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

08 May

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-surveillance 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 airtight. 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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46 Responses to A Mind Forever Voyaging, Part 3: Through Strange Seas of Thought, Alone

  1. Jason Dyer

    May 8, 2014 at 12:53 pm

    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?

    To search a universe you need a search engine, and Perry is the search engine.

    I could easily imagine other reasons why the system requires a hard AI to do any processing. We’re talking about sci-fi technology here; I find plot-hole poking as if we’re not to be kind of unconvincing.

    • Duncan Stevens

      May 8, 2014 at 3:11 pm

      But Perry isn’t acting as a search engine. He’s wandering more or less at random around the simulation. In effect, he’s gathering anecdotes from (presumably) a large amount of data already compiled and put into the sim. It doesn’t make sense to present the anecdotes when you have the data. “The crime rate in Rockvil in 2061 will be X” seems more salient than “an AI in our 2061 simulation got mugged”…

      …but you might well take the latter course for propaganda purposes, and if you don’t think the assumptions that underlie your data are going to stand up to scrutiny. Whether intended or not, that’s the picture of Perelman that emerges.

      • Jason Dyer

        May 9, 2014 at 2:31 am

        he’s gathering anecdotes from (presumably) a large amount of data already compiled

        How obvious is this data, though? You’re assuming the data is just like a large textual stream, but for hard AI to exist in the first place the environment needs to be super-exponentially more rich. It might require “the next level” of storage (perhaps a quantum computing-related thing) where it may just not be possible to easily pull out random texts.

      • Melfina the Blue

        January 1, 2016 at 6:11 pm

        Never played the game, so I have no idea if this works, but couldn’t they be getting those sorts of numbers anyway and using Perry as a sort of example of what a normal citizen’s life would be like to give those numbers more emotional power. After all, it’s one thing to hear muggings up 30%, and it’s quite another to see or know someone get mugged.

        Just a thought.

        • Jimmy Maher

          January 2, 2016 at 9:41 am

          This was the obvious reason for writing the *game* in such a way — to have exactly that impact on the player. It’s just that the in-game explanation for it don’t really make sense, part of a whole scenario that doesn’t make sense when you start to really think about it at all. I consider this a pretty big flaw in a game that presents itself as realistic hard science fiction. Others accept it as something that can be hand-waved away in the interest of the powerful player experience they feel results — which is, of course, fair enough.

    • Andrew Plotkin

      May 8, 2014 at 7:41 pm

      This was also my hedge, and I remember ad-hoccing it as I played the game for the first time. The simulated universe must be running as an opaque blob of data, which Perelman’s computers can iterate on but not analyze. They can only peek into the viewpoint of the “focal character”, Perry. Thus your missions.

      It’s only a partial handwave, sure. It commits to the notion that Perry is the only self-aware entity in Rockvil, which brings up all the other happy-ending issues that you mention.

      Well, I don’t think we have to draw a boundary between “allegory” and “thoughtful hard science fiction”. The hardest SF has handwavy assumptions. (AI is often the handwaviest.) How metaphorical the setting is is more a matter of the reader’s expertise than of the author’s intent.

      • Duncan Stevens

        May 8, 2014 at 9:24 pm

        I had a similar handwave thought at the time: “our models have generated all this data, but we have no way to look at it except through you wandering around a simulation.” It makes more sense to me, upon reflection, that the models generate perfectly readable data that was plugged into a simulation, and the simulation was used to dramatize the effects of the arguments that Perelman and others were making by more conventional means (evidently with little success).

        I can live with the handwave, but the latter hangs together better.

        As for how Perry processes all of this, it’s not clear that Perry in the simulations has all of the memories of 2031 “real world” Perry. 2041 Perry could, in this view, simply have another ten years of living in Rockvil in his head, not the experience of “waking up.” That would make the experiences in the simulations real, for him. In effect, a separate copy of the AI was made at the time of “wakeup.” Another handwave, admitedly.

