I keep just missing all of the possible holiday tie-ins. Wishbringer, as it turns out, would have been absolutely perfect for Halloween with its child-friendly monsters and campy darkness. A Mind Forever Voyaging could have been an “Election Day Special” to connect with the recent midterm elections in the United States on November 6. I’m not sure exactly what it says that a game is a good tie-in to an election, but it makes some thematic sense. Truth is, and I’ve only played this game for a bit over two hours for the introduction, this game isn’t like any that I’ve seen before. I have trust in Steve Meretzky, but this one won’t be our usual fare.
This seems especially odd in light of the overall Infocom story at this point. For all that the Business Products writing was on the wall when Wishbringer was published, A Mind Forever Voyaging had the writing on the pink slips themselves. September 1985 saw the start of layoffs at the company which would continue at regular intervals through the end. It was essential that Infocom produce another hit, and the previous two games had been some of the most successful in the company’s history, but AMFV wasn’t-- and probably could not have been, for reasons I’ll get to in a moment-- the commercial success that they needed. Maybe in the era of President Reagan, Meretzky had hoped to stoke controversy and have the game go “viral”. Maybe Infocom had hoped that inventing a new genre would pave the way to new markets. Maybe no one was watching the store and this was just a vanity project that went too far. I have no idea, but I am curious how this one is going to play out.
The other sticking point that might have hindered commercial success was that A Mind Forever Voyaging was launched as the first of a new line of “Interactive Fiction Plus” adventures. This wasn’t just a branding change, it marked a major change under the hood. Each of the various Infocom games up to this point had been written in iterative flavors of their “Z-Machine” interpreter and language. That meant that each game would be written once, but that they could distribute it to many different platforms just by writing a Z-interpreter for it. This cross-platform approach both ensured that new computer systems could very quickly (in theory) play any previous Infocom game, while also ensuring that new games could be written even without considering what platforms it would launch on. The challenge was that by 1985, the lowest common denominator was still the platforms that supported Zork I in 1980. For reasons that I expect will become more clear to me as I play, AMFV was too large of a game for those original systems and limitations. Instead, a new system (ZIP v4, otherwise known as “EZIP”) was devised that allowed for the creation of larger games and more text, while also moving the needle on what systems could actually play those games. This new system received the “Plus” branding, but correspondingly fewer computer users could have bought and played this game when it came out. Thus far, I have been unable to find a good timeline of when and what systems had EZIP ported to them, nor even what platforms AMFV launched with in September of 1985. The minimum requirement was 128K of RAM; my own trusty Commodore 64 of that era could not have played this game.
The story of our game is told through a key article in the included Dakota Online magazine for 2031. It’s a great little piece of prose fiction describing the life and upbringing of Perry Simm, a young boy who dreamed of becoming a writer. It tells of his experience getting lost in a shopping mall at four-- he was distracted looking at video cubes, as kids do these days. It tells of his being bullied at school and of discovering his passion for words. It tells of how he nearly died in an aircar accident when he was 17. But all of it is a lie: Perry Simm is PRISM, an artificial intelligence created by a group of scientists so that they could explore virtual systems, a simulation of the future to help guide decisions in the present.
What decisions, you may ask? Well, it seems that the “United States of North America” in 2031 is at a crossroads. The economy has been stagnant, extremist religions are cropping up and causing problems, while crime and urban decay are everywhere. Overpopulation is affecting the whole world. Perhaps even worse, the various superpowers have nuclear weapons the size of cigarette packs which could cause devastation on an unprecedented scale. A government agency, led by “Senator Ryder”, has an idea to fix the world’s woes through a “Plan for Renewed National Purpose”, essentially an America-first philosophy. And like all crazy ideas, they think that it would be good to run it through a simulation powered by a sentient AI to see how their ideas will work in theory before they put them into practice. Apparently, that’s where we come in because (for the first time!) we are playing as PRISM the AI and will be exploring these simulations. The manual also has a normal collection of other “feelies” that may or may not be pertinent, some advertisements for future products and a warning against “joy booth suicide”. There are also some access codes which are pretty clearly copy protection. I know we’ve always wanted to play-act 2001: A Space Odyssey as Hal and now we have our chance! All joking aside, the problem I have with the premise is not that it is dystopian or that we’re playing as an AI, but that in the future politicians will be pro-science enough to consult scientists to see if it will succeed. Obviously, politics have changed a bit since 1985!
