The Black Gate: A Microcosm

From The CRPG Addict


Pride goeth before the fall.
                     
Lord British wasn’t quite as bad as I suggested in the last entry, although I might have expected a warmer greeting (and an explanation) from someone I haven’t seen in 200 years. It occurs to me that Lord British and the Avatar aren’t really “friends,” as such, and come to think of it, he probably would prefer that I weren’t there. I mean, let’s look at the evidence. First–and this blew my mind when I realized it–Lord British has never actually summoned the Avatar to Britannia. When the Avatar comes in Ultima IV, it’s because moonstones and lore books were scattered throughout the multiverse in hopes that someone who could become the Avatar would find one. Lord British didn’t know that the person who became the Avatar, specifically, would find it.
     
Dupre, Iolo, and Shamino were responsible for the Avatar’s arrival in Ultima V, and they weren’t acting on Lord British’s orders because he’d been kidnapped. The gargoyles summoned the Avatar in Ultima VI to kill him. It’s not clear who opened the moongate in this game except that Lord British specifically denies doing it. Note, too, how quickly Lord British sends the Avatar back to Earth after each game. There’s absolutely no denouement–the Avatar gets shoved through a portal the very moment he completes the main quest.
    
The reason becomes clear when you think about it: The Avatar is a threat to Lord British’s own power. The Avatar is a spiritual figure who enjoys almost universal love, admiration, and recognition. He’s shown himself wise and courageous enough to save Britannia from destruction several times over. He’s built and re-built himself from Level 1 to Level 8 half a dozen times. He’s mastered the arts of war and magic. He knows everyone important in the kingdom. And by Lord British’s own standards, the Avatar the only person virtuous enough to bear his title. Would you want him around if you were a monarch? 
        
The conversation starts out well.
       
But he’s not dumb enough to recognize the Avatar’s utility, and he’s aware that a few things are clearly wrong. The most obvious concerns magic. It’s been going wonky lately. Spells don’t work. Mages, including his long advisor Nystul and Rudyom in Cove, are going insane. Rudyom had been studying something called “blackrock.”
Almost immediately, he wants to know if I brought my Orb of the Moons. I thought the backstory had me grabbing it, but it’s not in my possession, so I say no. This concerns Lord British. He worries that I’ll be trapped in Britannia. He gives me his Orb so I won’t have to stay, suggesting that it might work better for me because I’m freshly arrived.
          
“Feel free to try it right now.”
         
As we saw last time, Lord British is a bit naive about the Fellowship and Batlin, but he is aware that something is going on. In addition to the trouble with magic and the ominous rumbling, he says, “there is something wrong in Britannia.” He’s not sure exactly what, but: “Something is hanging over the heads of the Britannian people. They are unhappy. One can see it in their eyes. There is nothing that is unifying the population, since there has been peace for so long.” He wants me to go hang out with them and see what I can find out.
   
He is horrified to hear about the murder in Trinsic. He remembers a similar one from four years ago in Britain, and he suggests I talk with the mayor, Patterson, about it.
              
I ask him about the earthquake, and he’s 100% up-to-speed on that. He says that for some reason, the Isle of Fire where I defeated Exodus has recently risen from the ocean. He warns me to watch out for the remains of Exodus and to make use of the shrines of virtue that I might find there. “Shrines of virtue?” I reply, confused. Yes, he says. In addition to the shrines to each individual virtue that I visited repeatedly in Ultimas IV through VI, Lord British also had built three shrines to the three principles of virtue: truth, love, and courage. These were on the Isle of Fire when it sank.
          

You lose more credibility with every word you speak.

               
I’m not sure how much I buy this little retcon, which not only suggests that Lord British conceived of the Quest of the Avatar before Sosaria became Britannia, but that first three shrines he had built were coincidentally unneeded during the actual quest. He goes on to say that the shrines are “meant for the use of an Avatar only,” so not only had he planned the quest before building any of the other shrines, he was so sure that it would succeed that the first three he built presumed the quest would be completed. Uh-huh. Anyway, he gave me a deed to a shop, docked near Vesper (Vesper’s back!) if I wanted to visit the island.
    
