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Monthly Archives: May 2014

Spellbreaker

Spellbreaker

As Infocom settled into their middle and latter period, their game releases also settled into a fairly predictable pattern that tried to balance innovation with traditionalism. Steve Meretzky:

The hardcore gamers, the people who liked Zork and just wanted more like Zork from Infocom, they were always made unhappy by [games like] A Mind Forever Voyaging or Plundered Hearts or Nord and Bert Couldn’t Make Head or Tail of It. Anything that we did that was moving in a different direction or in any way experimental, they would always squawk. So the company’s plan was basically to try to do some of each, to always do a game or two every year that would be the “red meat” for those original hardcore players, and then to try to innovate with some of the other games each year.

Our subject for today, Spellbreaker, was the long-awaited third game in the Enchanter trilogy as well as Infocom’s most blatant of all bits of pandering to these traditionalists, who made up a much larger percentage of the company’s fan base than Infocom’s modern reputation for relentless innovation and dedication to the literary aspects of the humble text adventure might seem to imply. An “Expert” level game, it was explicitly created by Dave Lebling as a response to the carping of the hardcore of the hardcore that Infocom’s games had been getting much too easy since the days of Zork. “You want a diamond-hard, traditional puzzlefest?” Infocom asked. “Fine, we’ll give you a diamond-hard, traditional puzzlefest!” Coming out just weeks after the radical departure that was A Mind Forever Voyaging, Spellbreaker could almost be read as an apology to the hardcore for that namby-pamby, touchy-feely effort.

That said, it should also be noted that the concerns about creeping easiness, engendered by an ever more thorough testing process and the thoroughgoing sense of fair play that was always one of Infocom’s noblest traits, were not confined to fans outside the company. Meretzky himself, the perpetrator of A Mind Forever Voyaging, has noted that he also felt concerned as time wore on that at least certain types of Infocom games were losing some of their core appeal, that the struggle and sweat of the Zork games, the compulsion to jump out of bed in the middle of the night to test out some crazy action that just might solve a heretofore intractable puzzle, was the very thing that drew many people to them. Spellbreaker would be Infocom’s attempt to rekindle the masochistic joy of Zork.

There’s always a tendency in all forms of criticism to fetishize innovation over virtually everything else; music critics, for instance, will always favor the Clash, who morphed and relentlessly experimented and soon collapsed under the sheer weight of their artistic ambitions, over their punk-era counterparts Stiff Little Fingers, who have just continued to do what they’re good at for decades. It’s an understandable and even defensible impulse, but I also have to confess that, just as I’m more likely to pull out Stiff Little Fingers’s Go For It! than any Clash album, if you asked me which game among A Mind Forever Voyaging and Spellbreaker I most enjoy just playing every five to ten years, I’d have to name Spellbreaker. Spellbreaker is as constrained a design as A Mind Forever Voyaging is boundary-shattering: constrained by its need to please the puzzle-hungry hardcore, by its need to fit in with the two previous games of the Enchanter trilogy and continue with their spell-based puzzle mechanics and Zorkian fantasy premises. But it’s also an absolutely brilliant specimen of traditionalist adventure gaming, one of the best, tightest examples of pure game design Infocom ever crafted.

