Thursday, 20 December 2018

Missed Classic: A Mind Forever Voyaging - Won! And Final Rating

Written by Joe Pranevich


“Only you can view the future. And only you know what must be done to save humanity.” Those words on the back of the box kicked off this adventure, but now it is time to see whether humanity is truly saved. As we wrap up this game, I can already tell from the comments that some of you will be disappointed no matter what the final score ends up being. Is it a great Infocom game? Is it the greatest Infocom game? Or is it just another game on the pile? We’ll have to finish to find out.

We ended the previous session having unlocked the simulation for the year 2081. We had explored the city of Rockvil in each of the previous decades and slowly watched the city slump into decay. By 2071, it was a theocracy where a group of schoolboys stoned me to death for being a nonbeliever. My creator, Dr. Perelman, still believes that there is hope and so we need to take a look at this final time period before he can decide whether all is truly lost. Let’s jump into the simulation and see just how wrong he is.
He was pretty wrong.

I arrive in 2081 on the eastern edge of the city, near the bridge to the eastern suburbs. The intersection signs still read Main Street and Wicker Avenue, but the city is beyond a mess. Telephone poles have been ripped down for firewood and the whole city has been looted. In the distance, the city seems to be smouldering. The streets are deserted. A sign near the road leading into the city advertises that it is the entrance to “Buxton/Briggs” territory and that outsiders will be shot on sight. I’d say that this is quite a bit worse than 2071. Has the government collapsed entirely?

Picking a direction at random, I explore south but am immediately killed. No sooner do I arrive at what was once the corner of Wicker and Pier that a group of men dressed in loincloths and tribal markings surround me, beat me senseless, and herd me into a clearing with other men and women. The whole lot of us are burned alive and presumably eaten; the last sight I have before the simulation ends is a tribal man seemingly salivating over my burning flesh. Yummy! It’s all very gruesome.

I restore back and try east the next time. As I approach the Main Street Bridge, I discover a sack of wild fruit covered in blood. When I examine it, I realize that its owner must have been scavenging outside the city. He must have found some fruit trees and managed to almost make it back into the city before being mauled by wild animals. I’m not clear how many trees are bearing fruit in March in South Dakota, but we’ll ignore that for now. As I examine the sack, the sound of barking dogs keep coming closer. I take the sack and retreat back the way I came. I try to head north into the cemetery next, but I am mugged and beaten once again. I awaken back where I started. I try again, but the next trip into the cemetery kills me. It doesn’t look like I can go that way either.

Completed map of 2081. Somewhat smaller than previous maps.

Just about everything I do in 2081 kills me. I can enter what is left of the Coachman restaurant, but the ceiling collapses on me and I die. Dogs kill me if I try to leave the city to the east. Armed guards kill me when I head west pack the “Buxton/Briggs” sign. Notably, the guards are armed with knives rather than guns. It’s pretty clear that civilization as we know it is over, at least in Rockvil. There are not even any Church of God’s Word patrols, although with my luck they are killing everyone they see. I can question aspects of this scenario-- how are the gang members, wild animals, cannibals, and gang members not seeing and killing each other all the time?-- but I’ll just assume that they found a local equilibrium. A better question is how Perry got here in 2091 as presumably the simulation extrapolated that I would be at this particular place at this time. How would an 80-year survive this long?

There really isn’t anywhere to go. I make sure I record all of those events and take the whole lot of them back to Dr. Perelman. At long last, he agrees that the future is screwed and that we need to do something about Senator Ryder’s Plan. He packs and flies off to Washington, D.C. to meet with the politicians in charge and deliver the news personally. He’s proud of me for piecing all of this together myself. Does that mean game over?

