Problems in A Mind Forever Voyaging

Nobody’s perfect.

The Story so Far

Sometimes, when we look upon our beloved, we can see no wrong. We might overlook their faults, or even defend them with impassioned arguments. Such is the nature of love! But I think that love must be both honest and kind in order to thrive, and so I should acknowledge shortcomings in my favorite games. Even if that game is A Mind Forever Voyaging, which I do love dearly, I must tell the truth.

Friends, A Mind Forever Voyaging is not perfect. If you’ve been following along, you already know that I do not place too much stock in what I have called “naive” readings of AMFV. Likewise, I think over-emphasizing negative implications of Perry’s self-awareness have missed a point or several about his existential courage (see also here). Despite these distractions, some critics have pinpointed what I would consider serious problems in Steve Meretzky’s first and only attempt at substantial political critique in an adventure game.

To recap, Steve Meretzky created the character of Senator Richard Ryder to act as the primary antagonist in A Mind Forever Voyaging. His initials are intended to call to mind real-life president Ronald Reagan, who was in 1985 one of the most beloved presidents in American history. Protagonist Perry Simm/PRISM must evaluate the future effects of Ryder’s “Plan for Renewed National Purpose,” whose components are recognizably conservative polices then and now:

Current file is now PLAN.ELEMENTS.

(source: "A Brighter Future for You and Me," a brochure published and
         distributed by Action for a Better Tomorrow, a pro-Plan group)
The Plan for Renewed National Purpose, Legislative action:
  * cut tax rates by fifty percent
  * vigorous prosecution of tax evasion
  * decentralization of federal responsibilities
  * deregulation of all major industries
  * reinstatement of the military draft
  * emphasis on fundamentals and traditional values in education
  * mandatory conscription for troublemakers and criminals
  * a strict "USNA First" trade policy
  * termination of aid to nations not pro-USNA
  * cutbacks on all types of bureaucracy, e.g. registering cars, guns
  * termination of government subsidies to outmoded industries

The Plan for Renewed National Purpose, Constitutional amendments:
  * increase the powers of the Executive Branch
  * increase the Presidential term of office to eight years

Some of these bullet items are either misfits or misfires: it’s hard to imagine either party cutting corporate welfare, for instance, outmoded or otherwise. Still, it is more relevant than not, as lowered taxes (for the wealthy, at least), deregulation, states “rights,” pushing “traditional values” in schools, “America First” policies, Xenophobic practices, and expanded executive powers all have currency today as policy goals for the Republican Party.

Contemporary Politicians Did not “Invent” Racism

Meretzky’s argument suggests that conservative ideology will open the door to some very toxic downstream effects, particularly xenophobia, racism, and the rising influence of religious extremists. In fact, it seems that Ryder is to blame for the racism that appears in the wake of the Plan. Here, I think, we must be careful. Ronald Reagan and Lee Atwater did not invent racism, after all. They capitalized on it and, yes, emboldened some of its adherents. Trump did much to normalize racism, but he did not create it, either. It is only reasonable to say that something must can exist before it can be exploited or normalized. As I’ve said elsewhere, appealing to the worst in people has real consequences, but that assumes the existence of a “worst” already.

Ronald Reagan and his lackey, Lee Atwater, did not invent racism, after all.

I don’t think that Meretzky’s assessment distinguishes between engendering and fostering racism, which leaves America’s unresolved problems with white supremacy unaddressed. Rather, A Mind Forever Voyaging seems to argue that Ryder/Reagan opened the door to something that is, in fact, already in the building. To be clear, normalizing racism has terrible consequences in terms of influencing the media and the electorate at large. Legislators openly pursue racist legislation. More environments become hostile to vulnerable populations. The lives of racism’s victims are less safe. Distinguishing between creating and normalizing racism in no way implies that one is “safer” than the other. Rather, the point is that a critic cannot advocate effectively for change if they have not identified a problem’s root.

It might be comforting to believe that fending off the Ryders of our time will eliminate racism, but we must know in our hearts that it isn’t true.

If You Know What I Mean: AMFV is not always Direct in Its Critique

Perhaps the most glaring shortcoming in Meretzky’s critique is its reliance on singular scapegoats that are meant to imply broader ideological and political problems. Examples include white supremacy and religious extremism. In both cases, it seems that either Meretzky or Infocom decided to find less controversial manifestations of these issues, and that choice seems to introduce a layer of plausible deniability to AMFV‘s political critique.

For instance, the primary manifestation of racism and xenophobia in A Mind Forever Voyaging is anti-Asian hate. That’s a real and despicable form of racism, to be sure, but Meretzky’s intent appears to be that readers will infer other sorts of hatred through this one pervasive example of white supremacy that isn’t rooted in xenophobia. I think it works for a lot of players, at least at first glance. I recall seeing some anti-Asian graffiti while playing AMFV for the first time, and thinking, “the racists are crawling out of the woodwork now.” And yet, such a critique ignores things like the Republican “southern strategy,” in which politicians used coded language and dog whistles to appeal to white voters in Confederate states. The southern strategy was instrumental to establishing the south as a solid “red” voting bloc. Given the political and social power of anti-Black racism in 1980s conservatism, it is strange to see it disregarded in a direct critique of Reagan’s policies.

