Perry Simm has come unstuck in time.
Modular Narrative: A Refresher
With Douglas Adams’s and Steve Meretzky’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a practice called “modular narrative design” was employed to great effect. A game (or any form of narrative, really) can be said to be modular if it consists of separate parts that do not necessarily connect in the way that traditional linear narratives do. A detailed discussion of it can be found here, but for now I will just say that one of the greatest effects of modular design is that we readers, doing our best to fill in the gaps left by authors, must rely on our own interpretive powers. In other words, modularity makes creators out of all of us.
The scenes from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (both game and novel) featuring a brief episode involving an unfortunate, short-lived sperm whale are illustrative. Neither episode moves the main throughline along, though the Infocom version does advance the gameplay by introducing a puzzle with an important reward. The IF version is otherwise less funny, because it plays out from the perspective of protagonist Arthur Dent. Despite some humorous framing, the player is in familiar territory: they are in a room, and in that room is a thing to take.
>feel (darkness) It does feel a bit warm and wet and squishy. There seems to be some liquid at your fingertips. >drink liquid Yucchhh! You are jerked to your senses by the realisation that you are licking the lining of a whale's stomach. Inside the Sperm Whale You are in the stomach of a sperm whale. You can hear a distant sound of rushing wind. There is a flowerpot here.
The scene as we experience it in-game has mechanical rather than narrative priorities, and its meager humor and pathos are largely derived from our understanding of the novel. There, the sperm whale episode takes on the narrative perspective of the whale as opposed to that of Arthur Dent. This changes the experience of the text a great deal, of course, and the interpretive distance between the narrative throughline and the passage is larger by an order of magnitude:
Another thing that got forgotten was the fact that against all probability a sperm whale had suddenly been called into existence several miles above the surface of an alien planet.
And since this is not a naturally tenable position for a whale, this poor innocent creature had very little time to come to terms with its identity as a whale before it then had to come to terms with not being a whale any more.
This is a complete record of its thought from the moment it began its life till the moment it ended it.
Ah…! What’s happening? it thought.
Er, excuse me, who am I?
Why am I here? What’s my purpose in life?
What do I mean by who am I?
In both novel and IF, the design of the whale sequences are modular, but they have different objectives for their designs. Adams’s whale monologue is more emotionally complex, especially when we consider his interest in conservation and species preservation. It’s more humorous, too. Meretzky’s and Adam’s “belly of the whale” puzzle does not attempt to replicate the tone or content of that scene, though I think it does assume that we readers already know it. Instead, the setting is, at last, the place where the humorous (and, I believe, new to the Infocom version) “thing your aunt gave you which you don’t know what it is” demonstrates its value once and for all. I wouldn’t say either approach—novel or IF—is superior to the other. Sometimes a novel needs thematic digression, and sometimes a game needs a puzzle.
I will say, though, that perhaps a noble goal of IF—particularly in those limit-testing early days—might be to do both. In that period, an as-yet unattained good—at least in terms of the Infocom catalog—remained modular design that forwarded both thematic and mechanical elements of the text. People who have been reading ahead might assert that Brian Moriarty’s Trinity comes closest to fulfilling that promise, and I would agree. Of course, a crucial distinction there is that Trinity‘s structure provides a better future model for game and narrative design than Infocom’s other modular efforts. Shogun was not so much modular as it was a narrative run through a buzzsaw. Nord and Bert Couldn’t Make Head or Tail of It… was that modular at all? Or should it be called an anthology? I’m glad to have some time to think about that one!
No, the only other “big” modular games from Infocom, post-Hitchhiker’s, are Trinity and A Mind Forever Voyaging. The modular framework of Trinity has proven to be a very effective design: a number of temporally and geographically diverse areas that are connected thematically. Working with a Trinity-style narrative model, an author has the freedom to create surprising contrasts, sidestepping the causal bonds of linear storytelling, that can emphasize more elusive qualities: philosophy, tone, and so forth.
The modular framework of Trinity has proven to be a very effective design: a number of temporally and geographically diverse areas that are connected thematically.