“Who are you?” -- The Who

Instead of being over, a new title card (with a quote from Emily Dickinson) appears and we are off into “Part III” of the game. I am enjoying the unconventional structure of this game compared to the previous Infocom works. I don’t recall if any others used title cards in this way, but I am excited to find out. We start this section in “Communications Mode” with little idea of what to do. I explore the facility and find nothing different except that the World Network News is offline due to some satellite problem. A few turns later I am informed that they will be adding a WNN “Feeder” to the PRISM system later in the day. What does that mean? What will it do? I have no idea yet. I run through all of the library entries and don’t find anything in there new either, except for the instructions to an IRS auditing system. It appears that I can set how many people get audited in each tax year, although how this could help me and why it makes sense for PRISM to have this feature is unclear.

I’m stuck waiting again, but eventually something happens: Perelman contacts me and says that some of the government people are making threats. They accuse of him faking the tapes to dismantle the Plan. See? I told you that they don’t like objective science. Actually, I’m not sure I would buy his argument either. How does Perelman or anyone know if the simulation is accurate over such a long period of time? Was there control-group testing? How much less accurate is the simulation now that they are literally cooking up new decades in a matter of hours rather than years? Am I overthinking this? We accept that the recordings are true because we experienced them in the simulation, but is there really any way to validate the conclusions short of waiting around for a few decades? Not really.

How can I resolve this problem and prove to the world that my recordings are not faked? My theory is that I will broadcast all of my theories on the World Network News Feed, now that I know it is being installed. That could sway public opinion away from the Plan. But how can I do that? There’s one feature of this game that I haven’t even touched yet: “Interface Mode”. That may have all of the answers.

There are five kinds of USB now. How can anyone keep track?

“Interface Mode” is one of the less well-done “modes” of the game. It’s not menu-driven like “Library Mode” or a traditional adventure like “Simulation Mode”. The closest comparison I can make is to some of the interactions from Suspended, but that’s not a perfect fit either. When you enter this mode, you get a list of “ports” that you have access to. At this late stage, I can access six systems. That’s useful, but you have to leave this mode and go back to the “Library Mode” to learn any of the commands that you will need to do anything with them. I end up having to write notes and take screenshots to keep track of what commands are there and what they do for each port. It’s not terrible, but the necessity to flip back and forth between interfaces is either a deliberate and unnecessary complication or an accident of poor game design. I’m not sure which, but I don’t like it much.

For example, I can see in the Library that I can run the command “auditing system, status” to query the IRS interface. For the most part, most of these instructions are written out that way with the name of the subsystem, then a comma, then a command to give to the system. Once I see the status from the IRS system, I can run “auditing system, set auditing percentage to 5” to adjust the setting and to instruct the IRS to audit more people. Each subsystem seems to have a status command and most have values that you can set once you know the right values. Some of this you can intuit, while other options you have to peruse the Library to figure out. For my money, I find the commands unwieldy but at least there are not too many options to deal with.

Exactly why I want to do this is unclear.

Spending some time looking at the various interfaces, I can see information about the simulation itself, the health of the complex (HVAC and janitorial schedules), the city (traffic and weather), as well as the strange IRS connection that I already described. I’m unclear on how I have any effect on traffic in the city, for example. It says that I can set when rush hour starts, but how am I controlling when offices and other employers want their team members to come in? The WNNF port isn’t enabled yet so there is no way to broadcast my recordings yet. I’ll have to wait around for that to be finished, unless I am chasing a red herring.

2061 was when I deliberately got arrested for curfew violations

If I had seen the simulation statistics in Interface Mode earlier, I might have avoided some confusion. It provides a count of time spent in each period, which ones are available, and how much have to do in each. As it stands, I made it through nearly the entire game without having used “Interface Mode” even once.

At 9:50, Perelman finally contacts me over a private line and says that he’s consulting with his colleagues over what to do next. Some people on the government are questioning his patriotism and making vague threats thanks to his pushing back against the Plan. There’s nothing for me to do so I just wait a bit longer. About an hour later, the National Guard arrives at the base and announces that there has been a “security leak”. No one will be permitted to enter or leave the facility until the situation is under control. What could the “leak” be? Is it Perelman? If this is Senator Ryder’s doing, how does he control the National Guard? As a reminder that this future isn’t exactly like our own, these National Guardsmen are from the Dakotas and Manitoba, a reminder that Canada merged with the United States in this future to form the “United States of North America”. I had more or less forgotten that detail.

