Released in 1985, Quest of the Avatar is the fourth game in Richard Garriott’s Ultima series. Ultima is one of the oldest RPG series in video game history, with its first entry dating back to 1981. Consequently, it’s also one the most influential. Indeed, many games owe their existence to this series. A spinoff of Ultima, titled Ultima Underworld, was one of the first action RPGs played from a true first-person perspective. Not only did it serve as the primary inspiration for Arena, the first installment of Bethesda’s popular Elder Scrolls series, it is also indirectly responsible for the creation of BioShock: Infinite. Many of the same people who helped develop Ultima Underworld would go on to create System Shock, which is considered the spiritual predecessor to BioShock. In relation to its own series, Quest of the Avatar marked a turning point, shifting the gameplay from a simple hack-and-slash dungeon crawler to a more ethically-driven experience that takes the player on a spiritual journey.
Playing the Game
Ultima IV is a computer RPG game. The gameplay can roughly be divided into three different modes: exploration, dungeon crawling, and combat.
When exploring the world, the game features a top-down perspective. You use the arrow keys to move and each letter on the keyboard corresponds to a different command. For instance, “T” is used for talking, “E” is used for entering a location, “O” is used for opening, and so forth. Because sprites only face one direction in this game, you also have to press an arrow key after the command key in order to direct the action at what, or who, you wish to interact with. This is one of the first games to feature dialogue trees. Because the game has no mouse support, this is accomplished by typing single words into a command line when asked. It’s usually best to start with words such as “name,” “job,” or “health,” in order to get the more contextual words that provide specific hints.
Dungeon crawling in Ultima IV is played from a faux-first-person perspective which gives the illusion of 3D. Many RPGs from this era such as Wizardry or Might and Magic also employed this style.
Finally, combat, much like world exploration, is played in a top-down perspective, even if it takes place in a dungeon. It’s a turn-based affair with a tactical element. Intuitively, short-ranged attacks can only be used on enemies adjacent to the selected character while long-ranged attacks travel in a line until they hit an enemy. Magic is prepared ahead of time. When not in combat, you have to combine alchemical ingredients in order to create spells, almost like an early interpretation of crafting systems featured in many modern games. Like the keyboard commands, each letter on the keyboard represents a different spell.
The gameplay of Ultima IV is, unfortunately, quite cumbersome and has not aged gracefully. This game was released in an era when reading the manual was mandatory in order to learn the basic controls. It was reasonable during this time period because computer games required a certain level of expertise; even something as simple as loading a game took quite a lot of effort using DOS. Nowadays, computer interfaces have become so streamlined to the point where anyone can use them with very little trouble.
The keyboard commands aren’t actually too bad when you get used to them, but I imagine most new players would lose their patience very quickly, especially when trying to remember which letter performs which action. This is especially true when the letters don’t match up with how the action is spelled. For example “Z” is used to examine character stats, “K” is used for climbing, and “Q” is used for saving (the interface tries to justify this by claiming that it stands for “Quit and Save,” but it doesn’t actually quit the game). Also, a lot of the actions are so situational that it makes me wonder why they even bothered making them their own keys. “B” is for boarding a ship; the “E” command wouldn’t work. Plus, there are two separate commands for going up and down ladders or stairs: “K” for climb and “D” for descend. It really seems like these actions could have been condensed into a single “interact” key, where context would dictate the interaction (e.g. the key would become “talk” if directed at a person and “open” when directed at a closed door).
Another major fault with this game is, oddly for an RPG, the controls. In order to move your character across the overworld, you need to push the arrow keys every single time you want to take a step. If you hold down the key, the game will keep moving your character until they hit an obstacle, but it won’t stop right away. Enemies move when you move, and each step is considered a turn. This applies for every turn wasted hitting an obstacle, so if you hold the key down for too long, they can get the drop on you very easily. While pushing the arrow keys every time may not seem so bad, what makes this frustrating on the overworld is that walking through certain terrains such as forests, swamps, and mountains cause you to randomly waste a turn, the game chalking it up to “slow progress.” The dodgy controls extend to combat as well; when engaging the enemy, you have to pay close attention to whose turn it is and pushing the wrong key will cause you to waste your turn. Again, I can see this happening a lot until the person playing the game gets used to the interface.
Finally, the magic system, though ambitious, is not very well thought out. The same problem of every letter on the keyboard representing a command during normal gameplay extends to the magic system as well. A lot of the spells are impractical or outclassed by other ones. Also, you can only mix ingredients for one spell at a time. This is true even if you need multiple copies of the same spell. In other words, if you need ninety heal spells, you need to type the same combination of letters ninety times in a row and hope that you don’t make a mistake or else the ingredients will be wasted.