        • Anonymous

          May 8, 2014 at 9:38 pm

          Thanks for jogging my memory; the description of the game (I haven’t played it) reminded me of the movie “Deja Vu” in which some scientists claim to have a machine that can display a recreation of events from the recent past (just a matter of hours), but only from a specific point of view located in close proximity to the machine’s later location. The point of view can be moved so long as it doesn’t stray further away, but the recreation cannot be paused or rewound to allow for multiple run throughs. Of course that’s an obvious lie, and the truth about the machine comes out later.

        • Jason Dyer

          May 9, 2014 at 2:37 am

          I think a good comparison is the recent D-Wave controversy about if there’s even quantum effects going on the first place. It seems like it’d be easy to “look at the stream” but the whole point of qbits is they can exist in multiple states simultaneously making that sort of thing only work indirectly.

          Hard AI would require such a giant technological advance that we can’t depend on any of the metaphors/methods that we use for current technology.

          • Jason Kankiewicz

            February 21, 2017 at 2:48 pm

            According to a presentation I saw given by a USC researcher whose goal it was to answer that question, the D-Wave is quantum and the proof is that its output resembles that of a simulated quantum computer.

  2. Duncan Stevens

    May 8, 2014 at 4:05 pm

    As to joybooths, I never found that as troubling. Perry is an AI; he *can’t* live in the real world in any meaningful way. The nonsimulated existence he has in 2031 is limited to controlling a few systems in a dedicated project that, presumably, outlived its purpose when Ryder was defeated. I guess, in theory, he could have been wrenched out of PRISM and put into some other system, but it never bothered me that he was allowed to live on in a simulated existence. It seemed like the only alternative was pulling the plug outright, and that didn’t really feel better.

    • Jimmy Maher

      May 9, 2014 at 5:42 am

      But is that really the only alternative? When Perry is first “awoken,” he’s told that validating or invalidating the Plan will be his “first” project. Imagine what a being who combines the intuition and affective qualities of we humans with the number-crunching power of a supercomputer could accomplish and contribute right here in the real world. Instead Perry chooses to float off into a fantasy.

      • Matt Wigdahl

        May 12, 2014 at 3:47 pm

        Are you claiming that Perry is such an entity? I don’t see anything in the game that indicates that he has such capabilities. He can access library information and interface with external systems, but at about the level that a human can using Google or a good home-automation setup.

        Perry seems pretty clearly the closest thing Perelman could come to a simulated _human_ mind, and one that operates at pretty close to normal speed at that (not even a 2:1 acceleration factor). Heck, he even needs to sleep! He may have had the type of superhuman potential you imply, but it certainly wasn’t strongly hinted at in the course of the game.

        The virtual world he retired to was, to him, the real world, with real relationships and connections that he didn’t at all have in our reality. If I were pulled away from my life and family into a “higher” world and told that my new job was to watch as the home I knew and the people I loved were used as lab rats to prove points in a political spat, I can’t say I’d be thrilled.

        The larger issue to me is that no satisfying resolution for Perry seems possible given the frame. He knows he has no privacy; the entire simulation machinery is designed to shape and access his every thought and action. His world and everything he cares about are simulated constructions with (one assumes) no self-awareness. He himself exists at the sufferance of the Simulation Controller and he can never know whether he’s being observed or experimented upon.

        Whether he decided to “retire” or not, after Perelman woke him for the first time Perry is damned — truly and forever voyaging on strange seas of thought, alone.

        • Peter Piers

          November 23, 2015 at 8:53 pm


          There were a few things running through my mind as I read this article, and Matt Wigdahl has put them very eloquently.

      • Duncan Stevens

        May 13, 2014 at 2:28 am

        It’s unclear to me that Perry does have the “intuition and affective qualities of we humans” when taken out of Rockvil. His “consciousness” was grown there, but whether he could pass as human outside that setting is a different question. Maybe it could; we’re talking about quantum leaps in AI here, so maybe we should assume one more quantum leap.

        Even so…what *does* one do with an AI that has those powers? I can think of useful or interesting tasks it could carry out, but an AI that is capable of boredom and loneliness is likely, to my mind, to spend its life bored and lonely. Letting Perry end his days in the simulation seems kinder.

