Let me begin with some clarity: I’m not saying a life spent paying more attention to video games than philosophy, literature, or other human beings is the path to enlightenment. I’m certainly not saying that the best way to understand how to interact with other human beings is to remove oneself from their company to play video games.
I AM saying all of that worked for ME, however.
And it can work for you, too!*
*No guarantees implied, results may vary, consult a physician before attempting an antisocial gaming enlightenment program
Over the coming months, I’ll be visiting some of the greatest achievements in single player gaming—not in terms of what sold best, not even necessarily in terms of what’s the most universally beloved—but rather those times when lone-wolf gaming brought more than adrenaline, more than an escape. We’re going to focus on moments when single player games offered to teach us something…about LIFE!
And YES, a lot of this will be tongue in cheek, but stick with me and I’ll bet ya we lick some wisdom while we’re at it.
So let us forge ahead as nature intended: by ourselves, controller clutched in our hands, with no one but our NPCompanions™ to keep us company. Let us appreciate those moments when we can skip all that pesky real-life learning and grow the way Mario intended: by eating mushrooms! by playing video games!
Our first stop: 1993!
THE GAME! Ultima VII Part 2: The Serpent Isle, by Origin Systems.
The slightly younger sibling to legendary RPG powerhouse Ultima VII: The Black Gate, The Serpent Isle is not quite as ballyhooed as its predecessor, though it remains a high water mark for role playing games. (It’s ballyhoo-adjacent. Ballyhoo-esque, if you will.) It is, like the rest of the Ultima line, a fantasy game set in a heavily Dungeons & Dragons/Tolkien-inspired world of magic, monarchs, and monsters. This particular entry continues the trend The Black Gate began in using an entirely mouse-based interface, dialogue trees with unique character portraits, and a slightly closer-to-the-action top-down camera angle. It was fully and often beautifully scored, with a bit of voice-support in key moments as well.
We play as the Avatar, the Earth-born, (canonically) virtuous champion of the alternate-dimension land of Britannia. Our previous adventure left us stranded in our far more fantastical home-away-from-home, and so we find ourselves chasing clues—and some dangerous foes—to the mysterious Serpent Isle. Long believed sunk beneath the ocean, it is a land scarred by an ancient civil war, the repercussions of which are beginning to tear apart the very fabric of reality. We must stop the baddies, restore balance to the world, and hopefully get our tails back to Earth before Married: With Children starts.
WHY IT’S GREAT:
For a ride-or-die single-player sort, Ultima VII, Part 2 was heaven. Yes, like its predecessor, it ran on the irritably crash-prone “Voodoo Memory Manager” DOS-extender system. Granted, many of its high fantasy tropes aged imperfectly, and alright, alright, Origin’s takeover by Electronic Arts by this time had led to many plot points being cut short and some areas left sealed away, but still! Even accepting those issues, the game was highly immersive, shot through with intrigue, betrayal, and the option to cremate fallen guards for cash!*
*Warning: the murder-for-urns program is NOT to be used for clever and indiscriminate murder of nameless NPCs. No matter how profitable or un-punishable such an endeavor may be.
In the early 90s, no game series could boast a more storied world to enter as the Avatar, and no hero showed up on the scene with so much heroism under his or her belt either. Decades before Spider-Man took the PS4 by storm, heck, even before Boxy Superman blundered his way through a diabolical series of hoop…things on the N64, the Avatar was stepping through shimmering Moongates to rescue a grateful populace from catastrophe after catastrophe. The Avatar’s companions look up to him or her, nobles and peasants stand in nervous awe—the entire experience smacks of medieval superhero realness. And every game begins with a nod to the fact that it’s the player—literally us, sitting at home—who crosses dimensions to inhabit the enchanted armor of the famous Avatar.
Add to all this a spellbook brimming with magical options (Engulf foes in a whirling cloud of blades! Vibrate valuables right off their person! Summon a rat! Or don’t!), a panoply of different and powerful weapons, huge selections of armor and gear, and signs and maps written in runic just begging for a bit of engrossing translation and one can find oneself gorget-deep in a world one won’t wish to leave.
