Today we have the third part – the second on WarCry – of our interview with Richard Garriott. We began on Tuesday with the Escapist interview and then showed you some extra stuff on Wednesday here on WarCry. Now we polish it off here today.
The final part is all about balance. Not game balance, but how he balances making points with preaching and commercial success with meaningfulness.
Answers by Richard Garriott
Questions by Dana Massey
Escapist: You’ve mentioned that you’re not necessarily trying to evangelize on either side, but you have also said in the past that you’ve occasionally been accused of preaching. So a couple questions. One, do you think you preach? And secondly, even if you did preach, would that necessarily be bad in a video game?
Richard Garriott: I work hard to not take very many, if any positions, but there is no question, I know for a fact that I do on some subjects. I can give you a case study on that. If you look at the cover of Ultima VIII, the cover of Ultima VIII has a pentagram on the cover of it. That was something I insisted by on the front of the cover, but interestingly a lot of retail outlets wouldn’t carry. And so we actually had to make a second version of the box to put on store shelves at certain stores because they thought that a pentagram was so potentially inflammatory that they wouldn’t carry the box if it continued to have a pentagram on the front. And that fed directly into the reason I put it on the cover. If you look at the actual, true history of a pentagram – which interestingly even has a little bit to do with Tabula Rasa. The pentagram, that shape is actually carved into the architecture of a large number of old European cathedrals and prior to the 14th century, the pentagram was actually seen a very positive symbol. It was seen, prior to the Knight’s Templar – which a lot of people have heard about them since the da Vinci Code – it was seen as a very deific, godly symbol. It was the King of France, who had borrowed millions and millions of dollars from the Knights Templar and couldn’t pay them back and so, as they were pressuring to get repayment, what he did instead of repaying them was he charged them with idol worship and ran them out of his country. The idol he claimed they were worshipping was the pentagram and ever since the middle of the 14th century, pentagrams have now had the contex of being “evil”. In my mind, and now again I’m exposing a personal bias, but a lot of people ignorant of the history actually find the pentagram to be scary, demonic or having to do with witchcraft. But because I felt that personally that was kind of a simplistic interpretation of the simple, I therefore put it in the game specifically to talk about that and challenge people’s assumptions and to try and get them to think of their pat answer of ‘hey I was raised to believe this is evil and so therefore it is evil’, but really to go hey, is it really? Go look it up, go research the history and then decide whether you really think its evil or not. So in that way, I did have a personal bias on that particular, exact subject.
Those strong personal positions are relatively speaking rare, I hope or would like to believe. But I don’t think there is necessarily anything wrong with it. The only thing you have to be aware of if you decide to take a stance and choose a side, so to speak, you then have to be aware of the ramification with your player base. If what you’re doing is poking at people’s deeply held personal belief – like pentagrams – you also have to be cognizant of the fact that you are likely going to really offend people and have people who at some fundamental level don’t agree with what you’re doing. And so, instead of being inspired by what your game is or what you have to say, be turned off by it and walk away.
Escapist: So how do you balance the need to have commercial success with your desire to make points?
Richard Garriott: Well in my case, I actually think that by dealing with these more mature subjects, I believe it gives the game in general far more meaning and people in general have stronger appreciation for it. So I actually think that as a general rule, it actually has the double positive: it’s more interesting to me, it’s more interesting to the players and therefore it actually sells more copies. To some degree, when you push it at least a little bit, it’s a benefit to the game, the players and us as the creators.
But there’s a fine line when you can push too far. There are people who were working with me on that Ultima for example who would absolutely tell you that I pushed too far. And there are probably people in our marketing and sales who would say that I pushed too far. By the way, I get that with a lot of our games, I have received internal commentary especially – actually from the outside I’ve almost never been told I’ve pushed too far – but from within the company I’m fairly commonly told I’ve pushed too far.
