“We wanted the game to last forever.” – An Interview with Raymond Benson

Ultima Codex: You came from a background of musical theatre and non-fiction writing, primarily. What drew you toward the video game industry in the first place?

Raymond Benson: I had always been interested in games. As a kid I played all kinds of board games, and as a teenager I was into the Avalon Hill war strategy games. I was already in my 20s when Dungeons & Dragons came out, but I started playing that, too. In the early 80s, the James Bond 007 Role-Playing Game was published, and I knew the creators. They invited me to write an adventure module for their system (You Only Live Twice II — Back of Beyond). Around that time, PCs were just coming into the home. My first computer was an Apple IIc. I got heavily into Infocom’s text-adventure games (Zork etc.). I love them. Then, in late 1984, I was approached to write/design text-adventure games for a software company outside of New York City, where I was living at the time. I did three, which were distributed by Mindscape (Stephen King’s The Mist, A View to a Kill, and Goldfinger). That set me on the path of writing and designing games.

UC: How did you end up working at Origin Systems?

RB: My wife and I decided to leave Manhattan with our infant son and go back to Austin, Texas, where we both had gone to school (University of Texas at Austin). After many years of living in New York, we wanted a change, and we couldn’t afford to expand our living space to accommodate a toddler. One day there was a classified ad in the Austin paper, asking for writers, artists, musicians, and programmers at Origin. I applied and got the job.

UC: What was it like to work at Origin?

RB: It was like working in the boys’ dormitory. I was older than most of the employees, which was 95% male. In fact, I believe less than ten people out of fifty or sixty employees were over 30, and I was one of them. So I kind of felt like the old fart a lot of times. Most of the employees were young single guys, and it didn’t matter to them if they stayed at the office all night, had bar-b-cues at midnight, and slept in a sleeping bag until noon. Because I had a family, I needed to keep fairly regular 8-5 hours, which is pretty impossible at a game company. Still, it was a very creative, energetic environment. I had fun, most of the time.

UC: Did your previous experience working in, as noted, theatre and non-fiction writing come in handy when working at Origin? And did the work influence your career and other pursuits after you had left the company?

RB: I believe my experience in theatre has influenced all my work, whether it be writing novels or designing games. My directing professor at U.T. really taught me how to analyze and tell a story (my emphasis was Directing). I was taught communication and it was a skill that has served me well throughout my career. By then, I had also been dabbling in fiction writing (short stories and a first novel that I wouldn’t dare show today), as well as the game-fiction I had already done.

UC: You were the lead writer on Ultima 7, which is considered by many to be one of the best episodes of the series. How did you end up with the role? Could you tell us a bit about what your work consisted of, and how you worked with Richard Garriott and other team members?

RB: First of all, Richard Garriott is a genius. I had the greatest respect for him and still do. When he and I, or when the head guys from the various disciplines — programming and art, mainly — had brainstorming sessions, it was great fun and very inspiring. I was hired for the very reason that I was older (I was a few years older than Richard!), had experience in theatre, and because I already had some design credits under my belt. They knew I’d be placed as the head writer of either Ultima VII or Wing Commander II — and I landed on Ultima. The writing team was staffed with other writer-types who wanted to ultimately design. If I remember correctly, I had four people on my team. My task was to come up with the main storyline, the overall game arc that was the plot. Richard had the idea for the very beginning, the cut scene that is animated, with the Guardian first appearing and talking to the Avatar. So I knew I had to start the game with the Avatar going to Britannia to fight the Guardian. I knew he was the villain. Richard also had the idea of having a quasi-religious group in Britannia called The Fellowship, and they were really minions of the Guardian. That was what we had to start with. So I came up with the murder-mystery plot, in which the Avatar has to solve that murder in the barn at the beginning of the game…which leads to the ultimate quest of taking down The Fellowship (the Guardian would be spared for future titles). In many ways, it’s a formulaic James Bond plot! The Avatar has to use cunning and skill to investigate the mysterious organization, uncover its devious plot, travel to the main hideout, and confront the leader. I wrote a big script that outlined the various milestones in the game that the player had to achieve. Then, my writing team was assigned the “mini-plots” or “town plots” that took place in each individual town. Each person on the team was responsible for one or two towns. I oversaw the entire writing process and made sure everything held together — and it was a massive undertaking. Then, we had to write all the conversations for every character in the game.