  3. Felix

    May 8, 2014 at 5:35 pm

    In all honesty, Star Trek: The Next Generation has tackled similar themes with the character of Professor Moriarty, and didn’t fare much better; the conclusion of episode Ship in a Bottle is morally dubious at best. I can’t blame them, either. It’s a big and delicate issue even if Meretzky didn’t have a political message to convey at the same time, and that was quite obviously what he really cared about.

    As for why Perelman and company needed Perry, it’s because they wanted to truly understand those simulated future worlds, and for that they needed a personal perspective — a bird’s eye view simply isn’t enough. This is wonderfully expressed in another TNG episode, The Inner Light, where Picard is made to experience a (simulated) lifetime in an alien civilization, thus getting to understand those long-dead people and their accomplishments infinitely better than entire libraries of scientific treatises would have allowed. We do that in the real world too, when we try to do things they way (we think) Romans used to: such simulations often yield surprising revelations.

    Last but not least, maybe I would find the concept of joybooths to be on about the same level of discourse as the suicide booths in Futurama if there weren’t recorded cases of people who died of playing MMORPGs for 30 hours without a break…

  4. X

    May 8, 2014 at 7:58 pm

    If you handwave that gently, you’ll never be able to fly. Perry is different because he’s a simulation of an entire human mind from birth to the present. The rest of the universe is simulated at low fidelity. The people are hyper-advanced Sims, but they don’t have total human brains, just the algorithms that simulate humanity to the level required by the simulation.

    Why Perry seems unconcerned about Jill being a lo-fi human, I’m not so sure. Perhaps her simulation is more detailed, since Perry interacts with her at a much greater level. A simulation advanced enough to fool a person into thinking it was real would probably add resolution as needed rather than trying to run everything at a fixed level.

    Does the game address Perry’s response to being trapped in the simulation of a dystopia? It seems like a natural response would be to condemn the creator for allowing such a thing to exist. How much interaction does he have with the guys running the simulation later in the game?

    • Jimmy Maher

      May 9, 2014 at 6:06 am

      Perry has a very positive relationship throughout the game with the project’s founder and lead researcher, Perelman. No, he never expresses any real resentment toward the people who made him.

      The idea of this being a lower-fidelity universe just doesn’t work for me. If Perry is surrounded by Sim-like beings, even advanced ones, he should be the smartest guy in Rockvil, qualitatively different from everyone around him, but he’s not — just an average fellow. When he comes out of the simulation he should notice that the people “outside” are so much more affective, more vibrant than the ones he knew — but he doesn’t. If the world around him is not being entirely simulated all the time, he should notice occasional glitches and limitations, but he doesn’t. (An example, and another plot hole I didn’t get to in the main article: when we try to leave Rockvil in the game we’re told we’ve reached the “boundary of the simulation.” Did Perry, a curious and somewhat adventurous 20-year-old, never ever try to leave the single mid-sized town in which he was born in his entire life prior to his awakening?) And finally, would a simulated world so focused on Perry’s subjective experience that it goes metaphorically dark in the places he doesn’t inhabit at any given moment also be useful as a more global simulation of the social and economic effects of the Plan? I can’t see how these two things are compatible…

  5. Keith Palmer

    May 8, 2014 at 8:53 pm

    After reading “Let’s Tell A Story Together” I did begin to mull over these interpretations of AMFV rather more than I might have before, although they do seem couched a little more benevolently here. The real punch of ambiguity does seem to be packed into the epilogue, and there, as was said, I can see it as “unintended consequences” of trying to suggest the future can be better. I’ve also contemplated a somewhat different conclusion that might carry the same intended message but avoid the ambiguities, but there I do have to admit how seeing other people tossing out “I’d have done it this way” comments just sometimes seems to me to feed dissatisfaction without really accomplishing anything…

    The latest time I played through the game, though, I was paying attention to the “joybooth” sequences, and wound up inclined to think the comments that they’re “reading the mind” and generating a rush of pleasant illusion do seem a bit different than the “simulations” to me. I can also imagine the objection that we’re born with “neural programming” in place being answered by saying that it’s easy enough to imagine “mapping the brain” being separated from “programming it through experience.” Nevertheless, the whole “the ‘people’ around Perry are good enough to live with” issue is something that can prey on you…

  6. Sniffnoy

    May 8, 2014 at 10:15 pm

    One note — Nick Bostrom is a philosopher, not a physicist.