Beyond that, we make a little small talk. The castle has been renovated. He likes it but is annoyed by the nursery, which the Great Council talked him into implementing for his staff. (I’m 100% sure this reflects something happening at ORIGIN at the same time.) He’s kept my stuff, including a spellbook, in a chest for 200 years; I’ll find it in the west side of the castle; the key is in Lord British’s study.
          

Indeed.

                 
A couple of entries ago, in relation to Trinsic, I noted that the increased realism of the simulation and graphics made it increasingly hard to regard the small number of buildings and people in the city as a representative sample, leading us to the uncomfortable conclusion that a major city houses only 10 people. Ultima VII, like the Elder Scrolls games but unlike, say, Baldur’s Gate, has chosen not to fill the streets with generic NPCs or provide matte backgrounds suggesting untold miles of city blocks beyond the few that we can walk and experience for ourselves. Nonetheless, many of you argued that we should still regard the few buildings we see and the few NPCs we meet as a small representative sample of a much bigger world. While I have logical problems with this, I noted more and more signs of the truth of this view as I explored the tiny Castle Britannia.
            

A) It’s kind of weird to denigrate your own sister as “prudish.” B) You’re so very, very wrong.

         

The fortress is a single story, except for a roof with four corner rooms. The main floor has a courtyard in the middle with Lord British’s throne room north of the courtyard. When he’s on the throne, it’s just him and four guards–no advisors or courtiers or anything. The guards are all generically named “guard” (an exception with the “no generic NPC” rule), and they all call me an idiot for asking about their jobs.
             

The Avatar’s eye twitches. His hand floats towards the hilt of his sword . . .

          
Moving clockwise around the castle from Lord British’s throne room, we first come to the dining room and kitchen. A woman named Boots (it’s been her nickname since she was a child) runs the kitchen and cooks for the entire castle. She turns out to be the matriarch of a family that is all in service to Lord British. Boots’s husband, Benny, is the head butler. Her son, Charles, is a servant in love with a bartender at the Blue Boar named Jeannette. Her daughter, Nell, is a chambermaid. More on Nell in a minute. Anyway, Boots tells me that her husband is going absent-minded and forgot to order a bunch of mutton from Paws; if I go there and pick it up, she’ll pay me 3 gold pieces per loin or chop or whatever mutton is divided by. Surely there’s some kid who could do this?
           
I guess being the Avatar doesn’t qualify me to eat whatever I want from the kitchen, because the first time I grabbed a piece of bread, every NPC in the area screamed bloody murder and the guards came running.
          

Great. Lord British’s own guards are open to bribery.

                 
Lord British’s hated nursery comes next. It’s run by an old woman named Nanna. While she loves her job, she complains about the class system in Britannia and the crushing level of taxes imposed by the Britannian Tax Council. (I’m not sure that we ever meet these people, which is more evidence for the idea that the NPCs we do meet are just supposed to be a representative sample. Clearly, the Tax Council exists somewhere). Nanna has recently joined the Fellowship.
         

Oh, right. Somehow Sherry the Mouse is still alive, too. I don’t believe any explanation for the ability of the mouse to talk is ever given, let alone its longevity.

           
Nanna’s charges are three toddlers, and the weird thing is that only one of them is a child of an employee. What Nanna is really running is an orphanage. Max is the son of Miranda, who serves on the Great Council. A toddler named Kristy was found in an abandoned building in Paws. (The fact that there are no abandoned buildings in Paws is a perhaps evidence for the idea that the buildings we see are just supposed to be a representative sample.) Nicholas, the youngest, was left at the castle gates one night. He can’t even really speak. Sometimes, the kids are sleeping in cradles, which you can rock by double-clicking on them.
          

If this was a modern console game, getting them to rock all at once would probably be an “achievement.”

          
It’s a point of amusement that the Avatar’s script–NAME, JOB, BYE–never wavers even when he’s talking with children, who are particularly confused about the idea of a “job.” This is particularly funny for me because ever since I read this XKCD comic, my default reaction to being presented with a friend’s new baby is, “I hope it does a good job.”
         

The Avatar’s dialogue options don’t change even when the subject is pre-verbal.