As old school as its sensibilities may appear in comparison to its immediate predecessor, Spellbreaker is not devoid of theoretical or historical interest. Far from it. In its quiet way, it asserts a profoundly important idea for the craft of adventure-game design: that fairness and difficulty are two independent scales. If virtually any of Infocom’s contemporaries decided to make a self-consciously difficult game like Spellbreaker, they would have simply filled it with punishing mazes and riddles and guess-the-verb problems and inscrutable puzzles dependent on unmotivated actions. We know this because that’s exactly what they did, over and over again. (For instance, have a look at Scott Adams’s two-part alleged brain-burner Savage Island for everything not to do in an adventure game in one convenient place). Certain designers never could seem to separate fairness from difficulty in their minds. (I can’t help but think of Anita Sinclair, who pronounced on the eve of Magnetic Scrolls’s second release Guild of Thieves that this would be an “easier” game. Actually, no, it turned out to be a very hard game — just one that wasn’t blatantly, repeatedly unfair like its predecessor The Pawn.) Many fans still have trouble with the concept today; I get occasional emails in response to my coverage of notable offenders like Roberta Williams’s The Wizard and the Princess and Time Zone asking why I’m so hard on “difficult” games, forcing me to respond that, no, I’m actually only hard on unfair games. One could advance a fairly compelling argument that the failure of the adventure-game industry at large to grasp this distinction played a big part in the commercial death of the text adventure — how many veteran gamers still remember the form largely for mazes, guess-the-verb, and illogical puzzles? — as well as the longstanding commercial doldrums of graphical adventures, what with their pixel hunts and click-everywhere-and-use-everything-on-everything-else-until-something-happens model of game design.

Spellbreaker is very tough, but it’s also downright noble in its commitment to fairness. There is, if you’ll pardon me, no bullshit here, none of the cheap tricks, designed and implemented in less time than it takes to drink a cup of coffee, that designers have so often used to artificially lengthen games and make players pull their hair out. You don’t even need to draw a map to play Spellbreaker — but never fear, you will likely want pen and paper to sketch and plan and diagram a long series of tantalizing puzzles that have been lovingly crafted over days and weeks. In my book, that’s the way a game like this ought to be. Spellbreaker is a veritable capsule history of adventure-game puzzles (the good ones, that is): intricate pure spatial and mathematical puzzles like those so common in the Phoenix games; clever object-application puzzles; logistical puzzles requiring long-term planning; the best and most satisfying application yet of the spell system invented for Enchanter; the latest and greatest and most intricate in an ongoing series of Infocom time-travel puzzles; even a social-interaction puzzle to keep you on your toes. And there are lots and lots of them. While it runs under the standard 128 K Z-Machine, Spellbreaker stuffs it right to its limit, and will take quite some hours to complete. There are one or two puzzles that I might wish had been a bit less difficult — most notably a certain puzzle that takes place in a lava field and hinges on a property of a certain little box that you’re unlikely to discover until you really have exhausted every possibility for experimentation — but none that I can label truly unfair if we’re willing to give the game a free pass on Graham Nelson’s prohibitions against the occasional need for knowledge of future events and knowledge gained from dying. The key thing is that you can trust Spellbreaker as you try to beat it, can trust that the solution to the puzzle on which you’re currently working can be arrived at through observation and deduction rather than being some random phrase to be typed or senseless action to perform. I can’t emphasize enough what a difference this trust — or, perhaps better said, its absence in so many other games — makes for the player’s experience.

The plot is obviously not the first priority for either player or writer of a game like this, but Spellbreaker‘s is in some ways more interesting than it ought to be. Having averted two previous disasters in Enchanter and Sorcerer, you’ve been elevated to head of the Circle of Enchanters. But now suddenly magic itself has begun to fail throughout the realm. The game opens at a conclave of Guildmasters that has been called to address the problem. Lebling was, along with Brian Moriarty and perhaps Jeff O’Neill, the best crafter of prose amongst all the Imps, and his writing is particularly good here, sparkling with subtle wit.

Sneffle of the Guild of Bakers is addressing the gathering. "Do you know what this is doing to our business? Do you know how difficult it is to make those yummy butter pastries by hand? When a simple 'gloth' spell would fold the dough 83 times it was possible to make a profit, but now 'gloth' hardly works, and when it does, it usually folds the dough too often and the butter melts, or it doesn't come out the right size, or..." He stops, apparently overwhelmed by the prospect of a world where the pastries have to be hand-made. "Can't you do anything about this? You're supposed to know all about magic!"

Hoobly of the Guild of Brewers stands, gesturing at the floury baker. "You don't know what trouble is! Lately, what comes out of the vats, like as not, is cherry flavored or worse. The last vat, I swear it, tasted as if grues had been bathing in it. It takes magic to turn weird vegetables and water into good Borphee beer. Well, without magic, there isn't going to be any beer!" This statement has a profound effect on portions of the crowd. You can hear rumblings from the back concerning Enchanters. The word "traitors" rises out of nowhere. Your fellow Enchanters are looking at one another nervously.

