The Black Gate Bonus: The Books of Britannia

From The CRPG Addict


One of many in-game books that make in-jokes and build lore.

        

I’d have to look through my notes to see what game first offered full-text books–not as plot devices but just as random background flavor and world-building. It might have been Ultima VI. But even if they appeared in earlier games, Ultima VII is the first game to treat them this extensively, with at least a couple of dozen different titles found on desks, nightstands, and bookcases throughout the homes and workplaces of the Britannian people. The castle alone had more than 15 different books.
    
Ultima VII admittedly doesn’t do as well with its books as many later titles. Many of them are goofy, or simply analogues of real-world titles, and not the world-building tomes that we find in, say, The Elder Scrolls series, the Infinity Engine games, or The Witcher series. Still, they’re fun and deserve some additional attention and analysis.
I thought I’d use this entry to organize that analysis, adding new books as I find them. I’m excluding some “plot” books that don’t have much text (like Morfin’s register of venom sales). I’ll add notes to future entries when this one has been updated. The books I’ve found so far are:
 
The Apothecary’s Desk Reference by Fetoau. A book that accurately describes which potions have which effects. Very useful.

The Art of the Field Dressing by Creston, with a forward by Lady Leigh. It has some advice about cutting cloth into strips to bandage wounds, something that actually works in the game. While Lady Leigh is later found in the game, I don’t believe Creston is.

The Bioparaphysics of the Healing Arts by Lady Leigh. The bible for in-game healers. I believe Lady Leigh will be found later in Serpent’s Hold.

The Book of the Fellowship by Batlin of Britain. The first page of the game manual–the one time it makes sense for a real-life book to appear in the game.

Chicken Raising by Daheness Gon. A relatively useless instruction manual for raising chickens and producing eggs. The anatomical advice seems accurate, but I’m not sure how it helps in-game. Found on the shelf of a farmhouse, which makes sense.

Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang by Ian Fleming. The real-life 1964 book by the author better known for creating James Bond. Lead Ultima VII writer Raymond Benson later went on to become the official James Bond writer from 1997-2002.
           

With a couple of syllabic substitutions, this could easily have been a James Bond title.

         
Collected Plays by Raymundo. An anthology of plays by the guy who runs the theater in Britain. Play titles include Three on a Codpiece, The Trials of the Avatar, The Plagiarist, Clue, and Thumbs Down. “Raymundo” is the in-game avatar of lead writer Raymond Benson, and at least three of these plays are real plays written by Benson. Clue is a 1977 musical based on the board game–a full 8 years before the Tim Curry film. The Plagiarist and Thumbs Down are more obscure; I’m not sure when or if they were ever staged, but they were published as short stories by Amazon Shorts in 2006. Three on a Codpiece is described in-game as a performance art piece in which audience members “tear an undergarment into tiny pieces, after which they are placed in funeral urns and mixed with wheat paste . . . then the audience may glue the pieces anywhere on [the actor’s] body that they wish.” One Ultima site suggests this might be a reference to Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece (1965).

A Complete Guide to Britannian Minerals, Precious, and Semi-Precious Stones by B. Ledbetter. The book discusses some of Britannia’s natural resources, including veins of gold and lead. It is notable for a paragraph on blackrock, a “recently discovered” substance with little practical use, rumored to have a “profound effect” on magic. This will of course become a major part of the game’s plot. I don’t believe Ledbetter appears in-game. I thought it would be funny if it was the guy who runs the jewelry shop in Britain, but his name is Sean.
The Day It Didn’t Work by R. Allen G. A collection of essays about “overseeing a group of well-meaning misfits in a mechanical environment.” An obvious joke about Richard Allen Garriott and the staff at ORIGIN.
              
Everything an Avatar Should Know about Sex. This book is blank after the title page. Ho-ho-ho. Or maybe it’s not a joke and it’s foreshadowing the upcoming unicorn encounter.
           
The Honorable Hound inn register. The guest list for this Trinsic inn has four recent names: Walter of Britain, Jaffe of Yew, Jaana, and Atans of Serpent’s Hold. Jaana is of course the Avatar’s companion going back to Ultima IV. I don’t believe the others are ever seen or heard from in the series.
How to Conquer the World in Three Easy Steps by Maximillian the Amazingly Mean. The ravings of a “megalomaniac cleric.” He plans to acquire VAS CORP (“Mass Kill”), which he thinks will make everyone fear him, and that not even Lord British himself is immune. I’m pretty sure that Lord British survives a VAS CORP (which is a real spell). Lord British doesn’t even die from VAS CORP IN BET MANI (“Armageddon”). Also, there are no “clerics” in this setting. As an aside, I wonder if employees of Vascorp Network Solutions know that to a portion of the public, their name means “Mass Death.”
Hubert’s Hair-Raising Adventure by Bill Peet. A real 1969 children’s book by a real author. It tells in rhyme how the proud lion Hubert had his mane scorched in a series of escalating misadventures. We learned about its presence in Britannia in Ultima VI, where Lord British spent every night reading it to Sherry the Mouse. I don’t know which idea is worse: that the adolescent Lord British was carrying the book while hiking through the English countryside, or that he later went back for it.
             

It’s good that Lord British has priorities.

           

Jesse’s Book of Performance Art by Jesse. A “controversial and eccentric Britannian actor” who has published a book of “scripts” for performance artists and argues that performance art is basically the same thing as acting. Jesse is an NPC in Britain who jokes about playing the Avatar and having only three lines: NAME, JOB, and BYE.

Key to the Black Gate. A cluebook to the game, found within the game (but without any of the actual text). Probably meant as a subtle in-game advertisement. Can you imagine needing a cluebook to solve this game?
            

