Wizardry IV: Endings

Heavy spoilers for the endgame here.

When I saw Hawkwind of Skara Brae in this game for the first time, I wondered about him. I had previously seen the name Hawkwind and the town of Skara Brae in the Ultima series, and possibly also knew Skara Brae as the setting of The Bard’s Tale. There had to be a connection, but it was harder to get information about such things in the days before the Web. About all I could learn was that Skara Brae was the name of an archeological site in Scotland.

Things are easier now. The common factor is Roe R. Adams III, who worked on all the games in question. Hawkwind is his gaming persona, and thus his appearance here is a self-insert, and a self-insert of the most comically aggrandizing sort. Hawkwind is completely unaffected by all attacks, physical or magical, and in battle he just ignores you: instead of attacking, he performs such actions as brewing a cup of tea, reading the newspaper, and taking a nap. His only weakness is the weakest monster in the game, which makes for a substantial and satisfying puzzle, because there are several other encounters between Hawkwind and the nearest pentagram, making it difficult to keep the fellow alive.

Hawkwind is far from the only bit of inside-jokery here in the final chapter. A party called “The Softalk All-Stars” is obviously a shout-out. There’s a whole slew of encounters with various Orders and sundry nobility, all of whom are individually named not just in combat, but in the text that appears before, just to make sure you see everyone’s names even if you don’t fight them. According to sources online, all these are the personae of Adams’ friends from the Society for Creative Anachronism.

These various Orders and Barons and so forth provide one route to victory: by means of a bunch of optional tasks in the dungeon — including, but not limited to, that witch’s brew puzzle I’ve mentioned before — you can gain the favor of the groups, one by one. They’re not loyal to Trebor at all, it turns out, and will gladly make you king if you can give them all what they want, a touch that comes off as satirical. (Heck, the password to enter the castle is “Trebor Sux”.) One group will support you in return for a million gold pieces, which was a bit of a shock — you get gold from each encounter, but it’s mostly useless, and the few places where you can spend it ask for such paltry amounts that I hadn’t been keeping track of it at all, but it turned out that my entire ascent of the dungeon yielded less than half what the Captains were asking. Fortunately, there’s a fixed encounter in the Training Grounds that yields gold way out of proportion to its difficulty, presumably included just for this puzzle. But for the most part, this route is the least fighty and most puzzly way to end the game, and doesn’t involve challenging Hawkwind or the All-Stars at all.

It’s also in some ways the least satisfying: becoming king means abandoning your quest for the Amulet. Is it really absolute power if you can’t do the one thing you’ve had your heart set on from the very beginning? No, let us not be satisfied with being a mere king when godhood is within our grasp.

Of the four remaining endings, three are just minor variations on each other: the Amulet is in the hands of a statue of the god Kadorto, who you confront with a set of essential key items and one of the three swords from the altar atop the ziggurat. The choice of sword determines what happens, and the endings contradict each other about the nature of Kadorto and of the Amulet in ways I’d find troubling if the game weren’t doing so much to keep us from taking it seriously at this point. But all these endings, including the one where you ingratiate yourself with the nobles and become king, end with the same words: “Have you forgotten something?” It’s a clear ploy to make even the most satisfying ending unsatisfying, to let you know that you should really be going for the fifth ending, the Grandmaster ending.

The Grandmaster ending is another variant on the three sword endings, but using a secret fourth weapon, the Kris of Truth, that you get from a secret eleventh dungeon level underneath the spot where you start the game. The ending begs the player to not reveal the details, and I took that seriously for a time, but the statute of limitations has definitely run out for this one. Level 11 is a network of small rooms joined by hallways, with one bending path leading through all the rooms, at one point crossing a deadly void that can only be traversed with the right equipment. In each room, a person asks a riddle. For example, in the first room, you get:

You are in a yellow room. Before you stands a being dressed from head to toe in deepest yellow…

“I am Discrimination at my best, and Avarice at my worst. I symbolize the part of the body upon which all the rest stands. What part am I?

To which you answer “feet” and are allowed to move on. Every riddle is like that: some colors, some seemingly-disconnected attributes, and finally the bit that, weirdly, lets you actually guess a body part. This continues until the final riddle, which is just really beautiful:

The answer to the Greatest Question is also the simplest. Upon what paths have you trod? Where are you?

In other words, where all other riddles in the entire series are embedded in the environment, this one is about the environment. Answering it requires paying attention to not just the contents of the rooms, but the map, and how it’s connected. It’s a bit squashed to fit into a 20×20 grid, but once you’re looking for it, it’s clear: the rooms and pathways form the Tree of Life, the Kabbalistic diagram beloved of 20th-century occultists in the Hermetic tradition. The diagram originates from Jewish Kabbalah, but my understanding is that it plays an extremely minor role there, whereas Aleister Crowley and his ilk were fairly obsessed with it, drawing all sorts of things into correspondence with its nodes and pathways, including the various colors and body parts seen in the riddles here.

Wizardry IV was released in 1987, in the midst of the Satanic Panic. One of the more ridiculous claims of the anti-Satanists of this period was that the magic systems in RPGs such as D&D are based on real occult rituals. Here in level 11 of Wizardry IV, that’s closer to true than it’s ever been. Not the magic system per se, but the content, at least, is drawing from the writings of real occultists, and it’s doing it to add power to an experience, to a moment of realization, by associating it with ancient wisdom and divine revelation. But honestly, I think the moment would be pretty powerful even without the cod-hermetic stuff, just by being a question that provokes a realization about what’s all around you.

In the Grandmaster ending, the newly-enlightened Werdna, on obtaining the Amulet, sees it for what it really is: an object whose sole purpose is generating conflict. And so he discards it, having moved beyond its allure. Slightly ironic, then, that reaching this ending the first time provided me with a keepsake I’ve kept ever since: the ending provides a code that, once upon a time, you could use to send off for a special certificate of completion. I’ve seriously thought about getting this thing framed and hanging it on the wall like a diploma, even if I am somewhat less in awe of the game than I was back then, and more willing to call my inability to solve some of the puzzles a fault in the puzzles rather than a fault in myself.

But then, if I’ve relied on hints more than I’d like this time through, it was to some extent simply because my relationship to games has changed. One of Wizardry IV‘s main repeated tricks, starting way down at level 9 and continuing to the castle roof, is simply expecting the player to diligently check every single instance of a pattern to find the one exception. And that was a much more realistic thing to expect of me when I had fewer games, and needed to eke out as much play from each one as I could. I can’t really recommend the experience today, but it was amazing thirty years ago.

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