I explore the complex and find new guards in the control center, but they don’t seem to be taking positions in the cafeteria or on the roof. There’s also no sign of Perelman in his office or anywhere else. How can I stop the National Guard? Now that I understand how to control the HVAC systems, I turn off the heat to drive them out of the control center but it has no effect. At 1:30 PM, I start to feel a strange sensation that I cannot pin down. Ten minutes later, my functionality is significantly impaired, but I cannot see how. The heating and cooling are fine and there is no one in the maintenance room, but at 2:00 PM my consciousness fades away. I am “dead”. But why?

Daisy, Daisy give me your answer do… .

I restore back and try more extreme measures: I turn off the heating, cooling, and ventilation everywhere except my processing core. This at least causes one of the guardsmen to complain that it is getting stuffy and open a window, but that is not the life-threatening impact that I was hoping for. I wait in the maintenance room to see if anyone shows up there, but no one ever does. How are they killing me?

I’m so close to making it through this game unaided, but I do take a hint: I need to play the game more like The Witness than Zork. In other words, I need to sit in each location and watch what happens and assemble a plan from there. For my first attempt, I just wait in Perelman’s office and eventually he is escorted in by the guard, followed by Senator Ryder himself. Perelman asks Ryder to explain what is going on, but the senator just goes on the offensive saying that nothing will stop the Plan. Even if he didn’t think the recordings were faked, too many people have a lot riding on the Plan for it to be canceled now. Perelman admits that Ryder is scaring him, but he is just told to shut up. As Ryder gets angrier, his threats get less vague. Perelman, he says, wouldn’t be the first to be crushed standing in the way of the Plan. But Dr. Perelman knows that I am there, looking into the camera when he says that he wishes this conversation could be “saved for posterity”. Is that a giant clue? Can I record in the real world as well? Ryder says that he will keep the PRISM facility locked down until the Plan is executed, but for extra measure he has the Guard arrest Dr. Perelman and lead him away.

I restore back again and replay the scene, this time with the recording system turned on. It works! Now I just need to find a way to survive the sabotage and get this recording out to the world.

Next, I plop down in the maintenance room and do the same waiting game. I catch workmen arriving around 12:30 that I must have missed before, unless they only show up when you have a recording. I have no idea. Either way, I turn off the ventilation and heat in the maintenance room. A few minutes later, they begin complaining and pass out from the fumes. Thankfully, the National Guard comes in to rescue them-- I don’t want murder on my conscience-- but no new workers arrive.

I'm half crazy over the love of you..

With that done, do I survive? No! At 7:00 PM, Ryder outright murders Dr. Perelman and torches the entire PRISM installation. You don’t need maintenance workers to disassemble your mainframe when a raging inferno will do the same trick nicely. I’m dead again, but at least I know I need to do something more quickly.

I search around to see what I am missing and almost passed it by again: the World Network News Feed interface is now enabled! If there was an announcement of this, I missed it. The Library also helpfully contains a list of commands that I might need. I access the interface and turn on the transmitter. I then tell it to “transmit recordings” and I am done! A few minutes later, Perelman contacts me to offer his congratulations: with the world seeing Ryder’s threats, he was forced to leave the building and call off the National Guard. The President has also called to offer his thanks and congratulations. We did it! Is the game over? Not quite yet...


Epilogue: 2091
It won't be a stylish marriage…

I can't afford a carriage...

This is the first Infocom game that had more than the briefest possible denouement. In the aftermath of the “Ryder Scandal”, Perry received the Congressional Medal of Honor and a citation from President Bowden himself. We’ve been running new simulations for the last month to find more successful alternatives to the Plan. Although Dr. Perelman insists that, despite being an AI, I am “truly human”, it is already time for my “final wish”. I get to live out the rest of my days in a 2091 simulation based on the New Plan.

