Once and Future

Kevin Wilson is today probably best known for his work in board games, with over 100 design credits listed at boardgamegeek.com. Back in the 90s, though, he was a prominent member of the amateur Interactive Fiction community — in fact, he created the annual IFComp in 1995, which has since become an entrenched institution and one of the longest-running regular events in the world of game development. When he first started writing IF, he had grand plans. Adopting the company name Vertigo Software, he teased planned titles on Usenet: one about rationing oxygen in a space emergency, another about a blind person being stalked, another about rebellion against a future dystopia — all themes that have been tackled by IFComp entries, so in a way, he did bring these ideas to fruition. He never released them himself, though. Writing a full-sized game turned out to be a much larger task than he had anticipated, and the only projected Vertigo Software title to be completed was Once and Future (originally titled Avalon in these early announcements), a story of an American soldier in Vietnam transported to a realm of Arthurian magic on his death. Perhaps appropriately, it was one of the two titles to get a physical-media release from Mike Berlyn’s Cascade Mountain Publishing, another of the medium’s great bit-off-more-than-he-could-chew stories.

Today, you can get the game for free from the IF Archive, and indeed, that is the version I’m currently playing. But I did purchase the CD-ROM version back in the day, with its collection of printed feelies: various letters concerning Private Frank Leandro, his death, his relationships back home. These feelies are largely the reason I never played past the game’s intro: I felt like I should read the letters first, and a couple of them are in difficult handwriting — difficult enough to make me put it off for more than twenty years. I shouldn’t have bothered; the letters don’t really add anything to the experience, and seem like an afterthought. On top of that, once you’ve deciphered Frank’s scrawls, the game itself starts with an entire page of its own hard-to-read text: an account of Arthur’s final hours in archaic spelling, like “Take thou here Excalyber, my good swerde, and go wyth hit to yondir watirs syde”. I actually read all the way through Le Morte D’Arthur as a youth — cover to cover, even including the interminable tournament scenes — but the edition I read modernized the spelling, even as it kept the 15th-century grammar and vocabulary. I greatly prefer that approach for texts like this: it preserves the antique flavor without interfering excessively with comprehension.

At any rate, Frank is currently still carrying out his initial reconnoiter of the isle of Avalon, which seems to be grid-based and sparse, like an old Sierra game. Here a fairy ring, there a unicorn, Mordred lounging about insulting you at one juncture. At the very beginning, you’re issued several quests: purify the Holy Grail and recover Excalibur and the sheath and belt that go with it. The whole situation is disconnected enough from Frank’s life that it makes me wonder why he was assigned one in the first place. Why a soldier in Vietnam? I trust the author enough to believe that an answer will be revealed eventually, but it’s obscure right now. Apart from a brief mention of his sweetheart back home, Frank’s character hasn’t been particularly reflected in the room and object descriptions. The only thing indicating that he isn’t a natural part of this setting is the army fatigues and dog tag in his inventory.

1 Comment so far

  1. malkav11 on 30 May 2021

    Oh wow. I had heard about Once and Future (though I never played it seriously myself) but never connected it or his IF work in general with the FFG designer.

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