Initial Groundwork for a Reading of A Mind Forever Voyaging

Forever is a long time.

Because I Wanted to

Perhaps I, Drew Cook, have already hinted over these past 76 posts and roughly 182,000 words that I might treat A Mind Forever Voyaging differently. Perhaps those of you who have come all this way with Gold Machine have seen and read enough to intuit that I might treat A Mind Forever Voyaging differently. Whatever our reasons, many of us, you and I together, had a feeling that there might be something different about this game. There was and yet is something about it, isn’t there?

Regular readers might also recognize that there are a number of philosophical threads that I have spun but have not yet tied off. Looking all the way back to Enchanter, for instance, there was the as-yet unsettled mater of characterization when the player—not just the author—can define the protagonist by their actions. I’ve frequently referred here to well-meaning authors who have, in one way or another, asserted that “actually, interactive fiction was never really fiction.” These commentators all came, it must be admitted, quite close to an important truth about time, plot, and causation in agentic media. These features didn’t work in the same way that they did in traditional storytelling, and sometimes agency worked directly against their implementation. Rather than take swipes at those critics on semantic grounds, we should, at this midway point—A Mind Forever Voyaging was the 17th of 33 total Infocom games—honor their intent. Yes, audience agency absolutely was a problem for authors in the then-nascent genre of interactive storytelling. Gold Machine has been concerned with this challenge from its very beginning, but it is time to go further.

After five years and 16 games, A Mind Forever Voyaging would be built upon Infocom’s first major architectural revision: the *.Z4 specification, then branded as “Interactive Fiction Plus.” AMFV would not have been possible without the new technology. Its more generous story file size limit (a whopping 256K) was completely utilized. There was not a single Kilobyte left over—Author Steve Meretzky allegedly trimmed individual words to come in under the limit. This unprecedented and generous ceiling—double the size permissible by the original *.Z3 standard—made it possible for Meretzky to portray an imagined city in America’s great plains with a large in-game map not just once but five times over the spans of ten, 20, 30, 40, and 50 years! In terms of marrying gameplay and technical innovations, I am comfortable asserting that A Mind Forever Voyaging is Infocom’s high water mark, and in the rarefied company of only Zork I, Deadline, and Suspended. Hence, another worthwhile avenue of exploration is the relationship between technology and interactive media. For this new sort of storyteller, technology was both opportunity and limitation.

Another question—and I have repeatedly dipped my own critical toes in these waters—is that of the role that nostalgia has played in shaping the discourse surrounding 1980s interactive fiction. It would seem, forty years later, that critique of Infocom media is almost exclusively historical as opposed to cultural. Why is so much critical real estate granted, in so many places, to Infocom’s creation myth? Any serious follower of Infocom discourse knows the story—impressive to say the least—of Marc Blank’s and Joel Berez’s invention of the Z-Machine architecture. Especially in the wake of Jimmy Maher’s own exploration of Infocom’s history, what else could anyone possibly say about it (not to mention sources like Nick Montfort’s Twisty Little Passages)?

Certain historical subjects are exhaustible when treated purely as history. Someone eventually will collect the facts and state them so well and reasonably that the matter is, so far as content creation goes, exhausted. There is little more to say about Infocom’s history without turning a critical eye to questions of textual interpretation, of cultural analysis. Outside the realm of historical actualities—of facts—cases can be built and argued. There is no argument to be made about Berez and Blank and their Z-Machine. On the other hand, there may well be an argument to be made about the types of stories it favored and the kinds of texts it produced. So far as A Mind Forever Voyaging goes, many have made a case for dismissing Meretzky’s political critique of Reagan-era conservatism as shrill, fallacious, or unbalanced. Some of them have even gone so far as to characterize AMFV‘s apocalyptic vision of an America unmade by corporate greed, environmental destruction, racism, anti-intellectualism, and xenophobia naive. Perhaps Meretzky’s argument was weakened by his failure to indulge in the “middle ground” rhetorical fallacy? In any case, it has been long enough that we might conduct investigations of our own.

This is the first, introductory essay in a series of responses to my favorite “serious” Infocom game, A Mind Forever Voyaging (I make this distinction because I love Enchanter equally). As such, it attempts to lay the groundwork for a wide, far-ranging conversation about modular storytelling, overtly political game design, the difference between lineage and influence, and the customary Gold Machine assessment of digital and physical media as a combined, single text. Finally, I will examine the ways in which the destabilizing effects of player agency serve as both challenge and opportunity in A Mind Forever Voyaging.

A photograph of a smiling white man of perhaps 40 years. He appears jubilant. The man is recognizable as Lee Atwater, the architect of the Republican Party's Southern Strategy in the late 70s and most of the 80s.
Lee Atwater: Mostly Harmless?

