Interactive Fiction Reviews

by J. Robinson Wheeler

Lock & Key The Mulldoon Legacy Once and Future

LOCK & KEY: the "jail and bait, but no interstate" game
by Adam Cadre

This is another clever and entertaining short game by Adam Cadre, who always seems to know what to do with a fun premise. When I read the release announcement, I actually guessed what the premise was even though it was written to give a false impression:

You are locked in a cell.

This in and of itself is not a new thing: spending a little time
behind bars every now and again is one of the hazards of the job.
But up until now it's been for little 50-crown and 100-crown jobs
out in the countryside, and you've ended up in decrepit little
gaols that managed to hold you for, what, a minute? Possibly two?
This, though, this is different. You thought you'd try one last
job, land one big score: five thousand crowns. And now you're the
newest resident of King Tyrak II's deepest, darkest dungeon.

What I deduced from this was that your job was to break out of prisons, not that you were a thief who was used to getting locked up and then escaping. When I started the game, I changed my mind, only to quickly discover I was right the first time.

In the game, you are in charge of redesigning King Tyrak's dungeon so that it is foolproof. Using a nifty glulx interface, you fill in a 4x4 grid of rooms with traps and connecting doors, and then type Z for the rest of the game as you and the King watch Boldo the Brave attempt his escape. If you've laid out the wrong series of traps, Boldo makes an embarrassingly easy exit, costing you your head. Solving the game consists of trial-and-error, finding just the right layout that prevents Boldo from escaping alive. In this way, it reminds me slightly of Varicella, which required many passes -- first to get a sense of the layout, then to play with the variables you could control, then, at long last, do everything in the right place at the right time.

Fortunately, the game is entertaining all the way through; the traps not working out are funnier than when they do, especially when you drop another NPC into the dungeon, supposedly an invincible gladiator, but actually one of Boldo's old buddies, Musculo. The funniest scene is watching the two of them blunder their way through a "sanity-blasting labyrinth":

You hear Boldo's voice from deep inside the maze. "A breadcrumb!"
he announces. "Have you been dropping breadcrumbs to keep us on
track?"

"No, I've been eating a sandwich," Musculo replies.

[...]

Boldo emerges from the maze, blinking. Musculo follows a moment
later, his pants on backwards and a shoe on his head. "Man, that
was confusing," he laments.

I think it was the use of "laments" that particularly gave me the silly giggles.

If I had a wish for this game, it would be for some sort of mimesis- shattering magic verb that would skip over the cutscene in between confirming a new dungeon arrangement and Boldo making his escape. However, typing Z.Z.Z.Z.Z.Z.Z.Z.Z.Z.Z.Z.Z.Z.Z. ended up being the functional equivalent, so I can't complain too loudly.

In retrospect, I have a dim recollection that a game based on this premise was once discussed, years ago, but never made. In the end credits, the author states that one of his starting ideas was to come up with a PC-less IF; this idea was ditched during the game's development, so it's still open for grabs. My own thoughts on PC-less premises tend to come out looking like Magic Robot Theater, which would be only vaguely entertaining and not especially interactive. Watch the NPCs move and talk! I can see why it was passed up in this case. The remaining gimmick, of matching wits with an NPC, is nicely realized; this is a promising direction for other authors to pursue. Lock & Key manages to keep it simple and clean by keeping the PC and the opponent NPC in completely separate locations, where the PCs work is done by the time the NPC steps onto the stage, and the only thing left to do is watch how he reacts. A step beyond this would be, I suppose, a cat-and-mouse game between PC and NPC where both are active in the same confined playspace at the same time, with the tools in hand to potentially defeat each other. It could be like an interactive version of Kirk versus the Gorn... can you find the ingredients for gunpowder, ammo, flint, and a firing tube before the Gorn crushes you between his big fat hands?

Okay, I'm rambling now, so it ends here.


