Recently I’ve been sucked into playing the Ultima series. I’d seen some fun and glowing reviews for most of the series online and it was on sale at GOG.com at the beginning of June, so I figured I’d pick the games up and see for myself if they were as good as people say. And they really have been good, especially considering that the first one came out before I was even born and nearly the entire series of fourteen games (including spin-offs) was concluded before the mid-90’s. But what surprised me more than anything else wasn’t the gameplay or the story, but the interesting ethical and moral issues these games brought up, especially the second trilogy (Ultima IV–Ultima VI).
Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar (which, if you pick up the series, I’d recommend starting with, since the first three are kind of weird and you don’t have to play them to understand the rest of the series) is for the most part a standard western RPG; however, it doesn’t actually have a big bad guy to defeat. Nobody’s trying to take over the world; there isn’t any cosmic force slowly dismantling reality — there aren’t even really any bullies or small-time baddies (well, there are some pirates, but they’re all pretty generic). About the worst you get are some orcs and trolls roaming the countryside and some dungeons with monsters in them, but that’s it for the forces of evil. You see, Richard Garriott, creator of the Ultima games, had seen complaints made by concerned groups and parents about bad moral choices that seemed to be prevalent in video games and tabletop RPGs (like Dungeons & Dragons) and decided to craft a game devoted to morality (without tying it to any specific theology, though some of its inspiration comes from Buddhism) to prove that, yes, games can be used to inspire people to be good and virtuous instead of violent psychos or antisocial jerks. To that end, he created the system of the Eight Virtues and crafted an entire game based around living by these virtues. The virtues are Honesty, Compassion, Valor, Justice, Sacrifice, Honor, Spirituality, and Humility, all of which are based around three principles of truth, love, and courage.
I won’t go into much detail about how all this works in the game (you should go play it to find out), but basically it boils down to you actually following these virtues in-game to win. While a lot of modern RPGs have some sort of morality meter, often it’s pretty black and white: i.e. you’re either the paragon of goodness and purity, or you’re a puppy-strangling murderer. This game muddies the water a bit: you can do well in one virtue while being horrible in another (like robbing gold from people’s houses, which lowers your Honesty and Honor, but then giving it to the poor, raising your Compassion and Sacrifice). Some virtues even seem contradictory on the surface. For example, to have a good score in Valor you must never run from a fight or avoid confrontation, but to be Honorable you should never kill a defenseless/weaker opponent (unless it’s something evil like a demon), which leads to some creative solutions to accomplish both goals; in this case, beating on weak opponents until they start running away, then letting them go.
What I found especially intriguing were the events of the introduction, where you picked your starting class and stats. Instead of just choosing from a list and dividing out skill points, however, it took the form of an old gypsy woman presenting you with moral questions, having to choose between one virtue and another, until the last one you picked corresponded to your starting class, with each class represented by one of the virtues (a fighter held Valor as most important, a mage prized Honesty, a paladin followed Honor, etc.) But each question wasn’t a choice between good and evil, or good and lukewarm, or even better and best. In most cases, each question had you pick between two perfectly moral choices, depending on what you hold most important, and a lot of them were pretty tough choices (assuming you were answering them honestly, and not just picking the virtue that corresponded to whatever class you wanted to use).
So I decided to run a little experiment on Facebook and ask the general public (or at least my Facebook friends) the same questions, to see what virtue people really held most dear. And the responses were fairly telling and somewhat surprising in their own right, and I think a lot of lessons can be learned from the result. I may later post the actual answers people gave, but I want to get permission from people before I start quoting them, so for now I’ll summarize. First, let me break it down question by question:
1. Entrusted to deliver an uncounted purse of gold, thou dost meet a poor beggar. Dost thou:
A) deliver the gold knowing the Trust in thee was well-placed; or
B) show Compassion, giving the Beggar a coin, knowing it won’t be missed?
