The Future is Terse: The Constrained Rhetoric of A Mind Forever Voyaging

The concise language of A Mind Forever Voyaging‘s narrative has more than one effect.

A Word on Brevity and the Z-Machine

A previous post discussed the possibilities of the new “Interactive Fiction Plus” specification, which was first introduced with Steve Meretzky’s A Mind Forever Voyaging. The two most-mentioned features of this new Infocom technology involved the removal of constraints. In the first case, a hard limit of 256 in-game “objects” was removed. “Objects” should not be confused with interactable “things” in the world of the game, as it also applies to a number of built-in concepts or abstractions, as well as geographical locations. Looking all the way back to Zork, it has 110 internally defined rooms and sixty takeable objects. That leaves eighty-six possible objects for everything from compass directions to fiddly bits (baskets, chains, buttons, the trophy case, etc.).

That hard limitation was separate from another, more frequently discussed constraint: the Z-machine’s maximum story size of 128K. That ceiling was often more theoretical than practical, since some home microcomputers couldn’t manage a 128K game (The TI/99 comes to mind, as do Atari models). Since maximal portability was a key element of Infocom’s success (it really does seem that, were a toaster capable, it would have had its own Zork port), early games were constrained below and beyond that 128K ceiling. Working with constraints, then, was a constant—if only occasionally recognized—pressure in those early days of Infocom.

Often, such limitations led to positive outcomes. A strength of Enchanter, for instance, is its tight, logical map, and Meretzky’s own Planetfall seems likewise to be perfectly sized. The settled-upon sweet spot for those early, post-Zork III games seems to be 109K (though a few had swelled to 111K by the time of the “Masterpiece” reissues for x86 and Macintosh systems). It’s important to note that the easiest way—that is, the only way to do so without impacting the games mechanically—to trim file size was to economize printed text: room descriptions, responses to action, and the like.

A strength of Enchanter, for instance, is its tight, logical map, and Meretzky’s own Planetfall seems likewise to be perfectly sized.

Only one of the consequences of this editorial approach/necessity was its influence on what might be characterized as Infocom’s “house voice.” The narrative tone of Infocom games was often dry and sardonic, frequently responding to player input with sarcastic one-liners:

>take me
How romantic!

>eat me
Auto-cannibalism is not the answer.

>eat mailbox
I don't think that the small mailbox would agree with you.

The parser’s tendency to quip rather than elaborate served to keep file sizes manageable even as games grew more complex. Additionally, it’s interesting to consider notable deviations. Zork III, for instance, which was Infocom’s most elaborative and descriptive text of its early, pre-gray box years, likewise had the fewest opcodes of any game in the Infocom canon (5,952). That is, there seems to be an inverse relationship between utility and descriptiveness. The more that those early Infocom games did, the less they would say.

Interestingly, in the case of A Mind Forever Voyaging, the new 256K ceiling remained just that—a ceiling. The new IF Plus technology doubled the permissible file size, and Steve Meretzky used all of it. Just as he had once scoured Planetfall for opportunities to excise individual words, so, too would he search the text of AMFV. A Mind Forever Voyaging is, quite literally, a game bursting at the seams.

The Iterative Map of A Mind Forever Voyaging

The largest single need for textual description in A Mind Forever Voyaging is, of course, the simulated map of Rockvil, South Dakota over a span of forty years. There are potentially varied room descriptions and ambient events for each room location in this portion of the game’s world. Considering that there is an additional day and night cycle with exclusive events and ambient text, AMFV contains a massive amount of space—geographical and temporal—to explore. All told, there are roughly 158 locations—this does not include the “paradise” of 2091 or the “present day” of 2031—that the player may visit in different decades and times of day.

The new IF Plus technology doubled the permissible file size, and Steve Meretzky used all of it.

Technically speaking, A Mind Forever Voyaging consists of 178 internal rooms, but the reality is that the in-game presentation of each Rockvil location is a product of fixed and conditional text. In terms of the player’s gameplay objectives—seek out indicators of societal health—a geographically identical location might afford very different opportunities for goal completion. In this sense, it is inadequate to say that the 158 unique locations in Rockvil are, in fact, the same places with new descriptive text. At the same time, it may be too generous to say that A Mind Forever Voyaging has a map of 632 rooms.

