Monday, March 18, 2013

Steve Meretzky, A Mind Forever Voyaging (1985)

It really can't be overstated what a radical departure A Mind Forever Voyaging--Infocom's sixteenth text adventure/interactive fiction--was when it came out in 1985.  1985!  True, text adventures had been edging in more plot-oriented directions before this, but AMFV is a real qualitative leap: the story--with its strong political message--is the entire focus; it's not just there to hang puzzles on.  In fact, there are hardly any puzzles in the game at all.  I wouldn't want all IF to be like this--I like puzzles--but it's undeniably a daring accomplishment--though not, of course, without its flaws.

So the idea behind A Mind Forever Voyaging is that you are an artificial intelligence of a new kind--you've been raised in a simulated world, thinking you're a human, because that, apparently, is the only way such a creation can achieve human intelligence/a human outlook (or close facsimile thereof).  The game's manual includes a little short story providing some background, which should certainly be read before you start playing.  It's a bit clumsy, not a literary masterwork, but it's fine for what it is, and certainly indicative of how seriously Meretzky was taking this story.

Anyway, once your creator, a Dr. Abraham Perelman, lets you know your true nature, you're given an assignment: apparently, technology is such that it is able to simulate what the future will look like based on various inputs, and you, as a disembodied AI, can venture into these futures, taking on again your human form/identity (and no, the idea that any sort of simulation can accurately predict something as fantastically complex as the whole of society isn't exactly believable, but I had no problems with suspension of disbelief here, especially compared to some of the game's other issues).  What you want to do is enter a simulated future version of the city of Rockvil, South Dakota, in order to assess how this proposed Action for a Better Tomorrow legislation is going to effect the country.  What does this legislation involve?  Well, this is something you can discover in the game's Library Mode (protip: enter "Enter Library Mode" as soon as you begin; it's not necessary, but it provides a lot of useful context, and there's no indication in-game that it's a thing you can do).  It involves:

*cut taxes 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, eg. registering cars, guns
*termination of government subsidies to outmoded industries

And the following constitutional amendments:

*increase the powers of the Executive Branch
*increase the Presidential term of office to eight years

Now, from this it's probably pretty obvious where the wind is blowing: the game as a whole is a none-too-subtle assault on what Meretzky perceived as the policies of the Reagan administration.  From a contemporary liberal (let alone leftist) perspective, a few of of these points will seem pretty bizarre, and it's hard to see how it  couldn't have been obvious to Meretzky that, if nothing else, this plan (which supposedly enjoys widespread popular support) would, in the real, world, instantly be sunk by that "reinstatement of the military draft" plank.

Regardless, you get the general idea.  You have to travel forward in time in the simulation, in ten-year increments (the game's present-day is 2031), and note, via your "record" function, the ways in which things are getting progressively worse--seeing the ways, some subtle, some less so, in which the ABT legislation, and its cascading further reorderings of society, change things.  As is the case with most Infocom games, the descriptions and implemented objects are sparse compared to the best of contemporary IF (and there are a number of NPCs with whom, as far as I can tell, it's impossible to interact in any way), but it's still pretty fascinating to wander around these landscapes and see, in various ways subtle and less-so, how society's been effected.  You can ultimately travel ten, twenty, thirty, forty, and fifty years into the future, and it's hard not to feel a real sense of dread as you enter the next decade, wondering what else has gone wrong.  In particular, the story of what becomes of your family--in the simulation, you have a wife and son--as the decades pass is really nothing short of devastating.

Once you have enough data, Perelman will decide it's necessary to take action to stop the ATB, and this last part of the game is the only part where actual puzzles come in.  I'll admit that I looked at a walkthrough for this part, but that's because it's so sudden and unexpected that you're sort of caught blindsided: it's necessary to enter this "interface mode"--completely unnecessary in the rest of the game; chances are you weren't even aware it existed--to control the environment of the building you're housed to prevent ATB thugs from destroying you.  This feels very tacked on (as, I am led to understand, it was--apparently, test audiences were baffled by the idea of a text adventure with no puzzles).  It would be clever in another game, but here it just feels jarring.  Still, it's such a minor part of the game that I would not tend to dock it too many points for it.

Don't get me wrong: this is really brilliant, pioneering stuff.  But that doesn't mean it's not also substantially flawed.  For all that the game wants to illustrate how deregulation combined with an increasingly theocratic outlook is going to fuck up the world, the connection between the ATB and the things that you witness often feels very tenuous, which is a major problem if the game is meant to be a social commentary.  Also, as horrifying as it is, the fifty-years-hence simulation can't help but also be kind of comical: it's this nightmarish hellscape in which you can only visit a tiny part of the city because when you try to leave you'll be murdered by tattooed Mad-Max-ish tribesmen or torn apart by wild dogs.  Dude, we know from experience what a Gilded Age looks like, and the answer is: none too pleasant for most people.  And yet, also nothing like this.  The game doesn't even try to present a logical argument as to how we'd get from here to there (forty years in the future, unpleasant though it is, does not logically seem to lead to this).  It tries to get by purely by emotional force, which it kind of does, and yet…thinking about it too hard, which is really not very hard, it just breaks down.  Also, the ending, though cathartic and undeniably heartwarming--having stopped the ATB from passing, you get your consciousness projected sixty years into the future, which is now gloriously utopian--also betrays a certain naiveté on Meretzky's part.  Sure, we stopped one bad piece of legislation, but shouldn't a future like this require some sort of positive action…?

Nonetheless, I really enjoyed A Mind Forever Voyaging.  It's the first Infocom game I've actually finished, probably in large part because it's difficult to lock yourself out of victory--impossible until the endgame, I should think.  Truth is, in general, I would prefer my IF to feature at least some puzzles, but this is surely an important work that deserves to be experienced.


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