What’s the Point of an RPG Without a Main Villain? How Ultima IV Changed the Game

Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar (QOTA) is an open world RPG in which the main goal is to be a good person. There’s no archvillain to defeat (Mondain, Minax, and Exodus have already been vanquished), no world that needs saving, not even a prince or princess to rescue. This was unlike any of the RPGs of the time, a narrative device that even now seems revolutionary. I can’t imagine a book, film, or TV series without a principal foe—what would the story arc even be like? In QOTA, you help people, meditate, explore Britannia, and focus on self-enlightenment.

Richard Garriott, the creator of the Ultima series, considers this to be among his favorites, and I personally think it’s one of the best games ever developed. Garriott has stated QOTA was designed in response to the angry letters of parents, outraged by the immoral behavior of the previous Ultima games. There was also heavy criticism being hurled at D&D in general, stating it was a bad influence, demonic corruptor of youth, and worse (a topic I’ll come back to later). Instead of making another Ultima in which you would pillage, kill, and do whatever you needed to find another key or treasure, Garriott decided you should strive to become a “good” person. Inspired by Eastern religions, Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey, and The Wizard of Oz, Garriott wanted role-playing to be about more than just killing monsters and hunting treasures.

After the world is unified by Lord British, he’s concerned about the spiritual welfare of his people. He wants someone to step forward, be a paragon of virtues to guide their daily lives, and descend into the Stygian Abyss to learn the ultimate meaning of life through the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom. That’s where you enter.

The path to becoming an avatar was split up into eight separate virtues, and in keeping with the open nature and loose structure of the game, I’ll explore each of them individually, examining what they meant for me.

Ultima IV

Honesty

I did not actually play the original Ultima IV on the PC, but rather the Nintendo port developed by Pony Canyon and published by FCI in 1990 (the original PC version came out in 1985). The graphics were redone with sprites reminiscent of JRPGs like Sweet Home, and it also helped that the gameplay and controls were streamlined to make the experience more intuitive.

One of the first virtues players were faced with was honesty, and it became clear from the opening character creation screen that this game was very different. Rather than the typical assigning and populating of random stats, QOTA began with something akin to a personality test. You had to ponder ethical dilemmas and the tarot-like structure was determined by moral choices. These decisions weren’t simply a matter of good and evil, but rather questions like what do you value more, honesty or justice? Your ethical preferences determined your destiny.

As Richard Garriott stated in a Facebook essay about Quest of the Avatar: “In theory playing a role playing game as Conan the Barbarian is fine, but your success should be judged on how well you embody the beliefs of Conan. In Grand Theft Auto, you should be judged on how good of a thug you are. Since my story was intended to be the story of YOUR PERSONAL evolution as a person, it was important that you were you, not someone else!”

The way you conduct yourself is as important as your final goal. Take for example the blind shop vendors for magical recipes (reagents). Whenever you buy something from them, they’ll ask you to count out the money and pay them the right sum. You could scam them, leaving one coin instead of the hundreds you owe. But then your honesty takes a hit. I honestly felt guilty for scamming the blind shopkeeper to stock up on my magic spells, even though I did it every time.

Ultima IV

Compassion

Role-playing games have a long history and their roots lie in war simulations like kriegsspiel which was used by German and Prussian officers to train for battle. Before Gary Gygax developed D&D, he made a war game in a medieval setting called Chainmail. Fantasy elements were later incorporated, and it would evolve into the first iteration of D&D. It makes sense, then, that many of the early RPG games were about combat and fighting, often struggling against an ominous enemy force.

Similar to the leap D&D made by fusing history with wizardry, QOTA represents an evolution that melded role-playing with deeper narratives, a move that resonated with gamers seeking deeper stories and issues. What do you if you’ve already defeated your hundredth dragon, your thousandth ogre army? Quandaries expanded from worrying about which enemies you needed to defeat, to how to handle issues like poverty with compassion.

The homeless and the sick exist in most of the towns of Britannia. One of them is dying of bubonic plague and looks so pitiful as he begs for money. No matter how much money you give him, he’s still there every day. I know playing it in retrospect, the mechanic seems simple, but back then as a kid, the chance to give to the poor was my naive way of feeling like I was actually helping people. QOTA made me wonder how, with all this prosperity in the land, there were still so many who had so little. It was a dark reflection on a reality that’s still apparent today, beyond our front doors.