The Mulldoon Legacy
by Jon Ingold

The Mulldoon Legacy, popular IF author Jon Ingold's sprawling, enormous, old-school puzzle game, kept me occupied for 28 play sessions -- a little more than a month, playing a few frustrating hours at a time. When I finally reached the end, my turns counter was somewhere between nine and ten thousand, probably about 45% of which was me repeatedly checking my voluminous inventory of carryable objects.

Frequently, Mulldoon reminded me of my own game, First Things First -- and I don't mean directly, like in the case of having time travel elements (although this is indirectly related to my point). It seemed to me to be the dumping ground for a wealth of IF puzzle ideas that had accumulated in the author's mind over many years, starting with his first exposure to playing IF and that tantalizing next leap of imagination, where he thinks, "I'd like to write one of these..." I like to flatter myself that I ultimately crafted something of more coherency and focus out of my stack of puzzle ideas than is seen in either Mulldoon or Graham Nelson's Curses, which is another sprawling puzzle game that Mulldoon often calls to mind (an entire essay could perhaps be written on the many parallels between the two). Ingold seems to have taken an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach (appropriate, as it is the case in Mulldoon that if you find a kitchen, the sink will not be implemented -- more on the sparseness of implementation later).

What Mulldoon ultimately amounts to is the sum of a series of independent set-pieces, some of them small, spare and self-contained enough to resemble a speed-IF piece, and some extensive enough to feel like a swift Comp game. There are numerous small games under the umbrella of the large one, and it is my opinion that Ingold shines brightest in these. In the better set-pieces, where the setting is compact, the number of objects minimal (your bulky inventory is often left behind as you enter one of these alternate worlds), the puzzles logical, and the writing brisk, you can see the direct antecedents of the craft (and, sometimes, the settings; like a locked cell with a guard pacing outside the door) he employed in All Roads, which won both the Comp and the Xyzzy for Best Game in 2001. At their worst, they are a grab bag of genre cliches. Mulldoon, nominally a quest to find your Grandfather inside his museum, manages to contain a science fiction scene with lasers and rockets, a James Bond spy adventure, medieval knights and monks, a pirate ship, a holodeck, an Escher landscape, various forms of time travel, an underground chamber or two, treasure chests, computer terminals, word puzzles, number puzzles, sarcophagi, monkeys, heavy machinery, magic potions, organic chemistry, assorted chutes and ladders, and that old standby from Arthurian legend, the wizard Merlin. While you're occupied with the above, an elaborate but slightly strained backstory slowly congeals. As often happens, the end of the game ends up serving the rest of the backstory-that-hasn't-been-gotten-to-yet in a big, cold lump right in your lap, about fifteen turns (as the walkthrough flies) before the You Have Won message shows up.

I speak of FTF again here, of course; and also G. Kevin Wilson's Once and Future (I have never seen the end of Curses, sadly). I point it out as an example of one of the difficulties of crafting a large IF work: the pacing of the revelation of the backstory. A related problem is authorial fatigue. By the time you're coding the end bits, you're in a bit of a hurry to just wrap it up already, and -- uh-oh -- here's all of this material I haven't spelled out yet. This also has something to do with the problem of filling out a large game with puzzles; you're often not thinking in terms of how a puzzle, or the player's process of solving it, will serve to advance the plot. At one point in FTF, the plot (in the form of an NPC stuffed with expository dialogue) waylays you while you're in the middle of doing things, and basically hijacks you until the spiel is over, at which point the game re-surrenders control to you. I still don't like this; it was a temporary solution that naggingly remains unchanged in the current release. In my case, I know that I started with the puzzles and then a plot and subplots suggested themselves; but the plot came out of the puzzles, not the other way around. I suspect that Ingold went through a similar process; although it is likely that he knew the backstory and the ending before he started coding, he thought of a setting and a story that would work well as a starting place to implement his cache of intricate puzzle ideas.

