Our hero travels to his rest.
Oh! who is he that hath his whole life longWilliam Wordsworth, The Prelude
Preserved, enlarged, this freedom in himself?
For this alone is genuine liberty:
Where is the favoured being who hath held
That course unchecked, unerring, and untired,
In one perpetual progress smooth and bright?
Nine Down, One to Go
Over the course of this study, I’ve discussed the narrative and gameplay features that set A MInd Forever Voyaging apart from its 1985 brethren while identifying the broader philosophical implications of those qualities. For instance, I argued that modular design effectively addresses both technical and storytelling challenges in new and exciting ways. In Perry Simm, we see Infocom’s first attempt at a differentiated protagonist (we know nothing of the Adventurer’s childhood, for instance). This differentiation, I argued, is a call to empathy:
Through A Mind Forever Voyaging, it seems clear that the defining, necessary trait of interactive fiction is its capacity for simulating subjectivity and the experiences of the Other. In this sense, it is a bridge between the parser games of the commercial era of interactive fiction and the post-howling dogs choice games that emphasize empathy and the lived experiences of the existential Other in a way that no other Infocom game can.
I explored both Meretzky’s political critique as well as what I called “naive” interpretations of it. In particular, I questioned those critics of the early 2010s who found A Mind Forever Voyaging‘s critique overblown or hysterical. At the same time, I recognized flaws in Meretzky’s approach, particularly the practice of using narrow cases to speak for a broad spectrum of problems. While I (and perhaps you, too) got the point, sometimes one ought to call, for instance, evangelical conservatism by its name.
I spent a significant amount of time on Perry Simm’s decision–in this he never falters–to be human in spite of mounting contrary evidence and consequences. While many have spilled a great deal of ink on the “impossibility” of both Perry’s happiness as well as his love for family and art, I have argued that his faith–the secular kind–in his own humanity is unrecognizable to us specifically because we have never needed it for ourselves. Of course it is incomprehensible to us, since faith must always appear to the faithless as a kind of insanity.
One became great by expecting the possible, another by expecting the eternal, but he who expected the impossible became greater than all.Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling
The most important of his trials is passed when Perry decides to die as humans do, to grow old. Certainly, software programs and hardware fail, but precautions can render these failures toothless. What are we to make of a computer-generated subjectivity that willingly chooses finitude? It is time to move beyond the ethical and existential implications of his choice. Instead, we must ask what Perry’s twilight years look like. What are their didactic and aesthetic implications? What does it mean to reach, at long last, the good ending?
That Escalated SLowly
After PRISM exposes Senator Richard Ryder’s intentions, Perry enters the simulation one last time. The changes that have occurred between the simulations of 2081 and 2091 (Perhaps? It is after Perry has been awarded the 2089 Mexicana Prize in any case) are whiplash-inducing. In 2081, the final extrapolation of 2021’s Plan for Renewed National Purpose, Rockvil becomes a post-apocalyptic hellscape. Gangs of cannibals and packs of man-eating dogs roam its streets. Conservatives have, at long last, escaped the reach of big government, and the results are truly awful. In fact, Perry can only live a few turns in that world before dying.
This simulation is based 50 years hence. Main & Wicker The street runs from west to east, where a bridge is visible. A crude sign is posted just west of here. Another road leads south into a different section of town, where smoke billows upward from scattered fires. Buildings all along the street look typically looted and deserted; a grocery store, its large plate glass window shattered, is on the southwest corner. On the southeast corner is the burnt-out shell of a building, and an overgrown cemetery lies to the north. As usual, all the telephone poles have been chopped down for firewood. >read sign "Buxton/Briggs territory begins here. Outsiders will be killed on sight." >e Main Street Bridge This once-proud bridge is now rusted and neglected. To the west, the road enters the city. An intersection is visible in that direction. A blood-soaked sack is lying at the edge of the bridge. You hear the sound of distant barking to the east. >examine sack The sack is soaked with blood and shows traces of the wild fruits that grow beyond the city. Judging by how the sack has been clawed to pieces, it would seem that the owner was killed by wild animals rather than humans. The barking continues. In fact, the sound seems to be getting closer. >w Main & Wicker The street runs from west to east, where a bridge is visible. A crude sign is posted just west of here. Another road leads south into a different section of town, where smoke billows upward from scattered fires. Buildings all along the street look typically looted and deserted; a grocery store, its large plate glass window shattered, is on the southwest corner. On the southeast corner is the burnt-out shell of a building, and an overgrown cemetery lies to the north. As usual, all the telephone poles have been chopped down for firewood. >w As you pass the sign, three men armed with knives leap out of a doorway and neatly slit your throat. As you lose consciousness, you feel them going through your pockets. -- SIMULATION TERMINATED --
To Meretzky, this Hobbesian nightmare (“dystopia” is too generous, as it asserts the existence of a society) is an inevitable outcome for states that privilege superstition, white supremacy, corporate greed, and “small” government over secularity, egalitarianism, fair distribution of wealth, and the welfare state. I have called A Mind Forever Voyaging a “fable.” In that, I simply mean that it is a story featuring a non-human character (Perry, like Pinocchio, begins this way) that is meant to teach a moral lesson. Like so many tales designed for moral education, A Mind Forever Voyaging has a “bad” ending and a “good” one. The lesson is to avoid the bad ending through right action, thereby reaching the good ending.
Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of Warre, where every man is Enemy to every man; the same is consequent to the time, wherein men live without other security, than what their own strength, and their own invention shall furnish them withall. In such condition, there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan
If 2081 is the stick, then 2091 is the carrot. Many have found Meretzky’s liberal paradise credibility-stretching. I suppose that it is, but the goal of a fable is not to be “real” or “realistic.” Infocom’s ad copy notwithstanding, A Mind Forever Voyaging is not hard science fiction. As a fable, it does not attempt to render credible realities. Rather, fables aim to say something true about might be considered a higher reality. They inhabit the sphere of the moral and ethical. They stand outside reality in order to comment on it. It is beneficial, then, to consider what the conclusion of AMFV asserts as true.
The GOod Ending
This carrot, the good ending of A Mind Forever Voyaging, is all that Ryder’s future is not. It begins in the home of Perry and Jill (I’ll be quoting quite a bit of material with the text):
Sunlight spills off the vines and shrubs of this wide outdoor terrace. The view, always breathtaking, seems particularly sharp today; beyond the parklands and forests to the west, the foothills of the Rockies are clearly visible; to the south, the river bends around Rockvil before flowing upcountry toward North Dakota and the Garrison Lakes. The glass-walled sunporch lies behind a curtain of vines to the north.
In this first glimpse of the utopic Rockvil, Meretzky emphasizes the value of environmental stewardship. In the bad ending, we have instead a filthy river, undrinkable water, and deforestation. Consider this one example from 2051, which describes the view from Perry’s window:
The view to the west has changed considerably over the last decade. The forest of dying trees has been replaced by a forest of thriving mining towers, which trundle across the landscape leaving ugly brown scars. The western suburbs, once the most desirable in greater Rockvil, now look nearly deserted, a sign of the vanishing middle class.
Reading a newspaper, Perry sees that the population of the earth has shrunk. It is hard to pinpoint the cause. In our time, discussions of population control are often thinly veiled accusations directed at inhabitants of the global south. However, in this post-scarcity utopia, the issues underlying those critiques are not present. In fact, there may no longer be a global south. It seems significant that one means of population reduction is based on opportunity (the colonization of space) rather than control:
The headline story is about a newly released study which indicates that the average life expectancy for both sexes has now passed one hundred years, and success in the development of regeneratives should send that figure even higher. Despite the dropping mortality rate, global population remains stable at just under two billion, with offworlding now running at a staggering seven million people annually.
Elsewhere, Perry reads that the world has been free of nuclear weapons for twenty years, and a celebration of “Global Disarmament Day” is coming. Additionally, we learn that Perry is a successful and prizewinning author:
A story on an inside page catches your eye: "Perry Simm, Noted Author, To Join Crew of Silver Dove," reads the headline. "Perry Simm, author and poet, recipient of the 2089 Mexicana Prize, has been selected from nearly a thousand applicants to be the resident author aboard the Silver Dove, the space colony that is currently being equipped for mankind's first interstellar journey, a trip expected to last a dozen generations."
