Where are the puzzles?
A Mind Forever Voyaging
Implemented by Steve Meretzky
Packaging, Documentation, and Extras
AMFV, gray box (MoCAGH)
AMFV, gray box (ADP)
[for best results, open MoCAGH images in new tab]
Invisiclues AMFV map (MoCAGH)
Invisiclues AMFV map (MoCAGH)
AMFV at the Obsessively Complete Infocom Catalog
Nathan Simpson’s List of Infocom Bugs: AMFV
My Transcript (very barebones, does not capture the magic of exploration)
Invisiclues hints (z-code in Parchment)
Invisiclues hints (html, Peter Scheyen’s website)
[Many thanks to the community members who make these resources available!]
"Tomorrow never yet On any human being rose or set." -- William Marsden [Hit any key to continue.] You "hear" a message coming in on the official message line: "PRISM? Perelman here. The psych tests have all checked out at 100%, which means that you've recovered from the, ah, awakening without any trauma or other serious effects. We'll be ready to begin the simulation soon. By the way, your piece is in the current issue of Dakota Online." A Mind Forever Voyaging Infocom interactive fiction - a science fiction story Copyright (c) 1985 by Infocom, Inc. All rights reserved. A Mind Forever Voyaging is a trademark of Infocom, Inc. Release 77 / Serial number 850814 You have entered Communications Mode. The following locations are equipped with communication outlets: PRISM Project Control Center (PPCC) Research Center Rooftop (RCRO) Dr. Perelman's Office (PEOF) PRISM Facility Cafeteria (PCAF) Maintenance Core (MACO) World News Network Feed (WNNF) To activate a specific outlet, submit the associated code.
A Critical MidTroduction to A Mind Forvever Voyaging and Its Technology
In Steve Meretzky’s initial proposal for the game that would become A Mind Forever Voyaging, he imagined a sort of “god game” emphasizing simulated futures based on parameters set by the player. In the world of this game, the future’s many problems (extrapolations of political concerns of the 1980s) have become so complex that only an AI can evaluate them: a revolutionary new intelligence called PRISM (Meretzky 20-26). Between the “sim future” features and Mertetzky’s observation that “There would, of course have to be some sort of puzzles to lend difficulty and length to the game” (Meretzky 22), one can’t help but marvel at its seeming technological impossibility.
Infocom’s work to-date hadn’t featured such extensive variability in the game world, nor did it feature many possible “successful” completions (I place “successful” in quotations because many of the possible outcomes in the proposed game seem unpleasant). I contrast these possibilities with most other Infocom games preceding AMFV, which featured one victory outcome as well as one failure routine with variable text output (I can think of Starcross and Sorcerer as innocuous exceptions). How on Earth could such a simulation, before even considering additional puzzles for the human computer operator/scientist, fit inside a story file the size of, say, Wishbringer?
Here things get a bit murky. It isn’t completely clear what the date of the initial proposal is. There is an archived document dated 12/16/1984 that appears to be separate (it follows some handwritten notes). Why does this matter? At some point during 1984 (sorry that I can’t find more precise information), Marc Blank and Mike Berlyn developed the new EZIP or version 4 for Z-Machine. This new specification doubled the story file limit to 256K, and additionally removed—for all practical purposes—a limit on the number of possible objects in-game (locations, things, people, abstractions, and so forth). Given the ambitious nature of Meretzky’s “Idea for SCI-FI Game,” it seems reasonable to assume that it was, from its earliest conception, the first proposed EZIP game. However, there is nothing in the first proposal that says so.
The decision to narrow the focus of AMFV while broadening its geography was, it now seems clear, the foundational rock of its historic significance and influence.
It’s worth noting that the original concept seemed to feature a few “set piece” locations rather than a single, contiguous city (25), which may have made the varied simulations a more viable approach. Ultimately, A Mind Forever Voyaging would ship as a simulation of a single, unified map as forecast by the PRISM AI ten, twenty, thirty, forty, and fifty years into the future. This design choice would allow Meretzky to dramatize the effects of a single set of policies and social values over time. It made possible, in other words, a direct critique of the conservative movement as led by then President Ronald Reagan. The decision to narrow the focus of AMFV while broadening its geography was, it now seems clear, the foundational rock of its historic significance and influence.
