Review: Once and Future

(An Arthurian puzzler. Hugely under-rated and under-reviewed on IFDB. Large, engaging, erudite. Brutal and escapist at the same time. Once and Future - Details (

Excalibur in Avalon

“She is not any common earth
Water or wood or air,
But Merlin’s Isle of Gramarye
Where you and I will fare.”

[T.H. White, The Once and Future King]

You hear the hiss of the kerosene lamp and the quiet chatter of your friends.

Frank Leandro and his fellow soldiers are playing cards in their barracks, winding down from a day patrolling the Vietnam jungle.

The pale lamp casts dark shadows across the room and onto your faces, even as this war does the same to your souls.

After saving his friends from a surprise attack in a particularly heroic (and lethal) manner, Frank is intercepted in the afterlife by King Arthur and sent to Avalon. Unimaginable dangers threaten the world, and to ward them off, a Quest on this dream-like isle must first be undertaken…

Thus, right after the brutal prologue of Once and Future, you are transported from the realities of the Vietnam War to an idyllic fantasy-setting. This contrast is repeated further in the game, and it’s what gives it its own personal feel.
Fantasy adventures, no matter how serious the threat, always retain an escapist feeling of relief to me. The distance in time and space and plane of existence of the imaginary world lessens the urgency of the need to act. Sure, there may be an Evil Warlock threatening to lay waste to the Land, but in the meanwhile I’m strolling through the forests and mountains, gawking at the wondrous sights, secure and far away from the real world.
Once and Future shatters this escapist solace on multiple occasions. These intermezzos not only impress upon the player the immediacy of the horrors of war, they also serve to load the larger fantasy-side of the story with a more weighty significance.

Having pointed this out, I hasten to add that, in itself, the Isle of Avalon is indeed all one could wish for in a fantasy game. Forests, lakes, and mountains, with mythological references and fanciful creatures, diverse areas with their own moods, from oppressive to playful, blinding fog-filled vales to far-reaching mountaintop views.
Unfortunately though, the entire island is mapped onto a rectangular grid of NESW-connections. The artificiality of this layout, which was emphasised by drawing my map by hand, clashes painfully with the unpredictability I associate with exploring the wilderness.

The game does partly redeem itself in later stages. The Isle of Avalon is a sort of “overworld”, reminiscent of the Sundial Zone in Trinity. While the objectives of the several subquests are to be found here, obtaining the information and objects to even begin contemplating their solutions requires travelling to other realms, which do have somewhat more adventurous geographies.


—Old Woman’s Laboratory

Strange brews burble and froth in cauldrons scattered around this room. Ancient alchemical devices are intermixed with more modern chemistry equipment. The shelves are stocked with bottles of all sorts and sizes. A podium fills one corner of the room. To the east is a formidable looking door.

Location descriptions are ebullient and evocative. On several occasions after reading a paragraph, I found myself closing my eyes to paint the room in my mind. Many memorable images and colourful impressions found their way to my imagination while I was going over my progress in the game during those not-quite-dreaming moments right before I fell asleep.

Fantastic butterflies laze their wobbly paths through the air with tiny artworks on their wings. One flits past your face and you are left with a brief flash of the Mona Lisa, while another lands on a flower, giving you a clear view of Whistler’s Mother.

[I absolutely love how the author here has chosen the painting “Whistler’s Mother” by James McNeil Whistler. Although exquisite, its colours are a drab grey-brown-black, not at all what one would expect on the wings of a Fantasian butterfly.]

Every once in a while, a cut-scene or conversation dumps a page or two of continuous text. I found these interesting and entertaining each time, a welcome pause from my investigations and a chance to savour the writing without plans for my next commands taking up space in my head.

While these descriptions are a joy to read and visualise, that joy is layered and muddied. There is always a menacing undercurrent of dread, caused by the player’s memories of the harsh and gruesome war-scenes.

You freeze for a second, startled by a sudden noise.

I love how even an absent-minded stray press of the ENTER-button without typing a command first is incorporated into the flow of the story. As this example shows, the implementation is mostly deep and detailed. SMELL and LISTEN almost always give location-specific responses, and XYZZY is approriately dark and gloomy.
More importantly, there is an abundance of synonyms and alternate commands, and many failed attempts at a puzzle-solution do give a veiled explanation of why it didn’t work, nudging the player’s problem-solving faculties along.