    • Jimmy Maher

      May 9, 2014 at 6:13 am

      Thanks! That does maybe explain a possible flaw (in a sense) I see with Bostrom’s argument from the point of view of physics: any simulation of enough fidelity to perfectly simulate a given universe would need as much matter/energy as is contained in that universe to form its bits. Therefore, it seems to me, any simulation we made of (for example) our universe would necessarily have to be of lower fidelity. And therefore, if we’re living in a simulation it’s probably a cruder version of someone else’s incomparably more vibrant and vital universe — a slightly disconcerting thought.

  7. Peter Pears

    May 9, 2014 at 10:41 am

    Re Perry being deeply affected by Jill’s predicament though he knows it’s not real, and re the epilogue not being real:

    a) Having no reason to doubt the accuracy of the simulation, he knows it would be real eventually;

    b) The simulation all around him is what nurtured him from his birth, formative years, and early adulthood. He may know it’s not real, on an intelectual level, but on an emotional level – the one we have to accept exists in the SciFI context of this story – it’s THE real world, it’s the one he lived in. The Jill in these simulations are exactly the same woman he fell in love with. The epilogue is, for Perry, decidedly real, and the most real thing in the world for Perry-the-person; Perry-the-machine doesn’t really exist inside the smulations.

    c) Even if you know it’s not real, living through an experience like that will not leave you unphased. Ask any method actor, especially early in their careers.

    • Peter Piers

      November 23, 2015 at 8:58 pm

      It’s very weird to re-read stuff you’ve written! a) doesn’t even make much sense!

      As for b) and c), the point’s been made – much better! – by Matt Wigdahl some comments above.

  8. iPadCary

    May 9, 2014 at 4:02 pm

    ONE game, not a topic, gets THREE parts!
    Like I say, one of THE greatest games ever made.

  9. Andrea

    May 9, 2014 at 5:23 pm

    It is strange that no mention to “Simulacron-3” by Daniel F. Galouye (a novel of 1964), an the varius movie adaptations from it, has been made….

  10. Hanon Ondricek

    May 11, 2014 at 3:29 pm

    In other Infocom articles it was mentioned that many of their authors were coders writing fiction instead of authors writing code. Apparently their ideal would have been to be able to seat an established author in front of a computer with their code and have them crank out an interactive fiction. Imagine how much different their output would have been if they’d had access to Graham Nelson and Inform 7!!

    • Peter Pears

      May 13, 2014 at 9:27 am

      You might be interested in earlier posts of this ongoing history, as Maher has covered that ground pretty well, from Infocom’s aborted attempts to Mindwheel and BTZ.

  11. John G

    May 12, 2014 at 9:18 pm

    To paraphrase Film Crit Hulk’s seminal take on these kinds of “plot holes,” it’s because “otherwise there would be no game.”

    AMFV is an emotional journey. It works because it uses the “Suspended” conceit of being trapped behind a screen to make you feel the loneliness of being Perry Simm. I think that’s more important than all the plot sleight of hand needed to make you experience the tragedy of Perry: His painful discovery of who he is, his obsession with saving the people he cares about from Richard Ryder. Finally, like the cowboy at the end of a Western, he is fated never to live in the civilization he helped save but to wander strange seas of thought, no longer reachable through the Communications Interface.

  12. Dehumanizer

    May 13, 2014 at 6:03 pm

    The question of PRISM caring about Jill and others in a universe that he knows is a simulation reminds me of a quote by one of my favorite fictional “philosophers”, Conan the Barbarian:

    “Let teachers and priests and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content.”