I can give you another example about killing children. When I was developing Ultima IV and I was trying to fill the game with these ethical tests. In reality, one of the things I’ve learned is that you don’t actually have to do the test so long as people believe there is a test. What I mean by that, if the players are always wondering if the game is capable of testing their behavior then they always remain on their best behavior, even if you do not manage to think of a way to test for a particular behavior. One of the things that I was very proud of in Ultima VI is a room I had created in the final dungeon and the room included a lever in middle of the floor and when you threw the lever it opened the gates on some cages that were in the corners of the room and the cages were full of children. The children were in fact really monsters, because that is all they could be at that level of technology, and the children would attack you in the center of the screen next to the lever. You’d be surrounded by these children who were attacking you and since you were the Avatar at this point and you were at the very end of the game, I knew – or I hoped – that players would be very worried about what to do about the situation. They wouldn’t want to kill the children because they’d be in fear of losing their compassion or their honor or a wide variety of other metrics that the game really was watching. I assumed players would struggle over what to do in this room. But in fact, as a developer, I knew that there was no test. There was no judgment made as to how they solved this room. But since I knew that it would cause them a mental quandary, I chuckled and thought ‘haha’ it would be interesting to see how people deal with this problem and then moved on.
A few weeks prior to us publishing Ultima IV, my brother came into my office with a letter that he’d received from one of our QA testers and the letter basically read: “I refuse to work for a company that so clearly supports child abuse.” And they referred to this room as a game design that encouraged child abuse because I had forced the players into harming these children in this room. My brother came to me up in arms and going like, “Oh my god Richard, how could you have included such a horrible thing in your game?” To which I responded and said, “First of all, the fact that someone would take it that seriously and be so emotionally moved by this incredibly simple thing that I put in this game, I find is a statement of success.” It tells me first of all that the room has worked, it may have worked too well you might think, but let me tell you why I actually think it’s quite right. First off, the fact that that was the kind of reaction that came out was the best reaction I could have hoped for. However, if you are mentally caught in this quandary of ‘oh my god, what do I do with this room full of children that are attacking me’, one is that you could charm them with a charm spell, that everyone would have at that point in time, and make them walk away; or you could use a sleep spell and put them all to sleep and walk out of the room on your own; or, you’d like that answer, back up to your last save game and don’t throw the lever and then the children won’t come out and attack you; or if you’re at least willing to harm them a little bit, drop your sword, which might kill them and instead use your fisticuffs, until they just ran away. The point was in my mind there was a wide variety of ways and still keep your purity, so to speak, but the fact that someone was worried about their purity, or in fact was provoked to believing that I was somehow doing something horrendous, meant that I had at least provoked an emotional reaction, which is so hard to do in games.
My brother was demanding I removed this from the game or they wouldn’t publish and I equally stood my ground and said, “Well, I’m not removing it from the game so you can publish it or not if you like – this game that we had put two years worth of work into – but by the way it’s staying in the game.” This became enough of a battle that the rest of the board members at the company, which is my Mom and my Dad at the time, got involved in the debate too. Whereas usually my artist mother would take my side of a lot of these arguments, this is one of those rare cases where everyone in the family was against me. My mother included, she would be saying things like, “Oh Richard, surely it’s not worth Good Housekeeping coming out against you and your games in some horrible way, surely the path of least resistance here is just to remove this from the game.” I still refused and it actually was published in the game and no one ever complained about it, in fact, I am not even sure very many people even noticed the room in any special way. But because of that event and the special place in my heart that that particular scene has evoked, in every Ultima since then – and we’re actually also working it still into Tabula Rasa – there has been what we have humorously described as the shrine to killing children, which is the room in which the player can inadvertently get themselves into the circumstance where they are faced with a similar kind of challenge. A challenge where some creatures – generally speaking children – are hostile to them the player at a time and place where they would be worried about how they respond to problem and then I just let people work it out on their own. Generally speaking, as it was in the beginning, is not testing them, this isn’t actually any hidden virtue test or ethical parable. It’s really just a little challenge, for fun, to see how people react when within the town that they are there to protect, suddenly the innocent children respond with violence. You know, what do you do about it?
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