Once and Future: Tour of Duty

That initial island with the unicorn and the fairy ring turns out to be smaller than I had thought, and also a smaller portion of the game as a whole than I thought. My experiences since my last post have been defined by a game design pattern you might call One Damn Thing After Another. I know I have goals waiting for me back on Avalon if I ever find my way back there, but in the meantime, everything has been a chain of events where I’m trapped or in danger and have to solve a puzzle or two to get out of that situation and into a different one where I’m also trapped or in danger.

This has included a sequence where Frank returns to reality as a sort of ghost at various points in time, witnessing a environmentally-ravaged future, seeing what terrible things befell the brothers-in-arms who Frank gave his life for. So, there’s the answer to what I was wondering in my last post. It’s here that the influence of Infocom’s Trinity becomes clearest, except that where Trinity is all about inescapable self-causing time loops, the whole point of this section in Once and Future is changing fate. Your interventions into the lives of individual soldiers prove it’s possible, which means you can also do it on the larger scale.

There’s one vignette that I found striking for its priorities and perspective. One of Frank’s buddies, Joe, goes into an irreversible decline after he’s too quick on the trigger and kills a young Vietnamese girl. You have to prevent this from coming to pass. The thing is, this is all framed not as saving the little girl, but as saving Joe. The girl isn’t even given a name, because she fundamentally doesn’t matter except as a bit-player in Joe’s story. The game is basically anti-war, but it still privileges the experience of American soldiers.

After this whole foray into reality, the game breaks the mood by throwing you into Fairyland, which is even more whimsy-magical than Avalon was, and so jam-packed with wonders that it becomes a little monotonous. But this time, the darkness is more exposed. It isn’t just magical, it’s mercurial, and irrational in a threatening way. Frank has to make ill-advised bargains with a witch, and then, to escape the consequences, with a demon. There may be metaphors for Vietnam in that, but even if not, there’s definitely a mood.

But if you want metaphors, here’s a bigger one: The game’s opening makes it seem like it’s providing the main setting that you’ll be exploring, gives you goals that only make sense there. I’ve been torn away from that setting, and I’m starting to doubt if I’ll ever return.

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