            
We learn that Nicholas’s “job” is to try not to wet his diaper. At this, he has apparently recently failed, and the Avatar has the opportunity–this is not only a “first” in CRPG history but likely an “only”–to replace it with a fresh one by double-clicking on the clean diaper and then double-clicking on Nicholas. You want to get this right because there’s also a dirty diaper in the room, and if the Avatar uses that one, Nicholas’s vocabulary develops real quick.
         

“Nurture” wins the old “Nature/Nurture” debate.

              
While we’re on the subject of diapers, Spark complains at one point about the smell of them. You wouldn’t think three children, two of them almost too old for diapers, would produce enough to really ruin a room, particularly in an age that didn’t otherwise have actual toilets. Here again is some evidence that we’re supposed to imagine more children, perhaps even more staff members, in this area.

Continuing on, we pass a servant’s bedroom on the way to the Royal Council Chamber, which has only three seats despite having at least five members. I say this because the one member present, Miranda, mentions that she’s one of three women on the Council, and the gargoyle in the chamber, Inwisloklem (doesn’t that would like it would be an Ultima V spell? IN WIS LO KLEM!), says he’s one of two gargoyles. Miranda suggests that three women is in fact a small minority. I’m not sure we ever get an actual number of people on the Great Council, but let’s assume it’s at least 12. This provides us quantifiable evidence that the real size of the world, its buildings, and its people is supposed to be about four times what we actually see.
             

Miranda will learn that such things must be possible for any free speech to be possible.

        
My friend Corey, who is black, once told me that the true test of whether a white man is free of racism and prejudice is not whether he has black friends or whether he generally gets along with black people, but how he feels when he finds out that a black man is dating his sister. (“Daughter” also works well.) The CRPG version of this, for me, was finding a couple of gargoyles occupying prominent positions in Lord British’s castle. I confess I actually had a bit of a reaction to it when I first played this game back in the 1990s. I mean, it’s one thing to not want to see them victims of genocide, but to put them on the Council? What was Lord British thinking? That sort of thing. Naturally, I was expecting it this time, but I thought it was still an amusing example of art reflecting life.
   
Anyway, Inwisloklem reports that there’s a lot of tension between Britannians and the gargoyles, starting with the relatively inhospitable island, Terfin (which one had Lord Blackthorn’s palace), that they were given to settle. He’s considering joining the Fellowship, apparently unaware of their involvement with the Britannian Purity League. A second gargoyle named Wislem is lurking around the castle, claiming to be Lord British’s advisor. He reports that Lord Draxinusom is still alive, and he suggests that I visit him to report on the death of Inamo. Draxinusom will know if he has family.
            

You would have thought 200 years was enough.

           
Miranda, who’s something of a feminist, wants to see more women in government positions and would like to ban fantasy depictions of women in revealing armor. At the time, they’re working on a bill to outlaw the pollution of Lock Lake, and Miranda wants me to take a copy to Lord Heather, Cove’s mayor, for his signature.
   
Continuing onward, we find the quarters of Lord British’s personal bodyguard, Geoffrey, who despite his title spends all of his time training in his quarters. The quarters are notably spartan; Geoffrey appears to sleep on a bare mattress. I’ve always found Geoffrey to be the least interesting and most useless of my old Ultima IV companions–enough so that I generally play a fighter in that game so I don’t even get him in the party. He has nothing important to say here.
         

For your sake, I’m going to forget you said that.

               
Chuckles stands in the entry hall to the castle at the far south. Chuckles is perhaps the worst NPC in RPG history–and yes, I’m including the Adoring Fan. The classic jester character in fantasy–think Wit from Brandon Sanderson’s The Stormlight Archive or Robin Hobb’s Fool–is funny and witty but also somewhat deep and tragic. He has wisdom when it’s called for. Chuckles has none of that. He’s just a jackass. His jokes aren’t even funny. And you know what? Lord British doesn’t even seem to like him. I’m not even sure he really works for Lord British. He’s never in the throne room. He’s always hanging around the entryway to the castle, as if he’s some Britannian version of Mister Myxlplyx, and Lord British found it easier to just ignore him than deal with him. I mean, he’s been keeping up his shtick for 200 years now. What kind of sociopath does that?
 