  13. Nate

    May 18, 2014 at 5:44 am

    I remember reading the AMFV grey box in the shop in the late 80s and imediately going ‘Wait, so this guy thinks he’s human but isn’t? Eeeagh that’s creepy and I’m going to have nightmares about that for years.’ And then playing the game in the 90s (Lost Treasures era) and being a bit sad that nothing was ever said about the whole Matrix-like existential crisis at the root of the story. And also noticing how one-sided and heavy-handed the political commentary was; but still loving it.

    Side note: Being brought up outside the US, it took me years – until the 2000s, really – before I really understood that in the USA, US political alignments like the Republican trinity of God, guns and greed really existed and weren’t just literary strawmen. This mix really was so alien to my experience; in New Zealand in 1984, for example, the generation-defining election was between a ‘conservative’ incumbent who wanted to build large public works, centrally manage the economy, control imports, support the US military, and use police to ban protests — versus a ‘Labour socialist’ challenger who wanted to privatise state assets, deregulate industry, reduce taxes on the rich, gut the welfare state, legalise homosexuality, return state lands to Maori, and break our military ties to the USA. The political alignments this represents don’t exist anywhere on the US spectrum either in the 1980s or now; it would be like, um. A Libertarian-Democratic coalition vs Republican-Communists.

    So you can imagine my confusion at the strange collection of ideas ‘Senator Ryder’ was putting together in his platform, and why AMFV’s author was so passionate about opposing this odd mixture. I kept wondering why he was attacking such an obvious, weird, strawman who held viewpoints nobody I knew supported. Especially since I was playing it during the Clinton years, and all the chatter on the budding Internet seemed to be from atheist-libertarian types, who again, didn’t fit in the Reagan Republican cluster.

    And then came Bush W, and *finally* I understood what AMFV had been about, and that yes, that political alignment _really did_ exist. To be honest it actually shocked me.

    • Jimmy Maher

      May 18, 2014 at 10:17 am

      Yeah. AMFV’s most fundamental flaw, which is if corrected would leave me much less inclined to plot-hole poke, is that it brings up so many important questions — about free will, about reality vs. simulation, about sentience and the limits of sentience, about ethics — and utterly fails to address any of them. I’m always a bit nonplussed when I see people talk about how “moved” they are by Perry’s tragic plight, etc., because nothing in the game so much as hints that we’re supposed to feel that way or that it’s even aware of the *possibility* of reading the story that way. I really believe that problematic epilogue is intended to be unambiguously joyous. If I was Perry, I would at the very least be angry at Perelman for having stolen fifty years of my life. (We did just jump from 2031 to 2081, after all. Why not just jump to Perry’s deathbed and save everyone even more time?) It’s frustrating because these unexamined universalities are really much more interesting than the topical, context-specific political arguments.

      And yeah, as I noted in a comment to the previous article, conservatives and liberals do not universally have the same priorities or even agree on the same things from country to country. Here in Denmark the farthest right party is actually for much *more* social assistance and government involvement in people’s lives, especially those of the less educated working-class folks who constitute most of their support. But they want these programs only for “real” Danes, and would like to further limit (it’s already pretty limited except for the highly sought after professionals who bring immediate, tangible economic benefits for Danish companies) or entirely halt immigration into Denmark to keep Denmark for the Danes and all that.

      • Nate

        May 19, 2014 at 12:26 am

        For me – even with my initial misgivings about Perry’s existential crisis – the epilogue _did_ play out as unambiguously joyous, and one of the most moving endings I’ve ever played in any interactive media. I’m not sure quite why. I think it was because I’d come to empathise with ‘simuated Perry’ much more than ‘real PRISM’, and after seeing his world and family collapse into misery, it was a necessary counterpoint to see that a beautiful, humane personal future was still possible. Without that, the game would have felt unremititngly bleak – and bleak dystopic futures were the norm in 1980s SF, and still are today. (What was the last unambigously celebratory future setting you saw in a science-fiction movie or TV? Probably Star Trek, and not the recent war-driven remakes.)