Actually, let me be blunt in a different way: this manual is dense. It’s one thing that I’m used to having to read through game-specific commands and such when plopping down a new Infocom adventure, but this game appears to have four different modes (“Communications Mode”, “Simulation Mode”, “Interface Mode”, and “Library Mode”) with some specialized commands for each. I can see that there’s a “RECORD” command that I will need to use to export my observations inside of the simulation into the real world, and that I will be able to re-enter the real world by using the “ABORT” command. The other modes have commands for setting HVAC settings and similar. I am reminded, perhaps a bit too much, of Suspended in the way the game is approaching human-to-computer interfaces. I hope that I’ll figure out what I need as I need it.
Before I begin, I also feel at some level like I should provide some political context and an apology. I know that in many ways, this game was a reproach or a repudiation of President Reagan’s policies in the 1980s. Although I lived through that era, I was extremely young and I cannot say that I had any political awareness at all. I was more interested in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood than The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour. The politics of the time seem distant, although there are some obvious echos in the recent US climate. I may not notice references to specific political movements of the time, or allusions to politicians or speeches. I am too far removed to have the same reaction to this game than a contemporary would have. I hope you do not think I am ignorant of my own country’s political history, but my epoch is more the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1991 than the Iran-Contra Affair.
Let’s play the game!
|That’s not pretentious at all.|
|This is a triumph. I’m making a note here: “Huge Success”.|
We begin the game in “Communications Mode”. I’m a disembodied consciousness with six different rooms that I can “go” to within the PRISM complex. Let me tell you that I screwed up absolutely immediately because I didn’t write these completely meaningless “outlet” names down and so after jumping to the first room and looking around, I had absolutely no idea how to get back or get a list of where I could go and I ended up restarting from scratch. As interfaces go, that is not the best place to start.
I have no idea what it is that I am supposed to be doing, so I now write down the six commands that I can use to explore the base and do some investigation:
- The “Prism Project Control Center” is a hub of activity, but while I can listen to many people talking I cannot actually interact with anyone or get close enough to listen in.
- The “Research Center Rooftop” is just a roof where I can see the city in the distance.
- Dr. Perelman’s office has the good doctor, my creator, in it, but he’s too busy doing paperwork to talk to me.
- I can see the “PRISM Cafeteria” from a ceiling-mounted camera high above, but other than observing some people eating and socializing there is nothing to do.
- The “Maintenance Core” is also very boring, although I expect that I’m more or less looking at “myself” while there.
- The “World Network News Feed” is not a place in the same way, but you can get ongoing news reports beamed directly into your head. In this case, it was baseball scores, news of an impending athlete’s strike, and that sort of thing.
|Let’s have a completely different interface in our interface!|
Lacking anything else to do, I try out “Library Mode”. That gives me a different Cornerstone-like UI that is all single-key command-based, not a text adventure. It’s a strange choice to completely change the parser to access a feature, but I figure it out quickly enough. I don’t know how I should be approaching this right now, but there are a number of little texts in the library to read. Some of them might be essential and some might be flavor-text, but I have no idea which is which. I’m a bit miffed that I just finished reading the manual and here I have a bunch more to read, but I appreciate the detailed backstory that Mr. Meretzky is building. Yay reading!
In my trawling, I discover that my creator, Dr. Perelman, had began drafting a letter of resignation due to project mismanagement, but never sent it. I also learn that a fringe religious group, the Church of God’s Word, managed to take over a radio telescope because a pulsar they are listening to might be the word of God. There’s honestly too much stuff to summarize quickly, but there is a speech from Senator Ryder which spells out the Plan that we are supposed to be testing and some news reports that say just how popular his ideas are. I will admit to a bit of political deja vu when reading his speech, starting with the Senator’s line that we should “[...] start looking after our own interests first!”. I guess some rhetoric hasn’t changed much in thirty-three years. Other than that, the highlights of the “Plan” include cutting taxes but prosecuting tax avoiders, deregulation and decentralization, reinstatement of the draft including mandatory conscription for criminals and “troublemakers”, an “America First” trade policy, and termination of aid to countries not allied with us. It also pushes to increase the powers of the President and extend his (or her) term to eight years. Some of those seem eerily familiar. I have little context for how those positions exaggerated the views of the Republican party in 1985.
|Barkley always had the best holodeck fantasies.|
The final bit that I learn in “Library Mode” is how to control the complex’s HVAC systems, as well as local traffic and weather computers. I am 100% getting a Suspended vibe when I read that you can easily change rush hour traffic times by updating a computer interface. My guess is that I’ll need to monkey around with some of these down the line. If I had to wager, maybe someone tries to shut me off before the end of the game and I need to freeze them out? Or maybe I have to repair myself? It seems an awful lot to put in there if they don’t use it, but I’m not sure yet how it connects with the rest of the game.