Honesty vs. Compassion. This first question had a lot of people trying to take a third option, e.g. give the beggar some of their own money, come back later afterward and help the beggar out, pray about it, etc. Of course, taking a third option was kind of a cop-out answer, and sometimes praying about it isn’t always the final answer (a point which I’ll come back to later). Although a few people noted that leaving the beggar unsuccored would be a greater sin than using money that nobody would miss anyway (though both would be bad), the majority went with option A. Being trustworthy was more important than being charitable, especially if it’s not your own money (even if it wouldn’t be missed).
2. Although a teacher of music, thou art a skillful wrestler. Thou hast been asked to fight in a local championship against those with much lesser skill. Dost thou:
A) accept the invitation and Valiantly fight to win; or
B) Humbly decline knowing thou wouldst probably have won, thus giving others a better chance?
Valor vs. Humility. I reworded this one slightly from the actual question to try to make it more balanced, but apparently it didn’t work, as not a single person picked B. Everyone chose to enter and win the tournament. I found this one the most surprising, because personally, I would have picked B. Not that I’m necessarily all that humble (in fact, I don’t think the answer here really demonstrates humility, which is one reason I tried to reword it: the original reads “Humbly decline knowing thou art sure to win”), but beating people who are obviously way worse than I am isn’t fun for the other people, nor is it really fun for me, especially in a tournament setting. I pictured it like Stephen Hawking entering a third-grade science fair: assuming the judges are completely unbiased and don’t care about anyone’s feelings, it’s obvious who’s going to win. It just seems like a petty ego-booster more than anything else. Striving to beat those on your own level, however, is a different story, as would be training those weaker than you. But that’s just my opinion.
3. Thou dost believe that virtue resides in all people. Thou dost see a rogue steal from thy Lord. Dost thou:
A) call him to Justice; or
B) personally try to sway him back to the Spiritual path of good?
Justice vs. Spirituality. This one was completely split down the middle, and I ended up having to choose a winner based on how many “likes” each comment got. The obvious Les Miz parallel was drawn (“You must use this precious silver to become an honest man…”), and some said it depended on why the rogue was stealing, which, oddly enough, is a moral dilemma presented in some other Ultima IV questions (more about those later), just not in the ones I asked. Others brought up the fact that, whatever his reasoning behind the theft, he was guilty regardless and needed to face the consequences. Nevertheless, in the end B won, though that was probably more due to people liking the Les Miz quote than anything else.
4. Thou art a bounty hunter sworn to return an alleged murderer. After his capture, thou believest him to be innocent. Dost thou:
A) Sacrifice thy sizeable bounty for thy belief; or
B) Honor thy oath to return him as thou hast promised?
Sacrifice vs. Honor. Randomly, this is the basis for a Quantum Leap episode, where in the end Sam goes with A (and it’s not like it’s his bounty anyway). Anyway, this was was also nearly 50/50. Those arguing for A noted that just because someone has a bounty after them doesn’t mean they’re guilty. You weren’t sure if he would get a fair trial, especially since the simple matter of having a bounty on one’s head tends to bias people against a person. However, those who argued for B noted that it would hurt your own reputation and honor to not fulfill your job. You could testify of your belief at the trial and put your faith in the system. Both excellent arguments, but in the end more people chose A, barely.
5. Thou has been prohibited by thy absent Lord from joining thy friends in a close pitched battle. Dost thou:
A) refrain, so thou may Honestly claim obedience; or
B) show Valor, and aid thy comrades, knowing thou may deny it later?
Honesty vs. Valor. This is the winner of the first question vs. the winner of the second question, which is how it works in the game (the whole thing is a sort of bracket system). The answers were, once again, pretty split down the middle. Some said it was more important to remain obedient, no matter what the situation (though in this case “Lord” refers to a human, fallible medieval lord, not the religious, divine kind), some chose not to fight because the war itself was most likely political, and some just chose to pray for their friends instead. Others chose to put “bros before lords” and quoted valiant poetry, in essence showing that, when it comes down to it, it’s most important to protect your fellow soldiers. Still, in the end, more people chose to follow their lord than aid their comrades, so A was the winner!
