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I was big into BBS (bulletin board systems) and the “warez” scenes back in the late 80′s. The internet before the World Wide Web, basically. Call it piracy if you want- that’s what it was, and we were dumb kids looking for free games, swapping downloads on message boards, running phone bills up, and swapping and copying our floppy disks.
Now, I played all kinds of games, but my favorites were RPGs, especially Wizardry and Ultima. This was about ’89- about a year after Ultima V came out. During one of our floppy trading parties, my friend Jeff- who went by the handle LordCamaro- took me aside and pulled out a pile of seven 5.25 floppy disks, all marked with “ABYSS” in black marker (which wasn’t an uncommon way to label your warez back in the day).
He said he got it from a BBS he called up in Texas. Ultima developer Origin Systems was based in Texas, so we figured it might be the real deal. “It’s called Abyss, but I think it might be the prototype of Ultima VI.” He went on to explain that I could use my same character from Ultima IV and V, but warned me that it was a very strange take on the Ultima formula. That didn’t surprise me- Ultima IVand V had completely different twists on the previous Ultima games, so something new could be expected. I took the disks home and booted them up in my C64.
As opposed to the adventurous theme that Ultima V started with, Ultima: Abyss had a quiet and mournful theme. I began the game and imported my player from Ultima V. There was a counterpoint in the theme in a sinister minor key.
The game began with the Avatar being ushered through a Moongate and onto a ship bound for Britannia. While he was accompanied by old friends like Iolo and Dupre, the companions’ portraits all looked aged and thin. Jaana seemed the thinnest and most drawn of all of them, and she explained that Lord British had fallen ill with a mysterious disease and seemed to be descending into madness.
She began to explain more about his delusions, but the ship struck a whirlpool. I had to watch helplessly as my companions sank into water. The screen faded to black and my character washed up near the shores of Britannia.
I guided my character into the castle, where the citizens were unwilling to talk, regardless of my mastery of the Virtues. They all seemed to believe Lord British was dying, but were unwilling to say it for fear that it might happen. I decided to press the matter and seek an audience with the monarch anyway. Lord British failed to recognize the Avatar, saying “Whisk this boastful fool from my sight. I know him not.” and only able to repeat that phrase. After speaking to his guards again, he ordered my character sent to the dungeons. There was little to do in the dungeon- my only options were to rest and talk to the jester.
Every time I rested, the status read “One Year Later”. I must have rested forty times. By the fifteenth or so time, the jester had been replaced with a skeleton. I clicked through my inventory and stats, too- my stats decreased and the robust young Avatar faded to a scraggly husk of an old man.
I was beginning to grow frustrated when a guard appeared at the door of the cell and brought my character to Lord British, who said that he would release the Avatar from prison- if he hunted down the “traitors” that had once been his companions. He gave no instructions on where to find them, but that was quite typical of RPGs of the time.
The first I ran into was Shamino, who had recently resurfaced in Buccaneer’s Den. I didn’t even bother talking to him- I merely attacked. All other characters in the town panicked and cleared out. There was no battle. I simply attacked him and the status field gave a disturbingly detailed account of the Avatar mutilating his former friend.
I proceeded to find and slay the rest of the companions in short order- it seemed almost as wherever I went, they were programmed to appear. When all were thought to be dead, the guard appeared again and escorted me back to the dungeon, saying he was waiting for a pardon from Lord British.
The jail guard appeared once more. “Lord British has passed. He hath not an heir, but a final request for the Avatar.” Lord British’s last command was to descend once again into the Stygian Abyss and cast the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom- the magic tome that could always provide a just answer- into lava in the deepest pits of the Abyss. The guard seemed possessed- he pushed my character to a waiting ship bound for the Abyss, but uttered “I hope you fail” as his bon voyage. And the strangeness continued- my old Avatar, in rags and armed only with rusted weapons, descended into the Abyss.
