Tuesday, 4 December 2018

Missed Classic: A Mind Forever Voyaging - Hell on Earth

Written by Joe Pranevich


In Wishbringer, we learned that a little magic and a lost cat could turn the world into a dark place. In A Mind Forever Voyaging, we learn that people can do that even without the magic and that cats are not essential to the equation. Perhaps I am getting ahead of myself, but last week we had finally been given the “real” mission in the game: explore the simulation and collect data that would prove that Senator Ryder’s plan is flawed. I had already looked at a fairly happy 2041 and a less happy 2051. Now, we are challenged to plunge even further in the future to find data that supports or undercuts the success of the Plan. I apologize but in my previous post, I got the dates wrong a couple of times: the real world of the game takes place in 2031, not 2021. It doesn’t matter quite enough to go back and fix it now, but I hope I did not confuse things too much. Just keep in mind that the two variations we saw were current year plus ten and plus twenty.

I am going to have a lot to say about this game as we get closer to the final rating. If it does one thing well, it encourages you to think about its message and the way in which it presents that message. Does that make it a good “game”? I’m not sure yet. Please join me as we travel to the far off and exotic year 2061 in the dreamscape that once was the United States of North America.
Burned out apartment building. (Photo by Pryshutova Viktoria, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)


Exploring 2061

Entering the simulation once again, I start in the southeastern corner of the city outside of “Heiman World”. This was the counterpart to the “Heiman Village” that existed in 2031, a mixed commercial and residential area not unlike a mall-with-condos. I had seen it first as a construction site, then as a completed mall-experience, but now it’s just a burned out husk. A lack of safety regulations meant that it was built on the cheap. It burned down, killing hundreds. The whole message is a bit on the nose, especially as they make it the entry point in the 2061 simulation, but it works well enough. Let’s see if the rest of the city fared any better.

I check my drivers license to make sure I haven’t moved in the last decade then head to my apartment. It’s sad that I haven’t been able to find a nicer, or larger, place in the last thirty years. Obviously, writers and painters are not making the big bucks in this future. When I arrive home, I find out that something heart-wrenching happened: Mitchell, my 21-year old son, has just abandoned his family. He’s fallen in with the Church of God’s Word and has left us to join them, considering us heathens. He wouldn’t even talk to Jill as she followed him all the way to the airport, but now he’s gone. She’s obviously upset over the whole ordeal. I suppose I am too, except we’ve hardly gotten to know him. Just a quick flash of an infant, followed by a quick flash when he was 11-years old, doesn’t make for a deep relationship. As before, I do not know whether Perry is supposed to have lived these ten years in the simulation. Does he have memories of his kid growing up? Does it matter? Either way, he’s gone now, brainwashed by a cult. To add insult to injury, the Border Security Agents pick now to ransack the house once again to look for whatever they are looking for. I had thought they were hunting immigrants, but a commenter last week said they were looking for pocket-nukes. Either way, they are far less polite than before. Jill hardly seems to react, both because of the recent loss of Mitchell and because these raids appear to have become old hat for us now. I run off to the airport myself to try to see if he is still there, but of course he’s long gone. The airport is even more “secure” than ever since all international travelers are strip-searched.

Just like with last week’s entry, I don’t fully know how to document a game where you discover the slow erosion of civilization by exploring the same locations over and over again. On one hand, I’d rather not do bullet lists, but they also express the disconnectedness of some of the events rather well. I wander the city almost at random to revisit the key things that I had seen before, and to find new things to record.
  • The Border Security Force has expanded its presence considerably. In addition to the strip searching at the airport, there are random BSF agents doing “stop-and-frisk” searches on the pedestrians in the street. The military base in the north of the city has become a BSF base; a graduation event for the largest class of new agents is taking place at Huang Hall. The latter is telling because in all previous times, Huang Hall was home to industry and technology trade shows. The times are changing! 
Everything old is new again.
  • It’s not just that the Church of God’s Word is growing, but religious intolerance is on the rise everywhere. St. Michael’s church is closed now and covered with anti-Catholic graffiti. The Methodist church is still around, but empty. The pamphlets in the CoGW’s headquarters actively discriminates against non-believers. Even racial discrimination is on the rise, at least judging by the top movie at the cinema, the “comedy” film Let’s Kill Some Slants
  • Other than the BSF, the actual government is nearly shut down. While we do see police around, City Hall is deserted. The nearby courthouse is still active and the trial of the day is of an Asian-American boy being tried for violating the “Uniform Morality Code”. The punishment is life in prison; I cannot help but think that his ethnicity may be playing a role here. City parks are being closed to make way for new condos. While the new construction is a positive step, taking away the public green space will make the city even less friendly. 