I re-enter Simulation Mode and find myself in a spacious apartment in the future. I find and read a newspaper to learn that I have become a noted author and that I will shortly be joining the crew of the Silver Dove, a generation ship sailing to the stars. I find Jill in a nearby bedroom doing some packing. It’s a nice place, but before I can map it I am shuffled out the door into a waiting aircab. We take off over Rockvil of the future, this time a Tomorrowland paradise of technology and social conscience. We are contacted by Mitchell on the way; he’s having a huge party with his family in our honor. We arrive at the spaceport and are blasted off to the stars. We aren’t expect to survive the trip, but who knows what the future brings?

But you’d look sweet upon the seat...

On a bicycle built for two!

Time played: 2 hr 15 min
Total time: 11 hr 45 min


Final Rating

This game is an experience, and one that inspires more thought than most of the others that we have played. I cannot help but to be both awed and frustrated. It is a “must play” for students of game design and political theory. While it never quite reaches the relevance and resonance of books like 1984 or Animal Farm, it still brought “Interactive Fiction” to a whole new plane. This must be one of the most experimental games ever to be given a wide-scale commercial release. This was a launch title on Infocom’s newest line of high-end adventure games! Even as other games approached the same material, none that I know of did so as visibly.

I will warn you already: I don’t think this game will score as highly as some of you may think. It’s a good game, but portions of it are not “fun”. There is too much waiting around for things to happen and too much exploration that is rewarding but perhaps not worth the hours it took to finish the map. Let’s run through the categories and see.

Puzzles and Solvability - This is famously a text adventure with limited puzzles, although finding the initial set of recordings and then new events offered a small challenge. The most major real puzzle came in the battle with the National Guard, but I was more stymied by having to wait around to trigger events than figuring out how to knock out the workmen. The game is very “solvable”, largely because it is more a story to be discovered than a set of puzzles to be solved. It is what it sets out to be, but against the immobile yard stick of our rating system, I am forced to give this a low score. My score: 2.

Two dancing tornadoes?

Interface and Inventory - We normally give the Infocom interface a solid four for being one of the best ever interfaces crafted for adventure games. And yet, is that warranted in this case? The game requires almost none of the linguistic complexity that the interface offers in “simulation mode”. We barely do more than use cardinal directions and turn on and off the recording. Each of the other modes had their share of problems:
  • “Communications Mode” is filled with four-letter acronyms that I never managed to remember: “PEOF” to go to Dr. Perelman’s office and “MACO” to go to the maintenance area, to name just two. To make matters worse, they aren’t listed in the manual. Instead, your creator is (inexplicably) named “Dr. Garcia” and you go to his office using “GAOF”. Even in the last hours of the game, I needed a cheat-sheet to remember these obscure location commands. 
  • “Library Mode” features a surprise keyboard interface, but one that doesn’t know about error keys. It’s not all that bad, but it could have been easier to use. 
  • “Interface Mode” is the worst offender. Not only do you have to deal with obscure commands, you also have to bounce back and forth to “Library Mode” to find out what they are. This could have been done better by using the menu system. Adding insult to injury, the feature is nearly unused in the game. 
I expect this will upset some people, but I cannot go higher than a two. In an Infocom game! It’s blasphemy! Steve Meretzky was likely simulating (or inspired by) the complexity of terminal based interfaces of his day, such as VMS and UNIX. I respect him for that, but it doesn’t make for an intuitive game UI. My score: 2.

Story and Setting - This is a category where AMFV truly excels. The world of Rockvil is well-developed, maybe even the best of all of Infocom’s adventures so far. Seeing it fall gradually into disrepair and then into desolation is heartbreaking. It is because we know the setting so well that the glimpses in the Epilogue are so impactful. The story is interesting, but at times undeveloped with little that drives the narrative forward. At one point, we are told to amuse ourselves and find the plot on our own. Other than the events with Jill and Mitchell, there are few ongoing story beats in the simulation. In the real world, we don’t even catch more than a glimpse of the true plot until the end. Despite those concerns, it’s a more-than-solid effort. My score: 6.

