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Swords and Sledgehammers
Review by: Paul O'Brian
Game: Once and Future
By: G. Kevin Wilson

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Note: This review contains minor spoilers.

If we wanted to make a short list of the people who had a major impact on the course of 1990's interactive fiction, who would we include? Graham Nelson, Mike Roberts, and Kent Tessman would have to be in, for creating the major development systems (and, in Nelson's case, a couple of major games) of the decade. Adam Cadre and Andrew Plotkin would make the list, for contributing some of the most important games of that period and, in Plotkin's case, for crucial technical innovations as well. We can't forget Volker Blasius, Dave Baggett, and David Kinder for founding and maintaining the IF Archive. And there's one more name we couldn't leave off: Gerry Kevin "Whizzard" Wilson.

Kevin contributed lots of things, all of which have their roots in his boundless, unstoppable enthusiasm for IF. He founded SPAG, the IF review webzine that I now edit. He organized and ran the first IF competition, and shepherded it through its first few years, as it became one of the most dominant forces in amateur IF, as well as one of the engines powering the IF Renaissance we currently enjoy. He labored to make Activision realize the value of the Infocom properties they own, and as a result brought some fascinating internal Infocom documents into public view, and brought paychecks and publication to the winners of the first IF Comp. He gave us one of our legends, too. I refer, of course, to Avalon. Avalon was the game that Kevin announced in 1993, estimating it'd take a month or two to finish. Two months turned into six, into a year, into many many years. The game seemed to be Kevin's bête noire, the place where his enthusiasm was an anchor instead of a sail. That enthusiasm led him to keep expanding the game, perfecting it, adding more and more, while at the same time hyping it relentlessly in his every Usenet post, of which there were quite a few indeed. "Avalon" became synonymous with "overhyped vaporware."

Then, in 1998, it happened. Avalon was released, albeit retitled Once And Future (OAF), since the name "Avalon" was already trademarked by another game. The trademark mattered, because the game was released commercially, the first pure text adventure to claim that distinction since the Infocom era. The company behind this venture was Cascade Mountain Publishing (CMP), run by Mike Berlyn, former Infocom Implementor. OAF was CMP's flagship product, a thirty-dollar game touted as the return of "quality interactive fiction." The story from here gets short and sad, for CMP founders rather quickly and tanks quietly, in the process apparently torpedoing the release of the Inform Designer's Manual (4th ed.) for a good long time. While sales figures for OAF have never been released, it clearly never took off. Finally, on April 1st of 2001 (with no apparent irony), OAF is released as freeware.

I was one of the people who bought the original, thirty-dollar package. In fact, due to a CMP blunder, I actually received two copies, the second of which I gave away as a prize in last year's comp. But for whatever reason, I never quite got around to playing it until now. When I finally did play the game, the weight of its history and its hype couldn't help but burden the experience. It's impossible to say how I would have viewed OAF had it been released humbly, for free, by an unknown author, but I think my reaction would have been quite a bit different. As it is, I find it difficult not to make this review a laundry list of faults. This game, upon which so much hope was riding, about which we heard so much and for which we waited so long, is far from perfect. In addition, as a commercial product it begs comparison not only to its contemporaries, the graphical adventures of the late Nineties, but also to its Infocom predecessors. Whether these are fair comparisons I don't know, but OAF suffers by them. In the light of these considerations, I hope to make my criticisms as constructive as possible, and to remember the invaluable contributions of its author, the obstacles that stood in the way of its creation, and the gaming era from which it originated.

In that spirit, I want to focus on some of the things I loved about Once And Future. First of all, that's a great title, far better than "Avalon." OAF, for those of you new enough not to already know, is the story of Frank Leandro. Frank is a young soldier in Vietnam who, after sacrificing his life to save his friends, finds himself entrusted by King Arthur to journey through the fairy-tale realm of Avalon, collecting mythically resonant items like Excalibur and the Holy Grail and, finally, traveling through time to prevent a Great American Tragedy. In other words, he travels to the land of Once Upon a Time, at the behest of the man T.H. White dubbed the Once And Future King, in order to obtain One chance to save the Future. Where "Avalon" was a flat description of the landscape, "Once And Future" evokes the game's genre, its themes, and its literary ambitions.