Meretzky is doing very well in shading each new time period carefully. Things are getting worse, but he’s clearly thinking about it in consistent terms and to make it a plausible progression. There are little details, the cinema now also plays pornography for example, which show the decline of morality even as the trappings of morality (the Church, for one) are apparently growing. Newspapers do not appear to exist in this future, so I have no idea who the President is and whether Ryder managed to find a way to become President-for-Life yet, if he’s still alive. Perry probably knows, but I sure don’t. Even the grocery stores are being hit now as shiny colored labels have made way for generic ones on half-empty shelves.

I don’t even finish exploring before I find another big change: a 9 PM curfew. After nine, the subways close and the streets empty out. I wander around to keep exploring, but the police arrest me and I am taken to a jail cell to rest for the night. “Rest” might be a strong word since the cell contains only a dirty blanket and no bed, but I suppose it’s better than nothing. Unlike in Wishbringer, there is no escape. The police throw me out into the street in the morning, promising to do worse next time. I may try that some time, but right now my recording buffer is full so I head back to the real world. I do the usual to get Dr. Perelman to view the recordings and he tells that that they are intriguing, but that I need more data from other years to show a pattern. There is good news: 2071 simulation is open for business!

“Urban Decay” (image by Kevin Jones)


Exploring 2071

Forgive me for saying this, but exploring these new time periods is getting boring. I already know that 2071 will be worse than 2061, and time periods later will be worse still. It’s not a surprise. There are some interesting places to explore, but it isn’t a pleasant experience. It’s not “fun”. This game is trying, and largely succeeding, in saying something profound in a way that you feel in your gut. But the longer it goes on, the less fun I am having and the more the game is becoming something I need to finish because I’m writing a review rather an a game I need to finish because I want to keep playing. I’m sorry about that.

2071 is going to hell as expected. Public transition is gone and the tube lines are closed. My credit card has been replaced by a ration card. I cannot even walk home to see what’s going on in my apartment without being mugged.The building where we live has been defaced and is no longer maintained. There is graffiti everywhere. In our apartment, Jill is too depressed to speak. Her paintings have become pencil sketches, but even those seem to have stopped recently. I’m not there long before the Church of God Police (!!) raid the building. One of the “officers” is Mitchell, our long lost son. He accuses Jill of poisoning his mind as a child, trying to keep him away from the Church. They take Jill away kicking and screaming. I move to help her, but they pummel me and leave me alone in the room in pain. As usual, the Border Security Force comes by a few minutes later to ransack the place, ripping the curtains and spilling everything on the floor. It’s a terrible day.

This is a raw emotional moment. I’m not done yet, but I would not be surprised if this is the emotional moment of the game. We only see Jill and Mitchell in brief snippets every ten years, but you have to feel for the suffering of a mother who lost her child only to have him come back in the worst possible way. As a parent, this scene left me a bit of a mess. I know that was Meretzky’s intention and I’m impressed that he managed to coax this reaction out of me with his prose, but it adds to the malaise of not really wanting to finish this game. This whole sequence is undercut somewhat because it mirrors a scene in the manual where Jill is arrested by the National Guard after she misplaced her residency permit. That scene in the manual is likely why I was thinking that the BSF was hunting for immigrants rather than bombs, but it may have been a poor decision to have this moment be so similar to the manual.

Sorry. I need a moment of levity because this game has none.

With my head hanging low, but with data to capture, I continue exploring the city as before. Needless to say, it’s all a mess. Intolerance is the rule of law and the Church of God’s Word controls the government. Slavery has been legalized, but it’s based on religion and not race. Non-believers, referred to in the Church pamphlet as “beasts”, can be owned as slaves. A good churchman is permitted to own up to fifty of them. City Hall now is truly abandoned with no one having been there in years. As I wander around, I also catch Church Police killing people in the street seemingly indiscriminately. The new condos that they were building a decade ago have become oases for the super rich; I try to enter one and get tossed out onto the street by security.

The supermarkets are closed with ration distribution centers in their place. They take rationing seriously: twenty emaciated people are being tried in the courthouse for cheating on their food allowances. When they are inevitably found guilty, they will be forced to fight in “Execution Matches” for the entertainment of others. Bread and circuses anyone? I make a note to visit the stadium. Traveling north, I stop by the High School which is now (like everything else) owned by the Church. Unfortunately, I am attacked by some schoolchildren for being a nonbeliever and am stoned to death. The simulation ends with grisly end and I “awaken” in the real world in 2021.

Even without everything I planned to see, I give the recordings to Dr. Perelman and wait. He tells me that he finds 2071 very troubling, but that I don’t have enough data yet from 2061 and that it’s still possible that everything could turn back around by 2081. I am still blocked for entering the 2081 simulation so I cannot verify that yet. I head back to 2061 to gather more data as requested.

Still true, at least in this game.