However, the plot is not as important as all that. I play a puzzle game for the puzzles, and Mulldoon has many inventive ones. Some are tried and true, some are new takes on old chestnuts, and one or two are unique.

Eventually -- about halfway through the game, points-wise -- I determined that, in order to solve the game, I needed to type the following sequence of commands for every new object that reacted to an EXAMINE command:

OPEN IT. CLOSE IT. PUSH IT. PULL IT. TURN IT. SEARCH IT. CLIMB IT.
FEEL IT. REACH IN IT. LOOK UNDER IT. LOOK BEHIND IT. SQUEEZE IT.
ENTER IT. TAKE IT.

This would catch about 85% of all in-game clues as to the potential interactivity or use for the object, and for the other 15%, I was more or less stuck. Early on, I was miserably stuck for a week or more because I hadn't learned this routine. The last half of the game was considerably smoother than the first half because of this routine of mine, and because the game's track eventually narrowed, leaving me with clearer goals and a better sense of the order of obstacles to tackle.

Mulldoon opens (after a prologue that was added after the first release of the game) outside a museum with a locked door. Once inside, you find that the museum is a riot of locked doors, each leading to a numbing set of initially incomprehensible props which most likely are not in working order. At this early point, Mulldoon is really at its worst (and yet, I kept playing, so it wasn't all bad). Some clear-cut problems (retrieving an out-of-reach object, say) frustrated me for many tedious hours, because what I didn't know is that there were multiple intermediate puzzles -- some in areas I hadn't even found yet -- that had to be solved, in order, before I could solve the one facing me.

The Babel fish puzzle in Meretzsky/Adams's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy provides the archetype and the name for this kind of elaborately layered dilemma. Specifically, I would define a Babel fish puzzle as one in which you have a clear goal, but your first attempt reveals another obstacle, and your attempt to bypass this obstacle reveals a third obstacle, and so on, recursively; like a recursive routine, however, you will eventually satisfy a condition that will end the loop. Mulldoon has at least one genuine Babel fish puzzle, and a number of others that are densely layered in a different way.

 

SPOILER WARNING.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mulldoon's Babel fish puzzle takes this form: You find a machine that, upon examination, reveals there to be an object lodged deep inside it. When you try to retrieve it, you are warned that there are live wires, so retrieving the scissors is too dangerous. You then find one way to disable the current, only to find that there is another set of wires that is still hot. If you get both sets of wires shut off simultaneously, you find out that there is a third wire tangled around the object. Only when you manage to cut the tangled third wire while at the same time disabling the electricity to the first two wires are you able to finally retrieve the object, which turns out to be something to need to retrieve something else that's lain out of reach since the beginning of the game.

 

 

BIGGER SPOILER WARNING.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A different example of a layered puzzle, but not strictly speaking a Babel fish puzzle, is opening the orange box. In an actual Babel fish puzzle, you are faced with only one problematic task in one location, such as the vending machine in the original puzzle, and the machine mentioned above in Mulldoon. Sometimes in Mulldoon, as I mentioned, there is no such helpful focus. The box is sitting (sorry, I mean "sat") in an empty room, with a key dangling above it on a string from the out-of-reach ceiling. It turns out that the room is a holodeck, but there's something stuck in one of the laser nozzles, preventing the hologram from forming solidly. Once you get this removed, a two-story location materializes, and once you're upstairs, you can grab the key. Unfortunately, the box is now hidden by the hologram. Not that you know this at the time, but it turns out that if you push a button in that same upstairs location and play through the minigames it produces, by the time you come out the other side, the orange box will be available once again. In order for the button to work, you need to give a token to an NPC. You get the token in a completely different part of the game at the tail end of another layered puzzle. And then, of course, you have to play the minigames, a series of short set-pieces that each contain layered puzzles of their own.

