Posted 7 April 2001 to rec.games.int-fiction
"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.
This article copyright © 2001, J. Robinson Wheeler