Game master Richard Garriott takes his role-playing seriously in ‘Man on a Mission
By Jana J. Monji 01/19/2012
Many in Pasadena know Richard Garriott, and still others might know him by his alter-ego, Lord British. For these people, Mike Woolf’s documentary “Man on a Mission: Richard Garriott’s Road to the Stars,” opening Friday at the Pasadena Playhouse 7, is a tribute to a geek hero who made millions by pioneering the world of computer gaming and became the world’s sixth commercial astronaut.
Back when Apple Computers was using 5 ¼-inch floppy disks and upper-case letters flashed on a black screen, Garriott was making fantasy games. With a little help from his artist mother, who taught him perspective, he developed games, notably Ultima, and became the godfather of multiplayer online role-playing games.
As computers became more commonplace and the graphics improved, Garriott made a fortune. Adopting a snake as his emblem and dressing up as an aristocrat, he made being a geek cool — particularly compared to Steve Wozniak, Bill Gates and even the newest geek geniuses like Mark Zuckerberg.
He lived his Lord British persona by building a mansion he dubbed Britannia Manor outside of Austin, Texas, that was complete with hidden doors and secret passages, coffins and other artifacts. By playing the part, he also foresaw the rise of Cosplay (costume play).
What Garriott didn’t have was perfect vision. His myopia eliminated any chance for him to follow his scientist-astronaut father, Owen K. Garriott, into NASA’s astronaut program. Owen was on the 1973 Skylab and the 1983 Space Shuttle Columbia missions. Undiscouraged, Garriott underwent laser eye surgery in Canada and used his money to invest in commercial space ventures.
What kid doesn’t want to grow up and get rich by doing something they love, like making and playing games? And with the profits he could do anything and go anywhere he wanted — even into outer space.
Of course, the movie shows that current space tourists must not only have the money — they must also pass physical and emotional tests and even learn a little Russian. That’s because Russia, not NASA, was open to the money and the commercial passengers when Garriott went into space in 2008.
Garriott gets some airtime with Stephen Colbert and, as we see in the end, now does speaking engagements about his journey.
Woolf’s movie begins with the question: Why explore space? In Pasadena, with JPL, NASA and Caltech well established in the city’s culture, that question probably isn’t as important as those the documentary doesn’t ask.
For example: With government money tight, is commercial enterprise in space the future? If so, who will regulate it? Who will be responsible for emergencies and disasters? Will scientists compete for business dollars and during missions start doing fundraising projects like taking DNA or ashes into space?
While the documentary paints a rosy picture, all is not so good with Lord British himself. Wags are wondering if it’s his recent summer wedding or financial woes that forced him to put up his Britannia Manor II for sale in October. Then there’s the uncompleted Britannia Manor III and the failure of his role-playing game, Tabula Rasa.
“Richard Garriott: Man on a Mission” might be better thought of as Richard Garriott being a man on a mission to sell you his dream. Are you ready to invest?