Reconciling the Past: The First Age of Darkness
Like the other Age of Darkness trilogy titles, Ultima I: The First Age of Darkness (or, as it was released, just Ultima) is in its simplest form a simple quest to beat the big boss. In the first Ultima, the big bad is Mondain the Wizard, who cannot be killed thanks to the Gem of Immortality. Your quest, of course, is to kill him anyway.
Our land is in need of a stalwart hero, one who will brave perils too horrific to consider. A plague has begallen the Realm, a scourge is upon the land! Our villages lie sacked, ruinous mounds of ashes where once trod peasants stout of heart and sound of mind, where one lay fields of grain and fruit, where kine and fowl grew fat upon the bounties of our fair Sosaria. All manner of wicked and vile creature prey upon our people and ravage the land. ‘Tis the doing of one so evil that the very earth trembles at the mention of his name.
Mondain the Wizard hath wrought his malice well. Our nobles bicker amongst themselves, and each hath retired to the confines of his keep in hopes of watching the downfall of his rivals. Verily, the Evil One hath heaped indignity upon curse by releasing upon the Realm a host of creatures and beasts so bloodthirsty and wicked that our defense-less people fall as grain before the reaper’s scythe. These denizens of the underworld hold sway over all that can be surveyed, save for the strongholds of the nobles besotted with their own ambition. Nowhere in our once peaceful country may a traveller find safe passage or lodging, save in the keeps of the self-proclaimed kings — and they demand hard labors for their indulgences.
Only the young Lord British remains steadfast in the vision of a peaceful and united Sosaria. In his castle and his towne the pure of heart will find an ally and replenishment for the needs of one who hath chosen to fight for the Realm.
Aid us in ridding our land of the scourge that hath befallen us, O Noble One. We beseech thee, for without thine aid we shall surely perish before the onslaught of the maleficent necromancer. Slay the evil Mondain!
– from Ultima manual
The Age of Darkness trilogy has many seemingly insurmountable incongruences with the later games. However, let’s take a look at each of them so we can tie these up in the Age article.
First, there are how many continents? The manual claims four, and provides great maps for them. However, in the game, you can walk between continents as there is only a single landmass. Obviously, this is a technical hurdle, but it does demonstrate that the lore for the game really lies in the manual, maps, and in-game text, rather than in the gameplay mechanics.
As we discussed in the Akalabeth article, Mondain’s murdered father Wolfgang was presumably one of the former kings. It is quite possible that he could be the Lost King, who ruled opposite British in the Lands of Lord British. (Just assume that the “king” on the throne is actually someone else, a councilman or majordomo, handling matters in his absence.)
The landscape is set, which is an interesting contrast to Akalabeth where it is randomly generated. The addition of landmarks, such as the Pillars of Protection and the Eastern Signpost, along with the quests to visit them make a much appreciated diversion to randomly killing monsters. While these monuments disappeared after Mondain’s demise, we can see hints of their existence in future games. My theory is that the Pillars of Protection are the serpent pillars in the arctic area of Britannia, and were used to transport the Avatar and his Companions to the Serpent Isle.
Incomplete Dialogue and Interactivity
With few characters that speak, and no object interaction, the scripting abilities of the first Ultima game left much to be desired. Therefore, it is impossible to know exactly what a character said, or what words were present in a book. While this allows players to use their imagination and immerse into their character, it does make it difficult to establish an exact recreation of the events.
In Ultima, players go from swords and chainmail to blasters and reflect armor, and sail a frigate before blasting off in a spaceship. There is nothing about why this is from within the game, or specific in the manual. One thing that some players have latched on to as a possibility is the note about Starwalking creatures that Mondain made contact with, as noted in the manual. While obstenably, this is put in place to describe the mechanics of using the flight UI to the player, it does offer a thought about a in-setting rationality.
Should a champion emerge from the mists of legend, the means by which to combat this menace from the sky will appear — so say the prophets. The legends which foretell of this hero include a number of writings and several ballads sung by the bards of our realm. Among the more recent discoveries pertaining to the coming of the starwalkers is an arcane manuscript, found on the foothills of Mt. Drash. Since it appears to hold instructions for the use of some form of transport, it has been broadcast throughout the land in hopes that it might prove useful to one engaged in the quest to rid Sosaria of Mondain.
Perhaps the Starwalkers are aliens contacted by Mondain, or perhaps they are something even more notorious. Personally, I like the idea that the Guardian sent the Trilkhai to serve Mondain, which would give him a hand in his own creation.
In Ultima I, Mondain had been made immortal by the power of his fell artifact and ruled for a thousand years. The Stranger has to use the four gems to activate a machine to travel back in time to prevent the creation of the gem, and slay the wizard. In the end game, 1,000 years pass in the blink of an eye as the hero falls into a magical slumber, to be awoken by Lord British. So the time travel seems to have worked, but didn’t change the past; instead, Mondain’s death occurred outside of the standard timestream and his body, the shards of the gem, and the Stranger reappeared at the moment the machine was activated.
Maybe not the strangest way to handle time travel, but it is hard to reconcile. Personally, I dislike mixing high fantasy and high technology so frivolously; I would keep many of the elements, such as the Starwalker threat (an invasion force, Mondain’s elite). I would re-envision the time machine as a great stone archway that requires the gems in order to form a silver Moongate, and the Stranger would awaken in the new timestream after slaying Mondain. This still has the side effect that much of Ultima I takes place in an alternate future that will never occur… but I’m strangely ok with it.
The Races and Professions
Humans are the mainstay of Sosaria, but Elves, Dwarves and Bobbits are not unknown. Similarly, the Fighter and Wizard are still present, but magic is divided between the intelligent Wizard and the wise Cleric. Thieves are also popular heroes, perhaps not surprising considering the era of oppression by a mad wizard.
These races and classes gather fellows until Ultima III, so I’ll delay any speculation until then. It is interesting to look at how quickly this changes upon the formation of Britannia.
The locations and characters in the game are largely in-jokes. Combined with the limited interactivity of the game, this makes it very difficult to weed out the plot from the nonsensical.
Does Ultima I befit the beginnings of the series? The flaws are fairly large, but the name Mondain still resonates throughout the series. Stay tuned for Ultima II!