Then everyone except for you is abruptly turned into some variety of small amphibian, and your adventure truly begins. Ah, well, what did a committee hearing ever accomplish anyway?

You find yourself pursuing a mysterious antagonist — obviously the source of the magical disruptions — through a whole series of interlinked scenic vignettes, most no more than a few rooms in size (thus the lack of the need for mapping), which you reach by casting the Blorple spell (“explore an object’s mystic connections”) on a series of magical cubes you find. The acquisition of more of these cubes, representing as each does the next waypoint in a grand chase across time and space, turns out to be the main goal of most of the scenes you visit.

While certain aspects of Spellbreaker, like a group of wandering boulders on which you have to hitch a ride at one point, suggest that Lebling may have been reading Roger Zelazny’s Amber novels (as it happens, a subject we’ll get to very soon in another article), the most marked literary influence is Ursula Le Guin’s classic fantasy A Wizard of Earthsea, a great favorite of Lebling’s. Like the young wizard Ged, the protagonist of Spellbreaker realizes at the story’s climax that the shadowy being against whom he has been struggling is in fact a shadow of himself. The discovery is followed by Spellbreaker‘s ambiguously profound coda.

The shadow, now as solid as a real person, performs a back flip into the tesseract. "No!" It screams. "Stop! Fool, you've destroyed me! You've destroyed magic itself! All my lovely plans!" Now glowing as brightly as the construction it made, the figure approaches the center. It grows smaller and smaller, and just before it disappears, the hypercube vanishes with a pop, and the "magic" cube melts in your hand like an ice cube.

You find yourself back in Belwit Square, all the Guildmasters and even Belboz crowding around you. "A new age begins today," says Belboz after hearing your story. "The age of magic is ended, as it must, for as magic can confer absolute power, so it can also produce absolute evil. We may defeat this evil when it appears, but if wizardry builds it anew, we can never ultimately win. The new world will be strange, but in time it will serve us better."

Your score is 600 of a possible 600, in 835 moves. This puts you in the class of Scientist.

As with so much of Brian Moriarty’s best work, Spellbreaker‘s ending makes more mythic than literal sense. It seems our efforts have only led to the end of the Age of Magic and the beginning of the Age of Science. You can read this in many ways — personal and public, negative and positive. You can cast it as the proverbial setting aside of childish things (while hopefully still leaving space for the occasional computer game), marching into a future of adulthood and responsibility with clear eyes. You can cast it in a melancholy light, as the loss of, well, magic in a modern world where everything is already explored and mapped and monitored. Or you can, as I prefer, cast it as the dawning of a better age free of the prejudices and superstitious dependencies of the past. Any way you cast it, to my mind this textual Rorschach test is one of the strongest endings in the Infocom canon; the contrast of “Scientist” with your penultimate title of “Archmage” is bracing and surprising in all the right ways.

That, then, is Spellbreaker, and a thoroughly admirable effort it is. But I couldn’t conclude this article without also describing the great Spellbreaker vs. Mage feud of 1985, an internal struggle so pitched that it still prompts sheepish half-grins and slight discomfort amongst the principal antagonists, Mike Dornbrook and Dave Lebling, today.

Almost from the point he first accepted the assignment to finish out the Enchanter trilogy, Lebling had planned to call his game Mage. It not only gave the names in the trilogy a nice consonance, what with all being synonyms for a wizard or magic user, but also implied a progression of increasing magical potency. When Dornbrook’s marketing people did some impromptu person-on-the-street questioning, however, they discovered a dismaying fact: most people had never heard the word “mage” and had no idea how to pronounce it. Most opted for either something that rhymed with “badge” or a vaguely French pronunciation, like the second syllable in “garage.” The package designers were also concerned that the name was just too short and bland-looking, that it wouldn’t “pop” like it needed to on a store shelf. So Dornbrook went back to Lebling to tell him that the name just wasn’t going to work; they’d have to come up with another.