Back to 2061

Have I mentioned that I still need to do the copy protection every time I go back into the simulation? That is getting increasingly annoying. Once that is done, I head back into the 2061 simulation to find more interesting things to record. Fortunately, 2071 gave me some clues on things that I should check out:
  • In 2061, the High School is already the Church of God’s Word’s school, but the schoolboys only taunt me, no kill me. That is an improvement! In another part of the city, I find a group of Church kids harassing someone for being Jewish. We can see the future Church leaders already! 
  • Much to my surprise, the stadium is already being used for public executions; I thought that would only come once we had descended into theocracy. They still have traditional sports there, but public executions are increasingly a draw. 
  • The Zoo, while still open, isn’t being monitored or policed at all. A group of kids are there torturing a monkey. That’s depressing. Why is this game so depressing? 

I take those recordings back to Perelman and he is finally satisfied. We have enough data about every year up through 2071, but the Plan could still work out. What if it all turns around in 2081? Even though he wants me to go there, the simulation isn’t ready. Do I just need to “wait” for a long time? Or do I need to spend more time in the simulation to improve it? I’m not sure, but I head back to 2081 anyway since I didn’t see much of it last time through.

“Police State” (image by katesheets)


Back to 2071

I’d love to tell you that I learned a great deal back in 2071, but it more or less is exactly the Hell on Earth that you expect.
  • I make my way up to the stadium carefully, avoiding pesky schoolboys. They no longer have any regular sports there, but the “Execution Matches” appear to be robot vs. criminal death matches. Everyone that isn’t being killed appears to enjoy the spectacle. It’s like Battle Bots, but one of the “bots” is unarmed and very squishy. 
  • The increased use of execution sports also means that the prison is empty. Only a handful of high-profile enemies of the church are housed there. 
  • I stay out after curfew, but there’s no jail time only a swift death by the police. I’m not even sure whether those are “real” police or “Church” police or whether the distinction is important anymore. 

There are so many mini-events in 2071 that I resort to just keeping the recording on all the time. Every few turns, there is a soliciting prostitute, an aircar crash, or some other terrible thing happening. I suppose I should narrate a lot more, but I end up filling the buffer and returning three times with all sorts of mindless violence and societal collapse. After the third trip through (and my tenth or eleventh time doing the copy protection), the 2081 simulation is finally open! With that, I’ll end for the week. Looking at the clock, this took more time for me to write about than to play. We should wrap up the rest of the game next week.

2081 is going to be sunshine and roses, I just know it. This middle section, especially the waiting and random replaying of 2071 just to wait for the later simulation to open, has been trying at times. The subject matter is exhausting. I’m looking forward to seeing how (and if) Meretzky nails the landing. We can’t be too far now, right?

Time played: 1 hr 30 min
Total time: 9 hr 30 min
Inventory: <nothing>

13 comments:

  1. Some of the societal degradation should certainly be portrayed more subtly, for best effect. Still, this is one powerful piece of interactive fiction. Really needs a modern revisit.

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    1. I found the transition to a theocracy 2071 to be the most jarring, but to his credit Meretzky had planted the seeds in the earlier eras. Seeing the public schools closing in favor of religious schools accelerated the elimination of secularism in society, for one. Seeing executions-as-theater is similarly jarring, but as a species we've had public execution spectacles for hundreds of years so it's not impossible that it could come back.

      We can see some of the echos of this in modern US politics with Betsy DeVos being criticized for wanting to reduce funding for public schools in favor of private institutions, many of which are religious. If anything, the last 10 years in US politics has seemed (to me) to be slanting towards racial rather than religious upset. (Although the discrimination against religious minorities is on the rise again. The shooting a few weeks ago in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania was just blocks from the house I lived in after college at a synagogue that is attended by several of my oldest friends.)

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    2. I always get a kick out of how dystopian fiction authors, whether in prose or film or TV or gaming, always assume a theocratic dictatorship would necessarily be Christian. We have other wonderful examples of such theocratic dictatorships to look at, religious and secular. Because as any child of the Cold War knows, ideological regimes have the fervor and dogmatic rigidity they purport to hate in religion.

      I’m not saying this shouldn’t be used as a plot point ever. Just that’s it’s gotten kind of “ho-hum, this again” boring.

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  2. Two old favorites in the "societal degradation" file are Chris "Twine" Klimas' Mercy from 1997 and Fergus McNeill's 1988 "Mindfighter".

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    1. My wife loves the current spate of "Hunger Games"-style dystopia. I don't think it's really my thing.

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  3. I agree with you that middle sections of AMFV can be frustrating. There are some hidden variables you have to fulfill to make progress (a) spending enough time in one simulation to make the next one available and b) recording enough events of suitably harsh caliber from each year to complete the whole section). It's not always very clear how close you are to getting somewhere, which makes it fail as a satisfying game.