The narrative lessons of A Mind Forever Voyaging, on the other hand, are harder to replicate. While Trinity ends by asserting a temporal loop, A Mind Forever Voyaging is a series of self-referential loops that—so the narrative claims–ultimately comes to an end. It is a game that, rhetorically, consists of a computer talking to itself for hours and years on end. It demands that we accept the way that its protagonist knows the world—so different from the way that we readers know it—as valid despite apparent invalidities. The text of AMFV expects us to empathize with Perry Simm as human while unceasingly reminding us that he is not and can never be human. Perry Simm is, in other words, impossibly Other and Not Other all at once.
For these reasons, Perry Simm is simultaneously the most fully developed original character in the Infocom catalog of 1985 and—disregarding the protagonist of Suspended, whose non-personhood is in fact the entirety of their character—the least knowable. The progression of his evolving consciousness is the isolated-yet-connected module at the center of the modular narrative of A Mind Forever Voyaging.
The Varied Temporal, physical, and Simulated Geographies of AMFV
It would be beneficial to first categorize the types of “module” or “location” found within the text of A Mind Forever Voyaging. The most impactful of these categories is probably that of the temporal. After all, the stated goal of the protagonist is to simulate future states of an imaginary city called “Rockvil,” South Dakota. It is fair to say that, in a sense, A Mind Forever Voyaging is about the future, but a possible inaccuracy lurks. In reality, AMFV is not so much about the future as it is about PRISM‘s (Perry’s) computational auguries regarding the effects of “The Plan for Renewed National Purpose” on the future in an imagined place. Perry’s journeys—as directed by the player—are ultimately journeys into himself.
The point of these clarifications is not to cast doubt on the entire narrative of A Mind Forever Voyaging or reframe it as some sort of trivial head game. Rather, I hope to underscore the isolated nature of PRISM’s work—perhaps less so for Perry, but that will have to wait until next week—and to highlight the distance and proximity we readers feel all at once for a remarkable computer that introduces him/itself via a sophisticated combination of memoir and journalism that, despite a bit of recent online breathlessness, computers cannot presently write themselves.
The loneliness of PRISM is ultimately his/its most heroic quality, since, like the mortal dread of the heroes of fantasy, it must go felt and unfelt at the same time.
In reality, AMFV is not so much about the future as it is about PRISM‘s (Perry’s) computational auguries regarding the effects of “The Plan for Renewed National Purpose” on the future in an imagined place. Perry’s journeys—as directed by the player—are ultimately journeys into himself.
There is a present tense in the world of A Mind Forever Voyaging, a “right now” separate from the varied present tense sentences used to narrate the simulated futures of Rockvil. That “now” is a brief period in the year 2031 (a week, perhaps) when the Artificial Intelligence PRISM is brought online to evaluate the effects of the Plan for Renewed National Purpose. Two temporalities meet there. The first is the simulated life history of Perry Simm as organically fabricated by PRISM him/itself over the course of 11 years (if you need a refresher on this part of the story, the above link to the AMFV browsie material will help). The second chronology leading to the “now” of the game is, of course, the political reality of the “real” 2031, which is what drives the central narrative thread of A Mind Forever Voyaging.
The pivot point or axis of the “now” in AMFV also asserts three future chronologies:
- The concluding “now” of the narrative in which Perry’s predictions drive Richard Ryder to accidentally destroy his political career.
- The increasingly dismal simulation of the future that the player and Perry document together.
- The utopian future that comes to pass thanks to Perry’s exposure of The Plan and Ryder.
All of these chronologies (past, present, future) have geographies or, at least, places in the text. The past (and the present, too) is implied in the packed in browsie, an excerpt from the fictitious magazine Dakota Online. The wider world of the present is additionally implied by the WNNF (world network news feed):
>z Time passes... A man appears, holding a magazine. He yawns loudly. "Omni-Fabb's Skycar 2032 has been awarded SKYCAR ENTHUSIAST's Car of the Year award. Some things never change." The man looks up as a car whooshes by overhead like a fighter jet. A narrator intones, "Quality ... Comfort ... Safety ... Omni-Fabb." >z Time passes... The camera pans down row after row of medicine bottles. A voiceover says, "Only one multisymptom cold remedy comes with a no-strings-attached double-money-back guarantee." The camera stops on a slender bottle with a bright blue label. "NomaCold can make that guarantee, because we put Results in every bottle. From Huang Laboratories." >z Time passes... The anchorman reappears. "Food riots in Sri Lanka worsened today, as army details were removed from relief distribution to protect the Presidential Palace and other government buildings." A grainy visual, showing armed troops firing into a crowd, accompanies the story.
