Few names are as storied in the hallowed halls of game lore as Richard Garriott, or Lord British, if you’re like that. The creator of the Ultima series, founder of Origin and wearer of ruffled cuffs is now working on an MMOG, Tabula Rasa, which, he hopes, will expand gaming’s horizons and bring to reality his singular vision of making games in which morality has meaning and characters are more than just extensions of the player’s mouse.
The Escapist recently spoke with Garriott about his past, his present, his plans for the future and why he thinks most games just aren’t good enough.
The Escapist: Tell us about your early goals for Brittania and the Ultima series.
Richard Garriott: When you use the word Britannia, that of course to me implies Ultima IV. Because, prior to Ultima IV, really was the era that I describe as “Richard Garriott learns to program the computer and make games in their simplest form.” And so the ideas that were put into the Ultima series pre-Ultima IV really were a scattershot of things that I saw in entertainment that inspired me at the time.
I can give you very direct influences of things that were happening around me or to me at the time. The cloth maps and time travel that showed up in Ultima II really were directly inspired by the movie Time Bandits. Similarly, if you look at Ultima I, [it] wasn’t even strictly speaking medieval fantasy. It had spaceships and lightswords; that really was everything from Star Wars through Tolkien crammed into one game. It really wasn’t until Ultima IV that I finally sat down and said that I now at least believe I can do the physical aspects of making a game, I now need to pay much closer attention to the content. Not only do I want to do a better job of the content, but I want to do content that is my own content. And that is when I began to create and craft the world of Britannia.
What’s interesting about the creation of virtual worlds is that there [are] sensory aspects, and I’ve pursued that in the limitations of the technology we see by trying to make the world as reactive as possible. If I see a telephone on the desk, it shouldn’t be just a prop, I should be able to pick it up and dial a number, and if I dial random numbers, I should occasionally get someone. Or, you know, if there is a cannon and there’s a door and I fire the cannon and it’s a wooden door, it sure as heck should break that door. If I’m going to stop that I better find a steel door to try and resist it, if you know what I mean. And so I tried to make sure that world was very completely and realistically simulated to the degree that we could.
But then there’s the second aspect of what makes a virtual reality interesting or relevant, which is “Why am I there, why do I want to be there, why do I care to be there and why is it important to be there?” And so I tried to attack that problem, especially starting with Ultima IV, where I came to the realization or decision that a major problem I saw in most gaming – especially most fantasy roleplaying gaming – is that they all still, to this day, have the same general plot. Which is, you’re the hero and you know that because you’re told so in the introduction. Your job is to kill the bad guy, and you know that because you’re told so in the introduction.
In general, having played those games, the bad guy doesn’t do anything particularly bad other than he just waits for you in the final level for you to come and fight him and kill him. And in fact, what you as the player do is you pillage, plunder, maim and steal and do whatever it is you can to do to become as powerful as you need to be to come and knock off the supposed bad guy.
After telling that story myself through the first few Ultimas, that was another one of those things where I said, “Look, we’ve got to do better than this, and I believe we can do better than this, and I believe doing something more meaningful, something with more depth, would make a truly better game and therefore a game that more people would appreciate and like.”
TE: You mentioned that generic storyline. In the introduction to our last issue on this theme we mentioned “The Hero With 1,000 Faces,” the basic story that all these games and all this literature follows, do you subscribe to that or do you feel a different way?
RG: Yep. I am a big believer in what I’ll call the Joseph Campbell version of “The Hero’s Journey.” My simplification and retelling of it goes something like this: Your main character is usually someone who finds himself facing the ultimate challenge that they’re ill-equipped to even begin to face because of their lack of personal preparedness. Even though ostensibly the story is about accomplishing the great goal of solving the world’s problems, the real and important story is about the main character, where that main character actually has to grow and rise above their own personal demons, personal challenges or personal failings to become the person that is worthy and capable of solving the Great Problem. And so the Great Problem is really secondary in a way. That is what I think most games missed out on.
Yeah sure, they start you out at level one, where you’re physically wimpy and you pillage and plunder and kill and maim in order to become physically powerful, but I think that misses the point. The point is not whether you have strong enough muscles or big enough guns to win, the issue should be: What have you learned? What wisdom have you gained from the beginning through to the end that really means you’re now the appropriate person to solve the problem? Why are you worthy, not why are you tough enough? And most gaming is about how you become tough enough, not how you become worthy.
TE: When you set out to create this new universe for Tabula Rasa, what was your larger goal in that world?
RG: What’s interesting about Ultima is that when I first started down this path, the state of the art of gaming was relatively simple, and so the sophistication of these systems was relatively minimal. If you look at the intellectual property that you might consider the bedrock of the Ultima series now, that bedrock evolved over 10 or 15 years, starting really with Ultima IV, but all the way through Ultima IX, those systems become more and more sophisticated, more and more consistent, more and more in depth over time.
One of the real tricks with Tabula Rasa [was] that we were really ready to start a whole new world over from scratch. It wasn’t going to be Tolkein-esque; we were going to avoid medieval fantasy, because we’ve done it for 20 years. It might be sci-fi, but it was not going to be Star Wars-ian or any other obvious touchstone you can pick up. We’re going to invent our own reality from scratch. But as games have become more sophisticated now, we basically had to accomplish 10 or 20 years of Ultima all in one cycle. It’s one of the things that have taken us such a long road to really get things done right, especially here with Tabula Rasa. We really wanted to create a living, breathing, complete reality from scratch, to the depth of the later Ultimas, but all in one fell swoop.