Analyzing the Story
The Triad of Evil that once plagued the lands of Sosaria have been vanquished. Eventually, the world was united under the rule of the kindly Lord British and renamed Britannia in his honor. An era of peace ensued, and Lord British became increasingly concerned with his subjects now that their struggles against the triad had concluded. Without a greater evil, heroes were unneeded and, therefore, the people were without role models, hope, or any higher purpose. Lord British then summons the Stranger to the land of Britannia. The Stranger is a powerful warrior from Earth who was responsible for slaying the members of the triad. It is up to the Stranger to complete the Quest of the Avatar.
The quest is centered around eight virtues, which are composed of combinations of three governing principles – truth, love and courage. The eight virtues are: honesty, valor, compassion, sacrifice, honor, justice, spirituality, and humility. Whosoever masters all eight of these virtues, locates all of the important artifacts, and reads the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom located at the bottom of the Great Stygian Abyss will be dubbed the Avatar, the shining paragon of all that is good.
Although the story of Ultima IV is minimalistic and doesn’t have much of a presence in the game proper, it is an amazingly novel concept not only for its time, but even by today’s standards. It was one of the first games in history to truly ponder the limitations of the medium. Is it possible to have a meaningful conflict in a computer game without an antagonist? Keep in mind that this is from a game released in the same year as Super Mario Bros.
What I admire most about the premise of Ultima IV is that it’s one of the earliest instances of a developer weaving story into the gameplay. In your quest to become the Avatar, you must behave in a virtuous manner at all times. The game keeps track of how much you live up to each of the eight virtues and almost every action you take impacts them in some way. Advancing your quest by finding important items, donating blood to a healer, talking humbly, and even dying in battle are all examples of actions that get you closer to achieving Avatarhood. On the flip side of that coin, opening chests that belong to somebody, killing an animal that only acts on instinct, and running away from a fight are all actions that will make your goal much harder to achieve.
Despite the many good things that could be said about the premise of Ultima IV, its actual execution leaves a bit to be desired. The most notable flaw is that the virtues are very easy to exploit in your favor. For instance, you can achieve the sacrifice virtue rather easily by donating blood, which simply drains your HP, getting healed by Lord British, a service he offers for free, and repeating until the hypothetical meter has been maxed out. Compassion can be achieved by giving money to a beggar. However, the game only keeps in track of how many times you donate gold to the beggars, not how much you give to them. Therefore, it’s better to donate small amounts of gold several times rather than a large amount once. Finally, with humility, all you have to do is seek out certain people and insist you’re nothing special when asked to enter a command. Best of all, you can talk to the same person to get the conversation to repeat and doing so each time will still increase the virtue.
So while the story does have an amazing premise, the various ways you can break the system utterly shatters immersion, and the idea that one can essentially cheat their way to the top is incongruous with the game’s message. Again, considering when this game was released, it’s still a commendable effort and I think it would be very interesting to see another game with a similar premise made with modern-day design sensibilities. Most RPGs develop characters with their narratives, in Ultima IV, that task is thrust upon you, the player.
Drawing a Conclusion
I find the task of rating Ultima IV to be incredibly difficult – possibly the hardest of any game I’ve ever reviewed. On one hand, the sheer influence this game had on the medium is laudable and should not be ignored. Before Ultima IV, no game had this level of introspection and overarching goals were almost never more advanced than: you’re the good guy; kill this bad guy because he’s evil. If I were to rate this game solely on its impact and how many amazing works spawned as the result of its creation, this would easily get a ten. On the other hand, the game is nearly impossible to play from a modern perspective, and I only expect newcomers to become less interested in it as time goes on. Honestly, it’s hard to fault them; I would say that playing Ultima IV now is a lot like using a typewriter long after the advent of computers and word processing programs. There’s little doubt which was more revolutionary, yet that doesn’t mean people should still be using them.
Ultimately, I rate the games I’ve played not on how good they were when they were released, but rather a combination of how good they are now and the overall experience I had playing them. Playing through Ultima IV was more like a self-imposed homework assignment than a fun diversion. Mr. Garriott’s work has its rightful place in video game history, and it’s completely impossible to take that away. However, if a game like Ultima IV was released today, it would be deservedly torn apart. Sometimes, true masterpieces aren’t the works with the most innovation, but rather the most polish.
Final Score: 4/10