Ultima Game Developer: Symbolism

The Virtue Codex

The Virtue Codex

Games are about story. They are about having fun, doing something noble, heroic, tragic, or whatever allows you to get the escape you desire. However, Ultima games are also rooted in a deep philosophy. A good Ultima game is about symbols.

Symbols in the Ultima games are many and varied: the Ankh, the Runes, the Shrines, Mantras, Words of Power, magic syllables and reagents, the recurring number eight, the pentagram on the Pagan box, but above all, the combining symbol of the Codex.

How is it best to use symbolism in your Ultima-style game? Often, subtly is best: the fact that Britannia has eight Virtues, eight dungeons, eight major cities, eight circles of magic, eight reagents, etc, is enough to link those together into a cohesive whole. However, the Ankh symbol is the iconic symbol of Spirituality, but it is also worn by the Avatar himself as an amulet and on his surcoat, and it is a symbol of Life. Trilogies such as this, and tripartite objects, also have a long tradition in the Ultima series, including the Word of Passage and the Key of Three Parts.

Another method to present symbols in the Ultima games is to allow the events of the game, the locations and manner of the people, invest the symbols with meaning, without explaining them to the user. The Gargoyle’s Book of Circles does this almost as well as the Codex symbol itself; three interlocking rings that allow the Virtues of the Gargoyles to be illustrated. The book is never seen up close, but the icon shows all we need to know about it, even before the player can actually read its contents. The pages of the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom provide cryptic information the reader needs, but they can only gaze upon its pages while on a sacred quest. These are important plot points for the Ultima games, and similar devices can play roles in your own.

What does this mean for you as a developer? First, think hard before making sweeping changes to any of the established Ultima systems. If there are twelve circles of magic, they are no longer linked symbolically with the eight Virtues, or the eight Shrines. Instead, perhaps limit Britannian mages to the standard 8 circles, but introduce Thaumaturgy, under which magic is not linked to the Virtues and instead sorts magic into geometric shapes based on their power. Rather than introduce a new dungeon, infested with creatures worse than the Eight Great Dungeons, look at other centers for evil: lost towers, a castle beyond a Red Gate, orc forts, or the Well of Souls.

Fans will also likely see Ultima lore itself as a symbol. Respecting what has already been established in the series will make the world more real, more welcoming, and more fun for those that come to it with a knowledge of the past.

Browncoat Jayson

Join me in New Britannia!

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6 Responses

  1. wtf_dragon says:

    Another fine article, Jayson.

    The only thing I might point out is that rather than respecting convention at all times, the knowledge that a prospective Ultima developer has to have is twofold. He has to know when to respect convention and how to address it, but he also has to know when it is acceptable to depart from convention, and in what ways.

    The idea of “convention” is itself a bit of a tricky thing when one considers the Ultimas, given that many changes that Britannia — and her cities, towns, and even dungeons — underwent between episodes in the series.

    • Browncoat Jayson says:

      Exactly my point. Changes are good, as long as they are done for a reason. Changing things just because you can isn’t meaningful, and should be carefully considered.

  2. Iceblade says:

    Awful quiet around here.

    Are there any more coming soon?

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