Manual Override

Richard Cobbett's RPG Scrollbars columns for Rock, Paper, Shotgun have proven to be very interesting so far, and I can't say I'm particularly surprised to see him tackle the subject of role-playing game manuals in his latest columns. As usual, he offers some interesting insight into the voluminous books that used to accompany videogame releases in the now distant past.

While a couple of the choices are rather standard as far as old-school RPGs go (The Bard's Tale II and Ultima VII), Cobbett also brings up a couple of lesser-known titles like Anarchy Online and Drakkhen. Here's a snippet on Ultima VII's Book of the Fellowship:

Ultima VII: The Book Of Fellowship

Oh, goodness, what a surprise, Richard's talking about Ultima again. Well, yes. But while a million words have justifiably been splashed here there and everywhere about the actual game, one thing that's not often mentioned is the second manual. Ultima VII came with two the boring one, about how to play, and the in-lore one, written by a certain Batlin of Britain. Or to be more accurate, the villain. Yep, you're reading through the evil Fellowship's Bible, and as you'd expect for Ultima, it's pretty clever.

Much like Fellowship philosophy in the game itself, which hangs on seemingly innocent phrases like '˜Worthiness Precedes Reward' (easily flipped to say that the poor therefore are unworthy, while the rich are worthy by default), much of the text is written at a distinct slant from the rest of the universe, in a way that vacillates between passive aggressive and misleading. When discussing Ultima 4 for instance, Batlin is rather quick to plant the idea that just maybe, the Avatar was inspired by his quest due to having so comprehensively fucked things up in the earlier games. Uh. No comment. He also invents stuff entirely, like the Avatar only defeating the evil sorceress Minax because s/he had a crush on her, and doesn't exactly hide his true feelings with comments like (Those who would say that this terrible and destructive war could have been prevented entirely had the Avatar not appropriated the Codex from its true owners are merely dissidents who are grossly misinformed,) before quickly declaring the Avatar's period as Britannia's hero over and a new era begun.

Given this and the in-game handling of the Fellowship, it's a real shame that everything from the very first frame of series baddie The Guardian showing up to gloat completely gives away the fact that they're more evil than putting mayonnaise on chips. But as an introduction, this was a fantastic introduction to a great enemy not a religion of evil, exactly, but one run by a master of psychological manipulation who'd managed to weaponise compassion and turn even good people onto the wrong path.