From the pages of the past, games of yesteryear – Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar

This ad, which came out in 1987, shows off the box art for the game and leaves its purpose as ambiguous as what it described on the back of the box. Two years after the game had come out, it was still popular. And Origin’s own library had also been growing. In tiny print, you can see Origin’s call for developers, who they call “Authors”, in the bottom right hand corner.

Richard “Lord British” Garriott was getting older, more experienced, and his games grew along with him. By the time Ultima IV arrived in 1985 after two years of development, he had very different ideas on what CRPGs could deliver to his audience.

As he would admit in Shay Addams’ 1990 “The Official Book of Ultima”, as the fan mail began pouring in, he took notice of how people would try to pry meaning out of his games. He didn’t design any of them to promote any kind of ideology or philosophical argument — he simply enjoyed making them. The convoluted stories blending sci-fi and fantasy of the first three games were drawn from his eagerness to put things that he liked into one pot, stir it with crunch, and then unleash players into them.

But now in his twenties and as more players continued to explore his worlds, he realized that this was an opportunity to do more than simply send players off to kill monsters again. If someone was going to spend “100 hours” exploring his world, he felt that the content he was providing should be as responsible. This was a turning point for Richard Garriott and the series as a whole. He had always been personally invested in each Ultima, but now he wanted to take it and himself to another level.

As described by the History of Britannia (which, at least for the computer releases, came with the game along with a cloth map, the Book of Mystic Wisdom, and a small ankh), Ultima III ended the Age of Darkness. The defeat of Exodus transformed the land, shifting “mountains’ and oceans into what they are now. Lord British has unified the land into Britannia and the last vestiges of evil need to be extinguished once and for all. But the true battle lies within!

This is the anime label art for the Japanese release of Ultima IV on the Famicom. It’s not bad, though unlike the original art, you actually see the guy’s face.

At least, that was the gist of the game. It was easy to be confused at first. There was no Master Evil that threatened the land, no Wicked Empire to throw down. No clear “goal” in the most traditional sense of a CRPG. It was as if the player were sent on clean-up duty. But the last few pages of the History revealed the real struggle in the words of Lord British himself — to embody the Virtues of the land and lead Britannia to a new Golden Age.

Many have tried, some have come close, but no one yet has succeeded in this most noble quest. Of course, the player and their companions may fare a bit better. It also  made no secret that the hero is from Earth transported to Britannia thanks to a gate inviting him through with the items that actually came with the game’s packaging.

Ultima IV was also “sixteen times” larger than Ultima III with new art, music, party recruitment of NPCs to buff up your chances, and a parser system using key words to expand interactions with the citizens of the land sharing clues on quests, treasures, and how best to become this “Avatar” Lord British speaks of. Dungeons were also crammed with new dangers and traps in addition to sporting “collapsing bridges” and secret passages within rooms filled with monsters.

In an interview with CGW on Ultima IV, Richard Garriott said that two things inspired him to focus on the concept of an Avatar. One, which Shay Addams had noted above in his book, was the response that he was reading from the fan mail he was getting from players who felt strongly about his games.

The other was in seeing a television show that “talked about the concept of an Avatar in many Eastern Religions” which “set the game design wheels in motion”. He would clarify this in Addams’ book by saying that it was a documentary on the Dead Sea Scrolls and that it explored the view of Hindus viewing Christ as an avatar figure — someone who had purified themselves to the ultimate level. He also went on to say:

“Personally, I do not believe all the flak that goes around in some circles about the bad effect fantasy games have on kids, but, no doubt, even my game has some little effect on some lives. Therefore, I feel that it is very important that this effect be a net good rather than a net bad.”

This is the label for the NES release in North America. It plays off the original art from the computer version but adds a giant serpent in place of a giant wash of ocean spray. The Sega Master System case, however, actually used the original art.

Players were allowed to steal from stores, or kill individuals that may have just been in the wrong place at the wrong time such as the Jester (which was pretty much required in Ultima I). Or slay Lord British. Instead of setting invincibility flags willy nilly, Garriott looked to changing some of that by firming up the idea that the player was striving to be a beacon of goodness without ambiguity. Though you could steal in a game like Ultima II, he didn’t feel that the game encouraged stealing. At the same time, he also didn’t want it to require that of the player’s character to succeed, either.

