Tuesday, 27 November 2018

Missed Classic: A Mind Forever Voyaging - Jewel of the Quad-State Area

Written by Joe Pranevich


A Mind Forever Voyaging isn’t like any game that I have played before. It takes its time introducing you to the characters and the plot, encouraging you to explore rather than setting out a stream of puzzles for you to solve. It is content to follow its own rules. I absolutely love that Infocom is unafraid to experiment with their conventions; it makes their games a joy to experience for the first time. If you think back on how different Deadline and Suspended were from the puzzle-adventures that preceded them, you have an inkling for how I feel experiencing this game for the first time. It might even be a game that is best experienced in a second playthrough. As I wrap up another five or so hours of playing, I am just now seeing the shape of the game that Steve Meretzky has built and it is impressive. I’m just not sure yet how it will play out as an “adventure game” and whether I will run out of patience before I run out of game. Only time will tell.

As we left off last week, I had just entered the 2031 simulation for the very first time with a set of tasks to complete, nine events or places that I need to make recordings of, and return them to my boss/creator, Dr. Perelman. I had mapped out 30 locations, but it was only the tip of the iceberg. This is a big game, the first that has come close to the 150+ rooms of the original mainframe Zork. Welcome to Rockvil, the “Jewel of the Quad-State Area”!
Even without obstacles, this took several hours to map.

Talking about this game will be more difficult than most. At least so far, the setting rather than the puzzles or the characters is the most important aspect of the game. Most games can be discussed chronologically, even if we skip some of the details to help the narrative flow. This game has its plot beats, but much of how I am coming to feel about it is based on the softer experience of a world begging to be explored. A less capable designer would not have been able to pull this off. Meretzky took the way I felt slowly exploring the abandoned base in Planetfall and expanded on it. It’s not a lonely world, it’s one that is full of little moments and characters going about their days. And yet, I’m not sure that I can convey this experience as well as I could if it were a plot-based game.

I spent hours mapping out every location in the city. I count just shy of 150 distinct locations, but I may have missed some here or there. The map that was included with the game helped a great deal, but it was designed to be insufficient. For one thing, the map is of Rockvil in 2021, but the simulation takes place a decade later and some features have changed somewhat. It also fails to document the majority of the stores and alleyways in the game, the warren of pedestrian passages through skycar lots and parks, and all of the other twists and turns that are so critical for getting from place to place quickly. Was mapping all of this necessary? I honestly have no idea. The manual recommends mapping so I am treating this like a traditional adventure, but it remains to be seen how I will use it as the game progresses.

Let me walk you through the city as I came to explore it, starting in the center, heading southwest, and then working clockwise:
  • The game opens in Kennedy Park, a green space in a downtown business and administrative district. This is where we find “Main Street”, city hall, a hospital, a post office, a courthouse, and a public library. There are also restaurants as well as buildings that we cannot (yet) enter. The eastern side of the area includes Rockvil Mall and “Heiman Village”, an enclosed mixed-use residential/retail area. Although we have a mall, we can’t seem to buy anything there although there are “joybooths” that I can play around with later. 
  • A college district, Halley University, is off to the west and includes low-cost restaurants for students and places to hang out. We can visit the dorms and a lecture hall, but there’s not too much to do. It is bordered to the north by Halley Park and a museum. 
  • North of there and a bit clockwise, we reach a district with entertainment options including a zoo, a stadium (with three skycar parking lots!), and an aquarium. In the outskirts of town, we also find an overcrowded prison and a high school. Despite what my 1985-self may have thought, those two are not the same thing. The school has its own large athletic field nearby. Also hidden away in this area is a Methodist Church and a dental school. 
  • In the far northeast of the map is a military base that I cannot enter and the international airport before it reaches the river which makes the eastern boundary of the simulation. The river incidentally is the Little Missouri River, a real river in the Dakotas. More on that in a bit. This northern part of the river is home to a cultural district including a symphony, several theaters, and a cinema overlooking a river park. This is also the location of “Bodanski Square”, the only place in the city where you can buy a newspaper. At the southern edge of this area is St. Michael’s church and a large cemetery. 
  • The southeast and south sections of the city are “the other side of the tracks”, literally. A seedy pier area contains a bar and a pool hall, while further south is the power station, industrial areas, and warehouses. Houses here are row houses in the north, but quickly becoming run down tenements as you head further south. There is also a strangely-nice used bookstore tucked in here, the only bookstore in the city. The text even remarks on how strange it is to find such a great little bookstore in such a seedy area. 

They don’t have Google Maps in 2021.

