One of the most important and compelling games I ever played was about you being a good person. In Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar, you helped the poor, sacrificed blood, defended the weak. There was no main villain, no prince or princess to rescue. You had to become a a good person. Period. It was an inspiration growing up and an honor to write about it for Tor.com. It’s funny as I think about the game, all the hours poured into it. Bits and pieces from the essay which I explored in the format of the eight virtues which comprise the avatar, like compassion:
The homeless and the sick exist in most of the towns of Britannia. One of them is dying of bubonic plague and looks so pitiful as he begs for money. No matter how much money you give him, he’s still there every day. I know playing it in retrospect, the mechanic seems simple, but back then as a kid, the chance to give to the poor was my naive way of feeling like I was actually helping people. QOTA made me wonder how, with all this prosperity in the land, there were still so many who had so little. It was a dark reflection on a reality that’s still apparent today, beyond our front doors.
I always thought it funny that it was not enough of a sacrifice to save the world, fight off monsters, and help the weak. You needed to donate blood at the donor bank, too. Once you sacrifice enough blood and fulfill all your other duties, you achieve avatarhood and descend down into the Stygian Abyss. There, you’ll fight against some of the toughest enemies in the game, including the final battle pitting you against pixelated reflections of you and your companions. Being a messiah meant you had to destroy the eight embodiments of your 8-bit soul. It wasn’t a tough battle (especially with the Tremor spell), but a poetic one that culminated in sacrifice. You would never be the same again.
Big thanks to my editor at Tor, Bridget, as I had so much fun writing it. Writing the essay had me thinking about how much the game affected my approach to story-telling and protagonists in general. Richard Garriott instilled players with a sense that there was a nobler approach to life. As I conclude the piece:
In the end sequence, Lord British challenges you by stating, “The quest of the avatar is forever.”
All these years later, I’m still striving, still hoping to live up to its ideals.
(Some screengrabs from my recent playthrough below)