Perhaps we should say that the world of Rockvil is as indeterminate as the future itself. With geography, time of day, and decade all in play as settings for narrative action, it may be fair to say that temporality in A Mind Forever Voyaging creates even more uncertainty than that what was by 1985 that old, gray mare of indeterminacy, Marc Blank’s Deadline. Under a Deadline model of time, the number of locations in AMFV are for all practical purposes infinite, since each room might or might not be different (an official might appear at city hall for instance) from moment to moment. Interestingly—like Deadline—but less frustratingly—unlike Deadline—the player is not always discouraged or overwhelmed by the prospect of missing this or that significant event.

This is because world events in Deadline are both singular and consequential. George only opens the safe once. Mrs. Robner only receives one phone call. Baxter and Dunbar only visit the shed one time. Should the Supervisor (as I am fond of calling the protagonist of Deadline) fail to witness these events, the opportunity costs are insurmountable. The protagonist cannot learn the lessons taught by these happenings and may find the game unwinnable as a result. Important events in A Mind Forever Voyaging, on the other hand, are often ephemeral. A pregnant woman might pass by, crying in the street. Some teenagers might beat up an old person. Such events may or may not be singular, but it is not necessary for the player to “record” them in order to “win” the game. They are, rather, background noise that inform the player’s understanding of the world of the game. While they can be recorded—some lucky timing would be required—they can be interpreted as having a different purpose. If recording is the gamification of Perry’s act of political witness, then with these ephemeral events Meretzky seems to point out that not everything—certainly not in this game world—is a game.

Important events in A Mind Forever Voyaging, on the other hand, are often ephemeral.

The operation and presentation of these events, is, as already suggested, is accomplished through brief, concise language consisting of one sentence or less. Consider the following passages, each programmatically appended to an already brief room description, seemingly at random:

2051:

A skycopter, with a loudspeaker disguised as a radar dish hanging below it, drifts slowly by overhead, announcing some sort of prayer meeting.

A swirling wind catches a yellowed newspaper page, and blows it upward, out of sight.

A panhandler is working his way towards you but misses you in the crowds.

2061:

A BSF patrol is moving down the block, searching people indiscriminately. Fortunately, they pass by without stopping you.

A sharp crack, like a distant pistol shot, echoes among the buildings.

A distant splintering explosion could only be the sound of another skycar crash.

A pregnant woman walks past you, sobbing quietly. You turn, but she is gone, swallowed up by the crowds.

A distant siren pierces the steady background noise of the city streets.

At a nearby cage, a group of children are taunting, one might even say torturing, a small animal, using rocks and pointy sticks.

2061:

CRACK! Something hits you from behind. As you crumple to the ground, you catch a glimpse of someone wielding a metal bar. Unknown minutes later, your head clears, and you stagger slowly to your feet. Everything you were carrying is gone.

Across the street, a beggar attempts to approach a wealthy couple, and is beaten into unconsciousness by bodyguards.

A thin teenager passes you, kicking a dented tin can.

A woman dressed in gauzy red fabrics, quite obviously a prostitute, enters a building with a man garbed in Church robes.

A scream comes from a nearby building, but before you can even determine the direction, it has stopped.

2071:

You hear the sound of distant barking to the east.

By appending ephemeral events to familiar locations, Meretzky is able to create a sense of dynamism and variety with minimal textual additions. When compounded with temporally fixed, set piece events (such as Jill’s arrest or the police raid), a vast yet programmatically efficient world—one that spans not only geographical but temporal space—is credibly realized.