This in itself wasn’t all that unusual; games like Wishbringer, which had the perfect name almost from the beginning and kept it until release, were more the exception than the rule at Infocom. Most of the time the Imp responsible realized that his title was less than ideal and was willing to accept alternatives. That, however, was not the case this time. Lebling got his back up, determined that his game would be Mage and only Mage. Dornbrook got his up in response, and a lengthy struggle ensued. The other Imps and the other marketers fell in behind their respective standard bearers, leaving poor Jon Palace caught in the middle trying to broker some sort of compromise for a situation which didn’t really seem to allow for one; after all, in the end the game would either be called Mage or it wouldn’t.

From the perspective of today, the most interesting thing about this whole situation is the fact that so many people didn’t know the word “mage” in the first place. It really serves to highlight how much fantasy (nerd?) culture has penetrated the mainstream in this post-Peter Jackson, post-Harry Potter, post-World of Warcraft world in which we live. In 1985 Lebling’s strongest argument against marketing’s findings, one which strikes me as entirely reasonable, was that Dornbrook and company had simply been polling the wrong people. While the average person on the street may not have known the word “mage,” those likely to be interested in the third game of a fantasy trilogy explicitly pitched toward Infocom’s most hardcore fans almost certainly did. As for the aforementioned person on the street, she wasn’t likely to buy the game no matter what it was called.

As usual with such spats inside any relationship, there was actually a lot going on here beyond the ostensible bone of contention. Dornbrook had been frustrated for years already by what he saw as the Imps’ refusal to properly leverage the most valuable marketing tool at their disposal, the name Zork itself. Back in the company’s earliest days, when he had founded the Zork Users Group, he had simply assumed that Infocom would stamp the Zork brand on everything that would hold still for long enough.

It [the game that became Deadline] would have been Zork: The Mystery, etc. I thought that made sense at the time. We had this incredibly strong brand name. To me they were just going to be Zorks. We were going to own a word like “aspirin.” The name for a text adventure was going to be a Zork, and we were going to own that. But a decision was made while I was in business school and not contributing to the decision-making that we didn’t want to go down that path.

Dornbrook’s frustrations were made worse by 1983’s Enchanter, which everyone had assumed would be Zork IV until very shortly before its release, when Lebling and his coauthor Marc Blank suddenly announced that they didn’t want to be “typecast” by forever doing Zorks. Dornbrook tried fruitlessly to explain that, while it might not make sense that people would buy a game if it was called Zork but not if it was called Enchanter, that was just the way that branding worked. Observing how each game in the new trilogy sold fewer copies than the Zork games had and, even more dismayingly, fewer copies than its immediate predecessor, Dornbrook was soon convinced that the company had sacrificed tens or even hundreds of thousands of sales to the Imps’ effete artistic sensibilities.

I felt that marketing needed to be a little more respected, and if we had a strong feeling about something they [the Imps] shouldn’t just… I mean, the game developers, I got along very well and respected them, but there was a bit of, um… they were a little too full of themselves. A little too self-important. A little too, at times, megalomaniacal. Okay, that’s too strong a word… but it was frustrating sometimes from just a business standpoint. They kind of positioned themselves as, “We’re above all that! We’re artists!” Sometimes it seemed a little too precious.

As the 1980s wore on, Dornbrook couldn’t help but compare Infocom to competitors like Origin Systems and Sierra, who unabashedly milked their flagship brands — Ultima and King’s Quest respectively — for all they were worth via an open-ended series of numbered sequels, and, not coincidentally he believed, by mid-decade and beyond were selling far more games than Infocom. Dornbrook now saw a convenient opportunity to force through a mid-course correction of sorts. He thought about how Enchanter still had the internal inventory code of “Z4” at Infocom, Sorcerer and Lebling’s new game “Z5” and “Z6” respectively.

