In May 2013, long time Ultima fan Greg Cato decided to auction off his Immortality Contest winning rune stone and accompanying letters from Origin Systems. Greg was so kind to send the Ultima Codex several high-quality pictures, as we well as the following wonderful story about his experience with Ultima. -Dungy
Like a lot of us old timers, I got my start back in the 80’s in my early teens. My ‘in’ was the NES version of Exodus that I had rented from the local video store. I enjoyed the depth (compared to other NES games), but didn’t make it too far before it had to go back to the store. My birthday was a few months later and my mother took me to the local Babbage’s and let me pick out any game I wanted. I narrowed down my selection to Arkanoid (the ball bouncing game) and an intriguing copy of Ultima V. I remember being pretty split about it, but went with what I figured would last longer.
Needless to say I was hooked pretty quickly after booting it up. I loved how dialog was handled. I understood absolutely nothing about what was going on in the world around me. As luck would have it, I also got lyme’s disease that summer and the antibiotics didn’t allow me to go outside. I spent the majority of that summer completely wrapped up in Britannia. The Underworld was both nerve-wracking and wondrous. I especially loved the feeling of trying to set a good example in a world where there’s an oppressive authority out to get you at every turn. Must’ve been a teenager thing. Regardless, I spent many hours slaying gargoyles with magic axes at Blackthorn’s Castle only to get completely and totally stuck on the final dungeon. I couldn’t get past the first room with a hidden switch, and I wouldn’t finish the game until years after.
By this time, I was completely in love with the series. When Ultima VI was announced, I jumped at the opportunity to preorder. As it happened, that was also the winning copy of the Immortality Contest. I think I must’ve been one of the first ones to send in my order and they decided to reward their most devoted fans. Either that or the distributor just put the runes in the first boxes of the run.
When I opened that copy of Ultima VI, I didn’t realize what the runestone was. I thought it was just another box trinket until I read the flier and realized my extreme luck. Imagine a thirteen year old Ultima fanboy coming across that and you’ll have a good idea of what I was thinking. Yep, I was terrified of my teenage, braces-and-glasses mug being immortalized yet absolutely on cloud nine with the idea.
I sent the next month trying to take a good enough photo and fretting over what to write about myself in the little blurb space. Turns out 13 year olds really aren’t that interesting; I’m kind of glad I can’t remember what I wrote about. I got a photo with a closed smile and without glasses that was passable and sent that in.
As a sidenote, if you look at the contest form itself, the “Origin Validation” bit was written in gold marker and, if I remember correctly, had the word “infinity” spelled out in runic. The runestone itself seems to be made of a unglazed ceramic material, with accent painting. It’s rough, but light for its size. The bag it came in is the same type used for the Ultima Underworld rune bag.
In the meantime, Ultima VI quickly became my favorite. I would do speed runs and could complete the game start to finish in about eight hours (there was a bug with the hot air balloon and the codex guardians that let you skip quite a few things). Everything about the game was enchanting. The portraits were some of the best of the series, the characters were outstanding (Sherry was my personal favorite companion), and I loved the dungeons (especially the Ant Mound) and using the Armageddon spell to safely explore in the eerie empty world.
My interactions with Origin were the things you see in the pictures: two letters, nothing else, with almost a year in between. When Ultima VII finally came out, I had already purchased a copy and set about to find myself. It didn’t take long to make it up to Britain and when I saw a chap named “Greg” that looked kinda like my picture, except with a funny hat. I figured that must be me. My dialog, mercifully, made no reference to the blurb I sent in.
About a week later I got the signed copy of Ultima VII and letter confirming that shopkeeper was me. I finished up Ultima VII and then Serpent Isle. Serpent Isle became my all-time-favorite, if only because I felt the dialog and story was some of the best in the series.
In the meantime, I had applied to colleges with my heart set on going into the gaming industry. I had developed a love of coding and got early acceptance to Carnegie Mellon‘s computer science program. When I arrived, I was a bit underwhelmed: it was very, very computer science-y, the professors were aloof, and there was very little applicability to making games. Further, there were no classes in game production.
I went to the dean of the computer science department and expressed my concerns. He agreed that it was something they should investigate, so he gave me a list of professors to go ask if they wanted to teach a class on game programming. I went to each one and, of course, none of them wanted anything to do with it. They were busy researchers, after all. I went back to the dean and we decided I should develop a syllabus and we could find a professor along the way to teach the class.
I spent the next three years working on the syllabus in my spare time, but also began to realize computer science and programming were not for me. I had been taking a lot of liberal arts classes – art, history, English, and architecture – and loved what I found. I transferred to social history, focusing on the history of science and technology. I was also very active with Student Pugwash, a discussion group focused on examining issues of social responsibility in science and technology, based on a series of conferences after the development of the atomic bomb, that took place in Pugwash, Nova Scotia.
With that shift, the syllabus turned into syllabi: I split them into an English class, which focused on critical analysis of videogames (think film studies, for games) and a project-based class in the computer science department. By this time, I was nearing graduation and we hadn’t found a faculty member to teach, so the dean naturally suggested that I do it since I knew the material better than anyone else anyway. I was initially hesitant, but accepted. Over the next two years, I worked on a masters in English and taught both classes, with the English class as a prerequisite for the computer science class. Each had an equal balance of writers, artists, and computer science majors and was geared for seniors and graduate students.
The courses were a wonderful success. Several of my students went on to form their own game studio, Demiurge Studios, now based in Boston. Several others went to work at Bethesda on Fallout 3. Another went to Rockstar and worked as the Lead Designer on the Midnight Club series and later on Red Dead Redemption.
As for myself, I was still a student of the virtues. The ones I gravitated towards were compassion and sacrifice, and they reflect in my work: I’m a professional people helper. I’ve always been trying to work out exactly how to make the most meaningful contribution to humanity as I can. There have been a few fumblings, of course. After teaching, I worked in educational media (think Khan Academy 10 years too soon), as a personal chef, and as a legislative editor at the Minnesota State Legislature. By then I’d figured out the direction that would make the most impact.
I went back and got an MPP in food and environmental policy at GW, and for the past three years I’ve been working on a series of books translating the cutting edge of science research about health and diet into something readily accessible and practically useful. The first book should be out this winter, and the sale of the runestone will help fund the extensive editing that’s going to be needed. So in a way, I’m selling off my childhood dream to make my adult dream a reality.
I don’t really game much anymore; I just don’t have the time. Almost all my attention has shifted to work. Putting up the auction brought back a wave of positive emotions from my childhood and really beautifully reminded me exactly where my base comes from. The Ultima games really left an indelible mark on the importance of living your life not just for yourself, and ever since I’ve strove to transfer that ideal to reality. Thank you, Richard. And thank you, Dragons.