The construction of Meretzky’s argument against religious extremism feels even more awkward and adirectional. “The Church of God’s Word,” the insane and murderous interloper that ultimately displaces the liturgical churches of the future (Catholics and Methodists are mentioned specifically), lacks a real-world corollary. By proposing “good” and “bad” churches, Meretzky invites a theological calculus that we simply aren’t equipped to perform with in-game information. I think the idea is that “new” religious types embrace an overzealous and destructive ideology in a way that more ‘traditional’ religious institutions do not. While I’m hardly an expert regarding Catholoic theology, it is worth noting that the powerful conservative majority on today’s Supreme Court is largely Catholic. While Meretzky is right to interrogate the then-expanding partnership between upstart evangelical organizations like the Moral Majority, A Mind Forever Voyaging unhelpfully implies that only outliers and fringe denominations endanger progressive ideas. Neil Gorsuch is an Episcopalian, of all things.

Neil Gorsuch is an Episcopalian, of all things.

What is the purpose of these dilations and substitutions? As I’ve acknowledged, A Mind Forever Voyaging was already a “dangerous” game as a direct critique of a highly popular president in a medium that didn’t really deal with problems like racism or religious fundamentalism at all. Even implying their existence was, in 1985, a revolutionary act. Infocom didn’t just allow it to be made, they actively promoted AMFV as a political work. For a mainstream, popular publisher of video games to go as far as Infocom went in supporting a creator’s potentially controversial work was something uniquely and characteristically Infocom. I really believe that publishing A Mind Forever Voyaging was the most Infocom thing that Infocom ever did, since it is the most concrete demonstration of its auteur ethos.

The political critique of A Mind Forever Voyaging lacks the nuance that we should reasonably expect in 2023, but it seems fair to recognize that we have what we have today because of the foundational efforts of it and other games of the 1980s and 1990s. As I once wrote about another important early adventure game: “We are lucky that Zork made so many mistakes so that the games that followed would not have to.” I think it might be the same with AMFV.

In Closing: Unresolved Problems in A Mind FOrever Voyaging

It’s true. A Mind Forever Voyaging can be a groundbreaking masterpiece and, at the same time, a deeply flawed cultural critique. So it is. Yes, it fails to grapple with the ways in which conservatism has normalized white supremacy, and it fails to recognize the flaws in our national character that have allowed it to thrive. AMFV stages situations of anti-Asian violence without humanizing its victims. They are mere props that exist only to suffer. Meretzky’s critique of religious extremism leaves him room to wiggle out of confrontations with any extant form of Christianity. In fact, it reads more like a critique of cults, a stance that few would find objectionable.

AMFV stages situations of anti-Asian violence without humanizing its victims.

And yet, it has in its own way accurately anticipated a future state, one standing on one leg at the mouth of new and unapologetic manifestations of fascism. While some problems in the text of A Mind Forever Voyaging cannot be resolved, they ought to be viewed in their larger commercial and social context: that of a superstar developer swimming against the political currents of his time and the company that neither silenced nor abandoned him. AMFV is all but certainly the first video game to expend such a large quantity of cultural capital on overt political criticism.

Next up: the end at last! Gold Machine’s epic, ten-part series on A Mind Forever Voyaging concludes with Meretzky’s vision of a neoliberal utopia. While others have suggested that Perry ends the game ready to murder everyone, AM-style, we’ll take a less sensational look at the wondrous future that awaits Perry. What does it all mean? Can we believe it? Stay tuned for… The Good Ending.

While I’ve already acknowledged Jimmy Maher’s writing about A Mind Forever Voyaging, I’ve also benefited from Art Maybury’s piece over at Arcade Idea and Eric Rosenfield’s “A Mind Forever Voyaging into Neoliberalism: Steve Meretzky and the Video Game that Saw it All Coming.”

3 thoughts on “Problems in A Mind Forever Voyaging

  1. As a lifelong AMFV-head I loved finding your thoughtful essays on the game. They put a lot of things into words that I had never quite been able to about this 128K title that has stuck in my brain since I was 10.

  2. I should have said 256K I think…?

    Meant to add, at a game dev conference in the mid-00s I spotted a tall man in a lobby with a name tag that said Steve Meretzky. Starstruck, I incomprehensibly tried to talk about the Church of God’s Word with him. Because as a then-journalist, I had been inspired, partly by his game, to write a book about a cult mixed up with right-wing politics. I probably should have stuck to telling him how much Planetfall meant to me.

    I could read 10 more of your essays on AMFV. But there are still so many questions I have about the ‘80s historical context. Like how did the offerings at the Rockvil movie theater (“Gutsplosion”) reflect anxieties about cinema being ruined by slasher movies or Porky’s type films? I’m serious though. Or, like, was anyone in 1984 looking to North Dakota as the future of cities? And were people at Infocom familiar with headlines about crackpot groups like the Moonies or the LaRouchies trying to get involved with the Reagan Revolution? Or was the AFMV church just a stand-in for Jerry Falwell?

    And I find myself wondering: How much does Perry’s first-person piece in Dakota Online track with 1985 ideas about AI? I can’t be the only former Infocom kid wondering why computer science researchers, coming up the limits of ML, haven’t tried putting their models through coming-of-age experiences…. #QueenDiAt70

    1. Sure, there’s always more to say. I didn’t touch the joybooth phenomenon, for instance. Ultimately, I’m more interested in the philosophical (in terms of epistemology, ethics, and existentialism) implications of the text, so I focused my attention there.

      I think Meretzky’s general thesis is that social reality is a reflection of its values. Whether that includes a reflection of the nation that had recently chosen Reagan by unprecented margins in its present day is a question for critics (some other critic, at this point) to consider. Unfortunately, discourse surrounding classic IF isn’t currently spawning a lot of this sort of content. Perhaps you might write something yourself, since you have obviously given the subject some thought!

      I’ve argued here that both anti-Asian racism and the Church of God’s Word are stand-ins for religious extremism and racism of all sorts. So that’s what I think, naturally! I’ve also argued that the AI model was not “realistic,” nor was it ever meant to be.

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