By the way, the writing team consisted of Jack Herman, Mary Beth Miller, John Watson, and Andrew P. Morris, and I valued all of their work.

UC: What about content that didn’t make it in? Were there any pieces of plot — or characters — cut from the game, or were there ideas you had for the game’s plot and characters that were never implemented in the first place?

RB: I really can’t recall. I don’t think so!

UC: Serpent Isle was not originally going to be the sequel to The Black Gate, correct? For example: it was rumoured that Ultima 7’s original planned ending called for the Guardian to seize the Avatar through the Black Gate before it exploded and carry him off to Pagan for Ultima 8. Before the plot for Serpent Isle was approved, had there been any alternate ideas for The Black Gate’s sequel?

RB: After the exhausting task of being head writer and story director on The Black Gate, I was happily put on Serpent Isle as just one of the writers on the team. To tell the truth, I really don’t remember how the main plot of Serpent Isle came about. I think it was decided half-way through the production of The Black Gate that we would use that engine to make a sequel.

UC: I know you said you couldn’t recall much about the development of Serpent Isle, but is it possible that you could shed some light on what the…intended plan of the Guardian was, in sending Batlin to the Serpent Isle?

RB: I really don’t know. I worked on Serpent Isle for about two months, and then I was recruited by another game company (MicroProse). So I left Origin. I didn’t remember that I had worked on the town of Monitor until I read your interview with Bill Armintrout!

UC: This one might be a bit of an edge case, but in a 1991 interview with Tilt Magazine, Richard Garriott alluded to a “Black Ark” that the people of Britannia were being seduced to build by a mysterious voice. He also stated that the plan was for the Avatar to be essentially a myth at the time of Ultima 7. Can you recall either plot point?

RB: Nope.

UC: Ultima 7 took great care to make Britannia seem real. The game had tons of NPCs that you could talk to that, rather than being interesting for being out of ordinary, or picaresque, or just different, felt like plain, simple, real folk. Additionally, the game managed to give every NPC character and personality, so that talking with them was fun rather than a chore. How difficult was it to achieve this? Do you feel the cost of making such a character cast in a modern game would be too expensive?

RB: In many ways, The Black Gate was one of the very first SIMS! That was the genius behind the engine that was created by Richard and Ken Demarest (lead programmer) and his team. That was the idea — to create a world you could run around in and live in. The other writers and I took great care to make each individual NPC a whole person, as much as we could. And yes, a “cast of thousands” in a modern game would indeed be very expensive.

UC: Also, not only did the game make mundane NPCs fun to talk to, but it also managed to use this mundane side, together with non mundane elements, a great part of the exploration. I mean, each NPC had his own schedule. Pay attention to it, and you might learn things about them you might not otherwise. Each NPC also has a house, and if you are the curious kind, you can learn a little by going through their stuff. How difficult is it to make this kind of approach work with storytelling? Did you guys worry the player might just miss the point because he didn’t get a clue for something you made? Do you feel this approach has any important advantages for storytelling in games?

RB: Again, all of that was intentional. By creating the separate “town plots,” each writer could focus on the various characters within his/her own particular storyline and fully develop them. Yes, they all had schedules. If I remember correctly, one guy was cheating on his wife and would sneak off to see his mistress at certain times. It was my little joke to allow the Avatar to audition for a play at the Royal Theatre — in the role of the Avatar — only to be rejected. We even had NPC babies! The whole enterprise really was innovative and exciting. As for the player missing a clue or something — we wanted the game to last forever, so the exploration was a big part of the experience. If the player missed something, he just had to go back and replay stuff until he got it. It was easy for the player to get sidetracked from the main plot and go chasing something else, and we purposefully designed it that way to be devious.

