Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar was a revolutionary game because there wasn’t a traditional villain to fight against. Instead, the focus was on becoming the Avatar, chasing after honor, sacrifice, humility, and spirituality. In Ultima V: Warriors of Destiny, the teachings you’ve embodied have become totally corrupted.
Twenty years have passed since the events of Ultima IV and the king of Britannia, Lord British is missing. Taking his place is Lord Blackthorn, an oppressive dictator who has changed Lord British’s benevolent reign into a tyrannical, religious state. Whereas before, the eight virtues acted as guiding principles for the people to pursue, in Blackthorne’s hands, they’ve become the law. A virtue like compassion is now codified as: “Thou shalt donate half of thy income to charity, or thou shalt have no income.” Honesty takes on sinister undertones as “Thou shalt not lie, or thou shalt lose thy tongue.”
It’s chilling returning to what was once a familiar world and finding a family in stockades. The father is locked up for only giving 40% of his earning, not the full 50%. His son is imprisoned by his side for not reporting him. A suspicious guard making the rounds demands a bribe as tribute to Lord Blackthorne.
What’s fascinating about the whole new religion is that this isn’t a theocracy deriving its authority from a esoteric divine being. Rather, the whole basis on which Blackthorn draws his legitimacy is you, the Avatar, and all the sacrifices you made in your in Ultima IV voyage. The Ultima games have always been a web in which the threads impact future iterations in unexpected ways. In the series’ growing complexity, I appreciated directly seeing the evolution of RPGs from fantasy tropes (save the princess, vanquish evil wizard) to narratives that incorporated the ambiguities and moral conflicts in our own world.
The mystery behind Ultima V is, how did things get so bad? You have to track down and meet Lord Blackthorn to get a sense of what’s really happening.
Blackthorn actually respects the Avatar, having wanted to follow your ways. But in your first meeting with him, things get sour really quickly. He demands information and then proceeds to permadeath one of your party members. It’s shocking, brutal, and traumatizing.
You begin to discover that there is someone twisting Blackthorne’s mind. They’re called the Shadowlords. Whenever they make an appearance, the NPCs get hostile, outright lying and stealing from your party. The only avenue of escape is avoidance as they’re too powerful to defeat in combat.
As intriguing as the game’s themes are, I nearly gave up before I began. I played the NES versions of Ultima III and IV which were streamlined with easier interfaces and improved graphics. I actually never got the chance to play Ultima V until it was available on GOG. So when I first loaded it up, I struggled with the interface. You have to press the appropriate letter on your keyboard for actions like “E” for “Enter” and “O” to open doors, which makes sense. But “I” for igniting a torch and “K” to climb rather than “C” threw me off (“C” is “Cast” magic). In dialogue, you can type in phrases or terminology you’ve learned from other NPCs as prompts to query them or continue conversations. Only the first four letters count, so you can ask about the “underworld” by typing in “unde” and you’ll get unique responses. It took a bit of time, but my desire to know more about the story kept me hooked. After I got the hang of the controls, I even came to appreciate their complexity. There is an immense feeling of satisfaction when you type in keywords that evoke deeper responses from NPCs.
Ultima V has an eclectic cast that reveals a much deeper world than the games before it with almost double the dialogue of any of the previous games. This includes a rat that was once an alchemist, a daemon called Sin’Vraal who will tell you where to find the Shard of Hatred, and even Christopher aka Chris Roberts, the director of another Origin game, Times of Lore. There are also day and night cycles with NPCs having their own routine decades before Majora’s Mask would do something similar. Understandably, most of the resistance against Blackthorn meet secretly at night.
One of the most useful items to acquire early on in your fight against the Shadowlords is the magic carpet. You can obtain it by using the cannon to blast the door in Castle Britannia. From that point on, your party can fly almost anywhere.
Eventually, you make it down into the Underworld where you meet a Captain Johne whose ship was pulled there through a whirlpool. Much of the Underworld is a dreary and barren land, sprawling endlessly in desolation. It’s also where the three shards of Mondain’s Gem of Immortality from the first Ultima landed. The captain found the shards, but they warped his mind. In a mad rage, he killed his three companions. Their blood stained the shards and the three Shadowlords were born, embodying Hatred, Falsehood, and Cowardice.
Ultima V’s warnings against the misuse and corruption of religion are surprisingly relevant today. Last year, I wrote about Quest of the Avatar and how it inspired me to strive after an ideal. I reflected on a childhood friend who had introduced me to several fantasy books and RPGs. But then one day, he informed me his church’s pastor told him any medium that had magic with people directly manipulating nature instead of relying on God was a form of evil. He urged me to give up games and fantasy books. I was incredulous. I’d always loved games as a kid and I wasn’t going to give them up just because his pastor wanted me to. Sadly, I ended up losing my friendship with him.
Throughout the years, I’ve met people who’ve condemned my appreciation for games and books because they considered them “secular” or “worldly.” The feeling of being judged always stings. Ultima V really struck a chord with its warnings against moral absolutism and how evil often is just good pushed to an extreme. It sucks to be considered a “bad person” just because you like games. What’s scary is that there are no Shadowlords pulling the strings in reality. You can’t go on a quest, find the original shards from Mondain’s Gem of Immortality, and vanquish the Shadowlords in the flames of love, truth, and courage. Fundamentalism in pixelated form is terrifying, but ultimately defeatable. In real life, it’s far more insidious.
And that reality is reflected in the game’s ending. After saving Lord British, Blackthorne awakes from his trance and is given the option of going into exile. He expresses deep penitence for his actions, even though he wasn’t fully in control of himself. Then you, the Avatar, return home and find someone has robbed your “TV set, stereo, and living-room furniture; a reminder that Evil dwells still within your own world and that your Quest of the Avatar is not yet at an end.”
And ultimately, it never is.