I had no idea what to expect from the book Braving Britannia: Tales of Life, Love, and Adventure by Wes Locher. I’ve never played Ultima Online, or any Ultima game if I’m being honest. I do, however, love hearing about why massively multiplayer online role playing games are so important to the those that play them, and a people’s history of the grandfather of all MMORPGs sounded like it would provide that. I wasn’t disappointed.

Sidequest was provided with a copy of Braving Britannia in exchange for a fair and honest review.

Braving Britannia: Tales of Life, Love, and Adventure in Ultima Online

Wes Locher
July 2018

 

In the first chapter, Locher promises the history of Ultima Online. Luckily, Locher seems to understand that history is more than just any one story, but a collection of them. He doesn’t stick to the plot that Ultima Online’s writers wove together over its 21 years, or the lineage of companies that have overseen the game’s development, or even the experiences of any one player. He makes a history out of all those things, and much, much more.

Locher lays out the basics Ultima Online very well, even for people (like me) who have never played the game. To be fair, I have a foundational experience with other MMORPGs, many of which took inspiration from Ultima Online’s pioneering in the genre. Still, I’m fairly certain anyone with a basic knowledge of games would be able to pick up Braving Britannia fairly easily.

Even for the MMORPG experts out there, something specific to Ultima Online inevitably shows up. It’s use of free shards in place of servers. The partial resurrections that leave ghostly players seeking the aid of healers. The relatively fresh schism between PvP and PvE regions, Felucca and Trammel respectively.

What’s interesting is Locher often leaves off providing a definition of these distinctions immediately—which is something I really enjoyed in his writing. Instead he provides context clues until a break in the story provides an opportunity to make himself clear. It creates a compelling sense of enigma around “shards,” or the ins and outs of Ultima Online’s death mechanics—an enigma that made me feel connected with new players of the game.

Time after time, I found myself enraptured by the stories being told. The combination of interviews, facts, and personal anecdotes painted a complex picture of Ultima Online’s social sphere. For the most part, it seemed that Locher let players speak for themselves, but when their stories alone weren’t enough to convey the full context of a moment, he almost always stepped in with everything I needed to know and then some.

Braving Britannia stresses that the history of Ultima Online doesn’t just exist in-game. It’s also in the fansites, shared between coworkers on a lunch break, and at in-person meetups. Locher takes those players who “live” in Britannia seriously, often stressing the time, effort, and money they invest in Ultima Online, purely for the love of it. I came away feeling that that love was what made Ultima Online’s history more than just a story about a game.

Braving Britannia highlights the diversity of experience in Ultima Online. Locher interviewed volunteer storytellers, hardcore tavern roleplayers, murderous assassins, and even a mother who dedicated her time to founding a Carmelite monastery in game. There’s no wrong way to play Ultima, and Braving Britannia celebrates that fact.

In keeping with that ethos, it also didn’t shy away from more… unofficial play styles. Reading an interview with the man who created one of the game’s original gold farming scripts, or about the ins and outs of the unofficial free-shard server community, were some of the most interesting parts of the book. It would be a glaring hole to leave out those who play in unintended ways from the history of Ultima Online.

That being said, Braving Britannia isn’t without holes. For example, Locher barely touched on the labor dispute between Ultima Online volunteer workers and the (at the time) owners of the game, Electronic Arts and Origin. The volunteers filed a class action lawsuit, seeking compensation for their time after Ultima Online stopped providing them with in-game perks for the position.

Locher’s coverage, though limited by the few digital records of the event, only ever brought the lawsuit up in relation to how it negatively affected other players. Considering the complicated ethics behind a company like Electronic Arts using volunteer labor for its game’s moderation (albeit, in a much earlier, and much more experimental game), I would have loved to read interviews from the point of view of volunteers that had felt exploited enough to file a lawsuit.

As a whole, Braving Britannia made me jealous that I never played Ultima Online. It reminded me of the best parts of MMORPGs that I’ve played in the past—of the vast possibility they seemed to have when I was younger. Of course, I do suspect rose-colored glasses are at play, both for me and those written about in this book. I think that’s okay though: some things should be remembered for their best. Especially when that best is a diversity of experience that challenged everything people thought a game was.

Braving Britannia does nothing else if not highlight that diversity.

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article misspelled author Wes Locher’s name. The piece has been updated with the proper spelling.

A genderless eldritch beast bound to mortal flesh. Interests include games, gardening, magical realism, and the complete restructuring of America’s political and economic systems. Once designed their own Full Metal Alchemist style transmutation circle for the weeb cred.

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