Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar (1985, AII)

By Scorpia / July 12, 2006

Scorpia is one of the greatest videogame critics of all time. She reviewed CRPGs and adventure games for the legendary Computer Gaming World for 16 years from the early 1980s to the late 1990s.


[I originally wrote this article somewhere back in the '90s. Some things have changed since then, but much has also remained the same. Read it and see what you think.]

Every so often, this question comes along: "What’s the best game you’ve ever played?"
   Of course, "best game ever" isn’t correct; what’s really meant is "best game so far", since there is always the future, and something may come along to take top position. Until that time, the best game I’ve played so far, hands down, is Ultima IV.
   Now that may surprise some people. After all, Ultima IV is an old CRPG, and while it has an honored place in the Hall of Fame [CGW's list of the best games ever: the best such list before Insomnia's Videogame Art essays and Game of the Year awards. -Ed], many players have as their favorites the "latest and greatest". Yet what do most of these "hot new games" have besides whizzbang graphics, boffo sound, and slick interfaces? Not much depth or substance, in my experience.
   Let’s face it, about 98% of all CRPGs can be summed up as follows: "We go out and bash on critters until we’re strong enough to go bash on Foozle". That’s the plot, and usually most of the storyline, too.
   Of course, there’s nothing wrong with hack and slash; none of us wants to be playing super mega-epics every day. A little monster mauling now and then is always good for releasing frustrations, and we all enjoy finding those treasure piles of Neat Items.
   However, hack and slash, even with plenty of frills, doesn’t make for a "best ever" game. To receive that label, a game must be far more substantial than mere critter chopping, and have unique aspects besides. Not many come up to those high standards, and of the ones that do, Ultima IV still leads the pack.

   It began with what was, for the time, a novel method of character creation. Most of us, I think, recall with fondness the gypsy woman and her quasi-Tarot cards. This was new and different. No dice rolls, no point spreads. "Here is the situation; how do you react to it?" There were no right or wrong answers; the reading was designed to gauge your mental outlook, your morals and ethics, and give you the profession closest to them.
   With many games, that’s as far as it would go. You’d have your mage or fighter or bard or whatever, and play on from there. In Ultima IV, this was only the beginning of a long journey of the soul, a journey that depended on building character.
   No game, before or since, has had such an objective. All others have been concerned with making you a better warrior or spellslinger, concentrating entirely on developing physical or magical prowess. Combat is the means to this, and it is easy to see why other CRPGs have so much. It’s the main way to get ahead; in most cases, the only way.
   Now, you certainly had plenty of fighting in Ultima IV. It was how you proved your Valor — but Valor was only one of eight virtues, and developing those other seven did not depend upon killing things. They depended on how you reacted to and treated other people. This, game fans, is what role-playing is all about.
   Those whose only experience with role-playing comes from the computer versions are likely to have a skewed vision. They see RPGing as "well, we make up some characters, kill critters, and haul away treasure" — the hack and slash philosophy, which caters basically to aggression and greed.
   Those who have experience (preferably a fair amount of it) in paper role-playing know better. Hack and slash is a good way to get started in RPGing; it’s easy to understand and helps players to learn the game mechanics quickly. After a while, though, running around with nothing more to do than kill things and fill your pockets becomes boring.
   That’s the time when the mature role-player (of whatever age) turns to thinking of character development, the relation of his or her alternate persona to the world and the people in it. The scenarios they participate in focus more on character interaction and growth rather than endless combat, although combat still has its place; role-playing without action can be just as dull as action without role-playing.
   This is extremely difficult to pull off well in a CRPG; most titles simply avoid it entirely. Yet there is hope; there has been a trend of late to get some more story, at least, into the games. Perhaps, in time, actual character development may edge its way in there, too.
   As a side commentary to developing the virtues, the one that gave people the most trouble was self-sacrifice. Invariably, letters came in saying, "Hawkwind keeps telling me I still have a long way to go, but I’ve been giving away all my money to the beggars every chance I get! What’s going on here??"
   What was "going on there" was that people were forgetting that the virtue in question was self-sacrifice. Handing out gold is generous, but it isn’t giving of yourself, which is what self-sacrifice means. Donating blood is self-sacrifice. Guarding the retreat of your comrades from the battlefield is self-sacrifice. Did backing off cost you some Valor points? That, too, is sacrifice on your part. A very different point of view was needed to get through this game.
   Aside from true character development there was Ultima IV’s open design. You could go almost anywhere you wanted, any time you wanted; the game was very much not linear. There were many things that had to be done, and quite a few objects to be obtained, but for the most part, those could be done in any order.
   If you got stuck in one place, you could leave it and do something else for a while. Many gamers are annoyed by the "A before B, B before C" setup; if you become bogged down in an area, there is nowhere else to go, and frustration sets in. Ultima IV managed to avoid a lot of that. Eventually, of course, everything narrows down to the end game, but until that time, the player has a lot of discretion as to where to go and what to do.
   While combat was not the main focus of the game, there was plenty of it, as mentioned earlier. What set Ultima IV combat apart from the others was its balance. The opponents were carefully controlled, so you wouldn’t, especially at the start, be overwhelmed. You could explore the land, without having to worry that a horde of orcs or a bevy of balrons would show up and wipe you out. Anything that came along was likely to be as much as you could handle, but not so much as to require frequent saves and restores to get through the fight.
   Conversation has always been a staple of the Ultimas. It’s nice to be able to walk around town and talk to people. For one thing, you know the world is populated. How many games have either empty streets or roadways crawling with monsters ready to pounce? It makes you wonder if the only inhabitants left are your characters and the shopkeepers.