 

 

 

GIGANTIC MEGA-SIZED SPOILER WARNING.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The most egregious example in Mulldoon of this kind of hidden-complexity puzzle is the retrieval of a glass marble from the rut of a lift door. When I came across it, I was not far along in the game, but I did have a sense of the museum's geography, and a printout map of its various floors and rooms. I knew that there were rooms I wasn't seeing, because they were on the map. So here's this lift, the door of which won't close because of the marble, that won't operate because the door won't close. At that time, I had maybe ten things I was carrying around. I tried them all, and none helped retrieve the marble. I returned when I had twenty items, then nearly thirty, and still nothing.

Considering how early on I came across the lift, it is amazing what you have to go through to finally pop that sucker out of the rut. I am now going to tell you what I had to go through:

In order to get the marble, I first had to take a laminated picture card upstairs (at this point in the game, doing so requied removing a rubber band from a torch, and using it to fix a machine that would carry me to a crawlspace where I could shove things through a hole one at a time -- although, to be fair, it's possible I could have made a mechanical monkey crash through a door instead, I think) and run off a bad 3rd-generation photocopy of it. Then I had to realize I needed to push one machine over to another. Wait, I forgot that I needed to discover I could JUMP TO a vortex taking me to the underground floor where, if I opened a panel hidden behind a tapestry, I could retrieve the kitchen key, so I could explode the cooker and retrieve the oven gloves -- so that, after I broke the sign board, pulled out the wire from one machine and cut it with the other, I could retrieve a pair of scissors. With the scissors, I could now cut loose a boat, sail down a river, and grab onto a water pump, which I could turn off, allowing me to go back to the crawlspace, turn a wheel on a tank, and, assuming I'd made one gill of mead from an eight-gill and a five-gill jug, I could unlock a secret door at the heart of a maze. Pity, I forgot to try CLOSE IT when I had earlier climbed the dinosaur skeleton -- because I needed to do that to know to retrieve a pin, close the skull jaw again, then shove it over to procure a large bone, to smack the axehead to loosen the bracket to get the chalice in the secret room. But, then all I needed to do was burn the coffin and take what was in it to the lift, because one of them actually fits in the rut and dislodges the marble. (I was then disappointed to find out that, though the lift could go to 6 possible floors, two of the stops didn't even lead anywhere. Well, you can't have everything.

If you ask me, this is way too much to go through to dislodge the marble. All of those other puzzles could have remained in place, in the same order, but the marble-dislodger could have been placed, say, in the other sarcophagus in the Egyptian Room that is otherwise just there to be scenery. Scenery that is interactive enough to seem important but useless for puzzle solving is a deadly distraction to the frustrated player. The same goes for the creature in the sealed case in the dinosaur room. I kept thinking I would eventually figure out a use for it, but no, it's just kind of there.

I should not be so smug about this, because no one likes a smug hypocrite. The absurd lengths you have to go through in FTF just to retrieve a blue pencil are comparable. Actually, I did that with some guilt that still lingers; and, as I recall, I only stuck the blue pencil there because I had designed an elaborate means to challenge the player's attempts to enter a certain location, only to discover to my embarrassment that I had never stopped to think of a reason for the PC to even go to that place. By that point, the game had grown up and spread out from that centerpiece, and it was the skeletal support on which everything else was hanging, so it could neither be changed nor removed. The puzzle of getting to that location had to remain as I'd designed it, so I put something the player needed there. Oy.

Despite my gripes and complaints, the puzzle-solver in me was thoroughly engaged and entertained by Mulldoon. Other bits of me, like the proofreader and the writing critic, were less so. There are still four or five dozen typos and other text-formatting errors in the game. The writing can be stilted or laboured, alarmingly colloquial, serviceable but rushed, or (as noted earlier) brisk and lively, each by turns. Commonly, room descriptions are written so that they make sense only the first time you arrive at a location. For example:

Outside the Botanical Room
Success! After descending a few steps northwards on the catwalk
you have slipped into a darker archway in the middle of the cavern
and are now standing face to face with the Botanical Room door to
the north. Typically, all you have to do now is work out how it
opens, as there is no window you could look through to check if
the plants are still alive.

