Respect the Architects.
Two years following the near-death of video games in 1983 and just before their resurgence via Super Mario Bros, I was an 11 year old who had somehow convinced my parents to get me a Commodore 64. To this day, i have no idea why they actually buckled and got it for me. I guess it must have been cheaper than Ritalin or something.
Anyway, it was a pretty kick-ass computer for the time and I had inherited a decent collection of games from the people who sold us the computer. Full disclosure: I was also a bit of a pirate back in those days. Some of my friends and I would exchange discs, copy them, and watch our game libraries grow. I’m not exactly proud of it, but it was kind of like the Wild West back in those days. Also, hey, I was 11! It didn’t really seem to matter because games at the time were just simple puzzles with a few scenarios and no real story to speak of.
And then Ultima IV came out.
Remember last November on Twitter when it seemed like everybody was live-tweeting what they’d done/discovered/killed in Skyrim? Well, back in ’84 it was in the computer lab at school, and it was Ultima IV that everybody was talking about. Literally everybody I knew who had a C64 or an Apple IIe was playing Ultima IV. I mowed our lawn for the whole Summer (just to provide context, we lived on 2.5 acres in the country) to make enough money to get my own copy. We all have those completely lucid memories of events from years or even decades past, in which we remember every single detail. That’s what it was like the day I got Ultima IV; when I slapped down $50 at the store, when I spend the entire drive home poring through the manual and perusing the cloth map that was packed in, and especially when I put the disc in and booted the game up. It was maybe the first game I ever played that came boxed with a bunch of extra stuff; in this case a cloth map, a clues book, and a massive manual full of information absolutely necessary to complete the quest
And what a quest it was. If you were playing computer role playing games in the 1980s, the Ultima series was the benchmark for large, immersive worlds with ambitious stories and expectation-defying moments. Unlike many games released before (and frankly after) this one, the objective of Ultima IV is nothing so trite as to save the world or overthrow a tyrant. The goal of this one? To acquire eight Virtues, present yourself as an avatar for the people of Britannia to aspire to, and ascend to a higher plane of existence. Seriously. Thinking about the ambition and maturity of titles like this one makes me look at some of the modern ‘mature’ story-driven games that are out there like Gears of War, shake my head, and ask myself, “What the Hell happened?” The basic structure of the game is relatively straightforward: You begin in the court of Lord British and are set on the path of discovering the Virtues. You travel to a town, talk with NPCs until you find the one who directs you to the Virtue, seek it out, and move on to the next area. As with any RPG, you encounter all kinds of enemies along the way.
The uniqueness and ambition of the story made Ultima IV a fantastic experience. Furthermore, it was probably the most immersive game I played as a child for one primary reason; I was responsible for keeping track of what I’d learned. I had sheets of paper next to my C64 with notes scrawled all over them about where to go, who to talk to, and what to say to them. The aforementioned cloth map was draped over the dot matrix printer so I could keep track of what part of this (at the time) massive world I was in. Even replaying it now, I have an OpenOffice document saved onto my desktop with critical information highlighted. I love the idea of having to maintain a journal instead of following a minimap and journal which automatically tells you exactly where to go. As a kid, and even now, it evoked this sense of managing one’s own experience instead of relying on being guided towards goals. Granted, it’s not for everyone but it does provide a singular experience.
Still on the fence about whether or not to try this game out? Okay, how about this: Ultima IV is free at Good Old Games. FREE! Do yourself a favor — go download it and try it out. Also, just to be clear, it’s an old, old game and it’s not terribly user-friendly at all. It’s still worth checking out for the exact same reason that if you are a film buff, you should make an effort to watch the old classics like Birth of a Nation, Nosferatu, or Modern Times. The important thing is to not look at it necessarily as a comparison to today’s games, but as a demonstration of the sense of possibility and imagination that existed as a method for dealing with technical limitations. Consider: Ultima IV may look like crap now but when I was 11 years old playing on my Commodore 64, this is what it looked like to me: