Part five of a nine-part series about Steve Meretzky’s A Mind Forever Voyaging.
Metatext and Character Development in AMFV
A lot has been written—here and elsewhere—about Infocom’s innovative approach to packaging their games. Of their earliest games, only the original Zork trilogy were packaged without some amusing or otherwise enriching gimmick or lagniappe. Those Zork games, of course, needed no such accoutrements. They were Zork, after all, and Zork was Zork. All of Infocom’s other games went further.
The first game to go beyond the disk-manual-package triad was Deadline, of course, and, was in a sense the best, because it was the solution to a game development problem. The materials packaged with Deadline enlarged our understanding of the immediate world of the game: its location, its characters, and, importantly, the central problem confronted by the player. In other words, they were a seamless part of the game. The accompanying text and imagery—such materials are called “metatext”—made it possible for author Marc Blank to overcome previously impassable obstacles: interface limitations, memory ceilings, shortcomings in presentation technologies.
Despite Deadline providing this initial model, most subsequent Infocom games did not ship with materials that were essential to their play experiences. For those who are curious, here is a list of all games preceding our current object of study (A Mind Forever Voyaging) with a brief assessment: were their materials integral to the experience of the game? Note that each of these game packages have been discussed at length here at Gold Machine.
- Deadline: Yes, for reasons already discussed.
- Starcross: Not really. The game was packaged in a plastic flying saucer which, while interesting, had no connection to the game (the Starcross was not a flying saucer). A map of space served as a copy protection puzzle; it had no bearing on the story or setting of the game.
- Suspended: Unlike the package for Starcross, that of Suspended affords a layered presentation that reflects the horror of the game world in a way that the materials on-disk cannot.
- The Witness: A difficult assessment. The materials—particularly the newspaper—reflect a lot of care and invention, but ultimately the game and its package are all hat and no gumshoe.
- Planetfall: Ultimately, like the package for Meretzky’s Sorcerer, it is a good deal sillier than the game.
- Enchanter: The lovely package and its documents characterized the wider world of the game, but had nothing to do with its immediate setting or gameplay
- Infidel: The materials packaged with Infidel were used to dramatize the central character and play objectives. It’s worth noting that the unusually developed character of Infidel‘s main character was considered a failure, and Infocom would not attempt to do so again for two years.
- Sorcerer: While I’ve received some pushback for saying so, I still believe that the packaging of Sorcerer actively sabotages the well-calibrated vagaries of the Zork universe as previously written. Contains a bit of copy protection (the infotater) that is at least interesting and plausible in the game world.
- Seastalker: The packaging seems built around the “gee whiz” factor of the “decoded” Infocards. However, the material often reflects an out-of-game perspective that does not enlarge the player’s sense of the game world or its characters.
- Cutthroats: Whatever the failings of the game might be, the book of shipwrecks reflects a clear desire to develop the game setting in a way that the game diskette, on its own, cannot.
- The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Its collection of verbal and sight gags appropriately extend the ambiance of Douglas Adams humor found throughout the game.
- Suspect: The materials do characterize persons in the game, but not in a deep way that will affect gameplay in a deep sense.
- Wishbringer: The ransom note is probably the first physical object that plays a critical role in an in-game scene. The map is something of a mixed bag: helpful and interesting, but also rather obviously intended as copy protection.
This brief sprint through the history of Infocom packaging is important because it illustrates how unusual the A Mind Forever Voyaging metatext is. It is, like that of Infidel, primarily concerned with developing the character of its protagonist. Infidel and A Mind Forever Voyaging were, in fact, the only Infocom games to-date that features depictions of their protagonist’s face on the box cover. In the latter half of its arc, Infocom would prove more liberal in this regard. Plundered Hearts, Sherlock, Journey, and Author all featured representations of their leading characters in their box art.
The back of the box reveals, as always, the “feelie” and “browsie” contents of the box, as well as a print description of the game. This text is interesting in that it clearly broadcasts the literary ambitions of the game. In the first place, the passage begins with a Shakespeare quote: “If you can look into the seeds of time, and say which grain will grow and which will not….” Continuing on, the descriptive text concludes: “A major departure for Infocom, A Mind Forever Voyaging is reminiscent of such classic works of science fiction as Brave New World and 1984. You’ll spend less time solving puzzles, as you explore realistic worlds of the future.”
“A Mind Forever Voyaging is reminiscent of such classic works of science fiction as Brave New World and 1984“—blurb on the back of the box.
So far as the pack-ins promised by the back of the box: these include “the latest hardcopy issue of Dakota Online magazine; a full-color map of Rockvil, South Dakota; a 21st century plastic pen; and a Class One Security Mode Access Decoder. It’s worth examining each of these objects in detail—especially the issue of Dakota Online.