UC: Speaking of schedules, a lot of work must have gone into making them. On the other hand, they certainly helped make the Origin slogan the truest in The Black Gate, I think. Do you think they were worth the trouble? What are the things you most fondly remember about character schedules? Were there any uses of the system you couldn’t implement at the time? Would you like to design a game with character schedules again? And if so, would you change it from how it was in Ultima 7?

RB: I can’t recall if there were any activities we wanted the NPCs to do, but couldn’t. There may have been. I do remember players reporting that they hated having to sleep. The day/night schedule was built into the game, too, so we forced the Avatar to get his forty winks. And frankly, I can’t imagine having to do another game with that many characters and with that complexity, ever, ever again!

UC: How familiar were you with Ultima and its lore before beginning work on Ultima 7?

RB: I wasn’t. For the first two weeks of my employment, I had a crash course in Ultima. Richard actually hung out with me and verbally related the plotlines to each Ultima from IVI, and I mostly played Ultima VI those first few weeks to get up to speed.

UC: How long did it take to write the story (and backstory) for Ultima 7?

RB: I want to say it took a couple of months. The town plots took another couple of months. But it took a whole year to write the conversations!

UC: Was the underlying theme of Ultima 7 — a culturally modernizing Britannia losing its connection to the Virtues upon which it had been founded — your idea primarily, or Richard’s? How did you set about fleshing the concept out? Did the inclusion of references to various social issues (adultery, classism, feminism, etc.) cause any controversy, within the company or without? Were there any other “taboo” subjects you wanted to handle in the game but were not allowed to?

RB: I don’t think there were any taboo subjects we wanted to do, and I don’t recall any objections to what we were doing. Richard wanted the Ultima games to be controversial and socially challenging; they were always that way. It was Richard’s concept for The Fellowship to be in Britannia to confuse the Avatar with regard to the Virtues and be the instrument through which the Guardian acts. He just didn’t have a story to put them in. That’s what I did. I came up with the murder mystery-thriller plot in which his ideas could work.

UC: I’ve always been somewhat troubled by the fact that the Shrines of Virtue in Ultima 7 had fallen silent and couldn’t be interacted with, unlike in previous (or subsequent, in the case of Ultima 9) Ultimas. Presumably, this theme relates to what was discussed just above, but who came up with the concept initially?

RB: If I remember correctly, Richard didn’t want the shrines to work. It was something to do with the Guardian’s power in Britannia, but I could be wrong. It was a long time ago!

UC: What other ideas or thematic elements did you bring to Ultima 7’s story? Which were from Richard or other people?

RB: I wrote the “Love Theme” piece of music. It plays when the Avatar romances and falls in love with Nastassia. Aside from that, I can’t think of specific elements that came from one person or another. It was a collaborative effort.

UC: We have heard rumours that the Ultima 7 team originally wanted to implement a dueling system in-game. Is this true?

RB: The vague recesses of my brain are whispering that you might be right. I can’t say for certain, though.

UC: Did you have an idea of what the Guardian was or where he came from when he appeared for the first time in Ultima 7? Was he always expected to be the Avatar’s ‘dark half’ per Ultima 9: Ascension?

RB: No, we never knew that. All we knew was that the Guardian was a superior being in the universe. I kind of thought of him as being like Galactus, a character the Fantastic Four fought in 1960s Marvel Comics. I did bring in Bill Johnson, the actor, to do the voice of the Guardian. Bill had played Leatherface in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 and was a good friend. He had a great voice and was perfect for the part.

UC: What about the increased level of violence — and the increased gruesomeness thereof — depicted in the game, as compared to earlier entries in the series? Is that something you lobbied for, or did that come from Richard?

RB: I don’t remember it being discussed. It was just there. We wanted it to be a thriller.

UC: Who lobbied for the Fellowship to be, primarily, a riff on Scientology?