Sound and Graphics - While the game has both limited ASCII art (with the psychological tests) and a keyboard-driven interface (in Library Mode), neither is enough to land us a pity point in this category. My score: 0.

Environment and Atmosphere - More than anything else, this game conjures a sense of place which was used to great effect to build tension. This is especially true in the later time periods where danger lurked at every street corner. The lack of any possible way to die in the simulation did deflate the tension a bit, but overall this is a masterpiece of environment over plot. My score: 7.

Dialog and Acting - The game is packed with textual description and events, but very little character interaction or growth. I wish we had more of Jill and Mitchell. In the real world, Dr. Perelman is surprisingly nuanced as a character, but Senator Ryder becomes little more than an moustache-twirling (and monologuing!) villain before it is all said and done. My score: 5.

Adding that up, we get (2+2+0+6+7+5)/.6 = 37 points. While I had planned to take some points away for the long periods where the game wasn’t “fun”, I am going to award two bonus points instead. It has been more than a week since I completed the game as work and life prohibited me from wrapping up this post on time. I have spent much of that time thinking about the game and its epilogue, what Meretzky was trying to accomplish, and what he ultimately built. This is a game that remains with you in ways that contemporaries do not. While it is not a complete success as a game, it is a classic that should be appreciated by more people.


I expect some of you will be disappointed by this. Some reviews suggest this is one of Infocom’s finest games. It’s not quite that, but it is something that I hope everyone checks out at least once. This is Meretzky’s lowest-rated game by our scale and while that doesn’t seem quite right, I enjoyed playing his other games more. It is at least in the upper-half of Infocom adventures. With that, Michael wins our CAP prize for being the most pessimistic with his guess of 43. Congratulations! CAPs will be awarded with the next mainline game.

Up next will be a brief detour to Fooblitzky before we play the final game of the second Zork trilogy: Spellbreaker. I am looking forward to that one! Now, if I could only figure out how to beat our Christmas game, I’d be golden...

9 comments:

  1. I think this is a fair summary.
    The worst thing that could happen with retro game reviews is to view the game thru rose tinted glasses, and ignoring the passage of time.

    In terms of game design, this piece is pretty much as outdated as it gets.

    As an interactive fiction (or "digital art"), AMFV is exceptional, and deserves to be remembered.

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  2. Everyone always calls me a pessimist, but I swear I'm just a grumpy realist. :)

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  3. It's a fair assessment. Maybe I'm more enamored with the story concept than this particular implementation...

    Good work seeing it through. :)

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  4. I think your rating is quite balanced. As a game AMFV leaves definitely a lot to be desired, but as a piece of interactive literature it is outstanding. I suspect you'll find Spellbreaker almost a completely opposite experience - lots and lots of intricate puzzles to solve, with plot surfacing only at very specific points.

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  5. At Resetera there is a thread where people have been posting impressive retrogame graphics upscales, genereated by neural networks AIs:

    https://www.resetera.com/threads/ai-neural-networks-being-used-to-generate-hq-textures-for-older-games-you-can-do-it-yourself.88272/

    Monkey Island and other LucasArts upscale postings start at around page 10.

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    1. Looks interesting, but I guess I'm a purist, even when using engines like ScummVM, I turn off all of the scales and filters. I actually LIKE the pixels. That said, that would be an interesting side fork for the ScummVM project, like many of the commenters there mention.

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    2. I wouldn't personally use it either, except as a curiosity and for maybe textures in 3D games - and I prefer CRT shaders for low-res retro games. Nonetheless, some of the result are astounding.

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  6. The score seems low, of course, but AMFV was clearly not made for a PISSED rating (or the other way round) and the two areas it‘s not so strong at are clearly puzzles and interface so I agree with you on everything. As I‘d said before I enjoyed the game very much but enjoyment and a systematic review are sometimes incompatible (which goes to show in my Med Systems reviews, too, I guess).

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  7. > “Library Mode” features a surprise keyboard interface, but one that doesn’t know about error keys.

    I assume that's meant to be "arrow keys".

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