Here, he wants to play The Game. It takes a few attempts at dialogue to understand what The Game is. I didn’t remember it from last time, but I picked it up fairly quickly: It’s to speak only in single syllables. A few lines of inane dialogue later, and I had a CLUE to consult the fortune-teller in Minoc. I’m sure the CLUE will turn out to be something about saving the gargoyles in Ultima VI (I don’t actually remember), so I’m not going to hustle off to Minoc real soon.
          

Why couldn’t the first option have used “kill”?

        
The west side of the castle goes quickly. Nystul’s quarters are next, followed by a random servant’s quarters, Lord British’s study, and two more servants’ quarters. Nystul has gone senile from whatever is happening to magic, but he still sells spells and reagents. There isn’t otherwise much to say about these rooms except for the books. This entry is already getting so long that I’m going to offer some book commentary as a separate bonus posting.

I’ll also note here that the Avatar can sleep in any of the beds, even Lord British’s, as long as he beats the true occupants to them. Another party member asks what time he wants to be awakened, and the Avatar specifies a time between 0 and 12 hours. I have no idea where the other party members go during this period, only that they’re back when it’s time to get up, and almost certainly they’re complaining about hunger. They’re really just like my cats in that regard. As I sleep the first night in the castle, the Guardian’s voice taunts me: “Yes, my friend, rest and heal, so you are strong and able to face the perils before you. Pleasant dreams.” It’s amazing how well the voice actor is able to turn such pleasant words into menacing threats.

In the northwest part of the castle, we have Lord British’s quarters. I note first of all that his “king” bed is just two double beds pushed together. It’s surrounded by bedcurtains that can be double-clicked to open and close. I’m slightly disappointed that the mirrors don’t reflect anything. (Even in 2020, have we seen any games with realistic mirror behavior?) You can also double-click the candles on his end tables to light them. How were 50 more games not created with this engine!?!

An astute explorer has noted a ring of servants’ corridors or guards’ corridors surrounding all of the rooms to the castle. Lord British’s changing room is the only place that offers access from this side, via a partly-hidden lever in the north. In general, secret doors in Ultima VII are denoted with barely-visible square stones in the middle of the wall textures. Sometimes, you can just double-click on them to open them, but other times they require a switch or lever. Here, almost every room in the castle has them, but they require a lever on the other side. This would make me uncomfortable, frankly, if I had one of these bedrooms.
            

The arrow points to the lever. The wall to the northwest has one of the “secret door” symbols.

           
Once you have access to the outer ring of walls, you can go up a flight of stairs to the castle roof. There, you can access a pair of cannons pointed down the drawbridge, although to no real purpose. I violated my “no theft” rule only once this session by “pocketing” one of the barrels of gunpowder next to one of the cannons; they’re just too damned useful to ignore. Incidentally, you mistake regular barrels for gunpowder barrels–which light and explode in response to double-clicks–exactly once.
    
Each of the four turrets has a corner room at the top. In the northwest room, I find the gear that Lord British was talking about: A shield, a bedroll (allowing me to sleep almost anywhere), a two-handed sword, some gold, some magic boots, some food, and my old spellbook It comes with a full set of Level 0 spells–basic cantrips like “Awaken,” “Weather,” “Douse,” and “Ignite”–and a few other scattered spells from the first through the third level: “Cure,” “Light,” “Fire Blast,” and “Heal.”
          

The Avatar claims his spellbook.

        
The northeast room has some armor, but I can’t figure out how to open the secret door to get in there. The southeast room is an empty jail cell. The southwest room holds Weston, husband of Alina, who I met back at the homeless shelter in Paws. Weston confirms that he stole apples from the Royal Orchid after the overseer, Figg, quoted an absurd rate. (He also reported that Figg has been giving free apples to the Fellowship.) Weston offers no excuse for his “crime” other than the poverty inflicted by an unjust class system. Every one of his lines is mocked by a nearby guard whose entire job must be to stand outside this one cell, because he continues doing it after Weston is freed. The guard is a satire of the modern cable-news-watching, talk-radio-listening observer whose political views are entirely devoid of nuance. Right and wrong are defined by rigid adherence to the law and those in power. Any attempt to excuse or mitigate crime is saying, “Boo-hoo; it’s society’s fault.” His father was poor and yet somehow managed to get by without committing crimes, so that anecdote should apply to everyone.
          