RB: Richard came up with the initial idea, but I’m pretty sure I came up with everything The Fellowship did, as well as their various tenets and beliefs. It wasn’t just Scientology we were knocking, but all kinds of religious cults, which seemed to be sprouting all over back in 1991-1992.

UC: The Black Gate had a heap of easter eggs and references to other series, from Star Trek: TNG to Wing Commander. Were there any in-jokes you remember being particularly fond of? Who was responsible for the Hoe of Destruction weapon? And the nudist colony in the bee caves?

RB: I don’t recall the Hoe, but I remember the nudists! I can’t remember whose idea that was. Sometimes it was the programmers who came up with stuff like that!

UC: There were a ton of books with awesome filler text in Ultima 7. Was it just the writers who contributed to those, or did you source ideas from other team members?

RB: If I remember right, there were “real” books, and we’d have the first page of text or so, right? And then there were made up books, with more text inside. No, the writing team did all that, too. We were constantly working.

UC: The Nastassia romance…was that intended as a throwaway element, or were there plans to follow up on it later on, either in-game or in a subsequent game?

RB: It was really a town plot, one I wrote, and it wasn’t a throwaway element. It was just an opportunity to have a little romance in the story. I think we talked about her coming back in Serpent Isle, but it didn’t happen. Nastassia was named for Nastassja Kinski, for whom I had big thing back then!

UC: Do you remember having a favourite quest, plot point, or city in Ultima 7?

RB: It’s been so long that I can’t recall what most of them were. I remember I liked exploring Britain and doing all the stuff there.

UC: On that point, were there any other characters in the game that were of special or personal significance to you and/or the rest of the team? Any characters based on people you knew in real life?

RB: Many of the characters were based on real people. I’m in it — I’m the director of the Royal Theatre. My wife Randi was on the council. My son Max was one of the babies in the nursery. There were other characters here and there who were based on real folks. All of the writers put in people they knew, and many of the entire team’s faces were used as NPC portraits.

The Benson Family

The Benson Family

UC: Ultima 7 is unique in its treatment of its predecessors; it features many references to the world and characters of Ultima 6, in particular. Historically, that sort of continuity has been something other Ultimas have not included, apart from certain essential NPCs appearing in each game. Was that something you specifically made sure to include in the game? And do you think, had you continued to work on successive titled in the Ultima series, that this sort of continuity in the game-to-game lore would have persisted? Or was it really just a one-time, one-game thing?

RB: I was conscious of doing that, and I believe it was Richard who urged us to do it. If I had continued in a lead writer capacity on future Ultimas, yes, I would have kept that aspect. It’s like throwing a bone to the longtime fans.

UC: Looking forward now, there were a few hints dropped in Ultima 7 about a world called “Pagan”, which was of course the setting for Ultima 8. Was the next entry in the Guardian saga already being planned for at the time that Ultima 7 was being written?

RB: Only as a germ of an idea in Richard’s head. I always knew that Ultima 8 would not take place in Britannia, but that’s it.

UC: The writing style of Ultima 7 is very different, and much more novel-like than in other Ultimas; descriptions of characters, their actions, and their mannerisms were common in dialogue in the game. Was that something you influenced specifically?

RB: I’d like to think so. I believe I was the first professional published writer to ever work on an Ultima script, and like I said, I have an intuitive sense of theatre and structuring a story. I remember Computer Gaming World magazine particularly praised the writing as being far and above what had gone before. I was responsible for shaping the thing, but I had a great team of writers, too.

UC: Apart from writing, did you have a role in other aspects of Ultima 7’s development pipeline (e.g. QA, music, etc.)?

RB: I story-boarded, and then co-directed with Richard the opening cut scene. I also directed Bill Johnson in his voice cues as the Guardian. And I did the “Love Theme” song.

UC: What can you tell us of your involvement in Serpent Isle? My understanding is that you left early in its development. What left to this departure and do you wish you could have worked on subsequent Ultima games?