There was a time later on when I came back and seriously suggested, when there was the big fight over Mage vs. Spellbreaker, why don’t we just call it Zork VI? “You can’t do that! What about Zork IV and V?” I said, “Won’t that create a whole bunch of great questions? Maybe it will help sell Enchanter and Sorcerer if they finally realize, oh, those were Zork IV and V.” I never won that argument.

So Dornbrook still didn’t get his Zork; Lebling, who admits he was “terribly exercised” over the whole situation, wasn’t going to allow him that satisfaction, although he does concede it to have been an interesting idea worth considering today. But Lebling didn’t get his Mage either. The game shipped as another suggestion of Dornbrook’s people, Spellbreaker — not a half-bad name in my book, for what it’s worth. Lebling, however, wasn’t pleased at all, and indulged in an uncharacteristic final bit of sour-grapesmanship by sneaking a new routine into the final version that caused it to call itself Mage in the title line about one time out of every hundred.

Spellbreaker

The worrisome downward sales trend that Dornbrook had spotted wasn’t halted by Spellbreaker. Like its predecessor A Mind Forever Voyaging, it sold only about 30,000 copies, making these latest games the two least successful Infocom had so far released. There were obvious reasons for the low sales of each attributable to it specifically rather than Infocom’s position in the market as a whole — A Mind Forever Voyaging was highly experimental and required a fairly powerful computer to run, while Spellbreaker was unlikely to appeal to anyone who wasn’t already a hardcore Infocom fan who had already played Enchanter and Sorcerer — but, well, let’s just say that Dornbrook and everyone else had good reason to be worried.

But such external concerns needn’t distract us from playing and enjoying Spellbreaker today. It’s certainly not the place to start with Infocom, but when you’re ready for it it will be there waiting for you. It really is a masterful piece of game design, and even offers some lovely writing as well. It just might be Dave Lebling’s finest hour — and considering that Lebling also co-wrote Enchanter (and considering how much this critic loves that game as well) that’s really saying something.

(Most of the information here is, again, drawn from Jason Scott’s Get Lamp interview archives. The insight about A Wizard of Earthsea‘s influence on Spellbreaker I owe to an eight-year-old email exchange with Graham Nelson — to whom I also owe thanks just for getting me to read that book.)

 

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A Mind Forever Voyaging, Part 3: Through Strange Seas of Thought, Alone

A Mind Forever Voyaging

Let’s begin today with the ending of A Mind Forever Voyaging, with that lengthy epilogue which we discussed last time. Not only does it present a glorious public future modeled on liberal notions of good governance, but an equally glorious personal future for Perry Simm. He and Jill remain blissfully in love, about to head off into space for their last and grandest adventure as members of the first of a dozen generations that will live out their lives aboard the colony ship Silver Dove, “mankind’s first interstellar journey.” Their son Mitchell, in this timeline a marine biologist rather than a fascist, calls to wish them bon voyage with grandchildren and great-grandchildren and in-laws arrayed behind him — a touching scene, even if it is a bit strange that neither Mitchell nor anyone else could be bothered to actually come to Rockvil to take advantage of the last chance they will ever have to see Perry and Jill in person. (I suspect old Mitchell is still a bad seed at heart.) It would all be pretty heartwarming stuff, except for one mantra I can’t seem to excise from my head when I play through it: none of this is real! What are we supposed to make of all this in that light?

The PRISM program that spawned Perry — the name it shares with the recent American mass-survelliance program is presumably coincidental, if ironic in light of the dangers about which Steve Meretzky was so desperate to warn us — is described by its founder and leading researcher, Abraham Perelman, in the edition of Dakota Online included with the game. Earlier attempts at creating artificial intelligence by laboriously coding self-awareness into a machine, he notes, all failed miserably.

“If you recall, the previous attempts had failed not because of the design of their machines, but because of their methods of inputting data.” The Vice-President nodded. “The theory behind our process was to make the programming of the machine as similar to the ‘programming’ of the human mind as possible. We would simulate EXACTLY the life experiences of a human being from the very first day of its life.