A crummy commercial?!

            
Lord British: The Biography of Britannia’s Longtime Ruler by K. Bannos. The biography frankly acknowledges that Lord British is from another world. I wasn’t sure that was public knowledge until now. He entered Britannia through a moongate and became one of the rulers of the eight kingdoms of Sosaria. The people proclaimed them the king after he successfully dealt with Mondain, Minax, and Exodus. The book recounts his role in Ultima IV and Ultima V but ends just as the gargoyles become a threat in Ultima VI. Unfortunately, the text also re-affirms the idea that the Avatar is the same hero as the one who defeated Mondain, Minax, and Exodus–the dumbest retcon ORIGIN ever introduced.,
          

Part of Lord British’s bio. A party of Fuzzies defeated Exodus and nobody can convince me otherwise.

             

Mempto Rays: A Qualitative Study in Metaparaphilosophical Radiation by Mempto. Some rantings about Britannia always being bombarded by radiation “lethal to all non-living matter.” Probably meant as a send-up of pseudo-science in the modern world.
No One Leaves by R. Allen G. This sequel to The Day It Didn’t Work is a humorously-phrased paragraph about missed deadlines and forced overtime.
No Way to Jump by Desmonth. A treatise on tropes found in adventure stories. This is probably another in-joke about game development. After all, Ultima VII, for all its realism, does not allow the Avatar to jump. The issue continues into the present day and is found on TV Tropes as “The Insurmountable Waist-Height Fence.” Note that Ultima VIII does feature jumping and jumping puzzles.

On Acting by Laurence Olivier. Philosophical notes on acting “written by a noted thespian of a distant land.” The text notes that it was apparently “one of the many brought to Britannia by Lord British.” Why was the kid hiking with half a library on his back? Anyway, Sir Laurence did in fact publish a book of this title in 1986.

Play Directing: Analysis, Communication, and Style by Francis Hodge. A “respected textbook” written by “an eminent professor emeritus from a university in a distant land.” It is in fact a real-world book, published in 1971 by a professor at the University of Texas at Austin. Probably someone that Raymond Benson or someone on the staff at ORIGIN (which was based in Austin) knew. Hodge passed away in 2008.

The Salty Dog inn register. This inn and tavern in Paws lists seven recent visitors: Addom of Yew, The Avatar, Jalal of Britain, Tim of Yew, Blorn of Vesper, Sir Dupre, and Penelope of Cove. Addom is a traveling merchant who later shows up in Moonglow and plays a role in that city’s plot. To my knowledge, Jalal and Penelope never appear in the game, although I think Jalal appears in another register. Tim of Yew is also an unknown (there was a bard named Tim in Ultima V but he’d be long-dead). Blorn is an anti-Gargish racist who we later find in Vesper. The idea that Dupre recently visited a tavern is entirely within his character. The most disturbing entry is that someone is wandering around passing himself off as “The Avatar.”

Thou Art What Thee Eats by Fordras. A nutritional analysis that pre-dates the Atkins crazy by suggesting meats and vegetables ahead of carbohydrates. The author recommends certain foods in order, and I think it roughly corresponds with how filling those foods are in-game. 

The Transitive Vampire by Karen Elizabeth Gordon. This is a real book by a real author, originally published in 1984. As best I can tell, it’s a real book about English grammar and syntax, but all the examples are vampire-themed and there are vampire illustrations. If there’s something deeper going on, someone’s going to have to tell me. I suppose if it actually gets people to read a book on grammar, there are no bad ideas.
            

Go figure.

          

Tren I, II, III, IV . . . XVII. An autobiography by “the obtuse mage” which “reveals Tren’s life in all of his incarnations as he continually strove to possess more powerful beings.” As far as I know, we never meet a mage called Tren, nor do we ever see an application of magic that involves possession of beings. 
Up Is Out by Goodefellow. A treatise on gravity and mass, including “falling apples.” It’s a clear analogue to Isaac Newton, but I otherwise don’t know if the title and author are a reference to anything. If Goodefellow is an actual Britannian trying to research physics, his life is going to be rough.
Vargaz’s Stories of Legend. This anonymous book is subtitled Reasons Why One Should Never Build Doors Facing North or West. The book has two stories, one about a plague of locusts foretold by Father Antos (Ultima II and IV) which destroyed houses with north-facing doors. The other tale suggests that monsters fleeing sunlight are more likely to flee east and thus invade houses with west-facing doors.

The Wayfarer’s Inn register. This tavern in Britain lists five recent guests: John-Paul of Serpent’s Hold, Horffe of Serpent’s Hold, Featherbank of Moonglow, Tarvis of Buccaneer’s Den, and Shamino. I later found Shamino shacking up with an actress, so he probably only had to stay for one night. I don’t believe Tarvis or Featherbank appear in the game, but John-Paul is in fact the ruler of Serpent’s Hold and Horffe is his Gargish captain of the guard.

What a Fool Believes by P. Nolan. The book only has a brief paragraph, describing it as “the story of a bard, a blonde, and a bottle . . . a classic tale of the war between the sexes.” There’s a song of this name, of course, recorded by the Doobie Brothers and Aretha Franklin among others, but it doesn’t mention a blonde or a bottle and has no association with anyone named “Nolan” (although, in a weird twist, the R&B artist Nolan Porter did cover the song, but not until 2011). 
The Wizard of Oz by Frank L. Baum. The real book from the real world, except that in the real world, the author is L. Frank Baum. It is given a quick summary in-game. I assume it’s in Lord British’s castle because I stole it for him as part of an Ultima VI side-quest.
        


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