        I think I parsed it mentally as that when Perry enters Simulation Mode, it’s almost exactly like he dreams. He ‘knows’ in the back of his mind that the ‘waking’ world exists, and that he has a goal to achieve in the dream – but his simulation world feels totally real. And as in our dreams, he enters the simulation with the memories and backstory of the simulated years, so he naturally feels much more at home there.

        I always wished though that I could communicate much more meaningfully with Jill, and tell her the truth about my reality. The ‘if this bank of computers is required just to simuate Perry, how can it simulate everyone else?’ problem did bug me; I think I could handwave it that somehow the AI technology is holistic, like a VM cluster that massively shares files, so it can simulate an entire city for the same cost as simulating just one mind (‘it takes a village to raise an AI’). Which explains how come the PRISM project allowed a city-simulation almost as a spinoff. In which case, really ‘Perry’ and ‘Jill’ and everyone in Rockvil are just equal sub-aspects of PRISM’s multifaceted personality, and neither is less real than the other, meaning they can in fact have a real relationship as equals. (There is a recurring strain in real-world philosophy – Huxley’s ‘perennial tradition’ – that suggests that human consciousness might function similarly as a gestalt entity.) And that idea might be a very interesting direction to take a spiritual sequel, I think. But also, I’d love to know how the mere existence of AIs like PRISM might reshape the world of 2031 – and how an abandoned ‘museum piece’ AI, effectively the father of a new lifeform, might react to seeing what his ‘children’ have evolved into in the real world. I guess for symmetry, it would have to be a ‘liberal dystopia’… (A little like Christopher Priest’s ‘The Space Machine’, which is awesome.)

        Sidebar: I can’t wait to see what you write about 1986’sPortal, one of the underappreciated gems of the era, and like AMFV, an experiment that didn’t completely succeed, but I still find massively inspiring for what it attempted.

    • Jamie Flower

      March 27, 2023 at 4:57 pm

      ” New Zealand in 1984, for example, the generation-defining election was between a ‘conservative’ incumbent who wanted to build large public works, centrally manage the economy, control imports, support the US military, and use police to ban protests — versus a ‘Labour socialist’ challenger who wanted to privatise state assets, deregulate industry, reduce taxes on the rich, gut the welfare state, legalise homosexuality, return state lands to Maori, and break our military ties to the USA.”
      I am scratching my head at your description of the second guy. He sounds like a Gary Johnson type free market libertarian, and not in anyway like a socialist.

      • Jamie Flower

        March 27, 2023 at 5:02 pm

        In fact I would say that your description would have loosely fit the 2016 US Presidental election if somehow Gary Johnson was the major contender that had a chance of beating Trump rather than Hilary Clinton.

  14. Jason Kankiewicz

    February 21, 2017 at 2:13 pm

    “Senator Rider” -> “Senator Ryder”?

    • Jimmy Maher

      February 21, 2017 at 2:16 pm


  15. DZ-Jay

    February 28, 2017 at 11:44 am

    >> “problems that PRISM presents to we”

    Should it be “to us”? (My dictionary says that “us” is the first person plural pronoun used after the verb “to be” and after “than” or “as.” It also suggests that full interchangeable use between “us,” “we,” and “our” is a regionalism of the West Indies.)

    >> “For the PRISM project to succeed in its goal of raising a human with all the affect and intuitive knowledge of you and me”

    Should it be “you and I”?

    • Jimmy Maher

      March 2, 2017 at 3:18 pm

      The first was indeed incorrect. Thanks!

  16. DZ-Jay

    February 28, 2017 at 12:02 pm

    I’m not sure what the meaning of “paid” is in this context:

    >> “a conspiracy spawned by Perelman to put paid to Ryder and his Plan.”

    I’ve never seen that use before and my dictionary does not offer any other meaning than the traditional past-tense verb or adjective.

  17. DZ-Jay

    February 28, 2017 at 12:37 pm

    OK, I finished reading the three part article on this game and I will say I am fascinated by the author’s commentary (of both: the article and the game). They pose a great many arguments to ponder from various sides and diverse topics, from politics to science fiction; from the nature of consciousness to the merits of interpretation of a work of art as art itself. The mind boggles, and I surely look forward to playing — and experiencing — this game.