PREFATORY REMARKS: NARRATIVE DESIGN AND A MIND FOREVER VOYAGING

It’s only fair to concede that in those early days of parser games (and perhaps even in these more sophisticated times), the plots of Infocom games did not feature what audiences would recognize as traditional plot structures. This is likely what other critics have meant when claiming that Infocom games were “not really fiction.” It’s true: the basic gameplay loop of 1980s parser games—and many of these challenges persist today—is anathema to the most familiar modes of storytelling. Ignoring postmodern innovations, a typical story is a linear sequence of events. One event leads to later events. The narrative thread generally referred to as the “main throughline” is a causal chain. As a recognizable example, the film Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (henceforth referred to as Star Wars), Princess Leia’s capture by the Empire is the first in a series of events that culminates in the destruction of the Death Star.

Each event is a certainty: there is no version of Star Wars in which, rather than board the Millenium Falcon, Luke Skywalker decides to spend an afternoon blasting womp rats in Beggar’s Canyon. The plot is fixed, and the characters are static. No matter how many times we watch, they always do the same thing. This allows we readers and critics to assess themes, characters, and plot sequence based on—returning to a previously mentioned term—the historical facts of the “text” of Star Wars. The fixed nature of action, causation, and story makes possible critical analysis based on universally agreed upon qualities. Luke watches Darth Vader kill Obi Wan Kenobi. What that means can be discussed on equal terms because the fact of its occurrence is certain.

The introduction of a certain sort of player agency is a destabilizing factor. Unlike Star Wars there is, for instance, no set causal chain for Zork I, nor is there fixed action of any sort. While there are many actions that must be performed, they need not be performed in a specific sequence. Even when there are dependencies—there are many—most are in a way unmoored. Yes, while the Adventurer must eventually exorcise the spirits from the land of the dead, there is nothing that dictates whether he will do so before or after killing the Thief. Even more destabilizing are failure cases and unmotivated actions. It is easy for a game to have an incomplete story if the player considers a fail state the ending. Perhaps the player quits after being devoured by a grue. While it may not be satisfying, such a “story” has a beginning, a middle, and an end. In this way, the intended or “true” story of Zork I can be missed altogether, an outcome of the sort that a fixed narrative like Star Wars cannot offer.

An iconic scene from Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. Princess Leia, a brunette in a white robe, can be seen in the distance. She is bending down to install a secret message in white, cylindrical robot.
This is where it all begins: Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.

While it’s true that the few other “characters” in Zork I (Thief, cyclops, troll, bat, and spirits) are fairly simple machines that a critic can evaluate as fixed features of the text (I hope so, given my own writing about the Thief), the protagonist is not so easy to characterize. There is the question of his competence (see above) as dictated by the agentic player and reader. It is also unclear (unlikely?) that the player will only act in service to the story. An easily understood and previously discussed example is the protagonist of Sorcerer‘s ability to horse around in an amusement park instead of rescuing his friend and mentor, Belboz, who is supposedly in mortal danger. In those old Infocom games, agency was a destabilizing factor that undermined their authors’ capacity for plot, pacing, and characterization.

Rather than declare Infocom’s games failures to achieve some imagined bar of “fiction-ness,” it’s more interesting to view them (and video games generally) as disruptions to traditionally-accepted approaches to authoring and interpreting narratives. In terms of storytelling, Infocom’s most successful and sophisticated games, Trinity and A Mind Forever Voyaging, face these challenges in ways as different as they are rewarding. The answer for both AMFV‘s Steve Meretzky and Trinity‘s Brian Moriarty lies in modular narrative design, an approach that Infocom first explored in Meretzky’s (along with Douglas Adams) The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. One of the major, central questions of this series on A Mind Forever Voyaging is this: in what ways is modular narrative design an effective response to (or even a capitalization on) the destabilizing effects of audience agency?

First Thoughts on Influence in Video Games as a web rather than as a lineage

Another problem in Infocom discourse is that it assumes that—beyond a small but active fan community of contemporary text-based interactive fiction—it is an evolutionary dead end in the advancement of the video game medium. This doubtlessly reinforces the limitations of the above-mentioned nostalgic readings of Infocom games. Instead of seeing the influence of, say, Zork everywhere, we see ourselves as keepers of a forgotten faith. The truth is that Zork and Deadline are part of a 40-plus-year conversation about the problems and advantages of agency in interactive media, just as games as different as Shin Megami Tensei V and The Last of Us Part 2 are.

The idea that influence is a thing inherited—passed directly from one author or game to another—is useful but incomplete. It does not describe all types of influence, or even its most common varieties. Despite an author’s best efforts, the members of an audience will ultimately have their own their own subjective experiences with art. Their own encounters with media are influenced by what they have experienced before, artistic or otherwise. If meaning-making is a shared effort between artist and audience, then influence is not a family tree. Instead, it is something web-like or even, less determinately, something in the air: an ambiance or a far-away sound.

Gold Machine embraces the widely-accepted concept of intertextuality as a model of influence and conversation between cultural objects. 1998’s Baldur’s Gate, which in no way looks or plays like Infocom’s Deadline, nevertheless enters an already-started conversation about NPC interaction in agentic narratives. Whether or not members of the 60-person Baldur’s Gate development team played it, Deadline is already part of that pre-existing cultural context. Whether or not the people who played Baldur’s Gate also played Deadline, the cultural context of Deadline as an innovator in NPC interaction already existed in 1998. For that matter: how many reviewers of Baldur’s Gate had first played Deadline? How did such experiences affect the discourse surrounding Baldur’s Gate, even if Deadline was never mentioned?

