After telling that story myself through the first few Ultimas, that was another one of those things where I said, "Look, we've got to do better than this, and I believe we can do better than this, and I believe doing something more meaningful, something with more depth, would make a truly better game and therefore a game that more people would appreciate and like."
TE: You mentioned that generic storyline. In the introduction to our last issue on this theme we mentioned "The Hero With 1,000 Faces," the basic story that all these games and all this literature follows, do you subscribe to that or do you feel a different way?
RG: Yep. I am a big believer in what I'll call the Joseph Campbell version of "The Hero's Journey." My simplification and retelling of it goes something like this: Your main character is usually someone who finds himself facing the ultimate challenge that they're ill-equipped to even begin to face because of their lack of personal preparedness. Even though ostensibly the story is about accomplishing the great goal of solving the world's problems, the real and important story is about the main character, where that main character actually has to grow and rise above their own personal demons, personal challenges or personal failings to become the person that is worthy and capable of solving the Great Problem. And so the Great Problem is really secondary in a way. That is what I think most games missed out on.
Yeah sure, they start you out at level one, where you're physically wimpy and you pillage and plunder and kill and maim in order to become physically powerful, but I think that misses the point. The point is not whether you have strong enough muscles or big enough guns to win, the issue should be: What have you learned? What wisdom have you gained from the beginning through to the end that really means you're now the appropriate person to solve the problem? Why are you worthy, not why are you tough enough? And most gaming is about how you become tough enough, not how you become worthy.
TE: When you set out to create this new universe for Tabula Rasa, what was your larger goal in that world?
RG: What's interesting about Ultima is that when I first started down this path, the state of the art of gaming was relatively simple, and so the sophistication of these systems was relatively minimal. If you look at the intellectual property that you might consider the bedrock of the Ultima series now, that bedrock evolved over 10 or 15 years, starting really with Ultima IV, but all the way through Ultima IX, those systems become more and more sophisticated, more and more consistent, more and more in depth over time.
One of the real tricks with Tabula Rasa [was] that we were really ready to start a whole new world over from scratch. It wasn't going to be Tolkein-esque; we were going to avoid medieval fantasy, because we've done it for 20 years. It might be sci-fi, but it was not going to be Star Wars-ian or any other obvious touchstone you can pick up. We're going to invent our own reality from scratch. But as games have become more sophisticated now, we basically had to accomplish 10 or 20 years of Ultima all in one cycle. It's one of the things that have taken us such a long road to really get things done right, especially here with Tabula Rasa. We really wanted to create a living, breathing, complete reality from scratch, to the depth of the later Ultimas, but all in one fell swoop.
TE: You've described, in speaking about the evolution of Tabula Rasa, what you call "ethical parables." How do these expand the play possibilities over typical MMOGs? Are they essentially missions that give people a chance to examine both sides of a problem?