A Mind FOrever Voyaging and the Poetics of Concision

The effects of concise and direct language are not limited to programmatic efficiency, of course. Indeed, the mechanics of political witness as implemented in A Mind Forever Voyaging are readily characterized as journalistic. That is, Perry Simm wanders the simulation in search of noteworthy events. In this case, “noteworthy” generally means source material for a critique of Richard Ryder’s Plan for Renewed National Purpose. He is a witness, then, but not just any witness. His own account is not enough. Perhaps he is not trusted. More likely, AMFV was a game in search of a mechanic. Rather intrusively, Perry’s acts of witness are disrupted with messages about recording buffers. Perhaps at the time this was merely a necessary evil: players expected a certain amount of “gaminess” in their video games, just as many do today. In fact, we may as well recall, the most common player complaint about A Mind Forever Voyaging was that it was too much “text” and not enough “game” (i.e., it needed more puzzles).

However, the narrative and metatext of A Mind Forever Voyaging insistently remind us that both he and Jill are artists. Perry is a novelist.

This is a digression: the point is that the precise and succinct language of AMFV can be read as either journalistic or poetic, as they are both rhetorical modes that tend to favor brevity and concision. Reading Perry’s language—let us assume, despite the second person narrator, that it is his language—as journalistic is reasonable. He captures, presumably via video, events as they occur, and ultimately uploads video content to a national news network. However, the narrative and metatext of A Mind Forever Voyaging insistently reminds us that both he and Jill are artists. Perry is a novelist. In the game’s final simulation of 2091, he is described as “Perry Simm, author and poet, recipient of the 2089 Mexicana Prize.”

What should readers make of Perry’s and Jill’s identities as artists? Is there a sort of witnessing function that only an artist can perform? Perhaps, in addition to considering the functionally journalistic gameplay of A Mind Forever Voyaging, a reader ought to consider the declining fortunes of Perry Simm and his family. Perhaps artists function as indicators of societal health in Meretzky’s simulation, not only as witnesses but as things to be witnessed.

A Brief Postscript Regarding Fabulism in A Mind Forever Voyaging

There’s more to say, of course. There always is. The direct language of AMFV is likewise the language of the fabulist and spinner of fairy tales. Perhaps it would be productive to read A Mind Forever Voyaging as a kind of inverted Pinocchio story. After all, Perry Simm is—to the best of science’s ability—the computer who became a real, live boy, then a computer again, then, in the end, a boy unto death. Despite the horrors of an imagined 2081, AMFV may inhabit the structure of a children’s story, a tale of a courageous child who was willing to tell the truth at any cost: sacrificing his youth, his safety, even his sense of self to save an only intermittently deserving world.

The idea of A Mind Forever Voyaging as inhabiting—perhaps haunting, even—the structure of a fable will persist throughout the final three posts about AMFV, even if some side trips are required along the way.

3 thoughts on “The Future is Terse: The Constrained Rhetoric of A Mind Forever Voyaging

  1. Meretzky’s own Planetfall seems likewise to be perfectly sized.

    I know some have taken exception to that, and found Planetfall to have a rather unnecessary level of sprawl with all the red herrings: the dark rooms, the SanFacs, the helicopter, the implication that the radiation lab is somehow anything other than an unavoidable delayed instadeath. There’s actually an awful lot of stuff in Planetfall which contributes little to mood and nothing to gameplay that could be cut without damaging the experience; Meretzky seems, to my mind, to have basically always sought to shove as much stuff as he could into the limited space available to him; the limitations of the early Z-machine surely helped him hone his craft by putting limits on the possible detail level.

    1. Fair point! Though, I would say that those elements add little in terms of our contemporary, refined palates. Meretzky, however, did those things *on purpose!* He could have easily, for instance skipped trimming text altogether if he had excised any of the scenarios you mention (plus the reactor elevator, the deadly hospital bed, on and on), but he chose to hunt around for individual words in the game that he could cut. He really wanted Planetfall to be that way and was willing to work for it. I’ve defended his choices here as deliberately designed-in tedium, but it’s completely understandable why they might fall flat for you or for anyone else.

      I personally think that Meretzky only got himself into trouble with Zork Zero, which I consider a baffling, soggy mess. Perhaps, though, his maximalist impulses were not to blame….

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