Reconciling the Past: Canon
What is is. Why we care. And why we shouldn’t.
“Canon” is the material accepted as “official” in the fictional universe, at least by it’s fan base. The word canon is used in reference to Biblical canon; the set of books that make up scripture. The term was first used to refer to the Sherlock Holmes stories written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in order to distinguish those from those created by other authors.
As far as the Ultima series is concerned, the Codex of Ultima Wisdom sets forth a fairly good Canon policy, although I do have issues with its Non-canonical material list.
The reason most fans are obsessed with canon seems to lie with the proliferation of the fans themselves. Especially in the genre that Ultima inhabits, its fans are *smart*. We enjoy games (obviously), including both computer and traditional tabletop varieties. We tend to be well read. We are creative. And we enjoy letting our creativity take hold of those things we are passionate above. This site is a tribute to that.
Fan-created stories, games, and art are generally transitory. That is, at any time the Powers that Be might release a new game that goes against the fan-created work that had been released. Of course, that is their right; it is their copyright, and there is no need for them to worry about stepping on any toes.
However, the term canon tends to be brought up, and turn most sour, when discussing releases by third parties, or after changes to the company. This, despite the licensing of such releases, or the actual cause of such changes. This is apparent in many places throughout the Ultima saga, but let’s take a look at some of the most notorious examples:
- FCI/Ponycanon and the NES Ultima Series
Ultima games have been ported from the original releases (Apple, and later in the series PC) to various platforms. While most were content with minor changes to accomodate the game on their systems, perhaps with the loss of audio or color depth, few caused such drastic changes as those wrought by the port to the Nintendo Entertainment System. Beginning with Exodus and the Quest of the Avatar, the NES versions of these tales are often ignored or kept separate from the main releases due to their many differents. That is a shame, since many unique and interesting things can be found in these games; the differences are often ones of mistranslation, rather than needless change, and the additions are quite intriguing.
- Ultima Online
Despite its continued success (it approaches its 15th anniversary!), the lore and content for Ultima Online is often overlooked by Ultima fans and developers. While I personally believe that UO missed the mark on quite a few things that would make it more “Ultima-like”, I can’t deny that without the game and it’s success I would not be able to form my own view of how Britannia works. The lore, especially, is intriguing; nowhere else can you get insights into the minds of Blackthorn, Lord British, or even Mondain! My only hope is that the many in-game books and scrolls, and the online lore, eventually manages to become fully searchable.
- Ultima X Odyssey/Ultima Online 2/Origin Worlds Online/The Technocrat War
Perhaps because they was cancelled, or perhaps because of their departure from strict high fantasy, the UO2/OWO lore and backstory have been relegated to “failure”, despite a novel trilogy being released. The writing for the lore, and the novels themselves, is quite good, and the backstore interesting, that this surprises me a bit. UXO, again because of its cancellation, is considered “failure”, but is the only real lore we have that discusses what happened after U9, and wraps up some of the loose ends from the series. Personally, I hope to see more information from these cancelled games.
- The Ultima Saga
Author Lynn Abbey’s take on Ultima in her two novels (the third was cancelled) is different, but does give a great account of what it is like for native Britannians living during the advent of Ultima V. The nobility, virtue quests, and teamsters in the novels could be added to the world quite easily enough, and I believe would help make Britannia more “alive”. There is wilderness, and there is civilization, but there isn’t much in-between during the games, but the Ultima Saga shows us that there is, unseen during the Avatar’s adventures, something on the fringe.
- Ultima Ascension
Finally, Ultima IX itself is often the whipping horse for the series. While it was a wonder of technological advancement in its time, the story seemed rushed and the bugs were many upon its release. Some things felt changed for little or no reason, and plot-critical elements were missing or incorrectly used. Once hailed as the “Trilogy of Trilogies”, there often seemed no attempt was made to fit the game into the series it was ending. Despite those complaints, the game itself is surprisingly enjoyable, if you allow yourself to ignore “canon”. It suffers from a linear, repetitive plot, but I believe this can be overcome; with the open atmosphere and enough side quests, the first time I played through I didn’t mind the cleansing of each shrine, nor wonder at the changes to magic.
Deal With It
So, do we just ignore canon, and say anything with the Ultima name on it is “correct”? Well, no, not exactly. However, any licensed work bearing the Ultima name, has a right to exist. How can they all exist simultaneously? We’ll get into depth on that next time, but for now, let’s look at how canon *should* be established.
- Primary Sources
The first step toward canon is generally “everything that was released by the publisher as part of the main series”. Even here, however, there are stumbling blocks to consistency. Ultima I and Ultima II feature other planets, anachronistic weapons, and time travel. Ultima I and Ultima III take place in radically different continents both bearing the name Sosaria. Ultima II takes place on Earth! Islands move or are lost on each iteration between Ultima IV and Ultima VII. Ultima VIII takes place on an alien plane with confusing links to Britannia. Ultima IX returns us to Britannia, but there are unexplained changes to the world. Where do we start with canon?
- Secondary Sources
Even if we muddle out the main series, we then have the other licensed games and media. The Ultima Underworld games are easier to integrate in the series, but there are a few oddities. However, what about Ultima Online? Runes of Virtue? The changes between ports? The only novels released with the Ultima name are the Technocrat War trilogy related to Ultima Online 2, and Abbey’s Ultima Saga, both of which are on the above list. How can they be resolved?
- Tertiary Sources
The final “official” source are secondary media, released by a third party license that does not directly relate to the series. This includes, as far as Ultima is concerned, Escape from Mt Drash, the manga, and the Ultima Generations CCG, among other things. These are all quite rare, strange, and difficult to consolidate. This source might also included sources intended for release, but not made publicly available, such as the maps, lore, and artwork from cancelled games.
Notice that fan-made material did not make this list. That is intentional; although we do contribute to the Ultima series, our “official” contributions are financial. I, myself, will be discussing how we can “Reconcile the Past” in this series, but these posts are not official. I do not work for EA, Mythic, or Origin, so all of this is just my interpretation of the series.
My next article will deal with be “How everything can be true” and still be Ultima. Stay tuned!