Courtesy of former Origin programmer Bill Randolph, and thanks to the tireless efforts of Joe Garrity of the Origin Muesum, the Ultima Codex is pleased to present the following document — which has been broken out into twenty six (26) images — which gives a summary of Ed del Castillo’s revisions to the plot of Ultima 9.
Download the document:
For those not entirely familiar with the development history of Ultima 9, Ed del Castillo was hired by Origin Systems – he had previously worked on the Command & Conquer series — as the Ascension’s producer after development on it was restarted in late 1997 (after development on Ultima Online had begun to wrap up). His revision of the plot departed from the “Bob White Plot” in many key respects, and actually is a bit closer to the version that ultiamtely shipped.
At least according to the Wikipedia entry on Ultima 9, it was del Castillo that wanted to fully exploit the possibilities of the new 3D engine that Origin were working with; the third-person perspective of the game can evidently be traced back to his time at the helm.
And you can see this in the plot summary. Take, for example, the sequence in which the player would have controlled Raven as she rescued the Avatar from the dungeon Wrong. Raven — who, really, was an archetypical rogue-class character — would have used missile weapons and gymnastic feats to traverse Wrong, collect the Glyph from the Column, and rescue the Avatar. And yes, the Raven/Avatar romance was a plot point, although in this document it is much more subtle than in the final game.
Wrong appears on page twelve, halfway through the document. But the summary itself is interesting from the very first page. Someone had the idea to turn the game’s installer into, essentially, a small mini-game which told the story of Hawkwind crafting the spell necessary to move the Avatar back to Britannia.
Much of the plot, as it is described in the summary, flows in a way that will be familiar to anyone who has played Ultima 9. Stonegate is still the starting point and the tutorial, although instead of being teleported directly to Lord British’s castle, the player would have had to fight his way through a small dungeon and into the Sewers of Britain.
Britain itself would have been afflicted by a famine, since a needed shipment of food from Moonglow (for which they in turn had traded a shipment of Serpentwyne) had failed to arrive. This would have served to help forment a civil war, which would be brewing in the land as the player went about the first half of the game. (This plot element, of course, was from the Bob White Plot, with two of the three Tribunal members fanning the flames of conflict.) The companion Julia was supposed to appear in Britain as well, and the player was supposed to be able to establish a friendship with her.
The main quest for the first part of the game would still have revolved around disabling the Columns, with dungeon Despise and the Column against Compassion being the first target. The plan to have a Wyrmguard-corrupted Companion guarding the column was not present; the player would instead have found Julia in the dungeon’s depths, dying as a sacrificial victim in an orcish ritual. It is she who gives the Avatar the secret to disabling the Columns, the ritual necessary to extract the Glyphs from within them.
(It’s also interesting to note that in this version of the plot, Despise was the site of a battle between orcs and trolls; the player would have to pick a side before progressing to find Julia.)
Despise would, of course, have been followed by the meeting with Raven and the journey to Asylum. The player would have had the oppportunity to visit the Hall of Virtue (which became the Royal Museum in the final version of the game), in which he would have found Shamino in stasis. At this point, the player would have had the opportunity to complete the Bell, Book and Candle quest to free him.
Things get a little different at — and after — Asylum. Samhayne doesn’t bribe the Avatar with the Codex — he doesn’t have it; the player reads it later with the Red and Blue Lenses. And instead of New Magincia, Samhayne sends the Avatar to Valoria to talk to Corrigan (who, alone amongst the Tribunal’s members, isn’t pushing for war). The Valoria quest is much different, involving trolls rather than demons. Likewise, the Ambrosia & Hythloth quests are vastly different, with Ambrosia being the site at which the missing ships from Britain and Moonglow are found. (The player would have controlled Shamino for this segment of the plot, interestingly.)
Ambrosia would have been one of the few choke points in the plot, one of the few sequential elements; the notes for it make clear that it would have to be completed before the civil war could be avoided, at the gathering of armies near the Shrine of Justice. Also, take note of the fact that there are no gargoyles present in the Ambrosia sequence! This suggests that the decision to make Ambrosia the home of the gargoyles, as well as the decision to introduce the controversial gargoyle queen, came after Ed del Castillo left the project…and after Richard Garriott returned to helm the project.
In another departure from the final plot, the Well of Souls was — in the del Castillo plot — situated in Deceit, which was the dungeon the player progressed to after visiting Trinsic. Clearing this area would have lead almost directly to the confrontation at the Shrine of Justice, at which point the Avatar would have forged peace between the factions and exposed Blackthorn as the interloper who had been pushing both leading Tribunal members toward war. At this point, the Guardian would reveal more about his plan, and the plot’s focus would shift toward defeating Big Red once and for all.
To defeat the Guardian, the player would have to find ways to best his land forces (the gargoyles, fully subverted to the Guardian’s will), his navy (a dark, ghostly fleet), and his “air force” (the Wyrmguard, on dragons). The exiled king of the gargoyles, Vasagralem — hiding in Empath Abbey — would provide the key to defeating the gargoyles. At the bottom of Destard, the queen of the dragons would agree to help against the Wyrmguard. The Avatar has the opportunity to destroy the Mirror of Darkness in Castle Britannia, breaking the Guardian’s hold over Lord British’s mind (and yes, the various “sendings” would have happened in this plot). Lord British would even have had to summon a demon to open the gateway to the Isle of the Avatar, forcing the good kind to rethink his stance on lesser evils and the greater good.
This being the del Castillo plot, the player would have had the opportunity to play as Lord British for the Abyss segment of the plot, as well as controlling him in the final battle against Blackthorn. The player would next have been sent to Terfin, riding atop the dragon queen in a scenic, storied flyover of all Britannia. The final confrontation with the Guardian would have been a bit different than in the final game, although it still involved trapping him inside the Barrier of Life. Armageddon is not cast, however; the Avatar and Guardian are destroyed by a different means.
The last page of the document discusses some interesting trinkets and ideas that Origin was considering for release with — or alongside — the game. None of these ever materialized, unfortunately.
Bandit LOAF of the Wing Commander CIC commented, on seeing this document, that the date on it is only 22 months from the release of the final game, and it’s not hard to see how — with only a few rewrites and changes — Origin moved from this plot to the plot that ultimately shipped.
LOAF also remarked thusly:
EA’s broad problem in the mid-to-late 1990s that ends up shuttering Origin was their reactionary company wide edicts that didn’t allow any consideration for individual. Wing Commander is a hit? You’re the Interactive Movie company! What, all your non-Wing Commander interactive movies are burning money? Must be your fault. UO is a hit? You’re the MMO company! And so on.
…EA had invested in the ‘3Dfx’ horse in the 3D accelerator race and decided that Origin, as their studio known for top of the line releases in terms of technology, would be their 3Dfx studio. So every team had to build their game around the card in some way — to the point that Wing Commander Prophecy actually looks worse than it should if you don’t own one. 3D accelerators were fine for Wing Commander, for the Crusader sequel (which would have been 3D), for Privateer 3 and for all the Jane’s stuff…but for an Ultima game? Sticking the accelerator logo on the box was just going to scare off the hardcore Ultima player base they’d been building since the Apple ][ days…and EA never understood that. To them, every project has to do this. To what degree the need to include 3dfx in Ultima 9 drove the Tomb Raider-y perspective is a question I’d like to see answered…but I’m sure what you’re seeing here is a sort of frazzled team spitballing how to deal with that requirement from on high.
To be fair, and likely in response to the daunting new technology that the 3D engine was, the idea of having a customizable (and female!) Avatar had disappeared, as had the party system, at the point in Ultima 9’s development that this document was written. To me, it seems clear that the developers wanted to take full advantage of the 3D engine, and the character & game mechanics that it allowed for. (Gymnastics and swimming played much more prominent roles in some elements of the plot, for example.) I’m less sure that they were just spitballing for ways to satisfy demands from above; Origin were always innovators, and it seems more in keeping with their style to think that they wanted to find ways to do all sorts of jaw-dropping stuff with the engine.
Anyhow, the usual disclaimers follow.
The images here, in JPEG format, are lower-resolution extracts from PDF scans of the original document. They are legible, but not of particularly high quality, and thus are not recommended for printing; download the PDF file for that purpose.
Most importantly, though: enjoy! Pull up the images, download the PDF, and pore over them. Search out every little detail, and enjoy a fascinating glimpse into the nuts and bolts of how the plot of the final single-player Ultima title evolved. The Ultima Codex is indebted to Joe Garrity for providing these documents, to Bill Randolph for releasing them and making them available for us to see, to Ben “Bandit LOAF” Lesnick for his invaluable insights, and to Ed del Castillo and everyone who worked at Origin Systems.