Lord British is a jerk. First, he hassles you with obscure copy-protection questions, then he doesn’t even have the decency to die properly. At least, that’s how it was supposed to work, but Joseph Paul Morris (JPM) had other plans for the nigh-immortal ruler of Britannia. Together with his brother, JPM found new and creative ways to exploit the rules of Ultima and do things that shouldn’t even be possible. Along the way, he discovered that entire walkthroughs could be built around his misadventures in computer roleplaying games, breathing new life into old games and creating new stories which the designers never intended.
JPM was 14 when he discovered Ultima 6, and it was unlike anything he had ever seen before. “The world was huge and more importantly, you were not particularly constrained as to how you approached it. If you wanted to break into the Royal Mint or massacre an entire town, the game was perfectly happy with that.” For JPM and his brother Ian, roleplaying games offered an opportunity to try different things without worrying about real-world restrictions, and Ultima 6 kept the pair occupied for years. After completing the game several times, the two began to experiment. “When we had tapped out most of playing the game normally, we began to try and do other things with it, to keep it fresh, I suppose. A lot of effort went into killing Lord British, precisely because he was supposed to be immortal, and that’s really what kicked it all off, I suppose – doing the impossible.”
As it turns out, not everything is as impossible as it seems, and there’s a long and storied tradition of trying to assassinate Lord British. JPM’s solution was simple and elegant. When asleep, the normally immortal Lord British was replaced by a “sleeping” representation, subject to the same damage rules as everyone else. The trick was to kill him before he could wake up. Fortunately JPM found the right tool for the job, a single-use “glass sword” that killed whatever it hit.
If an unkillable character could be killed, then what else was possible? For example, if you knew when and where an enemy was going to appear on the map, could you arrange a welcoming gift? JPM remembers one such discovery while playing System Shock. “Edward Diego turns up by the escape pods and tries to kill you. This only happens while you’re actually trying to escape the station, though there are plenty of opportunities to visit beforehand, so I made a nice little pile of explosives topped with a live proximity mine. It worked perfectly – as soon as the elevator arrived on that floor, there was a flash and a distant thump as he appeared, exploded and then disappeared again.”
At first, experiments like this were one-off attempts to exploit a few loopholes or abuse some advance knowledge about scripted sequences to satisfy personal curiosity. However, some games contained a curiously large number of opportunities to cause mischief. “The walkthroughs proper started with Pagan, really, [also known as] Ultima 8. We played it a lot and figured things out but since it was kind of rushed, like all the later Origin games, there were plenty of bugs. We were kind of collecting them, really. And then one day we had so many that I just had that sudden intuitive leap and thought, ‘Hey! I wonder if I could make a walkthrough based on these…?'” With that epiphany, the anti-walkthrough was born.
Not content to break isolated events or kill individual characters, the brothers discovered that they could manipulate the entire game storyline. “With Ultima 9, the techniques we developed gave us an answer for practically any situation and we essentially had the game wrapped around our fingers. I remember Ian poring over the cloth-map, trying to figure out how to do the maximum amount of damage [to the game’s story]. I wanted to try and complete the game in reverse order, out of sheer spite.” Having found ways to break everything, the brothers began to put the pieces back together in new and unusual ways. Ultima 8 became the story of “How to be a complete bastard in Pagan,” and System Shock became “The Hacker’s Guide to Sin.” This involved finding ways to complete the games while skipping over important events, bypassing critical locations, and generally getting away with as much misbehavior as the games would allow.
Of course, every good story needs a memorable protagonist, and JPM has created his share of interesting personalities. “One of my earliest memories [of Ultima 6] was creating a character named after my art teacher, running around the castle, stealing everything that wasn’t nailed down and trying to get him high by consuming every available potion at once. It left him invisible with a glowing outline and able to see through walls.” The details changed from game to game, but the characters are all delightfully quirky. His System Shock playthroughs featured “Mr. Gibbon” in reference to his outrageous ability to activate switches from impossible distance away, or sometimes “PNP Man” who was able to upgrade his abilities by plugging expansion cards directly into his brain.
An interesting character can make any walkthrough, or anti-walkthrough, into a more entertaining experience. However, the single most important step in creating an anti-walkthrough is finding the right game. “Generally the best approach is with a single, massive world like Morrowind or most of the Ultimas. One of the key tactics is to go somewhere ahead of schedule, usually to obtain some object which you shouldn’t have access to at that point in the game. For example, in Morrowind, if you know what you’re doing, it’s possible to go straight to the area where the endgame takes place. It has been completed in just over 7 minutes by doing that.”
Even though open-world roleplaying games seem like a natural fit, each game is different and they each have their own ways of handling story events. JPM uses the example of a typical fetch-and-retrieve quest. “The fishing quest is a classic example of this – a fisherman asks you to bring him scales from ten fish of a particular breed. In something like Ultima 7 – or indeed, Morrowind – you could come along, kill and scale all the fish, and THEN start the quest, completing it instantly. In Oblivion, the fish don’t actually exist at all until you start the quest, and then it creates one single fish. You kill it, [the game] creates the second fish and so on.” Some games are more linear than they initially seem, and it takes some experimentation to figure out what each game will allow.
Because every game is different, the success or failure of an anti-walkthrough isn’t always obvious from the start. Creating one requires a combination of persistence, creativity, and luck. “With Serpent Isle, a lot of it was sheer chance. Even when we had the basics down, there were a lot of very sticky problems, and at one point I was sure we’d have to use the cheatmode to recover from it. A lot of these problems solved themselves through sheer luck or perversity. Getting out of the mountains, for example. There’s no way I could have planned that – building a tower out of dried fish and people we’d murdered and walking across the sky to a hole in the cave roof that shouldn’t even exist, just… just happened.” Unfortunately, not all games make for a successful anti-walkthrough. JPM once tried to generate one for Return to Castle Wolfenstein. “Some of it is quite amusing, but there just isn’t really enough material. After the first couple of missions it kind of dries up – or perhaps I get too involved in the game itself and stop looking for holes. Difficult to say.”
Anti-walkthroughs take effort and planning, and putting one together takes time, sometimes years. “I don’t usually do them all in a single go, often they get started, left for a bit and picked up later. I like to leave them a couple of years so I can forget the key details before I replay them later, that helps keep them fresh. As a rule, the older the game, the more times I’ve played it.” Over the years, JPM has developed a standard set of tools he employs. Well, sort of. Piecing together an anti-walkthrough is as much an art as it is a science. “It’s not like I have a checklist. The usual thing is to start thinking about it after you’ve played the game through to completion. Then you know how the game is supposed to work, what happens and in what order – so you can think about forcing things to happen in the wrong order. So yes, sequence-breaking is the usual technique. However, killing NPCs can also be useful. In many situations you’re supposed to do a whole load of quests in order for someone to give you the key or whatever – it’s worth checking if you can just bash them over the head and steal it.”
It’s usually possible to find small ways to break any game, but anti-walkthroughs are a set of tricks that form a complete story – one that the designers never intended. JPM and his brother discovered this long ago, and what started out as a prank to kill the immortal Lord British turned into something much more grandiose. Even though not every game makes for a successful anti-walkthrough, a little bit of experimentation can still create some memorable characters and misadventures. In the end, even bug-filled games can provide amazing amounts of entertainment value if you’re willing to defy the rules and attempt the impossible.
Alan Au is a freelance writer, academic, and games industry advocate. When he isn’t busy abusing scripted event triggers, he spends his time exploring the connection between games, education, and health.