Spotted at Kotaku: The Immoral Morality of Ultima V


Kotaku, in a surprising example of historical awareness, recently published an article about Ultima 5, which discusses the game and its themes in considerable depth.

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.”

I’d offer a Spoiler Warning for what follows, but hopefully — if you’re reading this — you’re familiar with the plot of Ultima 5 already:

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 noted, the article offers a very in-depth look at the game; it gives an overview of the entire story, as well as of the path that you, the Avatar, take in order to set right the evil that has befallen Britannia. The article’s conclusion, however, relates the themes of the game back to the real world:

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.

Now, I said above that it was surprising that Kotaku, of all places, had published this article. However, it is worth noting that the article was penned by Peter Tieryas; we’ve encountered his work before, most notably in his lengthy reflections on Ultima 4. So perhaps it’s not that surprising that, at least for a moment, Kotaku demonstrated awareness of games published before the first entry in the Halo series came out.