The phenomenon of intertextuality introduces another question for the contemporary critic of A Mind Forever Voyaging: what sort of texts and games does it converse with, both before and since? While I do feel quite nostalgic about it and other Infocom games, I also believe it is a mistake to stop with history and nostalgia. AMFV is a game that has more to offer today than its historicity. What conversations did it continue or begin in 1985, and what does that mean for the players and critics of today? What other critical opportunities might embracing intertextually afford us as readers and, yes, fans?

A photograph of the cast of the RPG Persona 2: Eternal PUnishment. It includes a glamourous young fasion designer, an angsty high school student in a red jacket, a long-haired native American, a woman photographer with red and white hair, a serious man in a grey suit and red shirt, a juvenile delinquent, and cheerful reporter Maya Amano. They all look toward the viewer.
Cast for the Atlus RPG Persona 2: Eternal Punishment (2000). Given the player freedoms available in many RPG’s, the balance between agency and narrative is an important consideration.

Concluding Remarks regarding a Critical and Intertextual Reading of AMFV

As this essay’s title suggests, it is only the initial groundwork laid for a larger and hopefully more insightful discussion of Steve Meretzky’s A Mind Forever Voyaging. As a highly complex and innovative game released in the exact middle of Infocom’s trajectory as a company, it serves as a fine place to snap the level line: what storytelling practices and technical innovations made AMFV possible? How did Steve Meretzky—at the peak of his storytelling powers at Infocom—manage to leverage his previous successes as a game designer to overcome the difficulties in reconciling agency and causal narrative? How have the various usages of the term “interactive fiction” operated as both genre and commercial designation, and how does the largely uncelebrated influence of A Mind Forever Voyaging persist to this day?

Finally: was Meretzky’s critique of the Reagan administration’s policies and philosophies truly as overstated and, yes, “unfair” as many critics from the Obama years have suggested? Perhaps there is something else to say in 2022. A Mind Forever Voyaging‘s suggestion that we Americans (I speak as an American) are in a more tenuous and vulnerable position than optimists of years past have asserted may not have been so “naive” after all. Looking back, it certainly seems naive to believe that appealing to the worst impulses of a nation might exact from it no price.

This is bound to be a long and bumpy journey, and Gold Machine will write more about A Mind Forever Voyaging than it has or will any other Infocom game. By the very nature of this series of essays, critical discursions and side alleys must be explored. Please indulge these brief stops along the way: I am not idling at Bozbarland, I promise.

A Note

Many of you have noted, I am sure, the recently-added Patreon button. I will not be aggressively publicizing this account, nor will I be hiding Gold Machine or Gold Microphone essays behind a paywall. This content is and will always be free. Callie and I do not plan to earn income from Patreon. That isn’t our intent. It’s just that we are spending money to provide content at the level of quality you expect: hardware for the podcast, WordPress hosting fees, etc. Since she is currently earning a graduate assistantship’s salary while I live off of a fixed disability income, even these modest costs are a hardship for us. Any amount of support would be appreciated.

Again, I won’t be harping on this weekly or monthly, and we will never paywall content that you have come to expect from us. Never. If you can’t contribute, that’s fine. You’re welcome here, and I appreciate your readership and comments. Gold Machine is a labor of love. Love of text, love of games.

Drew

8 thoughts on “Initial Groundwork for a Reading of A Mind Forever Voyaging

  1. Re: possibility of an overstated critique. Your mentioning this reminded me of a recent film-viewing and then review-reading experience I had. I watched Mississipi Burning (1988) again, which had a big impact on me as a teen but which I had not seen for probably thirty years until last week. I found it as gripping as an adult, but experienced its critique as more one-note. Afterwards, I was reading some reviews of it on IMDB, and came across one where someone described studying the film in high school (from the date of the review and comments, I can surmise they did this in the 1990s). They said the film terrified them because at the time they lived in a racist town, and they felt their world wasn’t so changed from what was seen in this film set in the 1960s.

    1. That makes sense—the reviewer’s lived experience became part of the meaning-making process. I think it would be interesting to know how and if attitudes toward AMFV have changed over the years. During the Obama years, for instance, some American political commentators were quite optimistic regarding race relations here, even though features of structural racism persisted in unsubtle ways.

      E: to be clear, by “race relations” I mean racism and its consequences.

  2. “…Infocom’s first major architectural revision: the *.Z5 specification, then branded as ‘Interactive Fiction Plus.’”
    If I’m correct, A Mind Forever Voyaging was released in the *.z4 format, as were Trinity and Nord and Bert. The Z5 format was introduced in 1986 or 1987, if memory serves.

    1. Thanks for the link! Yes, we are very lucky that Steve Meretzky was such a meticulous record-keeper. I think all the in-house stuff that we have from those Infocom days comes from him.

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