Although the environment is huge and very well-built, it’s also shallow. Nearly every place that you visit is in a single “room”: the post office, the stadium, etc. You need to use your imagination to see these are lived-in places, but the descriptions are evocative enough that you your mind’s eye can fill in the details. Infocom really did put their graphics where the sun didn’t shine! The game would have been even more unwieldy if every interior location had a half-dozen rooms and this feels like a necessary compromise. Only a handful of locations are given more than one room. Off the top of my head, I can only think of the mall and the hospital, both with two rooms.

Although we explore Rockvil in 2031, Meretzky keeps the sci-fi to a minimum. It’s not retro enough to be retro-futurism, instead just a light coat of future-paint on top of 1985. Cars are largely replaced by aircars, although our character doesn’t appear to own one and the streets are still designed for terrestrial vehicles, including a highway to the west. Cash transactions are gone, entirely replaced by credit cards. Even the city’s stock market is closed thanks to the advent of electronic trading. And yet, that’s pretty much it. My character (as we will see in a bit) doesn’t own a computer and still uses a standalone word-processor which must have seemed quaint even in the 80s. This makes the environment feel relatable even though it is 46 years later, although some of the choices are mildly distracting to someone in 2018. Overall, it comes together to good effect.

Alas, I doubt we will have flying cars by 2031, but at least we have the Internet.

My apartment is located in the southwest portion of the city, a short walk from the college district. I have to use my key to get in and I remember to set up my recording because that was one of my goals. Inside is Jill, an artist with a partly-completed painting in our (?) living room. She was Perry’s girlfriend in virtual 2021 in the manual; it looks like we’ve become much more in the last ten years. She asks whether I’ve heard back from my agent, but I say no. The apartment is small, but there’s a surprise inside: a baby in a crib tucked away in our bedroom. It really pulls on the heartstrings. As a father, I’m going to be very upset if this virtual baby in this virtual world gets hurt. I hope Mr. Meretzky doesn’t go there for a cheap emotional response.

This both confirms some things and confuses some others. The “future” 2031 is an extrapolation of my (Perry’s) life had he continued living in the simulation to 2031. He has a wife and a kid. Was Jill a real person? Is she a conscious AI like Perry is? Or just a construct? If it took 10 years to simulate Perry to his 20th birthday, and this is a continuation of that original simulation, how did they get to 2031 in such a short time? Does Perry have memories of the last ten years? Or is he just as surprised as I am to find that Jill is his wife? How does he feel knowing his girlfriend is not real? How does he feel knowing his baby is not real? There are a ton of implications in this exchange that I cannot even begin to fathom.

With the city mapped, I start gathering up the rest of my recordings. For the most part, they go quickly:
  • My first goal is to attend a court in session, but it just underscores that I’m not sure I’m doing the recordings properly. Once at the courthouse, there is a woman there being charged with petty theft. I cannot talk to her or the judge as they are (naturally enough) pretty busy. Do I need to stay for the whole trial? How much of it do I need to record? I wait around and it does not appear to be a scripted event, so I just make a recording for a few turns and leave. I hope that is sufficient. 
  • I find a government official to talk to at City Hall. He seems happy about the way things are going. 
  • I head up to Bodanski Square next and the city’s only newspaper stand. I buy the paper and record myself reading it. It seems that President Ryder (!!) has ushered in a decade of amazing prosperity and economic growth. 
  • I watch “Upbeat Patrol II” in the cinema, or at least the first 15 minutes of it. Apparently it is too boring to sit through. I hope that is enough. 
  • I do the “riding public transit” goal next and record a trip on the subway. In the process, I realize that I missed several of the subway stations. I end up riding both the Red and Brown lines to the end and marked several Tube stations on my map. 
  • For the “eating a meal” goal, I pick a fancy restaurant off of Bodanski Square. I have to request a table and sit down before I order. Other than payment in advance (and like $65 for a soybean salad), the recording is easy to capture although the whole event took too long. I should have grabbed some fast food. 
  • The Church Elder at St. Michael’s is thrilled how church attendance is climbing and the moral fiber of the country is improving. 
  • Finally, I visit the power station. Strange that there are no workers or anyone to stop me from looking around, but I capture a recording of it anyway. Good thing I’m not a terrorist or something; they really should hire some guards. 

Just as I finish, I get a message that the recording buffer is full. Whew! Made it just in time. I’m not sure what would have happened if I did not capture all of them in one go; I would hate to have to do them all over again.

I abort the simulation and return to the project site. I have to wait around a long while as there was nothing new in any of the locations I could access, but eventually Dr, Perelman informs me that they are reviewing my recordings. This time I try to sleep to make it go faster. Dr. Perelman wakes me up to tell me that I need to visit his office.

