Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar and the Quest for Imagination

By | October 29, 2013

The “ear scene” in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs is as famous for its squeamish camera as the violence it avoids.  As Mr. Blonde leans in to slice Marvin’s ear, the camera pans left to a doorway.  We hear Marvin’s pain, we imagine it, but we don’t see it.  Later on in his films, Tarantino’s cameras are not as shy.  In the Kill Bill movies, we see every ruptured artery, every severed limb, torso, head…all in high-def detail…nothing left to the imagination.

I couldn’t help thinking about Tarantino’s films when I downloaded Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar on my iPad.  The game had high sentimental value, up there with my first crush and childhood Christmases.  There were late nights at the computer, under a blanket, playing until the sun came up.  I would feign some mystery illness to miss church on Sundays, a crime punishable by a week without computer access at my household.  So when I came upon this game at the Apps store, I was ecstatic.  I started playing, and realized the memory was superior to the actual gameplay, but it was still good.  It was better than a lot of the RPG games out there today, and a significant reason is because it allows room for the imagination.

The beautiful Britannia harbor.

The beautiful Britannia harbor.

The best RPG I’ve ever played had nothing to do with video games.  I was old school.  The fellas and I at the dining table, pen, paper, a guide book and dice.  That was it.  No graphics.  No voice actors.  No award-winning soundtracks.  Just a good story-teller and our imaginations.  We turned to video games when we started playing sports, dating girls, and even studying, and couldn’t coordinate our schedules as easily.  Technology was limited, and we stared at pixels in black limbo or stick figures we imagined to be great warriors or beautiful (and usually busty) maidens.  Technology improved.  Games became more graphic, more linear, more cinematic.  Games were still enjoyable in many ways, but they left less of a stain, less of a scar…they became less memorable.

My generation and the one that followed became impatient.  Everything had to be fast.  Easy.  Quick.  Convenient.  Violence had to be graphic.  The ladies had to be sexy.  And the pathway had to be clear.  People began to write about the effects of violence in video games, but violence had always existed in video games going back to Combat on the Atari.  It definitely exists in Ultima IV, but the difference between it and Grand Theft Auto is that the blood and guts in the former is in the mind’s eye.

The orc flees, leaving a trail of blood and guts.

The orc flees, leaving a trail of blood and guts.

Then there’s the sexual representation of women.  Stanford did a study on it.  Nudity is becoming more and more common and soon it’ll be as common in games as it is in movies.  But as in the violence in Tarantino’s later films, commonality leads to the mundane.  We lose interest and when we lose interest, it goes into the oblivion.

That fair maiden, she's a hottie!

That fair maiden, she’s a hottie!

I still remember Ultima IV.  I still remember the gray, moss-covered castles, the black forests, and the sprawling cities by the sea.  There was the rosy-cheeked bar maiden, and the ragged bare-footed urchins warming at a fire as the lively bard sang of heroes and dragons.  The blood of orcs and trolls splattered at the thrust of a long-sword.  The great halls were cold, the temples bright and the caves infested.

I remember Ultima IV, and I’ll never forget it.

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