6. Thou hast spent thy life in charitable and righteous work. Thine uncle the innkeeper lies ill and asks you to take over his tavern. Dost thou:
A) Sacrifice thy life of purity to aid thy kin; or
B) decline & follow thy Spirit’s call?
Sacrifice vs. Spirituality. I think this question hit closer to home for most people than many of the earlier questions, as this type of dilemma is something faced all the time within the LDS community. I know specifically of one case where the girl involved had literally nearly this exact decision (minus the tavern): take care of her sick father, or serve a mission. She put off serving a mission for years, but finally decided that it was too important to put off any longer, and she’s currently out serving right now. On a smaller scale this struggle happens in the Church all the time. What’s more important for a bishop: raising his family, or fulfilling his duties? It’s up to each bishop and his family to decide where that line lies, but it’s not an easy decision. The same can be said of many callings in the Church.
A lot of people picked A, reasoning that helping your family is a form of charitable and righteous work anyway, and as an innkeeper you may have opportunities to be charitable and kind to others. Most of those who picked B brought up their mission experiences specifically, saying that whatever good they may have accomplished at home was not even comparable to the good they accomplished in their missionary years. Still, for the majority, family comes first.
7. Thou and thy friend are valiant but penniless warriors. Ye both go out to slay a mighty dragon. Thy friend thinks he slew it, but thou didst. When asked, dost thou:
A) Truthfully claim the gold; or
B) Allow thy friend the large reward?
Honesty vs. Sacrifice. I edited this question a little too, but it was mostly to fix grammatical errors (the original said “thee did” instead of “thou didst”, which makes about as much sense as saying “Him do” instead of “He does”).
Wow. So many people wanted to take a third option here, it was ridiculous. Almost everyone wanted to just split the money, though in my opinion this was more about the prestige of being a dragon-slayer than it was about the reward, but I suppose that can be split too, so the arguments presented still work. In the end I think A edged it out, but that must be qualified by the fact that more people tried to take a third option than answer the question.
Grand Winner: Honesty.
There are actually a lot more questions possible (one for every combination of virtues; you can find the full list here), but I wanted to present them how the game might do so. Incidentally, picking Honesty as your virtue in Ultima IV makes you a mage, which is a really good class for the player character, so well done there, I suppose.
So what can be gleaned from all this? I think there are a multitude of good lessons here, and I leave it to each individual to take their own to heart, but here are at least a few things I’ve observed and learned.
I think the main lessons I’ve gleaned revolve around the fact that life isn’t filled with black and white choices. There are a lot of definite wrong choices, sure, but oftentimes, especially in the Church, we get the idea that in many situations there is one best choice and everything else is wrong. While that can be sometimes true, I think that often we’re asked to choose between two good things. Prayer can help guide one’s thoughts, sure, but the Lord can’t decide everything for us. D&C 58 teaches that men are “agents unto themselves”, and countless scriptures (such as Ether 2-3) and examples in Church history teach that we need to come up with our own solutions to problems we face. It’s what we personally prize as most important that gives us the ability to choose, even if both choices are acceptable to the Lord.
That’s not to say that all choices must be between one virtue and another. As was proved by the third options people kept trying to take, often goodness results from trying to apply as many virtues to a situation as possible. Often choices can seem black and white, or at the very least between two extremes, but perhaps a third road could be sought to resolve things well for all involved, even if it’s not the best possible outcome for any specific party. (Insert political commentary here.) Of course, that’s just common sense, or at least it should be.
Probably the other thing I found the most interesting about this experiment was that, since there weren’t really any wrong answers, usually the answers people gave revealed much more about the person than it did about morality or virtue. For example, for question #5 (wilt thou join thy friends in battle), the people who picked to help their friends are fighters in real life; perhaps not physically (although in one case I know for a fact that, yes, physically he is a fighter), but in attitude and life outlook. While out of those who picked A, only one or two of them actually cited obedience as the main reason (the comment about “I wouldn’t fight in a political war” is especially telling). And there’s nothing wrong with avoiding a fight, especially one that you have a legitimate reason for avoiding, but it does say a lot about the personalities of the people involved.