I might add that, as the player, I had no particular curiosity about how the plants were faring, so this was an especially pushy description. The writing is at its worst -- functionally, not stylistically -- when it is obfuscatory instead of helpful. The worst of the worst is when an object gives a negative message for a number of common commands, like TAKE, OPEN, and SEARCH -- which dissuades further experimentation -- except that, say, LOOK BEHIND does something helpful. (This is why I learned to type in that entire set of commands on everything, no matter what response the parser gave.)

This is assuming there even is an object to interact with. Mulldoon is sizeable but coarse-grained. It trains you early on to not expect items mentioned in scene descriptions to be implemented, because little if anything like that is; and then later on, you are suddenly stuck because you failed to try to interact with something vital mentioned in a room description. There is also a frustrating lack of implemented vocabulary. There is an object described as a toolbox but does not respond to "toolbox", for example. Other objects have one lengthy name and no short synonyms. Par for Adventure and Infocom-era IF, admittedly, but the unfairness of the mostly-no, sometimes-yes implementation of scenery and synonyms really bugged me throughout. In an opposite case, he gave a synonym to an object that interfered with gameplay so often I wish he hadn't put it in. A little booklet you pick up at the beginning of the game is described as light reading, so he gave it "light" as a synonym; the game features half a dozen or more important vortexes of light that you need to interact with, and I was constantly being asked to disambiguate between the red vortexes of light or "Creatures of Mythos". Another idiosyncracy I found occasion to grumble at was the museum's peculiar layout, where I would walk in a cardinal direction but, in actuality, I would also be climbing up or down. This led to a confusion about the map, for one, and some situations of trying to move in one direction and ending up in a different room than I intended. A certain location of the game has Colossal Cave-like peculiarities in its mapping: You walk southwest, then return by going northwest. You go northeast and can from there go south or southwest, neither of which take you to the location you just came from. And so on. Since it was peculiar to this area it seemed deliberate, but I can't imagine what the point was.

One good thing about Mulldoon's map, from a design view, is that at first exploration it expands to sprawl far and wide, but it gradually becomes webbed by interconnecting shortcuts. By the end of the game, I was breezily transversing spaces that earlier required laborious, roundabout treks to reach my destination. (At the same time, as a big fan of the exploration stage of IF games, where the reward for solving a puzzle is New Rooms to Investigate, it was disappointing to get past locked doors that had taunted me for a while, only to find they led to rooms I'd already seen. Sigh. I think maybe I should have done more of that in FTF, as well as added a couple more sets of New Rooms to Investigate as player rewards.) The timing and placement of where these shortcuts appeared are smartly chosen, and now and then they really serve as connective tissue for the larger game and plot as well as being a convenience. Sometimes, the game went ahead and just plucked me up and plunked me down exactly where I needed to go next, saving me a trip. I was skeptical the first time this happened and grateful later on. (With a shrug. Saves me some keystrokes, why not?)

The current trend in IF is, of course, away from large, old-school puzzle games, but for fans of the genre (and there remain many), Mulldoon's popularity and appeal are not mysterious. It didn't exceed my expectations, but it did rush to meet them with palpable enthusiasm and energy. It is "That Big IF Game I Always Wanted to Write"; mine was First Things First, Graham Nelson's was Curses, Jon Ingold's is The Mulldoon Legacy. Sparkling throughout it is a youthful spirit, pleased as punch to be creating a world and stuffing it full of cunning obstacles and buttons to push and codes to crack; and I can't, at the end of it, be critical about the result of the same joy-in-IF-creation that compelled me to become an IF author. I don't give up 28 days and 9600 turns to just any old game.

Final word: Mulldoon was a lot of fun, and I'm sorry it didn't last longer.


Once and Future
by G. Kevin Wilson

"Dazed, you look around you in wonder.
Surely this is Avalon."