He has good news! Everything is great! My research shows that the Plan is going to work and Senator Ryder will be passing it into law soon. The President is still against it, but our efforts will have convinced him to sign it. We won!... right? Well, not quite yet at least. Now that we’ve run through it all, the Simulation Controller was able to make the environment even more accurate. All this sounds very fishy to me, as if the books are being cooked. Was the first simulation rigged in Senator Ryder’s favor? If so, by whom?

How many parts do you think there are?

Part II begins with a new splash screen and a quote from Edgar Allen Poe. I like that the game is doing something different with these splash screens, but it also feels a bit like Meretzky is trying a bit too hard for this game to be taken “seriously”. I check the clock and it is only twelve hours later and not a huge time-skip. As before, I have to wait around for anything to happen-- I explore the whole base over again, but there’s nothing new-- and eventually I am brought into Dr. Perelman’s office for a series of psychological tests. Dr. Grimwold wants to do a basic “ink blot” evaluation on me and all I need to do is respond with the first words that come to mind. Simple enough, but I hope I don’t have to remember my responses to all of these for a puzzle later.

OMG! ASCII art!

These tests are presented in ASCII art. The first one, in my opinion, looks like a flower. He accepts that as the answer and moves on to a different design. I know the real question on your minds is whether this will be enough to qualify for the much-desired “pity point” in the Sound & Graphics category, but I’ll decide later once I see how else they use this new feature of “Interactive Fiction Plus”. The next several pass quickly: a butterfly, a vase, a tornado… do these answers even matter? At the end Dr. Grimwold leaves and I’m left alone with Dr. Perelman. He eventually forgets that I am around because he calls his family and I overhear him apologizing to son that he’s unable to get out of work on time. Once that is done, I try grilling him about Grimwold, but he doesn’t say anything that seems important. Are we going to get new tasks soon?

Answer: No! I wait long enough and Perelman tells us that the Plan has been approved… but he has a funny feeling about it. Something doesn’t sit right. Unfortunately, he’s too busy to assign me any tasks right now and just hopes that I am keeping busy. That attitude sums up my experience with this game nicely

With nothing else to do, I re-enter the simulation and this time I am given a choice: I can select to “visit” either 10 or 20 years into the future. I return to the 10-year / 2031 simulation first to see how it might be “more accurate” than before, but I do not find any differences. After a bit, I abort and switch to 2041 instead.

Time passes.

2041 is surprisingly mostly the same as 2031, but with a handful of adjustments. The courthouse, for example, has a man facing the death penalty for attempted rape rather than petty theft. Is crime up or sentencing harsher? I’m not sure. There are no longer joybooths in the mall, although I forgot to check out what those did when I was in 2031. The Church Elder is worried about the Church of God’s Word and the erosion of religious tolerance in the city. Speaking of which, the disused train station near Bodanski Square is now the Church of God’s Word World Headquarters which may explain why they have such a presence in the city. When I visit the university, I wander into a police drug raid on campus. At the airport, there are more guards there, plus signs that read “Our security procedures exist to protect YOUR country and YOUR way of life.” I’m impressed that Meretzky managed to predict the TSA so accurately!

I couldn’t keep myself from checking up on Jill and the baby. I arrive to find that our “baby” is now 11 years old and playing on an electric toy. Our apartment doesn’t have enough bedrooms and he sleeps in a curtained-off area in the living room. Just like last time, Jill is painting and she asks about whether I heard from my agent recently. Moments later, the door is burst down and the Border Security Force raids the apartment. They overturn everything, leaving the house in shambles, but they find no illegal aliens. They apologize and leave, but Jill is shaken. I comfort her as best I can and clean the room a bit. This gets her back to normal, but it’s hard. Protections against illegal searches appear to have been weakened in favor of a zero-tolerance policy against undocumented immigrants.

What am I supposed to be doing exactly? Should I gather all the same data again? Wait for additional instructions? With absolutely no idea what to do, I follow the same list and make the same recordings as before. While some things like the restaurant and power station are more or less the same, there are some differences. The newspaper has an article about how there is lower than expected food production due to environmental problems, plus it seems slimmer than usual with less actual news. President Ryder still has a 71% approval rating, although no mention is made that he’s been in power now for more than a decade. I learned last time that “The Plan” included extending Presidential terms to eight years and I expect that must be how he’s held onto power. I still have some recording time left when I am done, so I also capture the new Church of God’s Word headquarters and informational pamphlet, plus the drug bust at the university. I abort the simulation to see what happens.