    The simulations are really dystopian and the setting resembles that of Handmaid's Tale. The experience is somewhat like walking through a virtual Auschwitz museum - it has emotional impact, and it certainly doesn't feel pleasant. Unfortunately, as you noticed, I think there's not enough story beats in the simulation (with the exception of Mitchell) to really grip one's interest.

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    1. I have been to the holocaust memorial in Israel, as well as smaller museums throughout Europe, although I have never been to Auschwitz myself. I don't know that I could go there, emotionally. I do not have the words to adequately describe the sense of loss and desperation. We go to those places because we must never forget what happened and we must never let it happen again. I can see that there's a similar tone that Meretzky was striving for in this experience, although I'm not sure that this is the right medium for that sort of introspection.

      The "hidden variables" issue is a real drain. I know that Meretzky wants us to spend more time in these years to see all the detail that he put into them, but I needed more to make me want to stay. I also didn't know WHAT would trigger 2081 opening. Maybe I needed to see a specific event that I missed? That made advancing a frustration rather than a puzzle to be solved or an experience to be savored.

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    2. About those hidden variables, you probably don't need this anymore, but...

      Lbh zbfgyl whfg arrq gb erpbeq "onq fghss" unccravat -- gur jbefr vg vf, gur zber "cbvagf" vg tvirf. Ceboyrz vf, fvapr gur erpbeqvat ohssre vf yvzvgrq, lbh'er abg erpbeqvat rirelguvat nyy gur gvzr, bs pbhefr, naq fbzrgvzrf onq fghss unccraf fhqqrayl... ohg lbh pna jbex nebhaq gung ol rvgure hfvat HAQB naq fgnegvat erpbeqvat whfg nf gur rirag unccraf, be ol fvzcyl yrnivat gur fvzhyngvba naq er-ragrevat vg (juvpu erfrgf vg gb gur ortvaavat bs gur qnl) naq tbvat gb gur fnzr cynpr (zbfg riragf unccra n pbhcyr bs gheaf nsgre lbh trg gb n cynpr, abg arprffnevyl ng n cnegvphyne va-tnzr gvzr).
      Otherwise, I hope you hang in there. The game can indeed get depressing (though I never found it boring -- maybe I like this kind of fiction a bit more than most people), but these posts have been very enjoyable so far -- I'm learning stuff about the game I didn't know, even though I finished it years ago.

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  4. Joe,

    although I was hoping to see you enjoy the game more, I think that you‘re not being overly harsh. I was really thrilled and shocked by the game‘s no-nonsense approach when I played it for the first time, and enjoyed it the way I might enjoy a challenging piece of art. But then again, I never expected it to be fun from what I had heard about it, so maybe that makes quite a difference.

    All in all, I liked AMFV a lot (and seemingly much more than you) but I don‘t think that you‘re being too harsh as I can see how somebody might end up bored and taken aback by the game. Your points are (as always) well argued, too.

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    1. I think I may touch on this when I write my final score, but let me use this metaphor: "Charlotte's Web" and "Animal Farm" are both books featuring the adventures of talking farm animals.

      "Charlotte's Web", if it had been a game, would be fun. It has a humorous cast of characters, a good story arc, some real stakes with the possible death of Wilbur, and a surprise ending that both breaks you emotionally and then rebuilds you.

      "Animal Farm", if it had been a game, would be an exhausting set of slow spirals as happy adventures and hope are gradually replaced by the fear that your main cast of characters have become wore than the very monsters they sought to replace.

      Both are FANTASTIC books. But in the context of a game, wouldn't "Charlotte's Web" be more fun to play? There is no letter "F" (for Fun!) in "PISSED", but we judge a game in part on the how it plays and whether we enjoyed the experience. I don't think that's a fair way to judge the "Animal Farm" game, but it's also the only tool that we have.

      I'm wrestling with this now.

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    2. In light of the above, these are relevant:

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charlotte%27s_Web_(video_game)

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Animal_Farm#Video_game

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  5. Lbh unir gb fcraq n pregnva ahzore bs tnzr zvahgrf va rnpu fvzhyngvba sbe gur arkg bar gb bcra, juvpu vf vaqrcraqrag bs "pbzcyrgvat" rnpu fpranevb ol erpbeqvat rabhtu onq riragf. I think they could have made it clearer how to open the next one by tweaking Perelman's dialogue.

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  6. hang in there.

    amfv DOES suck the wind out of any given player. [and the map is a nightmare to navigate], but it'll be worth it in the end, i promise.

    for what it's worth: i think it would have been a much more immediately affecting experience if he'd shaved his time jumps down to three hops.

    [although, you'd lose some of the detail of what's going on that way.]

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