That’s “Rockvil” With One “L.”
The purpose of A Mind Forever Voyaging‘s browsie, an excerpt from Dakota Online magazine, is to provide background on the world of the game, introduce the protagonist, and provide hints regarding the political realities of America in 2031. It’s hard to parse some of its imagery, as some of it seems associated with ideas of patriotism. Whose patriotism, though? The game seems quite ambivalent on this count, since the villainous Senator Ryder asserts that he is a champion of American values in a rather generically conservative way. There are few—abeit telling—clues in the browsie that may facilitate interpretation of patriotic imagery and claims.
The front cover of the April, 2031 issue of Dakota Online features a small photo of Mount Rushmore. Underneath, a large caption reads: “OUR NATIONAL HERITAGE LIVES ON IN DAKOTA.” It apparently refers to a interview and/or puff piece about “Governor Rowe” (no first name provided), which is, sadly, not included in the browsie. Inside, a photo of the Governor reveals a man with the face of a clinician and the dress of an Imperial officer from Star Wars. His expression is hard to read. He might be regarding the camera with disdain or, perhaps, even a twinge of disgust, as if he has just sighted a particularly loathsome insect. His words are generic conservative blather, which in 2031 doesn’t sound so different from 1985: “‘For nearly two hundred years,’ says the Governor, ‘we’ve provided the country with nourishing crops and citizens of high moral fiber. We believe in God and country here in Dakota, and the rest of the nation could benefit from a return to these values.'”
Sadly, that’s all we get of Rowe, who looks like he really ought to capture Luke and R2 before Darth Vader arrives. His presence and presentation are likely meant to suggest that the political landscape of “The United States of North America” is not a progressive utopia at the game’s outset. An argument more implied than made is that the United States of our world and time was ready for and receptive to a radical reimagination of American democracy, and that the precipitous “adjustments” made by Senator Richard Ryder exploit flaws in the USNA’s national character. This noncritical presentation of Governor Rowe may be meant to remind readers of a familiar sort of performatively conservative rube, constantly making shallow gestures toward religious belief and a very nebulous sense of “patriotism.” The browsie need not say more, since, unfortunately, such figures still have considerable political appeal. Still, it’s important to note that Perry Simm/PRISM and Rowe comfortably occupy space within the same magazine.
While a first glance at the cover of Dakota Online magazine might suggest otherwise, the browsie consists of one article, “A Mind Forever Voyaging,” bracketed by front matter and advertisements. This article has no byline, though we are later told in-game that the author is none other than the protagonist, PRISM. Save the last two full paragraphs, the piece is written in third-person perspective, and its divided sections alternate between a biographical account of “Perry Simm’s” life and a computer scientist’s explanation of a new, advanced AI technology.
Perry, we learn, is a thoughtful, artistic type. As a boy, he was picked on. He admired a kind author named Rav, who became a mentor to him. Perry’s relationship with Rav led him to realize that we wanted to become a writer someday: “Perry knew that, more than anything, he wanted to be a writer” (7). While saying more here and now would be telling, this is a significant detail. Perry, as we share his experiences in the game, is tasked with bearing witness, with recording the consequences of conservative policy. Where, players might ask, is the line between the artist’s gaze and the gaze of the witness? Is there a line at all? Steve Meretzky’s decision to make the PRISM AI an artist as opposed to a plumber, accountant, or tax attorney is significant. Whether it succeeds or fails, A Mind Forever Voyaging is clearly a thoughtful, deliberate work (we have the notes to prove it), and the time invested in the character of Perry Simm/PRISM underscores that fact. This is the first Infocom game with an adult protagonist (let’s not muddy the waters with Seastalker) in which the player has a sense of that protagonist’s young life. Along the way, Steve Meretzky relies on specific details to make Perry’s experience vivid and real:
He wandered down the aisles, each lined with tall shelves of glittering merchandise, and after several confused minutes discovered that he was completely lost. He had no idea how to find Mother, and he had no idea how to find the spot where he had last seen her. He was alone, abandoned. Strangers, huge and terrifying, jostled past. Walls of boxed appliances towered above him. Fear and despair won the battle for his emotions, and he began to cry. (5)
Elsewhere, Perry enjoys cake, changes schools mid-year, resents his college writing instructor, and gets dumped by his girlfriend. He is, in other words, a seemingly ordinary young man, pleasantly unaffected for an artistic type, who marries the love of his life—a painter, no less—at the age of twenty. Rising out of all of this normalcy is an encounter with the computer scientist depicted elsewhere in the magazine article, Dr. Abraham Perelman:
“PRISM, my name is Abraham Perelman. It’s all true, I’m afraid. You are a computer, and your whole life was merely a simulation whose purpose was to instill you with intelligence and self-awareness. Think about everything you learned in that AI course you took. You are the first of a new breed—the thinking machine. Join me, and I will lead you along the road toward your new existence.” (11)
This transition feels abrupt and less-than-realistic, as do the regularly-inserted passages of Dr. Perelman and Dr. Randu discussing their development of PRISM’s AI technology. While I haven’t seen this argued elsewhere—negative characterizations of the science must often feel like enough—I would argue that the mechanics of of PRISM’s operation are unimportant, and not just a little unimportant. They are wildly unimportant to the narrative of A Mind Forever Voyaging. Consider, instead, that the computer science framing is important because it scaffolds the following significant details and questions:
- Establishing the political (both within the PRISM project and without) implications of the PRISM project.