          -- from Once and Future
             by G. Kevin Wilson

I've just spent an enjoyable week with G. Kevin Wilson's storied opus, Once and Future -- his masterpiece, surely, and somewhat sadly, perhaps his swansong. GKW is still around, tangentially, and so is his erstwhile Avalon, a working title that has now become synonymous with large-scale IF vaporware, with mighty works in progress on an attenuated development schedule, and with the comical gaffe of vastly underestimating a project's completion date.

The jokes are over; Once and Future was published in 1998, in a package stuffed with goodies. Rather than heralding the revival of IF as a commercial product, it seems in retrospect to have been the last hurrah of a bygone era. I need a word here that doesn't exist; saying "Infocom-style IF" leaves out the contributions of other companies and other authorial styles. "Classic text adventure game" is a bit wordy, but I think it's more of what I mean: A classification that conjures the sense of a sprawling landscape, elements of fantasy, clever puzzles and the rewards of solving them, the advancement of the player's rank as he progresses, and a sense of the whimsy of it all running throughout. It is a classic adventure game; classic in terms of genre, as I've been saying.

The other meaning would be "Like Zork, Curses, and Trinity, this game is an IF classic." I feel that OaF should be, or should have been, regarded as such, but that the circumstances of its delayed release and its reception as a commercial product have robbed it of its birthright, to speak in charged terms. I feel confident in saying that, had GKW managed to release Avalon in 1994 or 1995, it would have been a gigantic success, hailed to the skies. And today, it would indeed be hailed as a classic like Zork and Curses. By 1998, however, it was already dated; IF had advanced past the classic adventure game. In April 2001, released finally as freeware for all to enjoy, it is an anachronism. Full of charm, wit, cleverness, grand themes, rich atmosphere, and a good dozen lively characters (award-winning characters, at that), but far from the cutting edge; it belongs to 1994, not 1998 or 2001 (or beyond). Perhaps as freeware, it can reclaim some of its due honor and its full audience. I hope so, because I have nothing but respect for this achievement.

I confess that I did not purchase OaF when it was first released, a source of some regret. This regret is now lessened by the sense that right now, this very week, was the perfect time for me to immerse myself in this game. I was in the mood; it hit the spot; it was a needed diversion during a week of personal anxieties; I was eager as I played, and I embraced the experience wholeheartedly. I can't always do this with IF; the muse (if there is such a thing as the muse to play IF) has to be there, or it doesn't work. Well, she (the muse) was there.

Adding to the sense of proper timing is that I am quite close to completing my own personal Avalon project. I've been working on it for about the same amount of time, and I'm using the same language, TADS 2.2. This created a nice resonance for me. In addition to enjoying the game as a player, I enjoyed it as a fellow author. I could see GKW's authorial moods ebb and flow as I made my way through the game, as obvious to me in OaF as they are in my own project when I traverse through it. Here's where GKW got to a new section and attacked it with vigor, excited to finally implement it; here's where he had locked himself into implementing a scene that was problematic, and his restlessness shows -- I can tell he wants to just get it done and move on. And near the end, explosions of cut-scene text -- a mad dash to just finish the damn thing already, to get out the remaining ideas that he's carried in his head for five long years.

IF on this scale is not an undertaking for the timid or the talentless; if I may skirt the edge of self-aggrandizement, it's a heroic undertaking. There really is no way to create IF this large and not have it take years to finish. Even then, the results are guaranteed to be mixed for the author; even rave returns don't quite pay off the personal debt. Even with an army of the world's best beta-testers at your side (see OaF's long, personal, and sweetly touching credits list), there's no way to catch every little bug, to patch every tiny hole in the mimesis. Players and reviewers can be cruel without intending to be; they can quibble about these tiny errors, forgetting to mention how impressive the work is on the large scale. Mentioning them can devastate; the player only knows what he sees, and has no idea that for every tiny error that remains in the release, fifty others were caught in time. On a project this size, there are thousands to catch. On a project that takes this long to complete, the testers miss errors in sections that have long since been approved; author and testers have moved on to other parts of the game. A game like this cannot be flawless, but for a project that has been patiently awaited for years, there is the expectation that it will be; for a commercial release, that it should be.