Politics in Polite Company
Steve Meretzky’s “memo hacking” (the practice of authoring and distributing sham interoffice communications) is often mentioned as a sort of characterizing hilarity that made Infocom a special place to work. A thing often missed in those anecdotes was that Meretzky was, himself, a communication and documentation wonk. This is all to the good, since his own records are (nearly?) all that remain of Infocom’s internal communications and design documentation. While the documents collected at the Internet Archive include initial concept/design work, they also reflect Meretzky’s collaborative spirit. As one early example, he solicits feedback from the Infocom team regarding possible “DESIREABLE” and “UNDESIREABLE” characteristics of a future society. In turn, Meretzky received feedback from Dave Lebling (often singled out by other critics as the house conservative), Jon Palace, and Stu Galley (26-31).
A subsequent worldbuilding document, which appears to have been authored after a second, revised proposal for the still-unnamed science fiction game, reflects a new, more narrow focus. The Reaganesque figure “Richard Wright” is identified, and his policies and rhetoric are articulated. This undated document is the first characterization of A Mind Forever Voyaging as we know it: an examination of the consequences of conservative policies and values. This vision was also informed by collaboration, including feedback from Jerry Wolper, Dave “Hollywood” Anderson, Marc Blank, Jeff O’Neil, Jon Palace, Stu Galley, Mike Dornbrook, as well as general comments from the “Imp’s Lunch” (40-47).
Meretzky’s imagined social failures were developed Socratically, while the structure, programming, and text remained the work of an auteur.
These documented portions may be an indicator that Infocom’s “auteur” presentation may have been overstated, at least in the case of A Mind Forever Voyaging or else in the case of Steve Meretzky. Alternately, it may be that the singular vision of A Mind Forever Voyaging is its commitment to controversial political themes externally—America simply couldn’t get enough of Ronald Reagan—or internally as suggested by the advocacy of Jon Palace (48). Meretzky’s imagined social failures were developed Socratically, while the structure, programming, and text remained the work of an auteur.
There seem to have been sceptics at Infocom (we unfortunately do not have access to the Mike Dornbrook communication cited above), as evinced by Jimmy Maher’s account of AMFV‘s in-house nickname: Steve Meretzky’s Interiors. These, unfortunately, have largely gone undocumented (people do not always write such things down), but it’s easy to see what might worry game industry types in 1984 and 1985:
- With only one exception, A Mind Forever Voyaging contained no puzzles, focusing almost exclusively on exploration and worldbuilding. Nearly all Infocom games were the inverse, with much of their worldbuilding left to be inferred while puzzles took center stage.
- A Mind Forever Voyaging was highly critical of one of the best-loved American politicians in recent memory.
- It wasn’t in any way clear that the Infocom audience would be interested in such a barely game-like (by 1985’s limited conception) product.
While it’s true that Infocom did respect its authors and grant them leeway to pursue their own projects, it is also true that A Mind Forever Voyaging demanded more artistic freedom than any previous title had demanded. It was a game that tested their ethos of honoring authorial vision. I don’t believe that it was in any way clear that it could make money. Perhaps it was regarded as a “prestige” game. Just as large media (books, films, music, and the like) companies release content that reflects their values rather than their profit motives (it is easy to view this cynically, of course), so might Infocom have released A Mind Forever Voyaging. In this context, it’s easy to see why the game’s release was announced at the New York City Public Library. I cannot find a transcript or video of that event, but it seems reasonable to assume that when the itinerary (410) indicates that Jon Palace spoke about “AMFV, why it is a departure,” he characterized it as literary in some sense.
This was a sense, of course, above and beyond the marketing language that characterized Infocom’s games as “interactive fiction.”
What Happened to the Planetfall Guy?
1980s reception of A Mind Forever Voyaging was muted, and it sold poorly. However, it had passionate advocates that praised its innovative rejection of puzzle-gated, traditional adventure game progression. What follow are some snippets from in-house and external testers (internal and external playtester response documentation runs from pages 153 through 271)L
- “There is something to offend everyone in this vicious political parody.”
- “Boredom and confusion of goals are the secondary problems to the game.”
- “It would also seem that The Great Merescu has chosen this vehicle to vent his political spleen on the sanctity of the Bill of Rights in general and the separation of church and state in particular. Although his political philosophy does not bother me, there are some folks in this country who may take umbrage at his characterizations of the present administration and big-time religion. This is a clear change in direction from the usually entertaining Infocom games.”
- “I felt that A MIND FOREVER VOYAGING (AMFV) was a beautifully written story. However, while it was well written, I did not feel that AMFV represented vintage Infocom interactive fiction. The problem with the game was that there were no actual puzzles to figure out.”
- “I was left with an empty feeling, sort of like ‘is that all there is?’ To put this in perspective, I was challenged by the Zork trilogy, Enchanter, Sorcerer, Infidel, Planetfall, Starcross and Hitchhiker and really enjoyed them.”
- “Although the game is certainly rich in descriptive material, the game itself is tedious with very little that is new or different happening once you figure out that you are supposed to run around taking snapshots of future conditions.”
- “It was descriptive, imaginative, but it seemed to lack the traditional Infocom humor… Make up for it in your next game.”
Professional critics and reviewers tended to be more enthusiastic, focusing on the possibilities of A Mind Forever Voyaging‘s new EZIP technology as well as celebrating its unambiguously telegraphed artistic and critical ambitions:
- “In AMFV, writer Steve Meretzky has used the expanded memory to breathtaking effect, creating a richly imagined anti-Utopian futureworld. ‘I wanted to do something that was more of a story and less of a puzzle,’ says Meretzky. ‘And I wanted to make a political statement, which hadn’t been done in this medium before.’ To a very large degree, he succeeded. AMFV isn’t 1984, but in some ways it’s even scarier.” Bill Barol, Newsweek (354).
- “One result of the implementers’ new flexibility may be to attract a new audience to the genre, particularly among players who have been put off by the games’ traditional emphasis on puzzles and logic problems. Relieved of space constraints, Meretzky was able to develop more fully the narrative aspects of A Mind Forever Voyaging, producing what he considers the ‘most story oriented’ program he has written.” Tom Spain, Publishers Weekly (356).
- “For its attention to detail, incredibly smooth parser (the part of the software that analyzes your sentences and makes it possible for you and the computer to communicate), crisply written prose, and intriguing story, this game deserves the highest praise.” B.H., Games.
- “This game is sure to spark diverse reactions: veterans may say it’s not hard enough, reviewers and maybe a few English lit. professors will debate its literary merit, the FBI will launch a full-scale investigation of Infocom’s political background (only kidding with that one, folks).” SA, Questbusters (361).
- “With each new Infocom game, I wonder if I’ll be writing the epitaph stored away in my mind: the one that says they’ve failed, they’ve reached their peak and are on the downside of the marketing curve. Well, with the addition of the Plus line of games, that time will be long in coming. A Mind Forever Voyaging takes the Infocom concept to the next logical step in its evolution—and takes you on a voyage you’ll never forget.” Steve Panak, Analog Computing (362).
- “AMFV is the most original game to come out of the Infocom stables in ages.” Harvey Bernstein, ANTIC, The Atari Resource (364).
- “What makes this all-text game especially thought-provoking (and realistic) is that what works as a short-term solution doesn’t always work over the long haul. Unfortunately, your only option is to be a male computer.” Lindsy Van Gelder, Ms. (366)
- “Puzzles are kept to a minimum in this program where exploration of the future is the key, and the visions are fascinating. The concept of the program is riveting—perhaps because it’s so totally believable.” Unattributed, Cyber Entertainer (373).
- “My chief complaint with AMFV is that it’s about as happy-go-lucky as Fahrenheit 451 or 1984.” C. Eugene Emery, The Providence Sunday Journal (374).
- “I have to admit I’m getting a little tired of adventure games in which the role I’m playing is a man…” Unattributed, A+ Magazine (376).
Taken in total, one might guess that there was, at the time of A Mind Forever Voyaging‘s release, a gap between the responses of playtesters and the responses of critics. Testers (and commercial audiences, too) seemed resistant to imagining or accepting an Infocom game that veered too far from either Zork or Deadline in terms of core gameplay. Worse still, A Mind Forever Voyaging wasn’t funny, which was simply a bridge too far. Tester reactions were largely in line with customer reactions: what happened to that funny Planetfall guy? No amount (and there was a large amount) of critical praise could make a sales success of AMFV. The narrative today is that players weren’t interested in games without puzzles, and I think it’s true that those players were less equipped to wrestle with the aesthetics (poetics?) of game design than we are today. It must have seemed to them anti-Infocom, anti-game. Instead of giving us a wisecracking house voice and complex contraptions to fiddle with, AMFV was a series of slice-of-life portraits, complete with ungamelike Methodist ministers, wives, babies, and bookstores. In all fairness, someone spending forty-five dollars of 1985 US dollars on an Infocom game might have had expectations that A Mind Forever Voyaging would not have met. That’s true whether it meant to meet them or not.
Meanwhile, In Another Future
Ominously, customers didn’t want Spellbreaker‘s “coins on a scale” puzzle, either, which would soon fail to meet sales expectations. As a reminder, only one more Infocom game would receive a Gold designation from the Software Publishers’ Association after 1985: Steve Meretzky’s own Leather Goddesses of Phobos. The narrative that audiences just weren’t ready for A Mind Forever Voyaging, while true, can eclipse the reality that demand for Infocom games was on the wane.
Nowadays, it’s hard to measure contemporary audience perceptions of AMFV. According to the IFDB aggregator, it is the third highest-rated Infocom game (and 17th overall). It is topped only by second-best Planetfall (14th overall) and Brian Moriarty’s Trinity (9th overall). These figures, so far as I can tell, are based on approximately one hundred ratings gathered over the course of fifteen years. For a better sense of current valuations, there is the Interactive Fiction Top 50 of All Time (2019 edition) poll. Given the large number of tied rankings, it may be more productive to read it as a collection of tiered groupings rather than an ordered list. Here are, in descending order, the Infocom games that made the cut:
- Zork I: tied for 36th with ten other games
- Suspended: tied for 36th with ten other games
- Spellbreaker: tied for 36th with ten other games
- Wishbringer: tied for 29th with seven other games
- A Mind Forever Voyaging: tied for 29th with seven other games
- Trinity: tied for 4th with five other games
So much for Planetfall! Regarding Trinity: there is an odd tendency for critics to say, often out of context, whether they prefer Trinity or A Mind Forever Voyaging. I can’t think of another pair of Infocom games that likewise test an author’s reflexes. The games have such radically different goals that it seems a bit like barging into a conversation about bicycles only to shout, “I love saltwater taffy!”
The games have such radically different goals that it seems a bit like barging into a conversation about bicycles only to shout, “I love saltwater taffy!”
The truth is (more on this in 1986), Trinity is the highest expression of the Infocom formula. It’s a Zorkian puzzler with transcendent writing and contemporary relevance. Pressing the Infocom catalog flat, as we 21st Century players can, it is a thesis in conversation with AMFV‘s antithesis. Publishing A Mind Forever Voyaging might be the most Infocom thing that Infocom ever did, philosophically speaking. However, A Mind Forever Voyaging might also be the least Infocom game ever released. The most Infocom game ever published by Infocom was, of course, Trinity.
Why pit two equally necessary works in competition against one-another? Not everything is a contest.
The A Mind Forever Voyaging, er, voyage continues with a close reading of the Dakota Online browsie included with the AMFV package. It was the most indispensable (in terms of worldbuilding and player context) browsie since Deadline, featuring an essay by none other than the protagonist, Perry Simm (PRISM). The A Mind Forever Voyaging packaging is among Infocom’s best, and we’ll have the photos to prove it.