THE EPIC SCENE! Midway through The Serpent Isle, we finally corner one of our most powerful enemies—the unscrupulous mage Batlin—in an ancient, ruined temple devoted to the principles of Order. The showdown occurs in a ritual site called the Wall of Lights, a kind of magical portal to some corner of the Great Void that may or may not be suffused with incredible magical power. We battle our way to the inner sanctum just as Batlin prepares to throw the veil wide open, cross into said void, and…something-something god-like powers and maniacal laughter. As it happens, Batlin fatally misunderstands how the ritual works, which promptly leads to a disastrous magical backfire. Three immortal Chaos spirits emerge who generously ventilate Batlin’s considerable torso and possess our allies, and then promptly head off to cause as much havoc as they can. We soon find out they massacre 90% of the NPCs in the game world. Yyyyyeah.
90% of all the folks. Dead.
THE LIFE LESSON!
Now, entire columns could be written on the philosophical underpinnings of any Ultima game (don’t you tempt me!). There are Britannian virtues, gargoyle societal principles, Pagan polytheistic tenets aplenty, city-state legal and ethical dogma…it’s A LOT. But in Serpent Isle, the most prominent belief systems belong to a long-dead society. And that society’s whole long-dead status is directly due to abandoning their dearest-held belief. It is that very betrayal (and its lethal outcome) that taught a young me a valuable lesson: partisans aren’t just dangerous; they’re LOSERS. On a cosmic level.
Without going waaaaay overboard on backstory, suffice it to say that, once upon a time, a civilization grew up around the critical value of Balance. On either side of this ideal were the seemingly opposing pillars of Order and Chaos. Many in this era gravitated either to the tenets of Order: namely, Ethicality, Logic, and Discipline. Folks leaning this way were sorta-kinda the Klingons of Serpent Isle. Many others were naturally drawn to Chaos and its precepts of Tolerance, Emotion, and Enthusiasm. New Age stuff. Just replace Enya with lute solos and you get the idea. Helpfully, the Chaos folks stuck to a red theme whilst Order went with blue. Shrines, books, entire lives were dedicated to each side, but the most revered, the respected leaders of the pack, were those few who stood for Balance in all these areas. Under Balance’s guidance, objectively terrific virtues emerged: Rationality (logic softened by emotion), Dedication (discipline focused by enthusiasm), and Harmony (ethicality tempered by tolerance). And everyone worshipped snakes for some reason. But hey, no one’s perfect.
Anyway, you’ll never guess who went down in flames first as the two polar sides grew more and more polarized, insular, and resentful.
Ayup. Balance’s leaders were murdered, and Order and Chaos went at it with self-righteous gusto. The followers of Chaos were exterminated, and Order’s adherents presided over a crumbling world ideally suited for die-hard fans of ash. Long story short (ish), the world we explore during Ultima VII Part 2 repeatedly and rather unsubtly highlights the same point over and over again: rejecting cooperation means war means devastation means winners reign over a world gone to garbage. In fact, the Avatar finds the Serpent Isle riven by magical lightning storms, strange sicknesses, and buggy gameplay. Er. I mean new societies poised to repeat this same pattern of cataclysmic stupidity. The further in the story we go, the stronger the point is made: it’s not just THIS land that’s about to come apart at the seams—the literal imbalance is spreading to other lands. Without a return to balance, ALL worlds will be swept up in war, environmental disaster, and murderous, snake-headed d-bags.
None of the game’s content poses any sort of direct messaging about real-life societies falling to pieces while opposing sides grow ever more isolated, extreme, and hostile to cooperation while the world around them begins to tear itself to pieces, of course. Hahaha. Hm. Bottom line, Ultima VII, Part 2: The Serpent Isle taught me to distrust both sides of a hateful discussion, to view the rejection of cooperation and compromise as a real evil, and to understand that even the most well-meaning viewpoint can mutate into hateful and spiteful if it foolishly blocks out any outside ideas or criticism. Yeah, I know: schools teach this all the time. But do schools let me unleash a caged demon from a gem to blow up a crazed wizard while teaching me that lesson? No, ma’am. At least not in public school. Budgets are tight. So yes! Come to the Serpent Isle for the ice dragons and giant turtle rides (you read that right), stay for the blood-streaked, fire-blasted civics lesson.
So! While our world’s lightning storms are good only for knocking out power and scaring livestock, while today’s Red and Blue teams act like petty tribes of snake-worshippers, find yourself a copy of the game on an online retail site (Gog.com is where I obtained mine since my old 3.5” floppies are a bit out of date), head to the Exult homepage, and get your Goblin-butt-kicking, society-saving, parable-understanding self to the Serpent Isle!