- Establishing the character of Perry Simm, who is usually dramatized as a person rather than as a machine.
- Grounding the story of A Mind Forever Voyaging in the classic “brain in a vat” philosophical problem.
- Inviting the player to consider the relationship between writing, art, and political witness.
- Asking the question: what sort of story is A Mind Forever Voyaging? Documentary-style hard sci-fi? Fable (more on this next week)?
The Rest of It
While the Dakota Online article is undoubtedly the most significant item included with A Mind Forever Voyaging, it is not the only one. The “PRISM PROJECT FACILITY Class One Security Mode Access Decoder,” a complex pair of rotating cardboard circles that barely attempts to make itself relevant to the game. Whenever the PRISM enters a simulation from the future, the player must enter a code number based on a color and number combination on the decoder. There is no explanation for why PRISM might need to enter a code to enter… himself, making this device one of Infocom’s least-mimetic copy protection schemes in the entire catalog.
Despite its seeming irrelevance, the wheel was, in fact, one of the least-changed features from Steve Meretzky’s initial IDEA FOR SCI-FI GAME. “One feelie would be a print-out of codes. These codes are built into the simulation process to prevent outside tampering. You would need to supply an appropriate code to run a given simulation. This would be an anti-piracy device.” Why the wheel? Readers may recall the “infotater” included with Meretzky’s Sorcerer, which was only shipped for a few months because it didn’t fit in the standardized gray box packaging. Perhaps he desired a second chance for a code wheel, but it’s hard to imagine that anyone would find AMFV‘s device as comparable to Sorcerer‘s in terms of interest, mimesis, or aesthetics.
There was also a ballpoint pen, ostensibly a promotional item for “Quad Mutual Insurance.” Perhaps it is meant to suggest a primary economic engine within the game’s setting of “Rockvil,” South Dakota. The name doesn’t appear in my recent transcript, but it’s a large map.
A Brief Overview of the Plot of A Mind FOrever Voyaging
PRISM, born Perry Simm, has been tasked with evaluating the effects of “The Plan for Renewed National Purpose” (AKA “The Plan”) by exploring a simulated future. The Plan is a suite of policies proposed by Senator Richard Ryder, a charismatic conservative whose ideology is meant to remind the player of the real-world Ronald Reagan’s. Just as the then present-day 1985 is meant to inform the political concerns of the game’s present day 2031, so, too does Ryder seem to foreground Meretzky’s (quite reasonable) anxiety over the encroachment of church upon matters of state; wholesale destruction of the environment in service of industry; racism and xenophobia; an increasingly cruel populace fomented by the cruelty of an autocratic authority.
Perry/PRISM—the protagonist is Perry in the simulated world and PRISM in the “real” world of 2031—is initially tasked with evaluating the results of The Plan ten years after its implementation (2041). While the future initially seems benign, Perry is soon able to travel further and further into the future. Within fifty years, the USNA has become a apocalyptic hellscape, a realization of that famous passage from Hobbes:
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. (Hobbes, Leviathan)
This conclusion of Perry’s simulated travel is a frequent flyover for critics of A Mind Forever Voyaging. Without delving into next week’s post, I’ll ask: consider that Meretzky might not be saying, literally, that voting for Ronald Reagan would lead to a Road Warrior-type world. What might he be saying instead? There has been a fair amount of ink spilled here already, but there remains more ground to cover. Perhaps A Mind Forever Voyaging is a fable or parable, a story of the character of a nation reflecting the character of its people, and vice versa.
The ending of A Mind Forever Voyaging may bear out this hypothesis, but that is a subject for the not-so-distant future: the ninth and final essay of this series. More discussion of this landmark game is to follow.
An initial characterization of A Mind Forever Voyaging as a fable or parable awaits. Here, in this space, an argument against a literal reading of AMFV will begin to shape. How, then, should it be read? Don’t miss the sixth of nine essays on Steve Meretzky’s landmark game, out next Monday.