Furthermore, the game’s climax takes place in the “real world” of 2031 after information gleaned from PRISM’s simulated future threatens the ambitions of a powerful politician:
"Now let's get a few ground rules straight, Perelman. Nothing is stopping the Plan. Even if I didn't think your damn tapes were faked, I wouldn't give a damn. A helluva lot of people have a helluva lot at stake in this thing, and so what if a lot of creeps who can't take care of themselves get a little hurt." "I'm very frightened, Senator," says Perelman, his voice laced with sarcasm. "Shut up," Ryder shouts back. "I said that I'm doing the talking here!" >z Time passes... "And let me tell you another thing, Perelman. Don't think that just because you've been on the news and been a big hot shot around here, you're gonna get some special consideration, because all that doesn't mean diddly-squat in the kind of power circles I'm talking about!" >z Time passes... Ryder is getting really worked up; his normal, fatherly demeanor is completely gone. "Perelman, you're an even bigger idiot than I imagined if you think we'd let some two-bit egghead scientist and some high-tech whiz bang computer stand in our way! Remember this -- if you were to have some unforeseen accident, you wouldn't be the first person who's gotten crushed by standing in the way of the Plan!" Perelman, with a quick glance in your direction, says, "Quite an oration, Senator. Vintage thug. I wish I could save it for posterity. Would you be willing to go on the record with that statement?" Ryder becomes even more livid. "A real jokester, huh? Lemme tell you this, Perelman -- you'd better stop joking and start listening to my advice, or you're not going to be around to care about posterity, understand?"
Both connected to and disconnected from this world of politics, commerce, and computation are the simulated futures of 2041, 2051, 2061, 2071, and 2081. Despite a shared map, these iterations of Rockvil do not share a one-to-one relationship geographically in gameplay terms because they must be explored anew in each decade. While we’ve discussed the ways in which Meretzky addressed these challenges technologically, there is more to say about each decade’s modular nature. Their modularity is in fact what makes them interesting. Because there is no experience of continuity, each shift between temporal modules can take on a dramatic quality that is unprecedented in the Infocom catalog. Instead of exploring regions for objects, puzzles, or opportunities, players explore difference. I would call player exploration in the temporal geography of A Mind Forever Voyaging prophetic rather than practical. In Zork I, for instance, there is only one thief, one dam, one trophy case. It is a narrative of specific places and objects, many of them acted upon in specific sequences. By contrast, AMFV is not a game not of things but of things to come.
In A Mind Forever Voyaging, the objectives are more general—I think my use of the word “augury” was appropriate—since the player searches the world for signs of an as-yet defined future. Mechanically, Perry Simm’s ability to identify and record such signs enables him/PRISM to simulate more distant futures. While there is—how could there not be—an underlying matrix of events to record, each with its own prophetic potential (a number), these calculations are obfuscated. Ambient events, which generally do not happen at set times or intervals, are hard to record. This helps create an impression that these futures are more than a thing for a computer to document. Rather, many of events are as ephemeral as they are striking. We, as Perry Simm, witness more than we can convey.
I would call player exploration in the temporal geography of A Mind Forever Voyaging prophetic rather than practical. In Zork I, for instance, there is only one thief, one dam, one trophy case. It is a narrative of specific places and objects, many of them acted upon in specific sequences.
Another consequence of this design is that, unlike the more practical landscapes of other Infocom games, Perry Simm makes no apparent marks on these temporal geographies. While the game’s mechanics do allow the player to unlock new temporal regions through their actions, the player’s actions within those regions do not affect other time periods. It makes sense that doing something in a simulation of 2051 would not affect 2041, but there are very few things that Perry can do in 2041 that will affect the world of 2051. Those exceptions have been rightly celebrated—buying The Wizard of Oz at the bookstore is frequently mentioned—but ultimately player agency as it operates in A Mind Forever Voyaging departs radically from what we’ve come to expect from Infocom’s buttons, scrolls, teacups, and whatnots.