Those ambitions are important too. Kevin started this game in 1993, a time when serious themes and literary content were the exception rather than the rule in text adventures. He used a heavily characterized PC in the face of rather overwhelming IF tradition to the contrary, and injected that PC's own distinctive voice into NPC interactions well before Varicella and its ilk. Come to that, he used a gimmick in the very first few moves of the game that feels fresh to us even now, at least according to Shrapnel and No Time To Squeal. I'm not the first to observe that this game would have been considered quite revolutionary indeed had it been released in 1994 (as originally planned). Still, the point bears attention. I suppose it's the IF writer's curse that because we most often work solo and our work is so demanding and detailed, there is a tremendous gap between conceiving an idea and realizing it in its finished form, and during that gap any number of things may come along to steal our thunder. It's no wonder that some IF authors hate to see concepts blithely discussed; I'm of the mind that execution is just as important as concept, but it's got to sting to see your game's ideas called old hat, when in fact they may have been stunningly original at the time you first began work.

The best part about OAF, though, is this: it's fun. The game is genuinely fun for long stretches at a time. It's a rollicking text adventure of the old school, offering wonderfully open-ended design and puzzles that challenge the mind and care little for how arbitrary they ultimately are. Once And Future's love for the Infocom tradition shines through continuously and, at times, the game's sheer scope and its cleverness manage to hit the same high notes as its predecessors. As literary as it may aspire to be, OAF is a game first and foremost, and, although plenty of critical attention has been lavished on its story and writing, to me the real star of the show is the puzzles. [I'll be naming several of these by way of example for those who have already played the game, but I don't think it'll spoil anything for those of you who haven't.] There are lots and lots of them, and most of them quite enjoyable. Of course, many of them are rather easy as well, which for me coincides neatly with enjoyability. Freeing Merlin, obtaining Excalibur, and helping the old man are all examples of that pleasant sort of IF puzzle in which there's an action that makes sense, I try it, it works, and I am made happy. Even some of the tougher ones provided me with time well-spent, like the diamond puzzle and the earlier parts of the Mountain King puzzle.

When the puzzles did go wrong, it often wasn't because they were too difficult, but rather because the series of steps necessary to execute the solution was long and tedious. A perfect example here is the braziers -- the concept is straightforward enough, and a helpful mnemonic is even provided (a very nice touch), but actually carrying out this concept entails a great deal of tedious tromping back and forth and mucking about with fidddly liquid commands. The problem here is that the fun part of puzzle-solving is the actual figuring out -- the rest is just follow-through, and if made sufficiently involved, becomes drudgery. The lesson for designers is to keep the emphasis on the former, and make the latter fairly streamlined, or at the very least entertaining in its own right. The worst offender in this category was the business with the blue paste -- there isn't even any figuring out involved, just a lot of mind-numbing inspection of nearly-identical objects.

Another area where the puzzles run into difficulty is bugginess. I suppose that in the technical sense there aren't any game-stopping bugs in OAF, but having the game actually fail to respond to a command its documentation specifically recommends (ASK MERLIN ABOUT SPIRITS) comes close enough in my book. In addition, the game isn't free from guess- the-verb problems. In fact, the particular final puzzle I encountered (there are a variety of them, depending on the character's inventory in the final scene) had me so stumped that I actually went onto ifMUD, found somebody who had a hint book, and determined that I had in fact figured out the right action (an action which was rather nonsensical in itself), but the game hadn't recognized any of the several commands I'd used to get it across. Once provided with the right verb, I was finally able to reach the game's ending. It's just the sort of problem that's bound to plague a large game, but that doesn't make it any more excusable.

Okay, clearly I've gotten to the part where I discuss OAF's flaws, so let me cut straight to its biggest one: the writing. Now, let me be clear about this. It's not that OAF is poorly written in the way that a Rybread Celsius game is poorly written, or in the way that the games that occupy the bottom third of the comp standings tend to be poorly written. On the contrary, most of OAF's prose is clean, error-free and basically serviceable. However, it is punctuated with serious problems nonetheless, not the least of which is its plethora of overwhelmingly maudlin, trite moments. Here's a sample, from a scene in which Frank sees a Vietnam buddy vegetating in a hospital bed:

"Is this Mark?" you think, as you look into the vacant, staring eyes. His mouth hangs slack, and there are no signs of intelligence. Gone is the sparkle from his young brown eyes. He lies there, wasted and immobile, a monument to man's folly.

