Richard Garriott on Ultima V

(I’m still working hard on my book!  I’ll throw a few posts out here and there as I find the time.)

As a follow-up to my post on “videogames as art“, I decided to buy “The Official Book of Ultima“, a nice little book by Shay Adams written in 1990 that is partly a strategy guide and partly a history of the creation of the first 6 Ultima games.  Garriott’s statements show that he really evolved from making adventure games into making games that would force players to think about their actions.  He was, in fact, a true auteur for the first four Ultimas, having written the script and coded the games entirely on his own!  I can’t resist quoting one fascinating section:

ORIGIN actually lost an employee over another of Garriott’s efforts to involve players emotionally as well as intellectually an imaginatively with his fantasy worlds.  He says it even got his family involved emotionally, triggering a significant debate among them.  It all had to do with killing that roomful of children (or not killing them, depending on whether you killed them or not).  While designing some of the 256 individual dungeon rooms in Ultima V, “populating dungeons, filling them with stuff, and putting things here and there,” Garriott racked his brain for some novel and unexpected situations to build into the dungeons.  Since the software didn’t support putting characters capable of conversation in a dungeon room, Garriott was restricted to filling rooms with furniture or monsters.  If he placed a villager in a dungeon room, for instance, the man would function as a monster and could not be addressed in conversation.

“I was looking through the tile set and I came across this very interesting shape — children” he says.  As he constructed a dungeon room, deep down in a maze, he filled it with little jail cells, then filled the cells with children.  The room was set up so that when players push on the wall in one place, the jail cells open and the young prisoners are liberated.  “So you see the children and you want to save them,” Garriott explains, “but when you find a way to open the jail cells, they come out and start attacking you

“Well, I thought, that is an interesting little problem, isn’t it?  Because I knew darn well that the game doesn’t care whether you kill them or whether you walk away.  It didn’t matter, but I knew it would bring up a psychological image in your mind, an image that was in my mind — and any conflict you bring up in anybody’s mind is beneficial.  It means a person has to think about it.

“Personally, I didn’t care how they resolved it, so I put it in.  I was really pleased with myself.  However, one of the playtesters in the New Hampshire office found that room.  He was a religious fundamentalist and was immediately outraged — he thought it was encouraging child abuse.  He didn’t call me about it; he wrote a long letter to Robert [Garriott’s brother], two or three pages about how he was utterly unwilling to be involved with a company who would  even consider, in his mind promoting child abuse.  Well, Robert was outraged.  He called me up and said, ‘Richard, Richard, how could you consider putting something like that in your game?’ I told him he had it all wrong, I mean, he’d interpreted it as it said in the letter, that the only way you can win the game is to slaughter the children in that room.  I am telling him, first of all, most people aren’t going to see that room, because you don’t see every dungeon room, and secondly, when you walk in the room, you don’t have to let them out.  And third, you don’t have to kill them.

“If you were that bent out of shape about killing them — which is the easiest way to get out of the room — you could charm them and make them walk out of the room yourself.  You could put them to sleep and walk out of the room.  You could do any number of things, but the point is that you don’t have to kill them.  Admittedly, nine out of ten people who find the kids screaming out around their feet are going to kill them — but you don’t have to kill children to win the game, so there’s a big difference.  Robert still thought I had to remove them from the game, and he got my parents involved.  They called and said, ‘Richard, how can you consider doing this?,’ and they were saying, ‘just remove this, it is just a little room, why are you bothering to fight for this so much?’

“And I said, because you guys are missing the point.  You are now trying to tell me what I can do artistically — about something that is, in my opinion, not the issue you think it is.  If it was something explicitly sexist or explicitly racist or promoting child abuse, I could stand being censored.  But if it is something that provoked an emotional response from one individual, I say I have proven the success of the room.  The fact that you guys are fighting me over this makes me even more sure I should not remove  that room from the game.”

I actually remember that room in the dungeon of Ultima V.  The first time in it, I killed all the little tykes.  That response bothered me so much, however, that I reloaded the game and played it through again and instead chose not to unlock the cells.  (I wasn’t worldly enough at that age to think of the ‘charm’ or ‘sleep’ strategies.)

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2 Responses to Richard Garriott on Ultima V

  1. Halfgod says:

    Fantastic, utterly fantastic. This Garriot should be involved with the Elder Scrolls series, it would make them more morally ‘challenging’ (for as now the children in Elder Scrolls: Skyrim are unkillable, making it less ‘realistic’ (in ethnic view)). A perfect example indeed.

    • Yes, Garriot was ahead of the times in terms of providing morally challenging situations. Before his work, fantasy games were of the “kill em all, then sort out the treasure” variety!

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