Publisher: Origin Systems
Developer: Origin Systems
Played on: DOSBox, keyboard
It had to come to this one day, and today is the day.
The Ultima series is one of the main reasons I am in love with gaming. It is the reason I justify my beliefs that modern gaming is doing everything so wrong. It is a perfect example of substance over style, of how even when you want a story in games that it is best to present it as part of the game itself, rather than intrude on your gameplay. It is gaming.
Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar is the first game in the Avatar trilogy of the Ultima game lineage; the first three games were very much a more simplistic bunch, with inconsistent world-building, a typical kill-the-big-bad-guy-to-win plot, and not a whole lot more. They were really good at being those kinds of games, but really, it was the Avatar trilogy that truly made Ultima the game series it’s well known for.
Ultima IV kicks things off with a bit of exposition, something that is normally frowned upon with me, but really, when you’re just setting something up and then letting the player go without interruption later, it’s not so bad. Plus, you get to create your character in a very interesting way — the game asks you a series of morality questions, none of which have a definitive answer, and whichever morality trait (Honesty, Valor, Humility, etc) you answer all the way through to the end over others determines what character class you are in the game. And given the importance of those virtues throughout the Avatar trilogy, it is absolutely a great way to start things off.
You are then almost unceremoniously dumped off next to the town that exemplifies your preferred virtue, with no explanation, no exposition, nothing. It is up to you to find out what’s going on, what you need to do, and where to go. This is a game characteristic that probably drives modern gamers crazy and makes them wonder what kind of game doesn’t hold their hand through the beginning and tell them what to do and where to go (and where’s the journal system? You mean I have to write everything down myself? What kind of game is this?). It is a game that asks a lot of the player, but is infinitely more rewarding because of it. The thrill of discovery and the effort you put into it is returned to you many times over with a rich, wonderful world full of gameplay that interweaves its story into itself so seamlessly you will wonder why modern games don’t do the same instead of constantly intruding their gameplay with boring story parts. Even Ultima‘s dialog is very straightforward and very interactive, requiring you to parse keywords out of the things people say to gather information and hunt down clues they give you. What may seem overwhelming at first becomes a delight as you slowly unravel the requirements you need to finish your quest.
And you will find that one of those requirements, oddly enough, is to exemplify not just your chosen virtue, but all of them. Valor means that you do not run from evil enemies and fight to the death. Honor means you find the things you need to complete your quest. Compassion means giving to the poor. And so on. You will constantly need to do these things to elevate your status to Avatar and be able to do what it takes to win the game, as well as answer questions other people ask of you correctly, as they will ask you many times to prove your knowledge of the virtues. Interestingly enough, the next game in the Avatar trilogy takes the idea of the virtues and creates laws out of them, demonstrating something that the real world doesn’t seem to understand yet: virtues cannot be written as law, only as something that people should strive to do in their daily lives. Breaking a virtue is not necessarily a bad thing, and enforcing them makes a society oppressive.
But enough morality; Ultima IV is otherwise a straightforward monster basher and magic item hunt game, just well-organized into a game that requires thought, paying close attention, taking notes, and putting it all together into a plan of action that assembles everything needed to take on the final challenge — a challenge that does not at all require beating up some overpowered bad guy trying to destroy the world. How refreshing.
Please give it a try.