Lines like "a monument to man's folly" and "gone is the sparkle from his young brown eyes" are, I'm guessing, supposed to evoke goosebumps and a solemn nod, but all they elicit from me are groans. I don't think it's that I'm so jaded and hardbitten -- rather, the lines take a redundant, sentimental shortcut around genuine emotion. I've already been told that Mark's eyes are "vacant" and "staring" -- does the point that they're not sparkling really need to be made? Similarly, making stentorian statements like "a monument to man's folly" short-circuits any possibility of my reaching that sort of conclusion on my own, and inclines me instead to see the narrative voice as irritatingly grandiose. [By the way, I've no doubt that this sort of thing has shown up in my own writing from time to time, and I groan when I see it there, too.]

When the writing isn't being overdramatic, it frequently strays into cutesiness. In fact, one of the very first things a player is likely to see (because it's in Frank's initial inventory) is a candy bar object called "Mr. Mediocrebar." In case you're not familiar with American candy, this is a jokey reference to a Hershey product called "Mr. Goodbar." The problem with this isn't whether the candy bar ever serves a purpose -- even useless objects have their place in IF. The problem is with the name. Calling the candy "Mr. Mediocrebar", a name that no actual candy would ever have, immediately undercuts mimesis. It's as if the author is playfully nudging us in the ribs and saying, "Hey there, this is all for fun, just a game. None of it's real, and you certainly don't need to take it seriously." This sort of approach might work in a light farce, but it jars horribly against the somber Vietnam setting and the Big Themes to come. Furthermore, because the candy bar may well remain in the player's inventory for the entirety of the game, its name has this deleterious effect over and over again. Not to mention the fact that it makes players think of the word "mediocre" throughout the game, which is hardly desirable.

Worst of all, though, is what I call the Sledgehammer Writing. Here's an example: the player is in the throne room of a mysterious ruler called The Straw Man. This ruler sits silently and impassively on his throne. While in the room, Frank hears someone approaching, and hides. It's a woman who tells the Straw Man her problem; he doesn't respond, and by talking it out, she solves it on her own, and leaves. Then this happens again. Then it happens yet again, and this time, as she cries on his lap,

out of the corner of your eye, you notice the first sign of movement from the Straw Man that you've seen. His arm slips from the armrest of the throne, coming to rest on her shoulder. Reaching up to grasp his arm, she continues to cry for a little while before regaining control of her emotions.

Okay, so we probably know what's coming, right? Sure we do:

But when the Straw Man's arm slipped from the armrest, you noticed something. The Straw Man is just a plain old scarecrow.

Dum dum DAAA! But wait, there's more:

Kind of funny, really, that the best ruler, the wisest person that you've ever seen, turns out to be a dummy.

Okay, I get the point. But still more awaits:

But maybe it says something too. People don't always want or need advice, sometimes they just want someone to listen to them, and hold them.

WHAM WHAM WHAM! HERE IS THE MESSAGE I AM GIVING YOU! It's as if the game has so little trust in its readers that after making its point subtly, then blatantly, it feels that it still must spell the whole thing out in painfully obvious terms, just to make sure we get it. This sort of thing isn't just cringeworthy, it's insulting; OAF would have been so much stronger had a little restraint been shown in scenes like this.

Finally, sometimes the writing just suffers from a simple lack of clarity. For instance, at a point in the game when Frank has been transformed into a mouse, reading a magical scroll gives this response:

Your head begins to spin as you read the scroll. Your hands start to glow red and twist into a more human shape. You briefly ponder what would happen if you were to become a full-sized human inside this mouse hole. It's not a pretty thought. The scroll quietly dissolves to ash.

When I read this, I thought: Uh-oh, I'm about to die. I'd better UNDO, then get out of this mousehole before I read the scroll. Problem was, I couldn't leave the mousehole without dying. In frustration, I sought a hint from Google and finally realized that I had been misled -- the above message wasn't presaging that I was about to be crushed, but rather that a several-turns-long growing process was beginning and that I needed to exit the mousehole before the process completed.