    I do have some questions, which I’m sure will become clearer once I play the game, but which in my opinion go to the heart of the purpose of such an article intending to provide the historical backdrop and overview of interactive fiction games. For all the strides the articles take in exploring the nuances and the subtext of the game in an overarching way, I still do not have a clear understanding of what goes on in it, the game’s mechanics, nor its settings, other than “there are no puzzles” and that the town’s progress (or lack thereof) is simulated somewhat realistically.

    In bits and pieces scattered throughout all three articles, interspersed with lots and lots of interesting subtextual commentary, I’ve managed to piece together the following: That there’s a machine that runs a simulation of the town, a la The Matrix. That there’s a simulated individual consciousness within this world called Perry Simms which takes the role of the player’s avatar. That through Perry Simms’ eyes, the player gets to experience the decay of his world due to the implementation of some government decisions presumably suggestive of the Republican agenda in an attempt to demonstrate the “natural” consequences of such bad policies.

    That, lacking puzzles, the purpose of this chronological travel through the simulation is not to “win” but to learn and understand what’s going on, explore the consequences, and acknowledge their inherent badness. And that somehow at the end, there’s some McGuffin where you must stop the government (or fascist president or whatever) from implementing their pet project which would cause the future decay and self-destruction which you have witnessed first-hand via the simulation.

    Then, there’s some mention about Perry’s “awakening” and some talk about comparing the simulated reality to the outside world’s reality, which seems to suggest that Perry is not really a simulated consciousness at all, but a person in our world who has been placed into this simulated environment. (?)

    I know that this series of articles were written several years ago and that the author may be loath to go back and revisit them at this point; but perhaps it would help if the game experience and mechanics were described more thoroughly by themselves outside the commentary on the message and subtext of the game; you know, like some of the other articles do. As such, it feels as if I should have played the game in order to follow the commentary. As interesting, fascinating, and thought-provoking as said commentary is on its own merits (and I say that most sincerely), I can’t seem to attach it with any substantial relevance to the experience of the actual game without more details of the latter.

    As such, it feels largely academic, and somewhat disconnected from the rest of the series. In my eyes (and I admit this could be my faulty understanding from a single reading), it’s more a treatise on interpretations of the subtext of a story which just happens to be an Infocom game, and less about the game itself, its relevance, and why we should care. In other words, I don’t get a clear picture as to how playing the game would lead to such grandiose thinking, other than the author of the article did when he played it.

    Nonetheless, great work for sure.


    • McTrinsic

      August 4, 2021 at 8:03 pm

      I find two blogs extremely helpful when I am in a similar situation:

      – The Adventure Gamer

      Here, you will find people blogging about playing the adventure games. Especially in this case of „A mind forever voyaging“, this extremely synergistic or complementary.

      – The CRPG addict

      An incredible guy who has set himself on the mission to play every computer role playing game ever produced. Naturally, he is all about Role-Playing games.

      I am not sure where similar sources can be found for games like, lets say, DOOM. Would be interesting to see someone writing about that. If this person is seriously into this genre, this person might even review „CyberMage“, a long-forgotten gem from Origin.

  18. Ben

    December 5, 2021 at 5:31 pm

    mass-survelliance -> mass-surveillance

    air tight -> airtight

    • Jimmy Maher

      December 12, 2021 at 8:31 am


  19. Vulpes

    June 20, 2022 at 1:51 pm

    I think you’re slightly harsher on this game’s premise than you should be. The other people wouldn’t need to be true AIs at all, but more like video game AIs, which exhibit seemingly intelligent behavior not because they are actually intelligent, but because they are given more information than an actual intelligent agent would have in that situation. For example, an “AI” that has to track you might actually always know where you are. Similarly, the entities in Perry’s world wouldn’t have to be able to recognize object by actually looking at them if they are given access to the object’s label. So while I wouldn’t go so far as to say A Mind Forever Voyaging is plausible, it’s not as absurd as you make it out to be.


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