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Ultima 4, 5, 6 good, Ultima 7, 7.5, 8 bad

I don’t have much of an update on writing, because I lost a couple months to a deep dive into Skyrim. Which I’d never played before, but it prompted me to finish a journey through Ultima VII, Part 2: The Serpent Isle that I started last summer. And stopped about 2/3 the way through.

First, I played most of the Ultima games contemporaneously, that is when they came out on PC. (The sole exceptions being Ultima IX and Ultima Underworld 2.) So Ultima II and III back in the 80s. And then IV, which was gloriously in 16 colors on my very awesome EGA adapter. (So was the Ultima I port, which was weird in comparison to the mostly black & white with dashes of cyan and magenta II and III.)

I, II, and III were bog-standard “level up, build power, collect some stuff, beat up the big evil boss” CPRGs. The story, such as it was, was “evil appeared, vanquish it, please”.

IV was an amazing step forward. It introduced a system of virtuous behavior, and not only did you need to learn the virtues to finish the game, you needed to behave according to those virtues. (Within the limits of a mid-80s computer game.)


For a change, you didn’t save the world, you provided an example for others to follow by becoming the Avatar, the embodiment of the eight virtues.

A quick sidestep into the virtues: They’re the three Principles (Truth, Love, Courage) mashed together into eight combinations: Honesty (Truth), Compassion (Love), Valor (Courage), Justice (T+L), Self-Sacrifice (L+C, later abbreviated to just “Sacrifice”), Honor (T+C), Spirituality (T+L+C), Humility (absence of all three).

V and VI, which complete the “Avatar Trilogy”, explored consequences. In V, the kindly monarch of Britannia has been imprisoned, and the tyrant Blackthorn has taken over. He has taken the same virtues and twisted their meaning. Again, within the limitations of 80s game engines, it’s a dive into strict morality gone wrong.

VI is also dealing with consequences, and a view of the Avatar’s actions through a different lens. Not only is there a jokey version based on the three principles of “Wine, Women, and Song”, which shows that the combination system is really dependent on the inputs, but also a serious, and counter-balancing, system for another race based on Control, Passion, and Diligence (leading to a similar set of eight virtues).

And the Avatar’s actions destabilized their world, stole their precious artifact, and set the worlds on a collision. And the victory condition is not wiping them out, but finding a balance between the two, and in the end, you make peace, stabilize the underworld, and make the artifact available to both races. You leave the both worlds better than you found them.

You’re a Hero!

And then in VII through VIII (which is actually three games), you break things worse and worse. I’ll explain more, next time, and, eventually, tie it in to expectations and satisfying narratives.


Published inUltimaVideo Games