More on Playing for Difference
This type of gameplay that prioritizes the identification and documentation of difference places a premium on the act of political witness. Much has been made of the journalistic qualities of gameplay in A Mind Forever Voyaging. We players can certainly approach it with a journalistic mind, seeking out “noteworthy” events and recording them. Isn’t that what journalists do? And Perry, we know, has that word processor in his apartment. We know from his story in the browsie that he is a writer by training, avocation, and profession. This must be a game about the press! About the duties of a free press! Perry is the ultimate journalist, he must be, fending off the apocalypse with his fearless journalism.
I really don’t think that’s it. Perry and his wife Jill are artists. Perry isn’t a reporter. He’s an “author and poet” (emphasis added). His mentor and hero was “Rav Hansom, Author and Poet.” The passages that preface each new section of the game cite poets as opposed to Walter Cronkite or Edward R. Morrow. This is a game that quotes Emily Dickinson twice, after all. I feel that perhaps these literary invocations get at something lovely and true about the role an artist might play as witness, as well as about the challenge of being part of the world while, at the same time, hoping to see it in-frame. This is the initial point of Perry’s separative modularity from which each other discrete part emerges: Perry is an artist. We begin (if we do things in order) by reading his memoir. That is how we meet him.
This is a game that quotes Emily Dickinson twice, after all.
There is more to say, of course. Perry Simm/PRISM’s subjective experience of life has tied many readers and critics in knots—since he is self-aware, isn’t he in some kind of Hell? He knows the spaceship isn’t real! None of this is real! This is not a realistic game! It’s true that it isn’t real on many levels. The practice of “soliptic programming” may not strike readers as credible. It remains to be seen which is more realistic: the magic system of Enchanter, the state of robotics technology in Suspended, or the AI technology of A Mind Forever Voyaging. If forced to pick one, I suppose I would say that of the three, Enchanter is the most realistic of them all. While A Mind Forever Voyaging does possess many of the features of hard science fiction, perhaps it would be fairer to regard it as a work of social science fiction, or even as a series of thought experiments in the tradition of Asimov’s Robot series.
I think audiences often expect a shocking moment of self-awareness as the big twist at the ending of AI narratives (“I was a computer all along!”), which might cascade into tormented madness (Ellison’s AM is an extreme example) as an inevitable outcome. Perhaps AMFV short-circuits this expectation in a way that some readers dislike. I personally always found the Tessier-Ashpool mainframe from Gibson’s Neuromancer books to be far more interesting than AM. Isn’t it is easier to imagine the awfulness of AM than it is to imagine whatever in the world it is that the TA mainframe gets up to? In the same way, I think many readers and players can easily imagine Perry as a kind of impotent-yet-equally-insane AM trapped in his own machinery. Maybe it isn’t as easy to imagine Perry choosing–of the many possibilities–to finish his days as a very contented, elderly poet living on a spaceship with his beloved wife. Perhaps it is hard to understand Perry’s happiness, not because of his artificiality, but because, in the end, he remained resolutely human. What are we to make of the heroic authenticity of someone who could be and have anything, only to will that he remain himself, living out the life that was his and his alone?
What if A Mind Forever Voyaging ought to be read as a fable? Is it a fairy tale? In a life lived at ten-year intervals, what can it mean to be real? I think it is fair to say that Perry Simm, poet, computer, and civil disobedient, may have made himself real, transformed himself by virtue of his own courage, sacrifice, and, yes, fidelity to the truth. Beauty must be in there somewhere too, poet that he is.
Only two posts remain in this nine-part series on A Mind Forever Voyaging.
Update: I’ve decided that I can’t cover everything that I’d like with only two posts. There will be a tenth post, wedged between the eighth and the last, recognizing problems in the text.
3 thoughts on “Spots of Time: Modular Design in A Mind Forever Voyaging”
Existence, Time and Existentialism in video games and artificial simulations. CS 507 Prof Cook University of Arkansas. Sign me up for the full course.
Talk about a dream syllabus. Never say never!