Richard Garriott on Morality and Choice in Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar

Later this month, David Craddock will release his new book Break Out: How the Apple II Launched the PC Gaming Revolution, and to give you an idea of what type of content it will include, USGamer is spotlighting an excerpt featuring Richard Garriott commenting on taking player choice to new levels in Ultima IV. Dealing with a group of virtuous doppelgangers and monsters masquerading as children are two such eyebrow-raising scenarios the team introduced - in 1985:
In one scenario, players enter a room to find doppelgangers of each member of their party—a cleric, a fighter, a paladin, and so on. Seeing another fully formed party should give them pause. What were they to do? How should they proceed? Attacking seemed out of the question; the NPCs were virtuous heroes, just like them. Except they weren't. They were monsters in the guise of heroes. Attacking them would incur no penalty. "This is all occurring to them in real-time, so it forces them to make quick decisions," Garriott explains. "And in this case, it really doesn't matter: they're all monsters. But the fact that players didn't know that means that they could create all sorts of unique stories in their heads."

Any doubts that players and critics would dismiss Ultima IV's trials as simplistic were dispelled when, two weeks before the game's release in September 1985, Robert stormed into Richard's office and read aloud from a letter written by one of Origin's quality assurance (QA) testers. The man was threatening to resign over one of the scenarios in the Stygian Abyss that mandated players to kill children in order to progress. "I was stunned," Richard Garriott recalls. "I said, 'I have no idea what this guy's talking about.' Robert said, 'I don't know, either, but whatever it is, we need to find it and get it out of the game. Whatever is creating this feeling, we'd better get out of the game.'"

Richard and Robert walked across the top floor of the garage and found the tester. The man sat stiffly at his desk, wrestling with whether or not to leave his job over what he viewed as a violation of good taste. Richard asked him to pull up the room responsible for his outrage. It flickered into existence on the screen, and he recognized it at once. Cages hung in all four corners of the room. Each cage was full of children. In the heart of the room, between the four cages, was a lever. Pulling it lowered the cages and released the children, who swarmed the player and attacked. The only way out was to kill the children and bolt for the exit... or so it seemed.

Relieved, Garriott explained the scenario. "Now, this was not a test, but I knew it would look like a test: no one in their right mind would think it's okay to kill children in a game about virtue, and yet I surrounded you with children that were attacking you."

The QA tester breathed a sigh of relief. It turned out the children were monsters in disguise. Although the tester was assuaged, Robert was not. Privately, he insisted that Richard remove the room, reasoning that Origin would suffer irreparable damage to its reputation if a parent group misinterpreted the trial. Lord British refused. Ultima IV was predicated on being virtuous, and the QA tester had recoiled at the notion of taking an action meant to be viewed as morally abhorrent—precisely the type of response Richard hoped to illicit. The QA tester's reaction proved that video games stimulated emotions common associated with film and literature.