Once and Future: Then and Now

It turns out that it’s possible to finish most of the main quests in Avalon before the detour through Fairyland. I just happened to solve the puzzles that led to getting stuck in Fairyland before doing much of anything else, and this skewed my perception of the story. I could have purified the grail first thing, if I’d had more patience. I could have awakened Merlin first, and gotten answers a lot earlier about what was going on, what I was supposed to be doing and why. That might have grounded my adventures more.

Or maybe not. The truth is frankly bizarre: to save the world from the doom you’ve foreseen, you have to accompany Merlin to present-day Stonehenge to tap into its magic, so he can cast a spell to send you back in time to exorcise and slay the demon possessing Lee Harvey Oswald before he assassinates Kennedy. I guess this means real life is still on the bad timeline. There’s some suggestion that Frank is, too: the ending hints that even in the midst of your hard-earned happily-ever-after, your travails aren’t over.

Or at least, the ending I got does so. Apparently there are multiple endings, depending on what decisions you made and which optional puzzles you solved along the way. I don’t think there’s a great deal of variability in Fairyland, but in Avalon, there was an entire puzzle sequence about slaying a dragon that I simply never solved. Consulting a walkthrough afterward, I find it has to do with Excalibur’s ability to summon spirits the dead. Not a power I recall seeing elsewhere in Arthurian literature, but I did see it mentioned in this game by multiple sources, so I knew it was possible. Nonetheless, no matter who I tried to summon, it simply failed. It turns out that the only summonable spirits are Launcelot and Galahad, and Merlin would have told me this if I had asked him about the right topic. I can’t be too upset about this, though, because you can win the game perfectly well without them.

But I’m not inclined to pursue the other endings and see if they’re better, because that would require redoing the entire Stonehenge sequence, which is the single most tedious part of the game. Stonehenge is represented as a grid of rooms, with individual stones and trilithons implemented as objects, and you’re expected to examine them individually to find the marks Merlin needs for his spell. There’s a modicum of interesting commentary in the rock descriptions, but I suspect that the gameplay here was invented to justify the effort that went into the implementation, rather than to serve the player experience. I suppose it wouldn’t be so bad the second time around, though, when you know where everything is. That’s one of the nice things about text adventures: the ease with which you can breeze through the familiar parts. I just gripe because I’m playing from the perspective of the year 2021, where wasting the player’s time and attention is less easily forgiven than it was in 1998.

Meanwhile, the Dallas section uses the division of space into more rooms than necessary in a way that I thought fit the story quite neatly. You’re on a race against time to reach the book depository before it’s too late, so of course this requires more steps than you want it to. That’s exactly what it would feel like.

Anyway, even from a 2021 perspective, I did enjoy this game overall. I just enjoyed it more in the Fairyland section, where the puzzles are stronger and the story is more stylized. The whole story is built around an incongruous juxtaposition, but the end notes indicate that the author was more interested in using Frank Leandro to talk about King Arthur than in using King Arthur to talk about Frank Leandro, and it shows.

Once and Future: True Names

With the hard-bought help of the fairy queen, I’ve only just made it back to Avalon, and can now travel freely between the two realms. So, back to the main quest. But first, let’s reflect briefly on what I’ve come through.

This game was written at a time when Infocom was still the dominant paradigm for IF, which means there are some gratuitous mechanical puzzles, including at one point a Lights Out. Over the years, I’ve come to dislike Lights Out as a pointless waste of time almost as much as Towers of Hanoi, but at least it’s used in a somewhat clever variation here. And anyway, at least the clarity of intent in such puzzles makes it difficult to get truly stuck. I did spend a good few hours stuck on a couple of puzzles in fairyland, but it was always the environmental ones, where it wasn’t obvious what my options were.

The game is full of folkloric and fairy-tale stuff, with a notable repeated motif of Frank being turned into various animals against his will. It seems to be related to the dehumanizing effects of war, particularly in the climax of the Fairyland chapter. There, a masked and antlered being called the Hunter, who had made attempts on your life earlier, decides to keep you as an attack dog instead. And this is notable for a number of reasons. First, it’s the one transformation that you’re capable of actively resisting. Second, it’s one of the few times that the random misadventures tie together, referring back to earlier events — and not just to the earlier murder attack: unmasked, the Hunter turns out to be an elf woman you’d also encountered in a different context. Pieces suddenly come together to form a story, one of someone who can’t bear to be ignored, who will satisfied with being your killer, lover, or master, as long as she’s your something. And the solution, the way to save yourself from her domination? You first have to witness her. To view her life, her story from childhood onward, rather than relating to her purely as an obstacle. It’s only in these flashbacks that you learn her name.

And that makes me think of what I said in my last post about the little girl who Joe killed. Joe is referenced again in this sequence, as one of many whose mortal remains decorate the Hunter’s lair. I’m starting to suspect that sequence may have been subtler than I gave it credit for.

There’s at least one other young girl who needs rescuing: the Oracle back in Avalon, a seven-year-old manacled to a throne, breathing volcanic fumes and giving cryptic hints on a number of topics. I actually broke sequence on this a little inadvertently: in conversations with True Thomas (the fairy queen’s human lover/advisor, who can only speak the truth), Frank references a dialogue with the Oracle on how to free her that I hadn’t actually had yet. When you do free her, there’s a moment when Frank calls her by name, despite him never having learned it — and for once, the game calls him out on it, makes it clear that this slip-up is deliberate. What is going on?

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.

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.