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Ultima IV's Success With Narrative Through Gameplay
by Radek Koncewicz on 03/25/12 11:56:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


The videogame equivalent of "show, don't tell" is often said to be "dodon't show." It's good advice, and when applied it can make for some very powerful experiences, e.g., Braid's ending.

Unfortunately, it's also a difficult guideline.

Gameplay elements are rarely designed with narrative in mind. They're limited in quantity and tend to be blunt instruments; the mechanics of walking and jumping can only go so far in conveying complex stories. Given this limited scope, it's not surprising that gameplay is rarely used as the main vehicle for narrative.

Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar had a pretty good go at it, though.

UIV is the story of the Stranger's rise to embody eight virtues principal to the game's setting: honesty, compassion, valor, justice, honor, sacrifice, spirituality, and humility. On the surface, it's a typical CRPG of the era: there's exploration, statistical progression, item management, NPC conversations, and combat. The twist is how these elements are cleverly subverted for storytelling purposes.

Fairly common RPG activities such as opening random treasure chests, running away from battle, and being a smart alack to NPC's can lower various virtue-scores.

Conversely, overpaying for goods (instead of haggling down their prices), letting monsters escape from battle (and losing potential experience points), and destroying the most powerful artifact in the game (which makes combat a breeze), increase virtue. A full list of these virtue-altering actions can be found here.

UIV's main quest involves traversing the world in order to recover 8 virtue stones and runes, learn the mantras corresponding to each virtue, max-out all 8 virtue-scores, meditate at 8 virtue shrines, obtain the 3-part key, and finally discover the the word of passage.

Once these tasks are complete, the Avatar can descend into the abyss and place the virtue stones at their respective altars. A short quiz follows where the player is questioned about the virtues, and each correct answer displays a part of the codex-symbol. When the codex is fully unveiled, the player (presumably) gets to bask in its glory and return to the real world with newly gained knowledge and experience.

It's not an overly complex story, and its scant plot-points are almost entirely non-linear, but the narrative is closely coupled with the gameplay. UIV achieves this through various design choices.

First, the game gives a concrete role for the player to embody. It's all fine and good to "roll" a teetotaler, pyromaniac dwarf, but it's not nearly as much fun if this persona is restricted to the player's imagination. Becoming the Avatar is UIV's sole objective, so the entire gameworld naturally revolves around the player's ability to fill the Avatar's shoes. In addition, this is a perpetual task that encourages the player to stay in-character throughout the experience.

Secondly, UIV grafts virtue-fulfillment entirely onto existing systems. This makes the learning curve less harsh and presents interesting handicaps for familiar gameplay, e.g., avoiding hostile wildlife might not yield immediate rewards, but it aids in gradually achieving the larger goal of Avatar-hood. Since these systems are also granular, they encompass numerous ways in which the virtue scores can be affected.

Furthermore, the approach greatly reduces implementation costs. Every virtue-altering instance is not a custom, one-time cutscene, but rather an action that's optional and repeatable. In turn, the player can actively participate in the story by partially steering where, when, and how the virtues are tested. Since many events in the game also impact more than one virtue, the overall progression is quite open-ended.

Finally, the virtue system allows the player to fail. Hints are still dispensed throughout the game -- and can be actively sought out -- but it's not necessary to be aware of all the rules right from the start. There's no game over screen if virtue is lost; no invisible wall, or awkward text prompt, or an automatic checkpoint reload. The event is simply recorded, and retributions can be made later down the road.

This makes the path to Avatar-hood a potentially bumpy (and a more interesting) tale, and prevents the game from clumsily asserting itself and its limitations.

Lots more could have been done to polish the virtue system and to make it a larger part of the gameworld, but UIV remains notable for the way it allows the player to collaborate with a pre-existing script. This is also done largely through gameplay, and, at least in part, is the reason why so many people keep playing it to this day.

Radek Koncewicz is the CEO and creative lead of Incubator Games, and also runs the game design blog Significant-Bits.

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Joshua Darlington
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Nice post! The Virtue system reminds me of "The Faerie Queene" by Spenser.

" in which Spenser describes the allegorical presentation of virtues through Arthurian knights in the mythical "Faerieland". Presented as a preface to the epic in most published editions, this letter outlines plans for 24 books: 12 based each on a different knight who exemplified one of 12 "private virtues", and a possible 12 more centered on King Arthur displaying 12 "public virtues"."

Kevin Tufano
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RESPECT EARNED. I've been looking to Ultima 4 lately too, but more as a dictation of how morally astute narrative can be implied thoughtfully in a game. Glad to see landmarks in game design like Ultima still have not become forgotten.

Eric Schwarz
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This is a fantastic write-up. I think it's really unfortunate that the once-legendary name of Ultima has been largely ignored by both the games industry and gamers, along with many of its pioneering design concepts. There was so much innovation in those old titles that they actually got a little bit crazy and unhinged, lacking in consistency and control, but still very interesting and entertaining all the same.

I think in general the closest sorts of games we have to Ultima are titles like Risen and Skyrim, where you have some sort of overarching objective (usually just "level my character") that gives context to all the rest of the game mechanics. These games are still bloated in comparison, but still follow the same basic model of universal systems and rules interacting.

It's worth stressing that Ultima is not really a narrative-focused series. Yes, there is story, but by modern standards is extremely simple. The narrative that does take place is basically a framing device for the player to explore the mechanics and set up the long-term goals, rather than any sort of traditional story. Modern RPGs' inclusion of actual, explicit "story stuff" separate from "game stuff" is fine with me, but it's also largely overshadowed the subtle brilliance created when raw mechanics are able to create ludonarrative flow and progression all on their own.

Ian Uniacke
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I think there is a big difference with modern games though in that you can usually finish the game and basically ignore the morality systems. In Ultima you had to learn for yourself (either directly or through talking to other ("wiser") characters in the game). And if you didn't learn those lessons you could not complete the game. I think that's where Ultima 4 stands out.

Michael DeFazio
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I always seem to be the black sheep on this one, but I found UIV to be a complete misstep as the ultima series goes. U3:Exodus was the first game I played in the series, and I still have fond memories of riding my bike to my friends' house to play U3 on his C64 (good times).

I was pumped for U4, (just look at that box art!), but when we played it... it wore on me. I remember thinking "So the goal is to be like a perfect Boyscout? That's not fun".

Years later, I remember seeing an interview with Mr. Garriot about U4, and he said he was motivated to make the game about "Encouraging Good Behavior". (remember kids, eat your broccoli). I always thought it was a response to the backlash for the crazy religious right had against anything related to D&D and RPGs at the time (The awesome U3 exodus boxart probably got many parents worried for their children).

Perhaps I look to video games as escapism, and clearing a dungeon of orcs and trolls is just a fun way to let off steam, UIV just seems like grinding out a win by playing boring mini-games (remember give blood + 1 compassion).

Jeffrey Hoeksma
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Mr. Koncewicz,

You have linked to our old site at, which is approximately 18 months out of date
Our new location is at, which contains about 60,000 new edits since late 2010 when we moved. Could you please update your links.

Radek Koncewicz
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Jeffrey Hoeksma
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I hate being difficult, but the link the the codex symbol is still to Wikia, and should be
mbol_of_the_Codex I really appreciate your effort fixing these.