Ultima IV

Valor

What’s most daunting about QOTA is that you can do anything in any order you want, recruit, or not recruit, party members as you please. You make up the narrative and you determine the course of your journey, engendering a sense of immersion that had the effect of making you feel like you were in more control than any previous RPG. There’s so much to do and gather, from the colored stones to the runes of virtue, it can be overwhelming. You can use the moongates, hijack a ship and sail the seas, and even ride an air balloon to reach obscure destinations.

Combat is grid-based and probably the weakest link of the game. If you don’t have projectile weapons, you have to move all the way to confront the enemy, which quickly becomes a chore. It’s even more painful in sea battles where you’re on boat and the enemies are in the ocean where they can lunge fireballs at you from a distance. Valor dictates that you never run away from battle, no matter how weak you are. I had to fight a lot of battles just to prove I wasn’t a coward.

Still, there were some cool mechanics present that weren’t common among RPGs. First off, there’s an “auto” option that lets the computer automatically act for you during battle. Also, you can fight anyone, including the villagers and even Lord British. Decades before Grand Theft Auto let you kill civilians, Ultima gave you that same option.

As an odd and happy coincidence, valor was embodied in QOTA by a character named Geoff. The blue-armored knight was usually my fighter of choice as I gathered my party, and my second member was a druid named Jaana who represented justice. In real life, one of my closest friends is named Geoff and his wife is Jana. I didn’t even realize it until I replayed the game for this article, and it was a cool moment of synchronicity considering I spent hundreds of hours with these characters a decade before I’d meet either of them.

Ultima IV

Justice (A Personal Aside)

I understand Garriott’s motivations for creating the game, stemming back to my high school years. I had a close friend who shared my interest in RPGs and fantasy books. He recommended the Dragonlance series to me as well as several other novels that remain among my favorites. One day, he told me he was no longer allowed to read fantasy books or play RPGs. He warned me that I shouldn’t either as they were “evil.” His pastor had told him magic in books and games questioned the power of God, and that they were a conduit for satanic forces. He felt guilty that he’d been as exposed to them as he had.

I was incredulous, wondering if he was serious. He urged me to give them up and when I refused, he stopped talking to me. I could not understand how imagination, creativity, and fighting evil to help people could ever be considered wrong. An older me understands the politics of it; attention grabbers accuse the said target of immorality, raising up their own status while detracting from bigger issues (Garriott would explore the corruption of religion in the sequel). A younger me did not, and I felt a strong sense of injustice that not only was something we both loved being threatened, but that I’d lost a friend in the process.

Even now, it disturbs me how divisive morality can be when misused, and more terrifying, how capricious its standards are. There was something reassuring in the morality of QOTA, where companions remained steadfast through adversity and you weren’t branded a heretic or sinner for simply enjoying a videogame.

Ultima IV

Humility

Fortunately, QOTA rarely feels unfair, doing a great job balancing the battles so that your focus can be on exploration (even death has minimal impact). Britannia felt vibrant, dynamic, and alive. I can’t think of an 8-bit world that was quite as massive.

Each of the towns had a distinctive feel, represented by their virtue: humility’s Magincia is filled with monsters destroyed by their past pride; the Buccaneer’s Den is full of raucous pirates; and justice’s Yew is home to the high court of the land. Before then, most games I’d played had generic villages that blended into one another. Even in NES games I loved like Zelda II, Final Fantasy, Crystalis, Willow, and Dragon Warrior, the majority of the villagers were only there to initiate fetch quests or tell you how to get to your next destination (if they weren’t just being downright obscure).

In QOTA, your interactions actually affect your character stats, and your relationships matter. There was a quantified method to the madness, each virtue having a counter that would change depending on your actions. But as that number is never visible to the player, I had no idea they were even calculating it, making the system feel organic. It helps that almost everyone has something useful to say and while the boastful replies you could give in the PC version weren’t present, there were other types of questions that would affect the way NPCs responded to you.