“Naturally, it was easier said than done. We had to design inputs that would precisely simulate every human sense. A cluster of five computers, each one nearly as large as PRISM itself, would be needed simply to monitor and control the simulation. Here’s an example of how this soliptic programming process works:

“It’s the earliest stage of the process, and the simulation cluster is feeding PRISM all the impressions of a six-month-old human infant. The visual is providing an image of a set of keys dangling in front of him. The aural is providing the jangling sounds. In response to this stimulus, PRISM decides to grab the keys with what his senses tell him is his tiny fist. The visual shows the tiny fist moving into view toward the keys, and then the tactile begins sending the hard, smooth, and jagged feel of the keys. Just one of a million examples that make up a single day’s worth of experiences.

“With the help of a Williams-Mennon grant, we began building PRISM and the simulation cluster in 2020, and the programming process began a year later.”

As the story opens, Perry has “lived” his first twenty years inside the simulated reality Perelman and his colleagues have so painstakingly prepared for him.

The basic idea here is one that’s been batted around AI circles for decades. It arises from an insight transcendently described by Douglas Hofstadter in Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid a few years before A Mind Forever Voyaging‘s release and given a more practical application to AI by Marvin Minsky in The Society of Mind a few years after: that incredibly complex systems, even what we call consciousness, can emerge from the most primitive of building blocks, like a bunch of tiny neurons that can each be either on or off — or a bunch of electrical bits inside a computer that can each be in one of the same two states. We may not be able to program intelligence, but we should be able to grow it like a baby by exposing a sufficiently powerful computer to stimulus.

Or maybe not. With all due apologies to Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, it must be said that a human baby is not a tabula rasa. She comes into the world with her pump already well primed, with lots of, if you like, programming already in place. A good example is the process of language acquisition. As Noam Chomsky has persuasively argued, babies emerge from the womb with intellects keenly honed, with lots of programming already in place, for picking up language. This ability then atrophies as early as age five. This explains why we never quite know any language as well as our mother tongue; why it’s the only one we can speak without a trace of an accent; why people like my wife who grew up with two (or more) languages are so unbelievably fortunate; why people like me who need to learn new languages later in life and aren’t preternatural linguistic geniuses like, say, James Joyce often find it to be a lifelong struggle that they can never entirely win. What equivalent can a would-be intelligent computer muster to this biological firmware? And without this nature to prime the pump, how can nurture do its thing? This is just one of the unresolved (unresolvable?) problems that PRISM presents to us who are dutifully trying to take A Mind Forever Voyaging at face value.

There’s a seemingly fanciful idea that some physicists have been discussing for some time now: that we are all actually Perry Simms, entities living inside an inconceivably huge and sophisticated simulation. When you get down to the subatomic level, our rich analog universe does seem oddly digital, ultimately made up of tiny indivisible particles (even if we’re not quite sure yet that we’ve found this tiniest and most basic building block). Less facetiously, philosopher Nick Bostrom has set forth an argument that, as such grandly conceptual arguments go, seems fairly air tight. Moore’s Law being what it is, he says, any race of intelligent beings given enough time must eventually develop the ability to simulate a universe as complex as ours inside a machine. Therefore one of three possibilities must hold true: all intelligent races somehow go extinct before they reach that point; all intelligent races decide for some reason not to continue to obsess over virtual realities the way that we humans do today; or the “real” universe, wherever and whatever it may be, is filled with countless simulated universes — very likely simulations nested within simulations nested within simulations — and our universe is almost certainly one of them.

Now let’s think about that idea within the frame of A Mind Forever Voyaging. One thing on which Bostrom and his hard-science colleagues agree is that we won’t have the computing power to even begin to contemplate such a simulation for many, many generations to come. Yet Perelman has apparently done it in 2020, using a hardware setup that sounds suspiciously like the fleet of red DEC refrigerators that powered Infocom’s development efforts. You might argue that he’s actually only simulating one mid-sized town — luckily for everyone, it seems Perry never developed a yen for travel — but, well, butterflies do flap their wings outside the borders of Rockvil, and that has its effects within the town’s borders. And of course that problematic epilogue busts those boundaries wide open by sending Perry on a journey to the stars. The simulation runs not just in real time, but in better than real time; Perry’s first twenty years required only eleven in the world outside the simulation. For the PRISM project to succeed in its goal of raising a human with all the affect and intuitive knowledge of you and me, the simulated reality must be of absolute fidelity. No crude abstractions will serve the purpose, even if they do offer a tempting excuse for the sometimes sketchy implementation of the Rockvil we encounter through our screens and keyboards. Certainly Perry never remarks that the real world of Perelman and Senator Ryder and the rest that he encounters after his “awakening” is any richer or more believable than the one he knew before, nor that its inhabitants feel any more real.