Perry and Jill go on to ride in a “sky limousine,” where they see a festival underway in a verdant park. Soon, a video call with their son Mitchell comes through. As a reminder, we last saw Mitchell in what is likely the darkest scene in the entire game, which I post here in its entirety:
With a roar of tromping feet, six or eight heavily armed Church police storm into the apartment. You see a look of horror come over Jill, as she covers her mouth with the back of her hand, as though stifling some silent scream. You follow her gaze, and -- a shock of recognition -- sauntering in behind the police... The ten years since you last saw him have left scant change on the face of your son. "Mitchell!" you yell, and take a step toward him, but a blow from one of the cops sends your frail, old body flying against the wall. "She is the one." The voice is Mitchell's, but the tone is cold, unrecognizable, sending shivers through you. He raises a fur-clad arm, pointing at his mother without a hint of emotion. "She spake against the Church; she tried to poison the mind of a child too young to know the Truth." The thugs grab Jill, who reaches toward Mitchell, tears of terror streaming down her face. Totally unresponsive, he turns and walks calmly out of the apartment. As Jill is dragged, screaming and crying, through the front door, you try to follow, but a cop pummels you in the stomach with his club. You fall to the floor, retching, as the apartment door slams closed, shutting you off forever from the son you cannot understand and the wife you will never see again.
We are in happier times, now, and on the line with Mitchell is a whole host of “grandchildren and great-grandchildren, plus various in-laws, more than twenty members of the Simm clan.” Despite previous assertions regarding the population, Perry’s large family is an almost Abrahamic model of fulfillment.
In the end, many assertions are made, but perhaps a reminder of Perry’s morality is the most significant of all:
You and Jill would never live to see the completion of that first step, generations hence. (Although in the germfree, low-gee environment of a habitat, and with the recent strides in health and longevity research, who could say for sure?) But you would still have been part of that dawning of a new age, that future of unlimited potential. Humanity was beginning a journey into the universe, a voyage that would last forever.
On Secrecy and Happiness
Meretzky’s thesis is that a society’s priorities and ethical orientation are reflections of its citizens and their values. In the good ending, education and science are characterized as central pillars of a healthy and advanced society. Likewise, a prosperous nation must value art in its many diverse forms, ranging from poetry to pyrotechnic displays. Meretzky’s utopia may well be socialist: it seems that healthcare is available to all, and that poverty is a thing of the past. Instead of murder in the streets, the people of United States of North America get space travel.
And yet, one cannot forget that Perry’s experience must be kept secret from his wife and son. In this sense, he is again a sort of secular Abraham, who was bound to keep a terrible secret from Isaac and Sarah. How could Perry explain all that he has seen and done? He is a hero, but the truth of his heroism can never be told. What would Jill say if she knew that Mitchell once doomed her to imprisonment and torture? Or that he, Perry, was murdered multiple times just ten years ago, that he was quite literally eaten by dogs?
What Abraham found easiest, I would have found hard, namely to be joyful again with Isaac….Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling
Ultimately, A Mind Forever Voyaging insists that, above all, we must commit to fulfilling our existential duty as human beings, to resisting the fascist tendency in American conservatism, and to serving as diligent witnesses to truth. It suggests, in a way brazen for its time, that we must remain faithful in the face of encroaching white supremacy, corporate greed, and state-sanctioned violence. Meretzky’s critique calls us to become more human, even as the state grows increasingly inhuman.
We are called to believe, impossible as it might seem, in the goodness of people.
At Voyage’s End
I think it is fair to say that the greatest successes of A Mind Forever Voyaging are what alienated it from the audiences of 1985. It was an odd game and oddly wedged between Wishbringer and Spellbreaker. Those bookends are familiar (in a positive sense) as puzzle-centered treks through the Zork universe. A Mind Forever Voyaging offered none of the satisfactions of traditional Infocom fare. Nevertheless, A Mind Forever Voyaging has a strong kinship with many contemporary games labeled as IF. Its heavy emphasis on external themes and puzzle-free text makes it a spiritual ancestor of many choice games made and played in our time. It also resembles many so-called “walking sims” that have grown in prevalence over the past decade or so. A Mind Forever Voyaging is also the first Infocom game to deliberately engage with social and political questions. While Gold Machine has discussed such questions with regard to earlier Infocom works, those rose out of each game’s cultural context and the conditions of its production. AMFV, on the other hand, takes a more direct approach. It has not only a political and cultural context but a political and cultural orientation.
Our lengthy and meandering conversation regarding one of the most historically significant games ever made must come to a close. I believe this series is the most anyone has ever written about A Mind Forever Voyaging, which means that you have read the most that anyone has ever read about it. Thanks for coming along with me, perhaps forgiving the occasional tangent along the way. If the game is less special to you, I hope to have at least explained why it is special to me.
Lafayette, Louisiana USA
And now, for something completely different.
Gold Machine next takes up the difficult, occasionally frustrating, yet frequently transcendent conclusion of the Zork Cycle: Spellbreaker! In celebration of the conclusion of one of the grandest adventures in video games, I will be doing a let’s play thread over at the Interactive Fiction Community Forum, so look for some news on that very soon.