Review: G. Kevin Wilson’s Once and Future

2016-01-08 · by Brian Rushton
tagged Opinion / Reviews

King Arthur, from the Flores Historiarum

Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

In 1993, the golden age of commercial interactive fiction was mostly over, although a few notable games—such as Eric the Unreadywere still being published. TADS (Text Adventure Development System) was still pretty new, and a man named Graham Nelson had just written a game called Curses! to show off a new programming language (Inform).

This was also the year that G. Kevin Wilson began work on a new game called Avalon. Kevin is better known today as the founder of the annual Interactive Fiction Competition (IFComp). Avalon was to be a huge game based on the legends of King Arthur. He announced that it would be released that same year.

For the next five years, Kevin continued to release periodic announcements about the game, describing the plot, the puzzles, the NPCs (non-player characters), and generating immense interest. Adam Thornton joked that it was “the most-eagerly awaited IF event of the millennium,” while Magnus Olsson said that it was “one of the most eagerly awaited games ever.”*

Finally in 1998 Avalon was released to the public. The scope and depth of the game attracted Cascade Mountain Publishing. However, by 1998 the name “Avalon” had been copyrighted, so the name was changed to “Once and Future.” Despite the name change, its release attracted immense attention, including, for the first time in the magazine’s history, an entire issue of the Society for the Promotion of Adventure Games (SPAG) Magazine devoted to one game.

However it could not have picked a worse year to come out. That same year saw the release of Spider and Web, one of the highest-regarded puzzle games of all time; Anchorhead, one of the most popular long-form games of all time; and Photopia, the game which many regard as IF’s turning point from primarily puzzle-based games to story-based games—three games that ranked in the top four of all time in IF author surveys in both 2011 and 2015. Faced with such stiff (and free) competition and an audience whose tastes had changed since its inception, Once and Future faded away and is now rarely mentioned.

Once and Future

So what is the game all about? Once and Future follows an American soldier in the Vietnam War who is transported to another realm. There, he is given a mission by King Arthur that takes him on a wide-ranging journey through different worlds and through time itself, culminating in a chance to stop one of America’s great disasters. The setting includes mid-20th century America, the isle of Avalon, the fairy world, various dream worlds, and a host of well-textured smaller areas: a mole’s home, a witch’s house, and the moon.

The writing is both earnest and polished. It ranges from Chaucer-like quotes and prophetic poetry to folksy colloquialisms. Many reviewers in SPAG noted that the quality of the writing varied a lot, probably due to the game’s 5-year creation period and the growth in the author’s ability. Here’s a sample of the writing:

You walk placidly through the light forest, and gaze upon a hundred flowers that you would swear are not pictured in any book. Their sweet scent fills the air, making you remember a vacation you once took in Tennessee, when you went to visit your fiancee’s parents. It’s a shame things never worked out between the two of you. Vivian was such a nice girl. Once or twice you think that you see a sudden flash of movement out of the corner of your eye, but as you turn to look, you see nothing. There is a lake to the north.

One of the strongest points of the game is its NPCs. Once and Future has 40 total NPCs, with around 600 total topics to ask about. There are human, animal, fairy, demon, and other bizarre NPCs; some are fairly static, while several of them will accompany the player, comment on where they are, and even talk to each other. Merlin and Galahad particularly have some fun conversations. With this many NPCs, there is obviously some variety in how well they are done; some, like Mordred, feel a bit stiff and unconvincing, while others, like the Straw Man, are evocative and beautiful. Straw Man remains among my favorite NPCs of all time. The NPCs and conversation system are light years ahead of the story’s competitors, including Anchorhead and Losing Your Gripthe other popular long-form games of that year.

The puzzles are also well-thought out—as expected for a commercial game. They include a wide variety: conversation-based puzzles, giving instructions to NPCs, testing out complex machines, alchemy, action and combat sequences, lateral-thinking puzzles, and some simpler quests. Once and Future is infamous for its Mountain King Puzzle. Using objects composed of twenty-five different materials (things like gold, ruby, etc.) and twenty-five different rooms built of these same materials, the player must place each object where it belongs. The twist is that the player cannot touch the objects but must use a device that moves the objects from room to room. The technique required by the object-moving device is quite difficult to master. As the puzzle progresses, the player encounters rooms that are dark or even completely inaccessible, and objects that are hidden and only revealed through the solving of additional unique puzzles. As the walkthrough (unattributed) states, “Welcome to one of the hardest puzzles in the history of IF.” There are a few other ‘manipulate the device’ problems, like a field of lights where turning on one light turns off all adjacent lights. On the other hand, some of the puzzles feel like filler; the PC openly complains about having to do yet another scavenger hunt.

It’s a surprise to me that Once and Future is not played much now; as of this writing, the game has only five ratings and no reviews at all on the Interactive Fiction Database (IFDB). Part of the reason for its low engagement may be the fact that it is written in TADS; the lack of a ‘PLAY ONLINE’ button on IFDB restricts the number of possible players. Another is that former commercial games outside of the Golden Era tend not to do as well as they should; Klockwerk: The Shadow in the Cathedral is another example.

As a coherent whole, Once and Future succeeds. It flows better than many commercial games I’ve seen and is pretty enjoyable overall. It is more friendly to beginners than many games of the ’90s but, as I’ve said, it contains some of the hardest puzzles of all time. I would recommend using a walkthrough on these parts if you’re not a puzzle aficionado, as it doesn’t really take away from the rest of the game.

Ultimately, I think there is something in Once and Future for everyone.

*SPAG Issue # 16, November 28, 1998 – “Once and Future” Special

Brian Rushton is a mathematician with an avid interest in interactive fiction. He currently lives in Utah with his wife and son, and enjoys stories in every form. He is also a frequent contributor to the math articles on Wikipedia under the name brirush.

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