Do you think the official term is “Paviaphobia?”

         
I return to Lord British, who expresses horror at Weston’s story, searches the records, concludes that someone had “usurped mine authority,” promises a full investigation into Figg, and orders Weston released at once. This happens so quickly that the cell is empty when I return.
           

I half-expected him to next say, “I usually execute people for that!”

        
Before we wrap up, let’s return to Nell and her family. Nell is the castle’s chambermaid. She is pregnant and engaged to Carrocio, an entertainer who runs the “Punch & Judy” show out in Britain. When questioned about her child, she says that Carrocio is probably the father. She muses: “Then again, it could be . . . no, probably not him. Or could it be? Hmmm, that would be interesting.”
               

Given your situation, I think you might waive that requirement.

           
I don’t know if it’s possible to solve this mystery without killing Lord British, but–after taking a save, of course–that’s what I did. A few times a day, Lord British stands at the doorway between his throne room and the courtyard, looking into the latter with satisfaction. If at that moment you double-click on the plaque above his throne room door, it falls off and embeds himself in his head, supposedly a joke based on an incident in which a piece of metal fell off the ORIGIN building and hit Richard Garriott in the head, sending him to the hospital. To drive the joke home, the Avatar nonsensically yells, “Yancey-Hausman will pay!” This is the name of a still-extant commercial real estate firm that owned ORIGIN’s building.
         

The Guardian is pleased with this turn of events. Note: To avoid the discussion, I have speech turned on, but if you just HEAR the Guardian, it doesn’t really help in a screenshot.

         
Lord British’s corpse–for which the graphic artists designed a gruesome imagine of the plaque stuck in his head–holds only one object: His will.
            

Being of sound mind and body, I hereby bequeath all of my belongings to . . . Nell, my beloved chambermaid. She has kept me warm so many nights, which is more than I can say for most of my bloody subjects! And to our unborn child I bequeath my crown. Long live the king. Or queen, whichever it shall be!

                
There’s so much to unpack in this letter, and a huge question is whether we’re to regard it as canonical. If it is, wow. No one would begrudge Lord British a love interest, of course, but it’s a little troubling that he keeps her and her entire family in servitude instead of recognizing her and at least elevating her to queen-consort or something. More important, he’s willing to let another man raise his unborn child, only recognizing the child if he dies, at which point he won’t be around to see the havoc that this causes for Nell and Carrocio’s marriage. Even worse, the letter shows a secret contempt for his subjects that we’ve never heard from his mouth, and he clearly expects that his government will continue as a hereditary monarchy.
        

I didn’t do anything. I was just reading a plaque.

      
You could argue that the letter is just supposed to be an Easter egg, an in-joke, accessible only by doing something that breaks the game, but that’s hard to countenance because it’s the second half of the mystery that Nell introduces in regular dialogue. Either way, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: If some ORIGIN employee is responsible for this note (and the general portrayal of Lord British in this and the next game) without consulting Richard Garriott, it was a pretty mean thing to do to one’s boss. If Richard Garriott was aware, or if it was his idea, then it’s a pretty weird thing to do to your alter-ego.
          
Oddly, no one in the castle has any reaction to Lord British’s demise, so perhaps he wasn’t all that beloved after all. Suspecting that his death makes the game unwinnable, I of course reloaded. 

            
She said loudly and clearly while looking around her nervously.
            
But we can’t go without finding out how Lord British reacts to being changed with a dirty diaper. I gave it a try while he was sitting down to dinner. The answer is: he screamed, fled to the corner, and then turned around and killed everyone in the entire room with fireballs.
       
A diaper brings out the king’s true nature.
          
I’m definitely saving one of those for Batlin.

Wow. Over 4,000 words on the castle alone. This is a very content-rich game. Shall I continue with this level of detail, or is it getting to be too much?
    
Time so far: 7 hours
      
Edit: I woke up in the middle of the night realizing that someone would ask what happens when you attempt to put a clean diaper on Lord British. I was mildly terrified by the possibilities but I knew I had to try it. Thankfully, he (and any adult) just says, “Those are for babies.” Nothing else happens. Whew.


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