Another good example of this is found in question #6 (taking your uncle’s inn vs. living a life of spirituality). Almost everyone who picked to live the life of spirituality attributed their decision to their mission experiences, and how much more powerful of an impact that can have on people’s life than just simply living well. Not that there’s anything wrong with just living well; especially if you’re helping family. It’s just where your priorities lie: helping your family and some number of strangers (maybe), or helping a large number of strangers (definitely) who then become like your family? Not black and white. But our priorities and perceptions of virtue are shaped as much by our own experiences and decisions as they are by any doctrine or principles learned at church or other authorities on the subject.
I guess the best lesson that can be taken from this is perspective. It’s so easy to see others with a different perception or priorities when it comes to morality and judge them based on our own priorities. For example, it would be easy to look at the person who gave up their life of charity to run their uncle’s inn and think of what a waste it is. Someone else could take over the inn; but people all over the world need help! Why in the world would you give up the chance to influence so many? It would also be easy to look at the person who continued in their charitable work and judge how callous they are toward their own family. Don’t they know that their uncle needs them? Besides, they could still do good things as an innkeeper! But it’s important to keep in mind that what one may perceive as a weakness in a virtue could just as easily be seen as a strength in another one.
There are absolute truths. But not all truth is absolute. And it’s important to remember that for the world to make sense without believing everyone else is wrong who doesn’t agree with you.
Not bad for a computer game from 1985 that fits on three 5 1/4″ floppy disks, eh?
In order to win Ultima IV you must actually master all eight virtues, pray at their respective shrines, and collect a bunch of other plot doodads and assemble a party of eight team members, each corresponding to a virtue, to enter the Stygian Abyss. At the bottom of the Abyss lies the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom, which is basically the holy book of the virtues, and after it quizzes on you about how you’ve learned to lead a virtuous life you become the Avatar, champion of good and right, and the knowledge of the Codex becomes available to everyone in the land. Once that happens, you return home (to Earth; did I mention that you were also an interdimensional traveler?), secure in the knowledge that you’ve exemplified and codified an ethos that will help people live better for years to come.
The series doesn’t let up with its interesting moral and ethical questions there, however. Without spoiling too much, Ultima V sees all of the virtues become actual laws, punishable by fines, imprisonment, and execution, and the horrible dystopia that occurs when goodness becomes mandatory. And Ultima VI ends up being a story about racism, although for the first two-thirds of the game you don’t actually know that, which actually makes the last third even more poignant, since it’s very possible that you were guilty of the same racism for the first part of the game as everyone else.
The best part? Despite these games being over twenty years old, you can still play them on modern machines if you get them from GOG.com (see links below). And if you just want to play Ultima IV, it’s completely free! And this isn’t just “you can find it as abandonware because it’s old and therefore in a legal gray area” kind of free, it’s legitimately offered by its parent company as a free download! Though I would recommend downloading and installing xu4, which is a program that updates the graphics and music; otherwise, you’ve got a 16-color game played in virtual silence. And since this is an old game and therefore doesn’t have a tutorial to speak of (one literally couldn’t fit on the disk), I would also recommend using the “Getting Started” guide I provide a link to below.
Have fun! And may you also one day become the Avatar!
- Buy the entire 2nd Trilogy from GOG.com for $5.99 (unless it happens to be on sale; I got it for $2.99!) You can also get the rest of the Ultima series if you search the site. I’d highly recommend Ultima VII especially, though that one starts dealing with more mature themes (you begin by investigating a brutal murder that’s pretty gory for 1992 graphics).
- Get just Ultima IV for free!
- Download xu4, to play the game with better graphics and music. Gameplay is virtually identical to the original, though readying spells is easier. Note that this doesn’t include the actual game, which you still have to get using the link above.
- The “Getting Started” guide from GameFAQs. Even if you don’t like using walkthroughs, reading this is basically a must. The game itself does not hold your hand.