Let’s think about that last for a moment. Perry has lived for twenty years surrounded by fellow humans who apparently see and feel and talk and live and love just as he does. Here we come to the biggest paradox of all: in order to raise Perry in such realistic surroundings, in order to create the affective construct AI researchers have been dreaming of since before Colossus sprang to life, Perelman would need to be able to create not just an affective AI construct but a whole city — universe? — full of them. It’s the chicken or the egg writ large, an eternal golden braid indeed.

Given that he’s managed to create this magnificent simulated universe hundreds or thousands of years ahead of schedule, why is Perelman so obsessed with one simulated inhabitant named Perry Simm? What distinguishes Perry from anyone else being simulated, other than Perelman’s inexplicable regard? Why does Perelman need Perry to go into his own pocket universe and tell him what’s going on in there? Wouldn’t an impartial researcher be able to view the data more effectively and scientifically from outside the bubble? Did Perelman and his programmers really forget to build a user interface for their program? If so, what have they been doing in the eleven years since they started it running? For that matter, just why does everyone trust this simulation so absolutely that they’re willing to let it decide the fate of the nation by telling them what the likely outcome of Richard Ryder’s plan will be?

As Duncan Stevens noted in a comment to my last article, the most charitable reading you can give to A Mind Forever Voyaging as the piece of hard science fiction it seems to want to be is that PRISM is an elaborate scam concocted by Perelman, who’s exactly the sort of unscrupulous and devious liberal megalomaniac that partisan Republicans are accustomed to seeing behind every bush. No other reading makes any sense at all.

Things don’t make a whole lot more sense if we forget the bigger picture and just look at things from the perspective of Perry. Dakota Online mentions the “shock” and “terror” you would feel upon waking up to realize that you’re nothing but a simulated construct, but in truth Perry seems to experience very little of either. It’s all well and good to talk about a Nietzschean will to power and the forging of one’s own meaning for existence out of whole cloth if necessary, but it’s a lot easier to do that when there’s at least some degree of doubt about the fundamental nature of the universe. Confronted with the unassailable fact that the bogeyman in the closet of centuries of philosophy is in fact real, that the existence of the people I thought I knew and loved are all shams, I think I’d be a quivering mass of existential jelly for quite some years at the least. Perry just shrugs and heads off for the World News Network Feed to watch some TV.

When Perry returns to a Rockvil that he’s now well aware to be a computer simulation this knowledge doesn’t seem to affect his experience at all. When Jill is ripped from his arms by Church thugs to be dispatched to a concentration camp, he never seeks refuge in the thought that at least none of this is really happening. Much of this cognitive dissonance is perhaps down to a persistent confusion about which version of Perry we’re inhabiting — a confusion which dogs all of our experiences in Rockvil. As I noted in my last article, the Perry we control inside the simulation often possesses knowledge that the Perry from the outside world wouldn’t.

