burglar has stolen all his stuff while he was gone. The Quest For The Avatar isn't an attempt to find a magical chosen one or a demigod scion or anything like that, but a role-model. Anyone could in theory be an Avatar (if not of course complete the exact same quest, since that's done and dusted), and even if most won't have what it takes, they can at least aspire to it - to step up, to be better, to actively live the Virtues instead of simply paying lip-service to them.
Much like the very similar portrayal of heroism in Quest For Glory, that's a kind of heroism I can get behind. It's not about being the toughest, it's not about being chosen, it's about trying. And Britannia... never gets that. At all. Instead, the Avatar becomes their equivalent of Superman, a symbol deified in a world that otherwise goes out of its way to avoid religion. His depictions grow more saintly, his victories become legends. But when he's gone, and as said, he can be gone for centuries at a time, does anyone truly follow in his footsteps or rise to the challenge? No. They figure that if something goes badly wrong enough, he'll be back. And he always is, even if usually to clean up the mess that he started. Returning though, what he usually finds is a world of arrogance and hypocrisy; one where the people assume that living in a town devoted to Compassion means that they must of course be compassionate, and never mind whether or not they've just kicked out the poor and disenfranchised to a sewer town where even charity comes with a price.
This is of course sometimes part of the story - in the case of Ultima VII for instance, the population is being misled by an evil cult called the Fellowship and the psychic power of the Guardian, while in Ultima IX there are giant columns actively subverting the Virtues. But that doesn't cover all lapses, not by a long shot. The ultimate failure of the Avatar is that he is, and remains, The Avatar; and little but Britannia's crutch at that. (It's also notable that when Ultima Online came along... a world being sold to an audience of heroes who had strived to uphold the Eight Virtues for several games at that point... the world instantly became a Darwinian charnel house. Ouch.)
For obvious reasons, I'm really curious to see how all of this will continue to play out in Shroud of the Avatar, which combines MMO and solo content to try and tell both your story and that of the world. At least, it will. Right now, the Early Access version doesn't have much in the way of story or sense of the overall sweep, save that Garriott intends it to be rooted in both the virtues and sociology. (It's in pre-alpha; you can wander around, fight monsters, talk to a few people, listen to a piece of music that's blatantly Stones with the serial numbers filed off and a couple of other things, but definitely not get lost in a new adventure yet.)
In particular though, I'm curious to see how the past is acknowledged. Shroud doesn't pick up on Ultima as such, it's a new property that simply harks back to it as much as possible, but the Avatar concept is of course still baked in. While Ultima was running, there was never much real doubt that he was a hero, successfully questing for all the right things. It took a little distance, and the completion of the saga, to really hammer in the nails and start begging a few questions. In creating a new Avatar for a new age, will that be factored in? Will it be second time lucky? However it turns out, I'm certainly looking forward to finding out what the legacy of the Avatar truly is.
Fingers crossed, it's to be the inspiration he was always meant to be.