As a TADS author, I even recognized the types of errors: it's the library, misbehaving; it's the simplest of oversights (an object missing its short description, one object among hundreds the author had to create) creating a jarring response; it's the generic response to something that no one could have anticipated that a player would try. To work so hard, and for so long, on a project, and still not be able to make it perfect, is terrible. It almost makes me think that IF of this size -- once, the standard -- is an endangered, if not nearly extinct, species. Like writing a novel, it almost demands to be undertaken by a single author; a committee couldn't do it right. At the same time, it's too big for one person to undertake and expect fulfillment from the endeavor. It's too much, too big, too long, too draining. Who needs it? There is the potential for a short IF work to come much closer to perfection than a large one; the code is that much smaller, and the playing experience is that much cleaner and tighter. It's more of a winning move to choose to write something small.

That said, it will perhaps be a long time before the breed of player who enjoys classic adventure games completely dies out; perhaps there will always be a tiny but steadfast fanbase for such things: Those who love fiendish puzzles and fantasy; those who enjoy a game that takes a sizeable span of time to win. When the muse is with me, I'm one of them.

OaF rewards this type of player; GKW knew his (vanishing) audience well. In terms of design, OaF is superbly crafted. It plays fair; the Player's Bill of Rights is honored. What I liked about the design was the way each section, each puzzle, existed in its own territory. In this way, even if horribly stuck, I knew that there was a way out, a way to solve the problem facing me. The number of objects at hand was limited, the number of locations I needed to double-check was restricted; something I was holding, or something that could be had with a little more exploration of the available rooms, would do the trick. I asked a friend for exactly three hints; each time, I mainly wanted to know which line of guessing was unfruitful, because I knew I had to be flailing close to the solution already. At every new stage (the game works out to be episodic, with a large plot that breaks into subplots, and sub-subplots), GKW made sure that the player knew everything he needed to know to keep going. No, he says, you don't need to start over from the beginning because you forgot to do something; this area is self-contained. Keep trying! I enjoyed being able to rely on this trust I had with the author.

In terms of writing, OaF is equally rewarding. GKW is a professional writer, as it happens, and his craftsmanship is fully on display. That's the surface; underneath, there are some wonderful ideas. At times, the characters in the game don't seem to have answers to your many questions. As the game progresses, you learn more and more what the central themes of the game are, and find that the characters are fully conversant in these topics. One of my favorite surprises was when a couple of characters who were following me around started jesting with each other, then the jesting turned serious, and the characters ended up having a long and sometimes intense debate. Finally, my own character, the PC, interjected his opinion; it was character development that enriched the game, especially as I neared the conclusion. Admittedly, this whole interchange was not interactive; it was, though, fun to watch, and created the illusion of two living, thinking characters with a history of locking horns with each other. Leaving them alone to talk as I poked around was much more satisfying than typing repeated >ASK ABOUT commands. It made me think about my own approach to writing NPCs; since PC-to-NPC communication is still problematic (but necessary), perhaps what could produce some of the magic illusion-of-life is more NPC-to-NPC interaction of the type GKW used here. I'll file that one away for future use, definitely.

I suppose my final word about Once and Future would have to be, simply: please play it, now that it's freeware. You're missing out on a classic if you don't, and you're honoring the author's labors if you do. G. Kevin Wilson has made many lasting contributions to IF, notably SPAG and the annual competition. He should be remembered for his contribution as an author, too. It's my wish that we not associate G. Kevin Wilson with Avalon, a running joke about a piece of vaporware; but with Once and Future, a game of vitality, humor, and grand ideas, here to enjoy.