Speaking of that mousehole, it's a good instance of one of OAF's primary qualities: its expansiveness. This quality is both a strength and a weakness, in my view. Certainly in terms of the game as a whole, it's a strength -- one of the best things about OAF is how big it is. Unlike the bite-sized IF that dominates current output, this game is a five- course meal. Then again, there are times when the "more is better" approach is a bit more dubious. For instance, hanging on the wall of the initial location is a paper listing "Murphy's Laws of Combat", a list that's twenty-five items long. This little touch adds a bit of authenticity and characterization, but it also presents the player with a large, somewhat jokey wodge of text to read at the beginning of the game (following immediately upon the game's long and somewhat non-sequitur-ish opening text), slowing down the pace of a scene that otherwise moves very quickly. Then there's the geographical expansiveness, of which the mousehole is such a perfect example. According to my maps (I made them in GUEMap and have uploaded them to the IF Archive), the underground area of OAF comprises no less than twenty-seven rooms. The only purpose of this area is to provide a couple of puzzles that lead to an item that (along with a different item from another area) lets you solve another puzzle that ultimately yields one of the main necessary items for your final goal. The great majority of these twenty-seven rooms serve no purpose for obtaining that item. They're just there for... scenery, I guess, or perhaps to make the world feel larger. A couple of them support items that comprise one of the game's several dangling plot threads, but that's about it.

I don't think this approach to IF map design is optimal. A few non- essential rooms here and there can be a good thing, fleshing out the landscape and making the world feel a bit more whole. On the other hand, when the majority of the map seems to be made of non-essential rooms, something is a little out of balance. This happened to me on my first game -- I had a puzzle planned out that would require a sandy beach, and it made sense to have several beach locations. In the end I cut the puzzle, but couldn't quite bear to cut all the locations. Not only had I toiled to produce them, I thought they gave the landscape a greater sense of completeness. Of course, the game was rightly criticized for having a lot of filler rooms, and I learned my first lesson in the importance of pruning. (And judging from the length of this review, I still have quite a few lessons to go in that particular curriculum.) If I were writing that game today, I'd let my descriptions and transitions do a bit more of the space-establishing work, and I'd be less afraid to get rid of things that didn't really serve the game except as decoration. I can't help but feel that such an approach would have benefited OAF greatly as well.

Another strangeness about the maps is how gridlike they feel. The game contains several large landscapes, and in most of them, only movement in the cardinal directions is allowed, even though there are no logical barriers to diagonal movement. The locations are apparently evenly spaced from one another, despite the fact that they may represent radical shifts in landscape, so that a beautiful forest might nestle up against a blasted heath, with no apparent transition between the two. The result is that the setting has a very mechanical, unnatural feel, a feel that repeatedly reminds us that we are playing a game rather than traversing a real landscape. Again, whether this works is a matter of context -- the grid layout might be great for a science-fiction game where the landscape is supposed to seem rigid and mechanical, but it doesn't do justice to OAF's more natural, outdoorsy setting. There are a few areas in which the map is laid out in a fun, clever way, but these are almost always in the service of a puzzle.

Aside from its maps, OAF has a number of design successes. The game is fairly open-ended, so that a variety of puzzles are usually available at one time. It combines a Zorkish "wide landscape" with lots of Trinity-esque "little areas" by having lots of separate wide landscapes, which gives the game a chaptered feeling without needing formal divisions. The bottlenecks between these areas tend to work pretty smoothly, though I was hugely frustrated at one point -- I failed to obtain an item from one area to solve a puzzle in another one, and wasn't given another chance to do so, forcing me to restore from quite a ways back. Still, that was the only time that the game closed itself off for me, and given the era from which it originated, that's not too bad.