   Another important aspect of these conversations was that people gave you information because they liked you, trusted you, or respected you. This was trust or respect you had earned by your actions during play. The closer you were to the ideal of Avatarhood, the more likely people were to tell you things, or, in some cases, join your party.
   There was none of the "quid pro quo" that infects so many games. You know what that is: "So, you want the location of the +30 Sword of Instant Death, eh? Well, first you must travel to the lair of the Dread Funny Bunnies, and bring back to me the Drum of Ages (batteries included)."
   Nowhere in Ultima IV were you ever someone’s errand boy or girl. People didn’t send you off to retrieve lost/stolen items as though you were some sort of pet dog. Many games today that have more than straight dungeoneering foist exactly that on you.
   Now, a little of this can be okay; after all, part of a hero’s job is helping people out. Unfortunately, too many titles have taken this to extremes, and you end up going hither and yon, bringing this here, taking that there, and in general playing through the mid-game impersonating Federal Express. It pads the game out, and after a while, it isn’t much fun. When players complain about the size of some CRPGs these days, this is what they really mean: running around with no real purpose behind it.
   Beyond all the above, perhaps the most iconoclastic part of Ultima IV is the ending. As a friend of mine put it, "It’s the only game where the goal is to read a book". Not trashing Foozle, not saving the world (again), but penetrating to the depths of a dungeon to read the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom. There have been other games with nonviolent endings (Might & Magic I, Magic Candle I, to name a couple), but none quite so mind-boggling or original as that.
   So now you know some of the reasons why this game is still #1 on my hit parade. Various aspects of Ultima have, from time to time, shown up in other games, but none as yet has been able to put it all together the way Quest of the Avatar did. Nothing has come along to equal or exceed it; maybe nothing ever will.
   I hope that’s not the case, though, because that would mean the CRPG has stagnated, and this is not something any of us wants to see... and perhaps this article will get some designers to thinking seriously about the direction of their games, to break the mold of eternal hack and slash, and give us, someday, CRPGs that are really role-playing games. It can happen. It’s been done once with Ultima IV; it can be done again.

Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar is Insomnia's 1985 Game of the Year.

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