Most puzzles and obstacles, especially those involving object-manipulation or the timely application of magic, flow naturally from the setting, their solutions intuitive from within the perspective of knightly tales and Arthurian Legend.
There are also several logic-problems, one of which became a bit of a tedious excercise because of the length of the chain even after I had deduced the basic mechanism.

The most difficult are the puzzles where assistance or information from NPCs is required. The ASK/TELL-mechanics (without TOPICS) are not up to the task of ensuring the player happens upon the correct conversation branch with the right NPC, which left me flailing in the dark quite a few times.

And while I’m on the subject of talking to NPCs, here’s an excerpt of my notes scribbled furiously while in the middle of an important conversation with Merlin:

Damned conversation bug!
Each topic triggers twice, and a dismissive response is slapped onto that for good measure. And some other stuff. Depending on the question, the character I’m asking , and the precise dismissive response, I’ve smacked into a list of no less than four “Dingledoofus doesn’t have anything to say about that,” in a single reply to ASK DINGLEDOOFUS ABOUT TINGALING.
Then I go exploring a breathtaking new part of the map, everything is interesting and moody and intruiging… I forget all about my conversational annoyances…
“Oh, here’s Donglebupkis! I’ll ask Donglebupkis about the Tingaling.”
And then Donglebupkis does have important things to say about Tingaling, but still her response is followed by “Donglebupkis grunts dismissively.”
Bang! Right back to gritting my teeth.

But as play went on, and as I grew accustomed to this idiosyncracy of the conversation system, my annoyance subsided to the point where I just skipped over the redundant final dismissive response to my questions altogether.

From what I’ve read about Once and Future before I started playing, this game was made over several years, all the while debated and eagerly awaited by the community.
Although I think it largely succeeds at fulfilling its ambitious potential, here and there it feels like the author overreached a tad. Or, by the end of the development period of years, the final push was a bit too hasty, leaving some burrs and sand where it should have been smoothed out.

An engaging puzzle-heavy Arthurian story, with added gravitas through its references to the real-world Vietnam War.

Very, very good.


Very nice review!

You led me to look at some of the older reviews on the page:

On top of that, it was no doubt to the game’s disadvantage that I played it in 2002. However unfair it might be to judge what’s essentially a 1994 game by 2002 standards, it’s impossible not to, because, well, it is 2002. Styles have changed, and parts of OAF haven’t aged well.

Strange to think how fast things were changing back then. Nowadays, a 2016 game isn’t all that different from a 2024 game!


OAF (one of the worst three-letterism in filenaming…) was also the proverbial “vaporware” during its long dev time, and is true that suffers the same issue of Theatre another game of the era suffering from lack of polish toward the end.

If one thinks well on the basic premise, is the very first isekai-genre IF, hence the major interest I have in playing it (the scrapped since Oct.7, 2023 prologue was an homage to OAF… but I hope to put it back in 2026 as sort of “postgame”)

The r.a.i.f. debate prior of the release of OAF is instructive on development process, and there’s interesting tidbits, like that its prologue originally was to be bigger, and is an interesting, not only from an historical perspective, reading, together that entire IF e-zine monographic issue; I recommend in particular Adam Thornton’s review, whose is also a magnificent illustration of the “renaissance era” of IF of the late '90s.

Enough with primary sources… I don’t hide that I occasionally have resorted to solutions in playing it, but was clear to me that the major limit GKW hit was that in a very large game the balance between the narrative and crossword became hard to manage; Perhaps that the game was developed during the transition era between the puzzle-based IF and narrative-based IF is at the core of this issue and the mixed rewiews OAF got.

(OK, ok… in the end, perhaps an actual historian should NOT review an historical IF work ??)

Best regards from Italy,
dott. Piergiorgio


Noted. This game seems to be of my favourite flavour.

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Oh, just to add some perspective on the size of the game: I attained the rank of “Hero”, winning the game in 2339 moves.


How many rooms does the game contain?

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----…checks maps…----

About 150-160. I’m rounding a bit because I don’t remember exactly how many rooms were in some sub-areas.

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