At 7:35 PM, I finally get a message which starts the plot on track. The simulation has been loaded up and I will have to go in there and record a handful of actions. My guess is that some of these will be easy, while others will require me to do some diligent searching. The nine
- Eating a meal in a restaurant
- Talking to a government official
- Visiting a power generating facility
- Reading a newspaper
- Riding public transit
- Attending a court in session
- Talking to a church official
- Going to a movie
- Visiting your own home
After that, I try to enter the simulation but am prompted to enter the correct security code that corresponds to a given color and number value. Thankfully, we have all of the required documentation and I enter the code to access the simulation. I hope I won’t have to do that each time.
Once inside, I am finally playing a traditional text adventure! I start off in “Kennedy Park”, an attractive place with a statue and fountain with exits in several directions. I take inventory and find that I am carrying a key to my apartment and a wallet. I am assuming that this simulation is taking the “Perry Simm” identity that the AI was trained with in the documentation; I wonder how much of that backstory will connect to what I find in-game. The wallet contains a driver's license (with my address on it) and a credit card.
Exploring off to the west, I very quickly find a Chinese restaurant. My first treasure! I save the game since I have no idea what I am doing, then set the recording. I pay $30 for a Chinese meal which seems a bit steep, but probably seemed a lot more expensive to someone living in 1985. After eating, I am told that I have $570 left in my bank account. I turn off the recording, but it doesn’t seem to indicate in any way that I completed one of my missions. Even if I leave the simulation, there is no acknowledgement that I did one of the nine things that was asked of me. I’m not sure whether that is just the game or if I am doing something wrong.
|The included map is very helpful. I could just be wasting time building my own.|
At that point, I hit the western edge of the simulation. I keep exploring and mapping, hitting the university and dorms, up to a park, and the bustling downtown area. At one point, I watch police frisk someone and lead them away. At another point, a religious nut comes up to me but demurs politely. I make note of where I can do more of my tasks, such as city hall, but for the most part I’m just mapping and mapping and mapping. Thirty rooms so far with nary a puzzle or obstacle in sight, although I suspect this is (ala Wishbringer?) just the “light” world and all hell will break loose soon. Once the game kicks in and the city becomes a neo-conservative hellscape, I might be glad that I drew a map…
Given the lack of forward momentum, I’m bored and just going to cut the introduction here. I apologize in advance if I offend anyone by finding this game slow to get started, but at least I have a checklist that I can start to work against. I hope I’m doing the recordings correctly. If anyone wants to tell me if I’m doing something fundamentally wrong, please go ahead.
Time played: 2 hr 10 min
Inventory: wallet, key, driver's license, credit card
Since this is an Introduction post, it’s time to guess the score! The current average score for an Infocom game is 38 points. This is the fourth game for Meretzky in our Infocom marathon; we’ve already looked at Planetfall (48 points), Sorcerer (43 points), and Hitchhiker’s Guide (49 points), while TBD already looked at Leather Goddesses (his next game) and rated it as 40 points. Looking at all of Meretzky’s games that we have seen so far, he’s been averaging 48 points. Given how unique this game is turning out to be, I’m not sure any advice I could give you would be useful.
Note Regarding Spoilers and Companion Assist Points: There's a set of rules regarding spoilers and companion assist points. Please read it here before making any comments that could be considered a spoiler in any way. The short of it is that no CAPs will be given for hints or spoilers given in advance of me requiring one. As this is an introduction post, it's an opportunity for readers to bet 10 CAPs (only if they already have them) that I won't be able to solve a puzzle without putting in an official Request for Assistance: remember to use ROT13 for betting. If you get it right, you will be rewarded with 50 CAPs in return. It's also your chance to predict what the final rating will be for the game. Voters can predict whatever score they want, regardless of whether someone else has already chosen it. All correct (or nearest) votes will go into a draw.