The design of the story wasn't quite so elegant. I mentioned dangling plotlines, and there are quite a few of them. I got to the end of the game, and instead of feeling resolution, I said, "That's it?" For one thing, that ending inserts a sudden romantic subplot that was utterly unbelievable because it hadn't been developed at all in any of the rest of the game. Moreover, the conclusion left so many questions unanswered about things that happened elsewhere in the game, it felt quite unsatisfying. For example, at one point you have a friendly kitty accompanying you on your travels. Then, in the process of solving a puzzle, that cat becomes lost, and possibly hurt. And you never find out what's happened to it, or if it's OK. Designers, don't DO this! If your story puts an animal or companion in jeopardy, establish its final status before ending the game! The cat is just one example -- there's also stuff down in the mousehole that seems to imply a story, but the story goes nowhere. Instead, that stuff is just sort of there. The line between subplot and background color is a fine one, and OAF crosses it more than once, I think without realizing it's done so. Subplots need to be resolved by the time the game ends, or else players end up feeling like I did: cheated.

The other problem I had with the story is more philosophical, and I suppose more idiosyncratic. The final quest of the game involves traveling in time to prevent a historical event. It's an event that actually happened, but according to the game's version of King Arthur, the world will be doomed if it isn't changed. To me, this sort of story is wrongheaded. The pieces of our history, both good and bad, are what comprise our current reality, and living in that reality now, I found it hard to swallow King Arthur's assertion that my world is doomed. In fact, I found it a lot more persuasive to think that Frank was being misled by a demon in holy guise, and was nonplussed [Ed. note: based on the length of this review, I think not!] to see that the game wasn't going in that direction. The abstract question of whether the world might be better had certain parts of history been changed is an interesting one, to be sure, but I wasn't at ease getting a protagonist to do something that in all likelihood would have prevented my own birth.

On a technical note, the game hangs together fairly well, especially for a work of such grand scope. It's only natural that despite the five-year gestation period, this game would have more rough edges than smaller pieces of IF, and indeed it does. There are several times at which OAF gives default responses that don't make sense. These details probably should have been seen to, but oversights like that are forgivable. Similarly, there were a number of bugs here and there, but nothing overly catastrophic or distracting. I have to admit, though, that I was disappointed by the NPCs. After all, this is the game that won the 1998 XYZZY award for Best NPCs, but they all seemed rather thin to me. Mordred, in particular, in spite of being a crucial part of Arthurian iconography, has almost nothing to say, nothing to do, and spends the majority of the game, in Michael Gentry's words, "just sort of irritably standing around as though waiting for a bus." Even some of the supposedly more fleshed-out characters, such as Merlin, suffer from serious lacunae in their knowledge. I've already mentioned that ASK MERLIN ABOUT SPIRITS doesn't work, despite the documentation's promise to the contrary. There are also exchanges like this one, which took place in Stonehenge after Frank had seen some strange blue stones:

>ask merlin about stones
Merlin says, "There are a lot of stones here. Which one do you mean?"

>ask merlin about blue stones
Merlin says, "There are a lot of stones here. Which one do you mean?"

There's no verb in that sentence!

>ask merlin about blue
Merlin says, "Frank, I'm rather busy right now, can't that wait?"

>ask merlin about bluish stones
Merlin says, "There are a lot of stones here. Which one do you mean?"

>merlin, the blue ones, like I JUST $^%$ING SAID
I don't know the word "ones".

Or, similarly, when Frank has an unusual carved blue stone in his inventory.

>show stone to merlin
Which stone do you mean, the carved blue stone, or the flat stone?

Merlin isn't impressed.

>ask merlin about carved blue stone
Merlin says, "There are a lot of stones here. Which one do you mean?"

Thanks a lot Merlin, you're a big help. There were lots and lots of gaps like that, and to make matters worse, Merlin's default "I don't know" message was "Merlin pretends not to hear you." And you can't even KILL MERLIN WITH EXCALIBUR.

I spent several weeks playing through Once And Future, and I'm not sorry I did. For one thing, it's an important part of recent IF history, and for another thing, as I said before, it's fun. Still, it was a bit of a letdown. I suppose that after the hype, buildup, and fanfare it got, it couldn't help but be a letdown, at least a little bit. On top of that, it was no doubt to the game's disadvantage that I played it in 2002. However unfair it might be to judge what's essentially a 1994 game by 2002 standards, it's impossible not to, because, well, it is 2002. Styles have changed, and parts of OAF haven't aged well. The bottom line is that it feels like the work of a beginning writer, one who has promise and may have matured through the process, but whose novice mistakes remain. That doesn't mean it's not worth playing -- it most certainly is -- but don't believe the hype.

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