Rather than be hampered by the series’ traditional enemies, they aided the Avatar’s quest. Balors were only too happy to push stalactites over to bridge gaps. The game proceeded easily. Reaching the pit at the bottom of the abyss was insultingly easy. I dragged the Codex out of my inventory and then the game froze, glitched. It returned to normal after the disk drive stuttered. A ragged Dupre followed close behind and questioned the Avatar.
He asked how one who had mastered Virtue could be so easily commanded by a man whose mind had been so corrupted. The game then pitted the Avatar against Dupre. Dupre emerged victorious against my frail and atrophied Avatar. He took the Codex and as punishment for the Avatars crimes and his wish for the people of Britannia to not know what a monster I’d become, walled the Avatar into a cell that was identical in size to the one in Britannia’s castle. The game again gave the options to rest and talk again, even though there seemed to be no one to talk to. Talking revealed the dialogue from nowhere in particular, “Thy fate…is to starve here, die forgotten and alone.”
By this point I’d had enough of what must have been an elaborate prank. I turned the C64 off and tried to leave my bedroom. The door was stuck. I jiggled the lock like there was no tomorrow, bashed the door with my shoulder. It didn’t so much as shudder, much less open. I sat on my bed and the dot matrix printer began to roll out line after line: DIE FORGOTTEN AND ALONE, interspersed with the words “monster” and “traitor” in lowercase. Paper rolled off the printer in reams, and when it reached the last scrap, the final words printed were “IS YOUR FREEDOM WORTH THE PRICE PAID?”
I turned my Commodore back on and went about the business of reformatting all the disks. The process was slow- the room seemed cold as I went to work. The first game popped out of the drive. The label was stripped from the disk. I later found it in the drive, but it was the only time that ever happened to one of my disks, before or since. I finished reformatting the disks.
I felt as if they had been exorcised, like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders. I never mentioned Abyss again to my BBS buddies, and my interest in the scene fell by the wayside when I went to college in the mid 90′s. ( It’s also worth noting that Ultima VI did not resemble Abyss in any way, leading me to think it was an early mod).
This was, I thought, the end of the affair. A while later, I saw the nickname LordCamaro on a forum. I sent him a DM and lo and behold it was my old BBS friend, Jeff. We started talking again, reminiscing about “the good old days”. One day we were talking about Ultima in Skype and I brought up Abyss. Jeff was silent for a while, and then said “I knew we’d end up talking about this.”
There had apparently been more to the game. Unlike me, Jeff’s Avatar had been strong enough to kill Dupre. The Avatar dropped the Codex into the lava. The guard from earlier returned, facing the Avatar. The screen faded to black, and the screen said, "
YOU ARE FREE OF YOUR RESPONSIBILITIES. OF YOUR MORALS. AND YOUR FRIENDS. REVEL IN THY FREEDOM, AVATAR."
He said the game then cut to the Avatar wandering the overworld. He could visit all of the towns in the game, but few people would speak to him, and those that would expressed fear at his return.
He explored the world and found Britannia’s castle to be empty. The throne room was empty except for a decaying corpse in the seat, and when he examined it further, the skeleton crumbled to dust, revealing a hollow in the base of the throne. Inside was a cloak with holes ringed with blood, a dagger crusted with blood, and a cracked skull, with a piece of parchment rolled in an eye socket. He removed the parchment. It read simply “I am not myself lately. LORD BRITISH”
After he found the parchment, his disks erased themselves, even the ones that weren’t in his drive at the time (so he told me). He also said he tried to call up to the BBS he downloaded it from, but found it was disconnected. We wrote Abyss off as a very strange early attempt at a total conversion mod. It hasn’t been mentioned much since, and neither of us has ever seen any reference to it outside our own experiences.
Sometimes I even think it was a joke he played on me, but if he went to that much trouble- why only me? We were acquaintances, but he knew a lot of other people, too. He said he’d traded it around to other people, but hadn’t heard from them. The genesis of Abyss is a total mystery. There isn't really any documentation of it online. If anyone has heard anything about it, I'd love to solve that mystery..