Entire novels I have written on LOTRO’s virtue system, which I like in theory but have grown to dislike in execution (TLDR version: it’s way too grindy). But what I haven’t really commented on is the fact that the 20 or so virtues don’t really represent anything about your character’s personality or development apart form mild stat boosts. You weren’t really “honest” to get that Honest virtue, you weren’t so much demonstrating Valour to complete that deed as you were just endlessly slaughtering worms, and so on. The names are there for flavor, but it strikes me as a missed opportunity.
I recently got into reading all the back posts of the CRPG Addict, a blogger who’s going through all of the single-player computer RPGs from the start of the genre until now. Good stuff, and if I ever think of myself as a glutton for punishment, I’ll look to his approach and sigh in relief. But the reason I bring him up is that I’m at the point in his blog where he starts talking about Ultima IV and the virtue system that Richard Gariott set up.
I never played any of the Ultimas — they just never popped on my radar and none of my friends played them — but looking back, I sure wish I had. I’m utterly fascinated with an RPG that isn’t just about gaining numerical power to defeat the Big Bad, but is about improving your character across the board until he or she is a paragon of virtue to be held up for the world to emulate. In other words, it’s about real character development through tough choices.
I see hints and whispers of that with recent MMOs like Guild Wars 2 and SWTOR, where “choice” is being reintroduced alongside who your character is and how they’re developing as a person. But it really isn’t quite there yet, and I think that devs are afraid to push too far into this territory because of how much players min/max and work the numbers game. Real choice has real consequences, not just resets of the status quo, and real development means a chance for real setbacks, failures, and non-optimal quirks. Maybe that is out there in some MUD or something, but it’s not in any MMO that I know of.
This all made me think of the missed opportunity that EA had with Ultima X. On the verge of launching, the company canceled the title (its second UO sequel and arguably the Ultima that UO should’ve been) right as World of Warcraft came on the scene. And out of all of the cancelled-before-release MMOs ever made, this is so shameful because of the potential what-might-have-been.
I wrote a whole article on this, but Ultima X not only looked terrific (it had a lush stylized look reminiscent of WoW) but was focused on the concept of virtues, choices, and consequences. In the tradition of the Ultima series, players would be given options at many points that would have no clear right/wrong outcome attached, but would rather increase one of the eight virtues over another. Who your character would become was shaped by his or her choices.
So yeah, it’s a falutin’ shame that Ultima X never came out, because I would love to play that game even today. Hopefully this sort of forward-retro thinking will be picked up by developers a little more gusty than BioWare (but with the same intention) in the future.