I’ve been getting very nostalgic recently for the video fantasy role-playing games of my youth, most notably the Ultima series of games. I played Ultima I – V when I was young, and even watched a complete walkthrough of Ultima V about a month ago.
Fortunately, I have an even better outlet for this nostalgia: Richard Garriott aka “Lord British,” the auteur of the original Ultima games, has been working with a team on a new Ultima-ish style game, Shroud of the Avatar. I’ll say more about the game in a bit, but looking into it led me to the first tie-in novel for the game, The Sword of Midras, written by Richard Garriott and the prolific and talented fantasy author Tracy Hickman.
The Sword of Midras is, basically, a prequel novel to the Shroud of the Avatar game. It is set in the land of New Britannia (a callback to the Ultima series’ continent of Britannia) and begins a tale of what appears to be the rediscovery of the history of the Avatars.
The novel begins as the Westreach Army of the Obsidian Empire successfully breaches the outer walls of the city of Midras, making the fall of the city inevitable. Before victory is finished, however, Captain Aren Bennis is absurdly ordered by his commanding general to scout the outer reaches of the city to prepare for a parade of the conquering army.
Against his better judgment, Bennis enters the city with his trusted colleague and scout Syenna, but they are quickly attacked by the surviving Guardians of Midras. Fleeing for their lives through the oldest parts of the city, they end up in an ancient tomb. But it is an exceptional tomb: the final resting place of one of the mythical Avatars, paragons of humanity who disappeared, along with their sacred Virtues, during a catastrophic event known as The Fall. Along with the body is a sword — the titular Sword of Midras — and Bennis takes it as an important prize for the Obsidians.
His immediate thought is to turn the sword over to his superiors, but he quickly finds that only he can wield the sword without harm. Furthermore, acts of betrayal end up sending him far away from his allies in the Empire, and he must make temporary alliances with his enemies in order to survive. But as he struggles to accomplish his mission, the Sword of Midras exerts a mysterious influence upon him, and Bennis in the end must decide if the Obsidians are truly the force he thought they were.
I found The Sword of Midras to be a little slow-starting as a novel. This isn’t particularly surprising, as it is intended to build upon and fill in the world that is featured in the Shroud of the Avatar game. It definitely picks up the pace about halfway through for me, and I really enjoyed its climactic battle and denouement, though it is (as I understand it) the first in a series of novels.
For me personally, the real charm was the veiled references to the history of the Ultima series of games, and Richard Garriott’s famous and brilliant moral system that he first introduced in Ultima IV, featuring eight virtues (Honesty, Compassion, Valor, Justice, Honor, Sacrifice, Spirituality and Humility) and three principles (Truth, Love and Courage). Ultima IV also introduced the concept of the Avatar — a person who is a paragon of virtue and an example and inspiration for all. In The Sword of Midras, the Avatar(s) have fallen long ago, and it seems that Bennis’ quest is to rediscover their lost virtues.
The Ultima games, as I understand it, are not able to be directly referenced in the new game and novel due to copyright restrictions, but the idea of Avatars and Virtues are not under the same constraints. Shroud of the Avatar, and the accompanying novel, seem to be continuing the story of the original games, and it almost gave me chills to see the ideas in them reappear.
The game itself is still in development, and I’ve only had a little time to play the single-player questline so far. The online aspect of the game is much further along, I understand, and the graphics are lovely, as can be seen by the screenshot below.
One nice thing about the game is its use of neglected Ultima dialogue options. In most modern games, dialogue with non-player characters comes through branching dialogue trees. In the earlier Ultima IV and later games, however, dialogue was done through text entry. The player would enter a particular word – e.g., “name” or “job” – to try and prompt a response. This is surprisingly much more versatile than a branching dialogue tree because it allows for puzzles where the player must broach a particular topic, learned from someone else, in order to get the proper response. In Shroud of the Avatar, a mixed dialogue tree/text entry system is used, in which a number of obvious options are provided to be clicked on, but other words can be entered manually. I’m interested in seeing how they develop this system in the game itself.
But now I’ve wandered into gaming nostalgia again and away from a discussion of the novel! Let me say that The Sword of Midras is a fun, well-written novel that is a bit slow-starting but builds into a satisfying read. As one would expect from a novel written to support an online game, it hews closely to fantasy formulas, but executes these formulas well in a new setting with a lot of possibility. I suspect the novel will be most enjoyable to those with some nostalgia for the original Ultima games, but anyone interested in a straightforward “swords and sorcery” fantasy story will find it worthwhile.
I have a lot of nostalgia for Ultima too. I am generally very put off by Hickman’s work (I thought the Dragonlance stuff was derivative when I was a kid and never gave the series a chance after the first book) but I’d give this a shot due to Garriott’s involvement.