I remember spending the entirety of 1992's Christmas eve staring at a black box labeled 'Ultima VII : The Black Gate'
Upon unwrapping this gift, I found myself completely ignoring the other party guests, entranced by this mysterious artifact. I opened up the box to find a cloth map featuring annotations in a mysterious runic language, an 'instruction booklet' that was written by one of the game's main characters, as well as a small triangular medallion, engraved with what I would come to know as the symbol of The Fellowship.
A week later, after installation and configuration nightmares, which Origin games were notorious for back in the day, I finally managed to boot up the game properly.
A peaceful pastoral scene appeared before my eyes as a butterfly quietly fluttered across the game title when...
Static filled the screen. Had the game frozen? Was this yet another installation-related issue?
After a few seconds, the static coalesced into a mysterious sea of color-shifting patterns.
From this hypnotizing surface emerged a red-skinned, angular face.
The creature opened its yellow eyes, its gaze locking with my own as it began to speak in a booming voice which commanded attention.
'Avatar...', it began.
The tone of the entity's voice was both reassuring and menacing at the same time.
It called itself The Guardian.
Ultima 7's intro, in all its 256 colors VGA glory
A new religion takes over
This land was called Britannia and my character was known as the Avatar, champion of the Virtues. Upon arrival, I was tasked with the investigation of a pair of grisly murders, which led me to travel the land, gathering clues to discover the identity of the murderer or murderers and eventually bringing them to justice.
The Virtues were the basis of a belief system which had been the main religion Britannia since its creation: By adhering to these Virtues and meditating at their dedicated shrines, the Avatar ultimately gained access to the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom and became the enlightened embodiment of these Virtues, a selfless example for all to follow.
That was over 200 years ago however, and the Virtues as well as their respective shrines were outright abandoned by the majority of the populace in favor of a new order, calling itself the Fellowship.
If one listened to the land's inhabitants, the Fellowship appeared as a benevolent organization, helping communities flourish and individuals overcome their limitations. Even the Gargoyles, a bloodthirsty and violent enemy race in previous games, were now civilized and had embraced the Fellowship's philosophy to guide their lives.
The basic tenets of the fellowship's Triad of Inner Strength are as follows : Strive for Unity, Worthiness precedes Reward and Trust thy brother. These simple rules have immediately appreciable positive effects on the lives of its followers.
When these spiritual guidelines become law is when the true nature of the Fellowship rears its ugly head.
The Guardian's hand
As the investigation progressed, it became clear that Batlin, the Fellowship's leader, had been a puppet for the Guardian all along. Upon closer scrutiny, the Fellowship's tenets and values had more in common with mind control than with spiritual enlightenment, allowing the Guardian and the Fellowship's highest-ranking members to prepare an invasion without raising suspicion.
The Guardian's plan was simple : To have its followers build a Gate made out of Blackrock (The titular Black Gate) so that the god-like entity could step through from his own dimension and invade the land. The takeover would occur without major bloodshed as most of the population had already been converted to the Fellowship's ways and would welcome their new master without question.
The Guardian had commanded Batlin to create this Fellowship, building a docile army for his eventual conquest of Britannia. Through the use of magical generators, the weak-minded were brainwashed, the magic users rendered insane, thus unable to retaliate or perform magic and the Moongates, dimensional portals which allowed for fast travel across the land, became unstable, sometimes even lethal to its users.
With clear, positive results in the lives of the converted, all individuals clinging to the 'old' virtues would be eventually cast out and ridiculed.
If successful, it ultimately made the Avatar, hero of the ancient ways, obsolete.
The Price of Freedom is Eternal Vigilance
To me, this is the most devious villain in gaming history, one that turns ordinary people into unquestioning followers, all while making them believe that this disguised servitude is making their lives better. Such evil goes beyond simple invasion, as it effectively destroys the very fabric of society.
Progress can never be stopped and the status quo in any civilization is invariably destined to be questioned and ultimately overthrown; however, one must always remain vigilant when these events transpire as hidden motives often guide the winds of change.
This game forced me to question many things and taught me to never take anything at face value. It brought perspective to how religion, spirituality and to a certain extent, consumer culture mess with our minds and our hearts. Anything that is worth something requires effort and sacrifice to obtain, there is no such thing as a free meal.
Most games would probably feature the Guardian as a final boss, loaded with thousands of hit points and devastating party-crushing attacks; in Ultima, it is a villain that is never fought directly. This is what makes the Guardian so memorable to me; knowing that I cannot simply 'level up' and strike it down, knowing that it is constantly watching across dimensions, manipulating everything and forcing me to choose what I want to believe.
I fear and respect the Guardian as the lessons I have learned while thwarting his schemes will follow me through my entire life; The Black Gate is one of the games that has had a profound impact on my evolution as a human being, forcing myself to challenge my views on good and evil, violence and racism.
Doubt is your most powerful weapon.
Think for yourself!