In his autobiography, Benjamin Franklin recalls that once he established himself as a successful printer in Philadelphia, he "conceiv'd the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection." Through his readings, he had identified a list of 13 virtues that together would equal this perfection: temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, and humility. Realizing that trying to practice all 13 at once would be impossible, he set up a system by which he focused on one per day, carefully recording his progress in a ruled "score sheet" he set up in his notebook.
When I was 13 or 14, I did the same thing Franklin did, only not having been exposed to his autobiography at that point, my list of virtues was different: honesty, compassion, valor, justice, honor, sacrifice, spirituality, and humility. I wrote each with its definition on an index card and every morning I shuffled the cards and chose one at random. That one, I did my best to practice for the day. If honesty came up, I was careful to tell no lies throughout the day. If it was sacrifice, I looked for ways to do something charitable. Valor was always a tough one. I scoured Bartlett's Familiar Quotations in the school library and made little signs to hang around my room. I still remember some of them:
- "Honor and shame from no condition rise; act well your part, there all the honor lies." -- Alexander Pope
- "God hath sworn to lift on high he who sinks himself by true humility." -- John Keble
Not many, I suspect, would admit to deriving what amounts to their religion from a computer game. But I had rejected conventional religion even as a pre-teen. I balked at Judeo-Christian doctrines that seemed both haphazard and arbitrary: meticulous rules about food and dress, but none about the need to actively seek out and destroy evil (my interpretation of "valor"); commandments against adultery and sabbath-breaking, but none against assault and slavery. Ultima IV, on the other hand, offered a comprehensive and completely nondenominational--secular, even--system of virtue. It fit me like a glove. Perhaps if I had read philosophy, the history of the samurai, or Ayn Rand, I would have encountered an equally suitable virtue system that would be more "respectable" as a source. But I didn't. Instead, I played Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar.
Ultima IV's system seems to owe something to Hindu mythology, particularly in the concept of the "Avatar," which I think has been misunderstood by Ultima players and critics alike. In Hindu belief, an avatar is an earthy manifestation of a god--a form the god takes to walk on the mortal plane. In the Ultima series, however, your character is repeatedly described as the "Avatar of Virtue." "Avatar" in this sense is not being misused as a synonym for "exemplar" or "missionary"; rather, the game is suggesting that virtue itself is made manifest in your character; that abstract concepts like honor and valor can, in fact, be given physical form. By using the term, the creator is equating virtue with godhood, suggesting that our gods can be--perhaps should be--principles as well as beings. Why, indeed, should we worship a god who personifies truth, love, and courage when we can instead worship truth, love, and courage themselves?
At the same time, the use of "avatar" has a subtle second meaning. The character that moves around the screen is literally your, the player's, avatar in the game world. From the opening cut scenes of several of the Ultima games, showing you sitting at your computer, a soda can at its side, the games invite you to engage in a sort-of metacognition about the CRPG dynamic in which your fictional alter-ego acts in a way that is more virtuous, more courageous, more adventurous than in the real world.
In most games, this process is one-way--usually, at least, and thankfully so. Gamers who spend hours killing fictional enemies and then go out and kill real enemies are justly labeled as murderers, with negative consequences for their victims, their selves, and the gaming community. In less dramatic examples, no one learns how to sword fight from Oblivion or cast real magical spells from Wizardry. But here, in Ultima IV, we have a game that invites us to apply its lessons to the real world--to improve ourselves in the same way that we improve our in-game character. And if we decline to do this--decline to take this system of virtues seriously--just because its source is a "video game"...well, what better example do we have of a failure to live up to the most difficult-to-master of the eight virtues: humility.
There has never been, and I suspect never will be again, a CRPG--or, indeed, any game--like Ultima IV. Today's gamers wouldn't have the patience for it. I'm surprised they ever did. Perhaps it was only because CRPGs were so young, computers less ubiquitous, and computer gamers more cerebral (in the 1980s, mostly nerds had computers), that Ultima IV ever found an audience in the first place. Imagine, today, a game without a "big boss," but rather a more complicated quest to become a moral exemplar; a game in which progress is made less through combat than through meditating at shrines; a game whose character creation process invites you to explore your own morality; a game in which, to win, you must give gold to the poor, sacrifice hit points at a blood bank, always tell the truth, and let fleeing monsters escape; a game in which NPC dialog occurs not by choosing among options but by actually typing the words you want to speak.
If you came here for gameplay details, I apologize for the long and abstract polemic. I'll actually start playing (re-playing, in this case, for the first time in 10 years) in the next posting. But this discussion explains, I think, what ultimately led me to create this blog. Ultima IV wasn't my first CRPG, but it was among the first few, and for years it has stood in my mind as the foremost example of what a CRPG can achieve. If this intrigues you at all, ignore that it's old, ignore that it has lousy graphics and sound, ignore everything but the plot, and just play the game.