Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Why did the Avatar of Virtue screw up everything s/he touched?

Posted by Rampant Coyote on December 2, 2014

Ultima_IV_boxI was amused by PC Gamer’s article by Richard Cobbett, “Ultima: The Legacy of the Avatar.” (Hat tip to RPGWatch for the link). He doesn’t present anything all that new, although he does drive home the idea that the Avatar’s efforts to save Britannia ultimately led to its doom. Actually, not even saving Britannia. Just trying to be a nice guy and exemplify virtues in Ultima IV. It sets off a number of escalating, horrible events.

It all starts going wrong with Ultima V, which was a brilliant bit of storytelling for its day. Flash forward a couple hundred years, and see what has happened to what was once a system of ideals. Now, they’ve been mandated, regulated, and the “spirit of the law” has become completely lost or corrupted. What was once a beautiful and noble has become a system to enslave the people. Then in Ultima VI you learn that your actions of the past doomed an entire underground race and brought them up to the surface to war against humanity. Oh, and all those daemons / balrons you battled in the earlier games? They were just Gargoyles, really, and you assumed incorrectly that they were just pure evil. Okay, maybe we’ll say the ones you killed were evil and aggressive, but still…

And then in Ultima VII, you find an entire cult has been formed that has subverted the virtues for their own nefarious ends. And it is led by a shadowy extra-dimensional being who is really your evil twin created when you … wait for it…  completed the Quest of the Avatar in Ultima IV. And of course, he’s causing all kinda of harm and destruction. Although the original storyline was supposed to be that the Shadowlords were actually the “dark half” of the Avatar, and the Guardian was actually their essences combined after the Avatar banishes them in Ultima V. (I like this explanation better).

Although in my view, Lord British (the character) is more to blame than the Avatar for this stuff. It was his failure to perform due diligence when he set the Avatar out on the quest in the first place. 🙂 Typical of government, he’s completely blindsided by the Law of Unintended Consequences, and just acts stupid when the repercussions hit.

But I want to take a different tack for a minute. This is something that makes me pause and reflect a little bit as an RPG developer. Richard Garriott sort of famously re-built the technology for each Ultima from scratch. This is why Serpent Isle was “Ultima VII part 2” not “Ultima VIII” Based on my understanding of his development process (which is derived mainly from a few interviews and having read Shay Addams “Complete Book of Ultima” a zillion times), the storyline was mainly generated from scratch each time. I really doubt they thought beyond the next game in the series as they were developing each game.  And, especially in the last installment of the series, the storyline often changed – sometimes radically – during development.

My personal belief is that Richard Garriott had already done the “save the world” story three times with new characters – the Girlfriend of the Big Bad, and the Computer-Child of the Big Bad – in Ultima I – III. Ultima IV was a departure from that, and a much celebrated one at that. From that point further, however, there was the problem of putting the world back in peril so the Avatar was needed. But then there’s also the concern about how that world ever lasted past five generations without the Avatar’s help, because it’s constantly in peril (well, every 200 years or so).

The natural answer, when starting anew with an old property, is to build the new peril off of what has already come before. In other words, instead of a brand-new earth-shattering event, it’s more of a revision or evolution of a peril that had come before. Since the games left very few “loose ends” at the end of each one, a new game had to tug some new ones loose to be tied into the narrative.

Garriott was also very careful to make each installment a stand-alone game. So while he could pull story and world elements from one game to the next, he couldn’t leave major plot threads hanging, or depend on the audience to have played the previous games. But – a good chunk of his audience had played the previous games, and so he couldn’t just start over completely from scratch and ignore what had happened before.

The result of this is that much of the Avatar’s hard work from the previous game was undone or subverted for the next game(s). It wasn’t a plan going forward. It was just the result of trying not to have a totally new Disaster of the Year befalling the world. I believe the Guardian was created to be a major recurring villain that might be defeated rather than destroyed for a while.

At one point, the plan was to abandon Britannia and have all the new games after The Black Gate happen in different worlds. I guess this was a viable alternative – instead of Britannia suffering new world-shattering disasters with each installment, the series could be about the Avatar racing to a different place to stop The Guardian or whomever from doing their Great Evil upon another world. I wonder if this plan wasn’t partly in place and experimented with in the Worlds of Ultima games (based on the Ultima VI engine). But for the fans, Ultima meant Britannia as much as it meant the Avatar. While we permitted some excursions by our world-hopping alter ego, we wanted the same world, only different.

And so, accidentally I suppose, everything the Avatar had done to make the world a better place had to be undone, retroactively if necessary.

Is there a lesson here for RPG developers? There sure are a lot more of us these days than in the old days. There aren’t many of us who’ve had to make a series nearly as long-lived as the Ultima series, though, and have had to keep going back to the well of ideas to make a sequel “the same but different.”

I know in my case, while a LOT has changed between Frayed Knights game 1 and game 2, I’ve had a pretty good idea of where the entire game was going since day 1 (I even stupidly believed for a while that I could fit it all inside one game). I also deliberately didn’t have my heroes saving the entire world. Or even the kingdom (that comes later). I figure their goals could get bigger with each game, but couldn’t really get smaller. That way I’m not backed into the corner of having had them save the universe and then… NOW WHAT?

But we’re not always in situations where we can plan for sequels. I don’t know if Jeff Vogel planned out an entire series for Nethergate, but I’m sure he considered the option while it was in development. If the game had turned out to outsell his previous titles, I guarantee we would have had at least a Nethergate 2 and Nethergate 3.  But… it didn’t, and so the game stands alone with only a major update (an expanded edition).

Stuff to think about, I s’pose.

Filed Under: Design, Retro - Comments: 5 Comments to Read

  • Infinitron said,

    The Fellowship in Ultima VII didn’t subvert the Virtues. I believe it’s implied that the Virtues as a belief system/civil religion have,somehow faded in importance over the years, and by the time the Fellowship showed up, they’re already a spent force.

    It’s interesting that despite being a game with lots of 90s-era liberal political references, U7’s central theme can be understood to be remarkably conservative.

  • Anon said,

    Good thoughts, but although Ultima is still my favorite CRPG series there are some elements that always irked me and I certainly don’t consider myself a “blind or extremist fanboy”.

    For example I always though there was too much religious stuff in the main series (much less in the Worlds of Ultima games!). I often thought that Gariott was some sort of Preacher-Tolkien, thinking that good spirituality solves problems and bad religion makes problems.

    And here the avatar comes into play: What does he solve, really? What does he make worse?
    While it’s an interesting theory to accuse the avatar of being the very reason everything goes down the drain I don’t really buy into it.

    That’s like saying the bank itself is guilty for luring bank robbers to steal from them!
    In my world the culprits are still the ones who do the deeds and in U5 it’s still Blackthorn who is the guilty party and not LB or the avatar. Perhaps Blackthorn was misguided and used by other elements but the avatar found this situation when he again was called to help.

    The avatar also did *not* establish a sect in U6 to -surprisingly- find it gone bad in U7. There’s always a human element in those games (which is one of the parts I love) and Garriott shows how bad this element can get because of extremism.

    And by the way: I also didn’t care much about the gargoyles – they were clearly a plot device. And an ugly one, too. I mean these guys look like skinned cats!
    Of course no sane society would let them flood their country, wouldn’t it?
    I mean even today America and Europe (and many more countries) use big fences to even stop perfectly normal human beings from “invading” their countries – and not ugly gargoyles from the underworld… 😉

    But back to the games: Especially at the end of U7, the “big event” in U7-2 and the end of U9 I got the notion that these games are a display of futility, given the in part tragic outcome.

    The newer Ultimas aren’t strictly feelgood-games, they make you think a bit about the proceedings and this is something that is a standout feature of the series. How often did the other games end with “You killed the big foozle, now live happy with the blonde wench you saved!”?

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Yeah, Garriott did (does?) have a chip on his shoulder about organized religion. And he did a lot of the design of the games when he was in his mid-20s, that era when you think you have a whole bunch of ideas and things you want to do that nobody has ever thought of before (at least in your own culture, and certainly not from a previous generation). I guess he was just turning 30 when Ultima 7 finally shipped.

    Yeah, I wouldn’t *blame* the Avatar, personally. I don’t know that the designers (with Garriott heading them up) really through it through when they were making it happen. I think it was just one of those things you recognize in retrospect, and say, “Wow, did I take THAT path?”

    Oh, and right about the Fellowship. I mean, I always took the religion (or philosophy, I guess) to be *based* on the virtues, but that it was more of a “new, improved virtues” kinda thing.

    One of the things I really, REALLY liked about U7 is that while the Fellowship was set up by some really bad guys, and was responsible for some atrocious deeds, on the surface everything seemed really cool. Even cozy. Some of the members seemed to genuinely be doing good, although you could see some seeds of nastiness coming through. And hey, Elizabeth and Abraham (E & A) would be there to make sure you couldn’t fail. How nice of them.

    Anyway – I liked how it was multi-layered. There was some sophistication there that’s still lacking in modern games, where things tend to be a lot more black & white.

  • Anon said,

    > And hey, Elizabeth and Abraham (E & A) would be there to make sure you couldn’t fail. How nice of them.

    I initially thought they were simply a “modernized” version of Adam and Eve but I wasn’t aware of the Electronic Arts thing at the time.

    Multilayered indeed!

    Yes, the Fellowship was clearly a nasty outfit, that perverted the ideals. In some way U7 was a more direct successor to U5 than to U6. Perhaps this is why I like the scenario of U5 more than the one of U6.

    But regarding to really thinking stuff through: We do know some design documents of some Ultimas and we therefore know how deep the design process actually was.
    This was highly professional stuff but you can’t win every heart (= it wasn’t always perfect).

    Like you said: Not always black and white – which is something I often prefer (gray, although not 50 shades of it but rather 256 ;-)).

  • Groboclown said,

    On the angle of “the stakes must get larger” in sequels, I find a good trend in recent storytelling to get away from that. My go-to story lately has been the James Bond film Skyfall. It starts off as a save the world, just like most bond films, but ends up as a personal story, with just a few characters struggling with each other and their history. For a fantasy version, the second Dragonlance trilogy matches this to an extent.

    I think that once a series has enough development behind it, the writers have the freedom to explore these stories