TE: You’ve described, in speaking about the evolution of Tabula Rasa, what you call “ethical parables.” How do these expand the play possibilities over typical MMOGs? Are they essentially missions that give people a chance to examine both sides of a problem?
RG: Exactly. When I started Tabula Rasa, in addition to things like the language, we also set off to build a virtue system very much like Ultima‘s, but not Ultima‘s. We really broke it down to its individual circumstance and its individual needs. So some of the tests and factions you might engage have fairly deep and sophisticated levels of interactions, if appropriate, and others are even a very small thread of an issue to showcase.
When I look back across the whole later Ultima series, starting with Ultima IV, each game had, [at] the core of its story, some contemporary issue that I would mutate into a medieval setting and put in the game in a way where honestly I am not sure how many people would recognize it as being inspired by the contemporary social issue that was plaguing the world where I lived at the time. But I knew, and I felt it made for a rich and poignant storyline.
We filled Tabula Rasa with these kinds of story threads. We’ve taken a wide variety of contemporary issues and built story arcs out of them. One issue is drugs, another major story thread is ecology and another has to do with principals of war and when is a war worth fighting? At what cost is it worth fighting?
For all of these issues, which are really quite contemporary issues, what I’ve tried to do is represent them without regard to my opinion. … We show [players] both the good from the choice that they did make, and also what happens to the people who lobby for or live on the other side of that issue. If you don’t end up supporting or favoring them, they really will see some loss and we expose that to you.
In the real world, we’re often kind of sanitized away from seeing other people’s perspectives or the ramifications of our actions. If you do not give to the poor, you generally do not have to watch the poor starve to death. In our game, if you think the poor have been served well enough, and you don’t think it’s appropriate to pay more taxes or whatever it might be, we will support that decision as is reasonable from certain perspectives, but then we’ll also show you … those downsides too. The goal is not to evangelize about one side or the other of any of these issues; the goal is to make people sit back and notice the ramifications of these decisions and to provoke thought. I’m a big believer in challenging people’s assumptions.
TE: Emotion is the buzzword these days. How do you think games can be made to bring about more of an emotional response?
RG: Where and why and how I think [most] games fail has to do with character development. If you look at emotion in a linear narrative, it usually comes first of all from creating characters and situations and places that the player, or the reader has a fondness for or is tied to in some way, and then having a change or catastrophe occur to that person, place or thing. Developing characters that you become invested in is the first step for generating any kind of emotion in my mind. I’m not sure if that is literarily accurate, but that is my personal, perhaps oversimplified take on it.
In a book or a movie you can take the time to dwell on a handful of main characters who not only emerge over and over again in the script, but act precisely as is written. In the case of gaming, you have the additional problem that the person who you might think of as the main character – the reader, or the player in this case – can almost immediately turn 90 degrees, walk away and go somewhere else or hit the space bar and skip past most of their dialogue. So the ways we build personal attachment to characters and places in a game has to be done in a more sophisticated way. I don’t think it’s an impossible way by any means.
A big part of it is some fairly simple steps go a long way. Some things like making sure the bad guy, instead of just waiting for you to come kill him in the final level, gets out into the game and mixes it up with NPCs and even mixes it up with player prior to the finale, to where the player gets to know them personally and gets to know why they might dislike them, or why they’re working against them, or why is that guy worthy of being your opponent, or why is that guy appropriate to be your opponent. The same thing would be true of love interests or comic relief or almost any of the other kinds of emotional strings that you might want to pull. I think that most people creating games are far more worried about the next physical puzzle, the next treasure to loot, the next creature to kill, … than they are about doing something more sophisticated, more difficult, but also more worthwhile, which is to take much more care in your story crafting.
TE: As a designer and storyteller, you started in RPGs and then moved to MMOGs. Why do you feel that that is the best place for you to tell stories?
RG: Oh, I think MMOGs are actually a particularly challenging place to tell stories. I would not describe it as the best, or definitely not the easiest place to tell tales.
As a game designer, of course there are a wide variety of reasons why you might want to play in different genres or play in different models like MMOGs. For me, the compelling reason to be in MMOGs vs. solo-player games comes from what I believe is a fundamental human need to share experiences.
People don’t even do extraordinarily passive things like going to the movies by themselves, generally. The vast majority of people don’t go to the movies unless they have a friend that they can take with them … even though in a movie theater, people just end up staring at the screen, so to speak, and [don’t interact] with the friend they brought with them, until the end of the movie. But still, that compulsion to be with your friends and share those experiences with other members of the human race is incredibly strong. And so, in spite of the difficulties of telling stories in a massively multiplayer setting, I think the importance of being in the massively multiplayer setting outweighs the additional challenge of trying to tell stories there.
TE: Do you think you’ll ever go back to working on single-player games?
TG: I would still very much enjoy doing single-player RPGs. By all means, that would be highly desirable, but it is also not necessary for me. If for some reason, after I spend a few years playing in the MMOG space, I could easily see my self jumping back into single-player or picking up whatever the next trend is and trying a crack at it in whatever the next new genre is.
Dana “Lepidus” Massey is the Senior Editor for WarCry.com and former Co-Lead Game Designer for Wish.