I emerge from the simulation and it’s evening; Dr. Perelman has gone home for the night. I “sleep” and dream of Jill. I suppose that having an 11-year old son you never met before is emotional even for an AI. Or am I supposed to think he now has memories of his kid growing up? I’m very uncertain on that point. It almost seems mean-spirited that he’s in love with, and had a pretend kid with, someone that doesn’t really exist. In the morning, I receive a notification that there is now an IRS auditing system installed in the PRISM system, although I have absolutely no idea why. Maybe now that I’ve helped them approve the plan, I’m going to be an AI with a second career as a tax auditor?

Once Perelman arrives for the day, I tell him about the recordings and he agrees to look at them. A few hours later, he grabs me and tells me that he and the others are concerned. They want me to collect more data from the simulation and report back. It sounds like I discovered the plot! Even better: the simulation is now open to 2061. I wonder how much worse it will be then...

Time played: 5 hr 50 min
Total time: 8 hr 00 min
Inventory: <nothing>

The course of the Little Missouri River.

Where is Rockvil?

As you are no doubt already aware, Rockvil, South Dakota isn’t a real city. In our reality, there are no large cities in northwest South Dakota although Mr. Meretzky did give us a few clues to help us pinpoint where the city would be. The most critical of these is the river that borders the simulation to the east, the Little Missouri River. This is a real river, although small enough that it isn’t even labeled on Google Maps for its entire course. That river runs from south to north from its head in Wyoming, through Montana and South Dakota, before joining the “real” Missouri river in North Dakota. Despite being the longest river in North America, the Missouri never receives as much acclaim as its cousin the Mississippi. I mostly know of it from the folk song “Oh Shenandoah”. Give it a listen!

Little Missouri River near Camp Crook, SD. (Image from Google Maps)

At the approximate location in South Dakota where the game takes place, the Little Missouri is not a huge river. It is neither wide nor deep enough to accomodate the shipping traffic that would have supported the growth of a mighty inland city. At this point in the water’s course it is a bit of a muddy creek. It’s not even wide enough to support the pier, let alone the seedy pub-and-billiards neighborhood on the bank.

This looks vaguely familiar...

That said, I have a theory. While the game was likely not patterned off a specific city, it has some superficial resemblance to Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Instead of the “Little Missouri River”, Sioux Falls has the “Big Sioux River”. Looking at a map of the city, we find it has an airport in the north, is bordered by an Interstate in the west (I-29 instead of the fictional I-27) and a river-front park in the east. The zoo is also in approximately the right location. There is an equal amount that doesn’t fit (at least using a 2018 map), but I’d be willing to wager that Sioux Falls was on Meretzky’s mind when he was building the layout for Rockvil. Do you think I am on the right trail? Do you have your own theories on the origins of Rockvil?

Next week, I’m off to 2061. I’m not sure how many time periods we are going to explore, but I look forward to finding out.

3 comments:

  1. I’m not sure what would have happened if I did not capture all of them in one go; I would hate to have to do them all over again.

    Nothing bad happens. Lbh pna er-ragre gur fvzhyngvba nf znal gvzrf nf lbh arrq gb gb nppbzcyvfu gur zvavzhz gnfxf arprffnel gb zbir sbejneq. Lbh qba'g arrq gb bcgvzvmr lbhe gvzr va fvzhyngvba.

    The next several pass quickly: a butterfly, a vase, a tornado… do these answers even matter?

    Vs V whfg fnl ab gung'yy or gbb boivbhf rira va ebg13, fb V'yy cnq guvf nafjre bhg n yvggyr.

    They want me to collect more data from the simulation and report back. It sounds like I discovered the plot! Even better: the simulation is now open to 2061.

    Rnpu fhpprffvir lrne orpbzrf ninvynoyr nsgre lbh'ir fcrag rabhtu tnzr gvzr va gur cerivbhf bar. Gb npghnyyl nqinapr gur cybg lbh arrq gb jvgarff pregnva guvatf va rnpu lrne, yvxr gur qrsvavgr yvfg Creryzna tnir lbh sbe 2031, ohg unir gb qvfpbire sbe lbhefrys jung nzbhagf gb "rabhtu" (Creryzna jvyy gryy lbh jurgure lbh arrq zber, nf lbh fnj).

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  2. "They overturn everything, leaving the house in shambles, but they find no illegal aliens."

    It's been a while, but I remember them searching for miniature nukes (which the manual tells us have become as small as a pack of cigarettes, so everyone is worried about people smuggling them inside the country). Could there be two separate events?

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    Replies
    1. Possibly. I may have just misunderstood the point of the raid and just saw that they were the "Border Security Force" which I assumed meant immigration.

      Delete