Six Damn Fine Degrees #23: The Guardian

Okay, to get this out of the way first: no, this entry in our weekly Six Damn Fine Degrees feature is not about the centre-left British newspaper famous for its idiosyncratic spelling abilities. Instead, it is about the main antagonist of several instalments of the classic series of computer role-playing games Ultima, a transdimensional being of immense power bent on conquest, a villain to match the likes of Marvel’s Thanos, DC’s Darkseid or the First Evil from Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Or, as some fans of the Ultima series like to call him, the big red muppet.

This was the face that emerged from my screen when I started to play Ultima VII.

Okay, I can see where the comparison comes from. The Guardian does look a bit like a red felt version of Willem Dafoe with glowy eyes, Steve Buscemi teeth and no ears. But damn, if I wasn’t entirely on board with him when I first encountered him as a wee gamer geek of 17 years. I’d been a fan of the Ultima games since Ultima V: Warriors of Destiny on the C64, I’d loved Ultima VI: The False Prophet, and I was probably more excited for the seventh instalment of the series than I’d ever been for another computer game. Ultima VII: The Black Gate certainly knew how to keep the excitement up: it came in a stylish box that, other than the game’s title and a small logo of Origin Systems, the company that published the Ultima games, was just black. It was like the Monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey and Spinal Tap’s alternative Smell the Glove cover. (“It’s like, how much more black could this be? And the answer is none. None more black.”)

Of course, back then launching a game wasn’t as easy as it is these days. You installed them from multiple disks – extra-floppy 5 1/4″ ones, if you were especially unlucky -, you had to have some basic knowledge of MS-DOS, and with some games you had to edit the AUTOEXEC.BAT and CONFIG.SYS files manually to load all the necessary drivers and squeeze every last byte of RAM out of your PC. Arguably, getting Ultima VII to run in the first place may have been the hardest puzzle the game threw at its players (as Eric wrote last week) – but once I did get it to launch, in glorious VGA with its 320×200 pixels and 256 colours and with a sound card capable of producing something that could be called music while keeping a straight face, I knew I was in for an adventure.

So, the screen goes black. The words “Lord British Presents” appear. Another fade to black – and then: a green meadow, a couple of trees, and, much more colourfully than the box had led me to expect, “Ultima VII”. Birds whistle, a flute begins playing a bucolic theme and a butterfly flutters onto the screen. And then – static. Ominous tones. Flashes of blue. And then the face emerges from the screen.

Now, almost thirty years later, it’s easy enough for me to see that there’s something rather silly to the whole thing. Big Red looks like a bargain bin demon who could’ve done with better dental care. His evil laugh at the end of his introductory monologue is straight out of pantomime. But I still get goosebumps when the Guardian, voiced by Bill Johnson (Leatherface from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2), opens his mouth and addresses me directly: “Avatar – know that Britannia has entered into a new age of enlightenment!” (Yes, the game was created by a guy called Lord British, the fantasy world it’s set in is called Britannia, and your character is called the Avatar. You needed a fairly high cringe threshold in the ’80s and ’90s to be a geek.)

The Ultima games came with cloth maps of their worlds, giving the games a wonderful tactility.

What was most fascinating to me at the time was this weird meta thing that the game was doing: you’re not watching your main character on the screen, getting taunted by the game’s main antagonist. The game was addressing you directly – and when the Guardian had finished his speech and vanished into the blue static again, the virtual camera pulls back to show that Ultima VII‘s intro was playing on a computer screen inside the game, and you saw your character hit that screen a few times for good measure. “Something is obviously amiss,” the helpful caption says. Tell me about it, Ultima, I hadn’t noticed. Watching a staticky computer screen on my own computer screen hadn’t given it away already, nor had the menacing red face that had just told me he’d be my companion, provider and master, before laughing evilly and disappearing into the blue.

Throughout Ultima VII, the game developed a much more intimate relationship between the player and the Guardian than I was used to at the time. After the intro sequence, we never see him again in person until the very end, but he is nonetheless a constant presence, commenting on the player’s actions. When you steal food off some peasant’s table, he pipes up: “You had best not do that, Avatar!” When you’re lost in the wilderness, he asks: “Do you really know where you’re going, Avatar?”, while at other times he insists, “You are travelling in the wrong direction, my friend!”, or he warns you, “Do not go in! It is a trap!” Sometimes what the Guardian says is absolutely true, while at other times you are certain he is misleading you – but you never know which it is. The Guardian is the constant voice in your head making you second-guess yourself. While I’ve encountered a fair few memorable villains in computer games, I don’t think any of them have had quite the effect on me that the Guardian had.

This is what the Guardian looked like once Ultima IX came around.

Sadly, after the wonderful intro this red-faced villain got in Ultima VII, things went downhill fast. By the time Ultima IX: Ascension, the last of the single-player ultima games, came around in 1999, the Guardian was a silly-looking anticlimax of an antagonist, and while the last game in the series was the first to put us in a fully 3D world, Big Red somehow managed to look even more like a muppet, though one rejected by Jim Henson. In fact, the whole Ultima series had lost its appeal. The motto of its publisher, Origin, was “We create worlds” – but the worlds they were creating at this point were no longer worlds I wanted to explore.

I still miss games that have the same kind of effect on me as Ultima VII. I still enjoy gaming, but it’s very rare that I encounter a game that pulls me in to the same extent. Perhaps it’s also that I’m no longer an impressionable teen – after all, I’m now old enough to be the father of the 17-year-old sitting at his PC, his eyes wide open as a red-faced, yellow-eyed being crackling with power and malevolence pushed through from what seemed to be another world and started talking. Perhaps I was lucky to explore those worlds when I was at the right age to take them in at face value. Perhaps, if present-day me was to look at the Guardian for the first time, all I’d see would be a big red muppet.

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