And then of course comes that epilogue, in which Perry sails off into the sunset with Jill, blissfully untroubled by the knowledge that he’s devoting the rest of his life to playing the world’s most elaborate and immersive computer game. Ironically, the same scenario has a place in A Mind Forever Voyaging‘s earlier stages. The world of 2031 is dogged by a certain amount of low-level controversy about virtual-reality entertainment systems known as “joybooths,” where a disturbing number of people are spending a disturbing amount of time. Joybooths allow them to “escape their worries, even to the point of abandoning their lives.” “Joybooth suicides” are a major thing, claiming nearly 40,000 lives every year. In the first simulated version of Rockvil that we can enter, that of 2041, Perry can experience a joybooth for himself in the local mall. He emerges with “an almost physical longing to return to your fantasy.” The game paints joybooths as a Bad Thing, one of a number of troubling portents hidden by the general economic prosperity of the early post-Plan years. Lest you doubt, consider that Richard Ryder is supported by a pro-joybooth advocacy group called The Joybooth Manufacturers of North America; anything Ryder approves of in A Mind Forever Voyaging is pretty much guaranteed to be wrong and/or evil. Yet what else does Perry do at game’s end but commit the most elaborate and expensive joybooth suicide in history? Poor Dr. Perelman and his colleagues will have to maintain the PRISM computers for decades to come so Perry can enjoy his fantasy. Or maybe not: maybe they pull the plug just as the game ends…

Now, you might say that this article descended into pointless nitpicking quite some paragraphs ago, that a certain amount of handwaving and blasé acceptance is needed to appreciate the larger message of A Mind Forever Voyaging. You might even say that A Mind Forever Voyaging is really a fable or an allegory, not a piece of realistic fiction. But it doesn’t feel like it wants to be a Pilgrim’s Progress for the modern political age. It feels like it wants to be a piece of credible, thoughtful hard science fiction. Why else include all of the backstory about the PRISM project and Perry’s origins, all of those details about AI theory?

Lest I be accused of doing nothing but carp, let me note that there are ways to fix at least some of A Mind Forever Voyaging‘s more seemingly intractable problems. Meretzky might have eliminated the whole “Perry Simm waking up to reality” angle and just cast the player as a real-world researcher experiencing the near future through the eyes of an unabashedly simulated Perry qualitatively no different from any of the other inhabitants of Rockvil. This might have cost the game some of the pathos evoked in us by poor Perry’s plight as an AI construct, but would have led to a much more coherent work of fiction. As it is, A Mind Forever Voyaging is, like these last two articles, bifurcated in intent, trying to offer both a compelling and impassioned political argument and a more thoughtful and philosophical exploration of the ramifications of virtual realities and strong AI. It succeeds to a limited extent at the former; it collapses into contradiction and nonsensicality when it comes to the latter. Perhaps because Meretzky knew he would likely get few such carte-blanche opportunities in the future, A Mind Forever Voyaging tries to do far, far too much.

But then again that very overstuffed quality is a big part of its appeal. If a proverbial Great Work is one that gets us thinking and talking and even obsessing over ramifications — even if only in reaction against much of what the work seems to be saying — then judging from the amount of virtual ink I’ve spilled on it A Mind Forever Voyaging would seem to qualify. If we’re feeling extremely kind, we might even postulate that the game is aware of all of its ironies and internal contradictions: that the juxtaposition of the joybooth-suicide plague with the epilogue, for instance, is intentional; even that it’s well aware of a possible subversive reading of Perry’s voyages into the simulated future as a conspiracy spawned by Perelman to put paid to Ryder and his Plan. This would make it a work of stunning subtlety. However, judging from everything I’ve ever heard anyone involved say about the game (which is quite a lot), I’m not buying that argument. The next question, then, is whether self-awareness or lack thereof matters. Does authorial intent trump all, or is a work of art that accidentally does what it does, even one that undermines the very arguments its author wants to make, legitimate on its own terms? Many contemporary scholars would claim the latter, and for what it’s worth I think they might be right in this case at least.

Its artistic merits aside, A Mind Forever Voyaging‘s historical importance is unimpeachable, not only as the first predominately puzzleless adventure game but as the first attempt to emphatically use the medium for something more than escapism, to say something important and immediate and real about the world around us. If we can call it a masterpiece only by grading it on a curve as steep as Mount Rushmore, well, so be it. These were early days for ludic narrative still in 1985, and it would have been a bit unrealistic to expect Steve Meretzky to crank out an Anna Karenina. That he had an A Mind Forever Voyaging in him is more than remarkable enough.

 

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