‘Ultima’ Fandom Is Still Going Strong

Over the past five years, Kenneth Kully has recorded more than 100 episodes of Spam Spam Spam Humbug, a podcast devoted to the Ultima series of computer role-playing games. That might seem like a lot of time to spend discussing a series that released its last major installment in 1999, but Ultima has always forged an unusually strong connection with its players.

“The whole premise of the Ultima games was that, literally, you’re sitting on your couch one day and you—you, personally—wander through a moongate in your backyard and end up in Britannia,” Kully says in Episode 426 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “And I think that’s a sense we don’t get in too many other games, at least that I’ve encountered.”

Kully is a member of the Ultima Dragons, one of the internet’s longest-running fan clubs. The group is still quite active, hosting a live meetup event in 2017 to celebrate its 25th Anniversary. “Mark Zuckerberg was probably still in the single-digit ages when the Dragons were founded,” Kully says. “This was before social media was a gleam in anybody’s eye. But they evolved very rapidly into this huge community.”

Ultima encourages its players to practice the Eight Virtues, which may help explain why the club has proven to be so cohesive. “If things are getting a little bit testy, if people are starting to get a little bit nasty to each other, it’s nice to be able to point back to the games and urge compassion, and urge honesty, and all of the rest of that,” Kully says.

In 2013 Kully served as a consultant on Ultima Forever, a promising but short-lived attempt to reboot the series. He was disappointed when the game shut down, but is hopeful fans haven’t seen the last of Ultima.

“There’s a lot of love for Ultima among a lot of game developers,” he says. “Especially in the RPG space, it is the great grandfather. It is at the top of the family tree for so much of what we have in the RPG space now—open world, moral quandaries. Ultima has its fingers on all of that.”

Listen to the complete interview with Kenneth Kully in Episode 426 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.

Kenneth Kully on Narnia vs. Britannia:

“I read [J.R.R.] Tolkien at a fairly young age. By the end of grade 6, I was well into The Lord of the Rings. So I was heavily immersed in Tolkien, but I don’t think I had a copy of anything by C.S. Lewis, until I bought it for myself as an adult. So I never had Narnia, I had Britannia. And that is a comparison that I think—now that I’ve actually read the Chronicles of Narnia—has really only been strengthened over time. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Chronicles of Narnia, I love the tale Lewis crafts in those books. But Britannia was my Narnia. It was that world at the back of the wardrobe, that magical place that I could access by this very particular means, and just exist in for a while.”

Kenneth Kully on religion:

“One of the ideas behind the virtues in Ultima was that it was meant to be a religion for the land, but a religion without God. It was meant to have that secularism built in. But it kind of had the opposite effect in terms of how I approached it and interpreted it, because I do consider myself a person of faith—I’m Catholic, I go to church, all that stuff—and Ultima was one of the few games, before Dragon Age, that actually had sacred places in it. They weren’t churches, they were the shrines. But that was a novel thing. I could play Quest for Glory or just about any other series, and they had everything else that I would expect to find in a village or town, but there were not any of those sacred spaces. But Ultima had them, and it was nice to see that component of a society present, in its own way, in Britannia.”

Kenneth Kully on Roe Adams III:

“In terms of him being the one to suggest the model of Truth, Love, and Courage as that foundation, that’s pretty huge. The association with The Wizard of Oz was well enough known, and I’m pretty sure that if I went and really dug around in the Wayback Machine, I could probably find—with enough time—where Roe Adams may have been the one to suggest that. … Being the person to suggest basing the Eight Virtues off of these Three Principles of Truth, Love, and Courage, that’s foundational, because Richard Garriott took that inspiration and ran with it. There are people even today, when the conversation turns more philosophical on the Ultima Dragons Facebook group, who will readily admit that they don’t really have any other personal credo in life—any other governing philosophy—apart from the Eight Virtues.”

Kenneth Kully on Ultima VI:

“It’s such a beautiful upending of a narrative trope. You start the game off, and you’re convinced that these horrible red-skinned monsters are taking over and invading Britannia, and it’s your job to defeat every last one of them and liberate the continent. And if you take the entire game with that attitude, you will lose. It pulls the rug out from under you, and out from under that viewpoint. It tees it up so well, and then it just yanks the floor out from underneath you. And by the end of the game, you realize that the monsters are invading the fantasy kingdom because they have a very legitimate grievance against the fantasy kingdom that needs to be made right.”

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