Adding to the sense of wonder was the fact that you were required to search places you’d normally never visit including a prison, poison swamps, and a fiery forge (burning yourself in the process). A trio of volcanoes even hid the deadliest item in the game, a skull that would induce the Apocalypse. Learning the humility to explore every location, no matter how lowly or obscure, was an essential trait in becoming the avatar.

Ultima IV

Honor

In contrast to the Grand Theft Auto games, which are a brilliant canvas for destruction and villainy, QOTA was a sandbox devoted to morality and character development. Garriott stated in an interview with the Ultima Codex that:

“What makes an Ultima an Ultima was not the individual, specific character, the name of an NPC, or the name of the game. What made an Ultima an Ultima was the detailed storycrafting, and the care to create those backstories, and the care to create socially relevant events to you, and to do that psychoanalysis of you during gameplay.”

That psychoanalysis is best manifested in the labyrinthine dungeons. The vast network of seven underground areas are connected through three altar rooms and it was a struggle finding the necessary stones. But if you kept at it, you’d stumble your way into underground shrines protected by strange guardians who’d question you. Honor was one of those virtues that was tougher to pin down, especially as enemies rarely fled like they did in the PC version. But there was honor in questing and sticking with the journey. The whole world was connected by the respective altars of Truth, Love, and Courage, a fitting allegory for the way the virtues seeped into one another. It’s not a complex ethical system, but there was something visually gratifying seeing that love, truth, and courage bridging all these disparate parts.

Ultima IV

Sacrifice

I know persistence isn’t one of the official virtues the game encourages, but it should be. You’ll need to sacrifice a lot of your time if you want to beat this game. Looking back all these years later, I couldn’t help but wonder, how in the world did I ever finish it as a kid? Some of the puzzles are obscure to say the least, and the dungeons, even with the help of FAQs, are extremely difficult to navigate.

Fortunately, the developers gave you a few tools, the most helpful being one of the best manuals ever included with a game. There’s detailed maps of the towns, magic ingredient lists, and a description of the moongates. The PC’s opening cutscene that was stripped away on the NES version is present in the manual, and the map included was a godsend. I pored over both for days on end. These were the kinds of manuals that inspired me to write game manuals when I grew up.

I always thought it funny that it was not enough of a sacrifice to save the world, fight off monsters, and help the weak. You needed to donate blood at the donor bank, too. Once you sacrifice enough blood and fulfill all your other duties, you achieve avatarhood and descend down into the Stygian Abyss. There, you’ll fight against some of the toughest enemies in the game, including the final battle pitting you against pixelated reflections of you and your companions. Being a messiah meant you had to destroy the eight embodiments of your 8-bit soul. It wasn’t a tough battle (especially with the Tremor spell), but a poetic one that culminated in sacrifice. You would never be the same again.

I’m grateful that the original PC version is free on GOG, but it retains the old graphics and keyboard interface. If you want to play QOTA with RPG sensibilities that are somewhat grounded in familiar gameplay mechanics, the NES version is the way to go.

Ultima IV

Conclusion: Spirituality

I’ve read that meditating every day for thirty minutes increases your lifespan. Achieving avatarhood isn’t just about performing good deeds, but reflecting on them and meditating on their implications. I’ve often wondered why I loved this game so much. One big reason is the underrated soundtrack, which has some of the best music around on the Nintendo. But it was also because it represented a different type of ideal, forcing me to rethink my view of the world while also expanding the possibilities of gameplay and story. What was the future of RPGs? The fact that I didn’t know the answer, that the potential seemed limitless, was very exciting to me.

In the end sequence, Lord British challenges you by stating, “The quest of the avatar is forever.”

All these years later, I’m still striving, still hoping to live up to its ideals.


Peter Tieryas is a character artist who has worked on films like Guardians of the Galaxy, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2, and Alice in Wonderland. His novel, Bald New World, was listed as one of Buzzfeed’s 15 Highly Anticipated Books as well as Publisher Weekly’s Best Science Fiction Books of Summer 2014. His writing has been published in places like Kotaku, Kyoto Journal, Tor.com, Electric Literature, Evergreen Review, and ZYZZYVA, and he blogs at tieryas.wordpress.com and tweets @TieryasXu.

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