Hail Britannia – Ultima Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow

608563-ultima4_1_My parents had an interesting dynamic. My Mom was the realist, my Dad was the dreamer, and I’d like to think I fall somewhere in the middle. In different ways, my parents really “got me” when it came to certain things. And when it came to fantasy and games, my Dad really got me.

My Dad began a tradition of taking me to a computer store on my birthday and letting me pick out a new computer game. For my 14th birthday, we went to the little computer store in Newton, MA, and my Dad pointed out a game to me called Ultima III: Exodus. The cover showed a creepy demonic creature squatting over a lake of fire, holding flames in its hands. “That looks like something you’d be into,” he said.

Like I say, my Dad really “got me” when it came to games.

After Ultima III, I played Ultima IV, and, over the years, I’ve played all versions of Ultima, read the novels that came out based on the world, and even developed my own pen & paper RPG version. I sometimes think that, if I somehow ended up in Britannia like the game’s hero, I could travel from place to place without any difficulty…except for the monsters and such.

With more Ultima coming, and a second “Ultima” product currently in Kickstarter mode, I’ve had this classic fantasy series much on my mind. I thought this might be the time to take a look at where Ultima has been, where’s it’s at, and where it’s going. Quickly now…to the Moongate!

The Ages of Britannia

Well, actually, Ultima’s roots are long before Britannia was a glint in creator Richard Garriott’s eye. To find where Ultima begins, we must journey to…Akalabeth: World of Doom. Garriott created this game as a teenager to help simulate the tabletop RPGs he loved.

After that came Ultima I, II, and III, a trilogy about some rather nasty wizards. In Ultima I, the hero (referred to as the Stranger) comes to Sosaria to fight the evil wizard Mondain. In Ultima II, Mondain’s apprentice and lover, Minax, attacks the Stranger’s homeworld of Earth to get revenge. In Ultima III, Exodus, the pair’s unholy offspring, neither entirely mortal nor machine, attacks Sosaria, and the Stranger returns, rallies a party of adventurers, and defeats Exodus, ending the Age of Darkness.

Ultima IV, V, and VI are about the Age of Enlightenment. At the end of Ultima III, the lands were remade, and only the section of Sosaria called Britannia remained, now ruled by the kindly Lord British. The Stranger returns, but, this time, his quest is to become a spiritual leader for the people – the Avatar. By embracing eight virtues, the Avatar not only aids Lord British and the people of Britannia, but he also saves the kingdom from embracing a system of black and white morality, and then unites them with another people, the Gargoyles of the Underworld, who share a similar belief system.

Ultima VII, VIII, and IX reveal a new foe, the Guardian, who aspires to rule all of Britannia, and even the Avatar. Not surprisingly, despite all obstacles, the Avatar defeats the Guardian, but at terrible costs. This series trilogy, called the Age of Armageddon, is very melancholy and sad…it feels like an ending all the way through, and it’s some pretty intense stuff.

Along the way, there were various other games, including the first-person Ultima Underworld I & II, and two Worlds of Ultima games, The Savage Empire & Martian Dreams. But my great love was always for the original storyline.

After this came Ultima Online, but let’s save that for the next part…

Birth of a New Kind of Game

While Ultima Online was not the first MMORPG, or even the first commercial MMORPG, it certainly popularized the genre. In fact, Richard Garriott is believed to have coined the term MMORPG.
Today, the game seems so quaint, with its isometric gameplay, and many aspects of it are parts of almost all MMORPGs. The economy was player-driven, so players would master crafts and sell goods to one another, buy houses, and, of course, adventure together.

It’s funny…this is one game I actively avoided playing. Knowing how addicted I was likely to become, and having some idea of what it might cost to get involved, I stayed away. I also faintly remember thinking, “I doubt this will catch on.”

It caught on.

Actually, Ultima Online is still going. I played it the other day, just to try it out and see if it could quell my craving for a new Ultima game. I haven’t gotten hooked, but one never knows…

The other way in which Ultima is still available is by still being available. Services like GOG.com make the original games available in formats compatible with most modern computers, so it’s still possible to download, say, Ultima IV, and take up the Quest of the Avatar once more. In fact, I have a copy on the same laptop I’m typing this on…

What Comes Next?

With the departure of Richard Garriott from Origin, one might wonder what the future holds for the lands of Britannia. In some ways, even the fortune teller from the beginnings of many of the games might not be able to help, but we know there are two products on the horizon.

Origin maintains the rights to the Ultima name, and they are producing Ultima Forever: Quest for the Avatar. Taking place about twenty years after the events of Ultima IV, this series seems to be what might have been if the events of the later games had never come to pass. Lord British has stepped down, and his daughter, Lady British, now rules. A force called The Black Weep is poisoning the spirits of the people of Britannia, and Lady B is looking to you to become the new Avatar and defeat this awful power.

This game, which is being made for mobile platforms, looks interesting. It has the advantage of being a mobile-based MMORPG, which is appealing as I do a lot of gaming on my iPad. It also has the official Ultima names, which is a good thing. The cons are that it feels like the storyline is taking a step backwards. I’ll certainly give it a try, but I can’t say that it excites me.

On the other hand, Richard Garriott is currently holding a Kickstarter for a game called Shroud of the Avatar: Forsaken Virtues. Set in a largely medieval fantasy setting, it’s a world that’s slowly gaining a primitive electricity system. It’ll be available to play in many ways, including solo offline, online just with friends, and in full MMORPG mode.

This game has the advantage of seeming to have a more Ultima-esque feel to it. This probably has something to do with the presence of Mr. Garriott. It also promises a really incredible story, and not only do we have Richard Garriott, but also Tracy Hickman, whose work includes Ravenloft and Dragonlance. It also looks to be a much larger in scope game, and, even if this isn’t Britannia, the title suggests that it may share a lot of themes from the later Ultima games. And hey, it’ll have Lord British in it (as well as the Sosaria serpent symbol.)

Your Turn

So how about it? Are you an Ultima fan? Have you played any versions of it? Did you learn to cheat the gypsy to be able to play the character class you wanted? Tell us all about it.

About GGG

Andy/GGG is a gay geek guy for sure. He's been playing D&D since he was 10, and he equates reading Tolkien with religion to some degree. He's a writer/developer for a Live Action RPG called The Isles, and he writes a comic called Circles, a gay, furry slice-of-life piece that comes out way too infrequently.

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