Sort of. . . I'm informed that today is the 25th anniversary of the Apple II release of Ultima IV. I can't recall if it came out on the Apple IIc/e before any other system and don't particularly care. There is never a reason needed to celebrate this milestone, but a release anniversary for one of the major computer systems is a fine reason to rub some funk on the celebration. We don't like to pass up a chance to discuss Ultima IV here at Popehat, because it remains one of the most amazing examples of a hobby we hold dear, even as we get older and have less time to devote to it.
The story – in Shay Addams' book is that Richard Garriot was going through a period of depression post Ultima III, something Popehatians can relate to. Ultima III was an exceptional game, one of the first if not the first computer role playing game to feature tactical combat. Combat took place in a separate screen from the world/dungeon maps, in an overhead perspective on a grid. Players moved their little guys (and gals! And, uh, larks. Ultima III had some really weird races and classes) around on a grid trying to smash monsters before being smashed in kind. It was a radical and wonderful departure at the time, one that would spawn an entire new line of CRPGs, from Wizard's Crown and Pool of Radiance through Fallout. The combat would serve as a major inspiration for indie developers like Tom Proudfoot (Nahlakh and Natuk) and Jeff Vogel (Exiles, Avernums, Generforges. . . oh my).
Ultima III was an excellent game. It was shining example of the genre at the time, and that was part of the problem. Something was eating at Garriot. CRPGS up to and including Ultima III were nominally about players assembling a band of heroes (or sometimes, a lone hero, as was the case with Ultima I & II) and then saving the town/kingdom/world from some evil thing or another. This was generally done by killing monsters by the thousands. It's an entirely consistent position with the genre, going back to its table top roots. What Garriot was recognizing (I'm going from memory as I haven't read Shay Addams' book in ages. But I ordered a fresh copy) was that something had been lost in the transition from table top gaming. Computer games couldn't – at the time – really replicate the interaction between players. And only this decade has software arisen that allowed interaction with a human Game Master. But it was more than that. While table top RPGing often involved slaughtering monsters by the horde, it often involved other things. You know, actual role playing. Whether it was teasing some important clue out of a local magistrate, or trying to prevent the assassination of a regent in a complicated political setting, or trying to fool some dark god and prevent his rise, tabletop role-playing games provided a very rich canvas on which players could imprint their adventures. The monsters and the loot were always there and always fun, but the greatest adventures always revolved around more. They were the deeds of Frodo, Conan, and Elric brought forth from the pages of books and acted out by people who had grown up loving those books, adding new twists and ideas.
CRPGs had none of that. The stories – the saving of the worlds from the great evils – were always the thinnest of things, but it wasn't just about story either. Killing monsters and getting loot was really all they offered. Even Ultima III – whose plot was excellent for the genre at the time – still revolved around these things. Worse, games often rewarded players for decidedly un-heroic behavior like stealing. Ironically, perhaps, the Ultima games were famous examples. The player got ahead (no small feat; the Ultima games were not easy ) by robbing merchants blind, even if the merchants were scurvy dogs on the Isle of Buccaneers in Ultima III. A disconnect existed between the player and the game world, even in worlds as awesome as Origins (and they were noted for this, well before Ultima IV). NPCs, at their best, were vending machines for the players. There was richness in tabletop RPGs that simply didn't exist. And it couldn't all be explained away by the limitations of the medium.
The front of the Ultima III box pictured a rather nasty looking daemon. As such, the game came under fire from some right leaning, parental type groups. It came under fire for all the wrong reasons. Computer games are not vicious seeds of Satan that corrupt our children or anything like that (like anything else, as a parent you wouldn't want your kid spending all their time with them, nor would you necessarily want your kid to play certain games at certain ages or even at all). Garriott wasn't condoning Satanism or any other kind of ism by putting a big mean daemon on the box. But Garriott was at a peculiar time in his life, and the criticism none the less struck home. There were problems with CRPGs as he saw it, and the criticism was close to those problems if inadvertently so.
And what we got was Ultima IV. A game with more than its fair share of monster smashing and loot grabbing (particularly in the final dungeon, The Abyss). But also a game where being a paragon of what it is to be heroic and noble was not just encouraged, but required to win. The game moved beyond monsters and loot even as they remained a big part of it. Players found themselves in pursuit of enlightenment, practicing the eight virtues (Compassion, Honor, Humility, Honesty, Justice, Sacrifice, Valor, and Spirituality). Suddenly players had to stop and think about what they were doing. Helping people who needed it – whether by donating blood at the local house of healing or giving a beggar a few coins – was an important part of the game. So was allowing certain, "non evil" types of monsters to flee battle if they so chose. Lying was verboten, and the almost unfathomably deep conversation system provided more than a few chances for players to do that. Ultima IV's world was a sandbox and many of your actions affected your standing in each of the eight virtues, for good or for bad. Garriot made Ultima IV's Britannia a land of darkness and strife, in need of a shining beacon. And you, the player, were it. Literally; the game began with you creating a character and taking a quiz filled with wonderful moral quandaries of the "do you honorably report a poor farmer for stealing bread to feed his family, or compassionately let him off?" variety. The character was one from our world who had wandered into the games'. The game practically begged you to enter your name in when you created a character, and it's clear this journey was considered *your* journey. Decisions in the game revolved less around "well, what will net me the most gain so I can go kill the bad guy" to "what would *I* do if I had been sucked into this fantastic world?".
Ultima IV was a revolution. Anyway, if you are curious don't listen to me. Try the flash version, which we have mentioned previously (I'll link to that post as soon as I find it).