RB: As I said before, my work on The Black Gate got me noticed by other companies, and MicroProse Software made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. At Origin, my title was “writer.” MicroProse offered me a job as “designer” and a sizable increase in salary. To tell the truth, I was exhausted after The Black Gate and my heart really wasn’t in working on Serpent Isle at the time. I think I wrote the one town plot and the conversations for those characters, but as I understand it, a lot of it was changed after I left. I don’t consider Serpent Isle to really be part of my oeuvre.

UC: I notice you also co-wrote the music for Ultima: Runes of Virtues II — how did you end up with the work?

RB: That was one of the last things I did before I left Origin. The designer of the game, Gary Scott Smith, liked my music and asked me to contribute some tunes. There was already a composer assigned to the game, but Gary wanted me to be something of a “guest composer.” I did six pieces, I think.

UC: Your website and published non-fiction works demonstrate an affinity for a wide variety of musical styles and performers (Jethro Tull, Neil Young, Frank Zappa, Chocky Kay, etc.) You also spent almost two decades working on musical compositions for theater. How would you describe the significance of music to your life, and to your career paths?

RB: I’m married to writing, but music is my mistress. I stole that from Ingmar Bergman, who once stated that he was married to theatre, but film was his mistress. Music has been a part of my life since I was a child. I especially love film scores. I indeed have very eclectic tastes, as I was a child of the 60s, so I grew up with an explosion of experimental music. I still play and compose, but it’s not my main gig.

UC: You’ve left the video games industry many years ago and have since embarked upon a very successful writing career; Do you ever see yourself going back to write in video games?

RB: Only if I was paid a lot of money! The gaming industry is a young person’s industry. That work is better suited for young people who don’t mind the long hours, little pay, and having an office that smells like the boys’ locker room. I have, though, in recent years, written novels based on games — Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell, Metal Gear Solid, Hitman, and the like. That’s a nice way of keeping my toe in the industry.

UC: A good body of your writing has focused on James Bond; one of the first books you are credited with writing is The James Bond Bedside Companion, and you wrote several Bond novels and movie novelizations. What drew you to the Bond mythos, and what do you think of it today?

RB: I was nine years old when I first saw Goldfinger on the big screen, quickly followed by the re-release of the first two films; thus I saw every Bond movie in the theater and grew up with the series. I started reading the Ian Fleming books at a very young age. It was just one of those things that stayed with me. Bond was the Star Wars of the 1960s. If you were a kid at that time, then you were into Bond. I wrote the Bedside Companion as a labor of love in the early 80s. It’s what led to me eventually being hired by the Fleming Estate to pen official Bond novels twelve years later.

UC: Your most recent works, apart from a Hitman novelization, have been The Black Stiletto and its sequel. What inspired those books, and do you plan on continuing the series?

RB: It’s a planned five-book series. The third one will be published next week (April 2), the fourth one is finished and in the pipeline to be published January 2014. I’m just now starting to write the fifth one. Library Journal described it best — it’s a “mashup of the work of Gloria Steinem, Ian Fleming, and Mario Puzo, all under the editorship of Stan Lee.” The rights have been picked up and it’s currently being developed as a television series in Hollywood. So, yes, that’s my main focus right now.

UC: You’ve also written several ties in or novelization for high profile games like Homefront, Hitman or Metal Gear Solid, do you wish you could have written an Ultima related novel? Is this something you’d consider doing if given the chance?

RB: I think there was an Ultima novel or two, wasn’t there? Sure, I would have loved to novelize The Black Gate. It would have made a cracking good fantasy-thriller.

UC: And just to wrap up, because it is the game’s 20th anniversary this year; is there anything you can recall about the development of Serpent Isle, either something from the game’s story or an anecdote about the team that was put together to work on it?

RB: Sorry, I don’t! For me, working at Origin was really all about The Black Gate — it’s what consumed me for the entire time I was there except for those last couple of months when I was on Serpent Isle and doing the songs for Runes of Virtue II.