The Game: Darkness has fallen anew upon Britannia, and Lord British calls for your service again. You start out alone, accumulating traveling (and fighting) companions along your journey, striving to live by the Eight Virtues that govern conduct in the kingdom. Along the way, numerous creatures, both evil and simply pesky, challenge you. As you go forth on the quest, you must also collect the mantras of each Virtue, travel to the corresponding Shrines, and meditate there until you reach enlightenment. With enlightenment and experience come the strength to rid Britannia of evil – but, to quote a little pointy-eared green guy, beware the dark side… (Origin Systems, 1986)
Memories: Richard Garriott’s fourth classic role-playing installment was one of the most addictive games I ever played on the Apple II computer. I kid you not, I spent hours playing Ultima IV. Then, and I’m sure you know this story, I moved a few times, lost track of my original floppies, and missed the game terribly the next time it crossed my mind to play it. I shall now spend hours waxing rhapsodic about why this is still my favorite computer RPG of all time.
Ultima IV provided players with an vast world to explore, and that world was populated with a rich tapestry of characters, evils beyond comprehension…and good, good beyond anything that anyone had ever put into a game before. This is pretty important stuff. The game opens with a series of ethical questions asked by a fortune teller. There are no right or wrong answers to these questions, but they do determine your character’s moral makeup by weighing which of the eight virtues (compassion, honesty, justice, valor, honor, etc.) plays into your character most strongly. Your character in Ultima IV is an extension of you – your judgment calls on the fortune teller’s questions are a reflection of your real life values.
In a day and age when most contemporary RPGs were obsessed with hackin’, slashin’, stealin’ and killin’ everything on the map, this was most impressive.
To give an example of how intricately this moral ecosystem was integrated into the game: there are two classes of attacking creatures, evil and non-evil. Evil creatures include thieves, raiders, undead, dragons, and other horrors. Non-evil creatures are simply doing what comes naturally to them, with no moral inclination either way: snakes, rats, spiders, slimes, and so forth. When any creature of either class receives a certain amount of damage, they begin to retreat toward the edge of the meleÃ¨ screen, and you can either pursue them and kill them (if they don’t escape first), or you can allow them to leave. Evil creatures must be dealt with using whatever force is necessary and available. But if you make it a habit of wiping non-evil creatures out at every opportunity, your Compassion rating goes down, and non-player characters react to you differently. If you lie in casual conversation to those you meet in various towns, villages and castles, it will cost your Honesty rating dearly. It’s a very complex and subtle system – one designed to put the brakes on the “kill ’em all” mentality and make players think about their actions – and the consequences of those actions.
That alone makes Ultima IV one of the most important milestones in the evolution of video and computer games as a social force. In a day and age where we’re blaming Doom and Duke Nukem for everything from low grades to Columbine, I think it also needs to be pointed out when a game does right by society.
One of the reasons I got out of paper/pencil/dice RPGs in my early teens was that the mentality of it bothered me. There was no honor system in the swords and sorcery genre games, and any honor system was frequently abandoned in other genres of RPGs as well. Even Ultima III bugged me a bit with its enormous emphasis on evil, a game where stealing was only wrong because you’d get caught, not because it is a moral offense.
Ultima IV did right. What an incredible game.