My uncle loves video games of all sorts. We both had an Amiga 500 computer, and I loved mine. Hell, I’m writing a novel right now that’s all about a middle school boy’s first love: his computer. So when my uncle gave me a game – unplayed – I was confused. I assumed it probably wasn’t very good. He said he couldn’t get into it.
Most of my games in those days were pirated – copied from friends onto 3.25 inch floppy disks, the game titles written on in sharpie or pen or pencil, scratched out and replaced with new games as I tired of the old ones and couldn’t afford new floppies.
This game was the real deal – new in box, with a cloth map, illustrated instruction manuals, and an metal ankh. Seeing a “real” Amiga game was rare enough in the 90s in the USA. One with this much cool stuff in the box? I didn’t even know they existed. And so began my obsession with Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar.
I started out by answering a series of tough moral questions, centered around eight virtues. There were no wrong answers, but no perfect ones, either. A thief steals some bread. Would I show compassion by letting him escape, or serve justice by turning him in. A friend wants me to vouch for him to enter a religious order, but I know he’s not ready. Will I help him on his spiritual path by lying for him, or be honest and dash his dreams?
I answered all the questions and then my character was dropped on a little island with a town. Seeing nowhere else to go, I entered. It was a strange experience indeed – everyone in the story had a tale, a job, a life. But few people seemed distressed or bothered, and no one particularly needed my help. There was so much to explore, but if there was anything to do, I hadn’t found it. With no way off the island and this peaceful town, I gave up.
I started the game again sometime later. After I answered the questions this time, I started the game next to a different city, one with a castle nearby. The world was open to me now, and I went exploring. Town after town I found the same thing: a happy, peaceful world, unbothered by evil. I kept searching for mention of some boss or conqueror or war. There was none. The king, Lord British, was benevolent. Britannia, by all accounts, was a stellar place to live.
Eventually I discovered other companions who would join me, and the game began in earnest. I discovered shrines to meditate at, but after meditating at each, not much happened. Then, I meditated at the shrine of Spirituality, and it happened: I was 1/8th of an Avatar.
Holy shit. I had advanced not by killing enemies or growing stronger, but by acting in a spiritual way. I visited the seer, Hawkwind, the NPC charged with telling me how I was doing for each of the games eight virtues. I was an avatar in spirituality, sure, but the rest was less encouraging. I’d gone through the game looting chests, slaughtering anything that gave me gold or XP, lying, cheating, and stealing to min-max my character at every opportunity. Compassion? Justice? Honor? Honesty? Hawkwind assured me I was a disgusting, horrifying human being. Huh. I’d made a mistake somewhere.
I started the game again. By this time I knew that the virtue of Honor was associated with the Paladin, the game’s best starting class. I answered the questions again to always choose the honorable path when available, and here I was: Isaac the Honorable.
I went through the game again, re-collecting all the items and companions and gold. This time, I did it differently: I paid full price for things even when given the opportunity to cheat. I gave money to beggars. I told the truth when asked questions. I healed the sick. I showed mercy to fleeing opponents. Slowly, I began to acquire more “eighths” of the Avatar: embodying not only spirituality, but valor, sacrifice, justice, humility. The purpose of this game was not to defeat some external comic book evil: it was to make the world better by living in a good and transcendent way. It’s a lesson that’s never left me.
Isaac the Paladin was now level eight. I’d collected six other companions, one for each of the virtues except for one: Humility. There was clearly a blank space in the roster for an eighth party member. But the Shepherd, those who followed the virtue of humility, were no more. Their town had been obliterated for their pride. I’d been there. Scoured the place. It was all ghosts. Not a shepherd to be found.
I scoured the game world. Asked every beggar, wanderer, knight, and child to come along on my quest. I could find no one. I was forty hours or more into this game at this point. Could it be? Was Ultima IV really punishing me for not choosing to play as the Shepherd, the humble, the weakest class? I was dumbstruck. A lesson in humility, indeed.
I sent away for a strategy guide, scraping together Christmas money diligently saved. When it arrived, it was more game lore and dungeon maps I’d already painstakingly drawn by hand. No mention of a shepherd companion. I restarted the game.
This time, I was not Isaac the Valiant or Isaac the Honorable or Isaac the Just, but Isaac the Humble. And it was a humble existence, indeed. The Shepherd is the only class that starts out all the way at level one. No one will join you on your quest until you’re stronger. You have no weapons. You have no armor. No magic. Everything about you is demonstrably worse than every other class. There is no upside. Something as simple as getting poisoned in the field resulted in a slow and comical death, as you lacked even the few magic points needed for a cure poison spell and had too few hit points to get back to a healer before you bled out.
But I was not to be dissuaded. I died again and again and again, slowly acquiring the experience to gain levels and convince others to follow me. Forty hours more, maybe longer. My Shepherd had reached the maximum level of eight, and I’d gathered a full roster of companions. I meditated at all the shrines again, spent hours and hours replicating all my good deeds, becoming an example for the world.
Fifty more hours of grinding, when I was so near the end before, contemplating the slowest unfolding, cruelest, most bizarre lesson in humility I’d ever experienced. A hell of an achievement for a game released in 1985.
I descended the final dungeon, proved my virtue not by beating a boss, but by answering philosophical questions about the virtues. I was the Avatar. And not just my character, but part of me, too. The lessons I learned will always be with me, and make me stronger. They form who I am today.
Oh, and ten years later, when the internet became a thing, I found out that Katrina, the Shepherd companion, was standing on the edge of Magincia the whole fucking time. I’d just missed her, because she was hiding from the ghosts. And that you don’t even need all eight party members to complete the game.
But, you know, at least I learned something.