He wanted it to be more of a philosophical reason than a religious one in demonstrating, logically, why being a decent person was better than being someone that kills Jesters who wear out their punchlines. As the author, that was the story he wanted to tell. If players wanted to “fight monsters for the rest of their lives, they could do it someone else’s games”. He wasn’t interested in spinning that tale.

With the basic mechanics nailed down from the first three games, Ultima IV used their systems as a foundation for the overhaul that Garriott and his team started with. Combat was tweaked allowing more mixed groups of monsters, terrain considerations, and the same kind of top-down tactics that began with Ultima III. Up to seven companions can accompany the player, for a party of eight, to fight their way through the dangers ahead. The spell system was also tweaked — reagents were now needed to cast spells, a system that would continue on through the following Ultima games.

He also wanted to make it more personal to the player. Instead of dryly rolling up statistics after stepping through the gate from Earth to Britannia, a gypsy quizzed players with a variety of questions to determine their character’s attributes.

In Ultima IV, each of the eight towns also corresponded to a specific profession. For example, Paladins made Trinsic their home. But each town was also connected to a shrine dedicated to one of the Eight Virtues and figuring out what to do and how to go about becoming a paragon of good before embarking on their final quest.

As inspiring as the design was in turning CRPGs on their ear, it was cutting edge stuff though it still had a few rough edges. The world, like many CRPGs, was still static in recognizing your great feats. Even after becoming the Avatar, it wasn’t as if everyone suddenly knew it. JRPGs, as one example, would try to alleviate this in later years by changing the text of NPCs to recognize players’ progress. Not all of the changes were greeted with squeals of joy, but more than enough fans celebrated the game to make it another platinum hit.

The game was ported to a huge list of computer platforms from the Amiga to the PC-88. And like Ultima III, it would also find its way to consoles like the Sega Master System (which Nintendo was apparently not happy about, but not too unhappy for it to also find its way to the NES) that also had the booklets and a  folding paper version of the map.

Like Ultima III, Ultima IV made Richard Garriott a rockstar over in Japan with fans eagerly looking for an authograph from Lord British himself. Both console versions also had their peculiar tweaks — the SMS version, for example, rendered the dungeons in top-down view than first-person, something that Sega’s own Phantasy Star had amply demonstrated the console to be more than capable of doing.

Ultima IV was, in some ways, Richard Garriott’s attempt at a “socially responsible” CRPG. In pursuing his personal goals within the game, it had also challenged the stereotypical conventions of CRPGs that ended with killing a big, angry foozle at the end.

It was a CRPG where the journey was more important than the final goal, a narrative that attempted to reach its audience through more than statistics and loot. And it worked. Even today, nearly three decades later, Ultima IV is still held up as one of the great CRPG classics of the genre with lessons that still resonate today with designers seeking to connect with their players with more than a character profile. Or towering corpse piles.

5 responses to “From the pages of the past, games of yesteryear – Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar

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  4. Even by today’s standards, Ultima IV has an amazingly avant-garde concept. It’s an interesting case of someone creating meaningful conflict without an antagonist. That’s quite the amazing feat. The downside is that the game has not aged well. I don’t regret playing it, for it is an important part of gaming history, but I didn’t really have fun with it. I think I may have played it too late.

    • I’ve felt the same way about some older games I’ve gone back into. The concepts are still amazing but a number of older elements wrapped around them can make it a bit challenging. As one example, I love the concept behind the CRPG, Ultima Worlds: Martian Dreams, but the interface is…challenging. Still, I want to keep digging away at it as soon as I can tear myself away from a few other RPGs I’m playing.

      Speaking of meaningful ways to address conflict, it’s one of the reasons I really appreciate story-heavy titles (like CRPGs) that offer more than the “kill ’em all” approach by providing a more peaceful and diplomatic toolbox as a legitimate method of play with consequences to consider.

      This also reminds me of a relatively recent game called Consortium that also challenges the notion of whether you want to exercise violence as a tool or be a diplomat and discover another way to complete its story with consequences for either path. It’s not the greatest looking game, can be a bit buggy, but if anything else, it’s an interesting study of choices and consequences. Sometimes it also feels as if efforts like these are exceptions. But they also make finding out why fun.

      Thanks for reading! Also, if you’re still interested in trying out Ultima IV, there’s a fan project that you might be interested in. It’s focused more on making it run on modern PCs, but I’ll put the link here in case you or anyone else want to try it:

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