Tag Archives: amfv

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-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.


Tags: , ,

A Mind Forever Voyaging, Part 2: Don’t Go Back to Rockvil

A Mind Forever Voyaging

Our theme song for today is the inevitable.

During the mid-1980s American liberalism was arguably at its lowest ebb of the century. This was the era of Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America,” when liberalism was viewed as the cause of the economic doldrums of the previous decade and the social unrest of the decade before that, when the de facto voice of the Democratic party for many people was still Jimmy Carter’s handwringing “malaise” speech. While Carter told the people that they needed to fundamentally change their ways of life, to carpool and conserve energy, Ronald Reagan told them the country’s only problem was that they weren’t being American enough. After a somewhat rocky first few years in office, by 1984 the economy was booming as it hadn’t in almost two decades, and Reagan soared to reelection that year. Oddly for an ideology so rooted in tradition and fixated on a mythical America of the past, conservatism felt fresh and vigorous and new, like the future, as the “Greed is Good!” 1980s got rolling at last in earnest. To stand in opposition to Reaganomics was to blow into the face of a hurricane; even counterculture icons like Neil Young were making noises about supporting Reagan. Yet it was at this moment, before the Iran-Contra scandal began to at least reopen a window for debate in the American body politic, that Steve Meretzky penned A Mind Forever Voyaging. Whatever else you can say about it, it was one hell of a brave piece of work.

Meretzky’s stand-in for Reagan — with a bit of Joseph McCarthy thrown in for good measure — is a charismatic senator named Richard Ryder (subtle Meretzky ain’t). It’s 2031, and the United States of North America is once again gripped by economic malaise. Ryder is promoting something called The Plan for Renewed National Purpose to fix all that. I might complain that the name is rather too fascistic-sounding, except that I’m not really sure it sounds any more ominous than The Patriot Act. I might complain that the specifics of the Plan hew a bit too closely to the Republican agenda of 1985, except that the Republican agenda of 1985 is largely still the Republican agenda of today. So why not 2031 as well?

* cut tax rates 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, e.g. registering cars, guns
* termination of government subsidies to outmoded industries

A Mind Forever Voyaging‘s criticism of these policies and the mindset that spawned them will grow increasingly strident, as befits a muckraking work meant to shake the people and get them to wake up! But the criticism builds slowly. When we first enter the future Rockvil, in 2041, it seems a pretty nice place.

As Jason Scott noted in his comment to my previous article, Rockvil itself is a major achievement not just for its sheer size but also, more so, for what a believable place it is. Rockvil is a prosperous mid-sized town perhaps about the size and character of a real-world place I once lived, Olympia, Washington. It’s laid out in a way that just feels intuitively right. There’s a tourist district in the north with a zoo, a sports stadium, parkland, concert halls and theaters; a bustling downtown at the city’s center, with residences for city-dwelling hipsters (Perry Simm among them) along its edges; a university in the west surrounded by the expected student hangouts like a bar and a cheap Chinese joint; the obligatory shopping mall and cineplex to the east. Traveling south takes one across “the proverbial railroad tracks” — every city has them — to the less photogenic parts of town: the power station, the skycar factory (“the last surviving smokestack industry in the area”), the city dump, liquor stores and laundromats and gun shops and tenements and reminders of a more industrial past in the form of shuttered factories and warehouses. Surrounding the whole, but beyond “the boundary of this simulation,” are the suburbs.

We spend the majority of the game wandering about Rockvil, and we come to care for the place almost as if we really had grown up there. In 2041 it’s largely a happy, welcoming place for a (presumably) successful young writer like Perry, with just a few ominous signs, if you’re inclined to view them as such, like the growing underclass on the other side of the tracks and the population of Rockvil Reformatory: “From what you’ve heard, the prison is overcrowded, because today’s stricter law enforcement and mandatory sentencing regulations are putting people into the penal system even faster than the military draft can remove them.” The city’s slow decline is horrifying, as the place becomes a nightmare version of itself like Festeron in Wishbringer but without a trace of that game’s whimsy. (It’s funny to think that Infocom released two games back to back that relied on such a similar mechanic, another of a number of odd confluences in their history.) A weird cult-like religion rises and finally takes over the government; infrastructure crumbles and publicly-funded museums close or fall into horrid neglect; the criminals and police both get ever more brutal; the films showing at the local cineplex get baser and uglier, as does the graffiti on the streets; racism becomes institutionalized and celebrated; the credit card in your wallet is replaced with a ration card. There’s much here that’s disturbing and/or heartrending, like the “monkey torturing” that becomes the zoo’s main draw or the eventual use to which the stadium is put: “Execution Matches.” The last version of Rockvil, from 2081, is an apparent post-nuclear wasteland inhabited by roving bands of possibly mutated, certainly cannibalistic savages. We don’t last long there.

There’s a message to this progression that’s as relevant now as it was in 1985: what seems expedient in the short term can be profoundly destructive in the long term. And, without putting too fine a point on it, I can’t help but note a certain extra layer of ominous prescience for those of us playing the game thirty years after it was written. Many of the government’s worst abuses are initially justified in the name of preventing terrorism. The apartment Perry shares with his wife and son is subject to unannounced raids by the “Border Security Force” — Homeland Security, anyone? — even in 2041. A sign in the airport soon reads, “All international travellers must pass through strip-search. No exceptions!”

The apartment is a special nexus of interest in each version of Rockvil. While Perry gets a lengthy backstory in the game’s manual, his wife Jill and son Mitchell are the only people we meet with whom he has a personal relationship. Not that we learn much about either in the bare handful of substantial paragraphs that relate to Perry’s home life: Mitchell is just an average little boy; Jill is a painter who is addicted to trashy romance novels and madly loved by and in love with Perry (perhaps relevantly, Meretzky himself got married just after finishing A Mind Forever Voyaging). But it’s enough to make their final appearance in 2071 the most harrowing scene in the game:

Six or eight heavily armed Church police storm into the apartment. You see a look of horror come over Jill, as she covers her mouth with the back of her hand, as though stifling some silent scream. You follow her gaze, and -- a shock of recognition -- sauntering in behind the police...

The ten years since you last saw him have left scant change on the face of your son. "Mitchell!" you yell, and take a step toward him, but a blow from one of the cops sends your frail, old body flying against the wall.

"She is the one." The voice is Mitchell's, but the tone is cold, unrecognizable, sending shivers through you. He raises a fur-clad arm, pointing at his mother without a hint of emotion. "She spake against the Church; she tried to poison the mind of a child too young to know the Truth." The thugs grab Jill, who reaches toward Mitchell, tears of terror streaming down her face. Totally unresponsive, he turns and walks calmly out of the apartment.

As Jill is dragged, screaming and crying, through the front door, you try to follow, but a cop pummels you in the stomach with his club. You fall to the floor, retching, as the apartment door slams closed, shutting you off forever from the son you cannot understand and the wife you will never see again.

Now, one could argue with some justification that this is rather emotionally manipulative, that the game hasn’t characterized anyone involved well enough to really earn our pathos. But like Floyd’s death, it’s unforgettable and affecting in spite of it all — more so, really, because it fits in so well with the tone of the game around it rather than coming out of nowhere as an aberration in the middle of a science-fiction comedy.

There’s a lot to quibble about in Rockvil. As believable as the city in general is, the writing is sometimes frustratingly perfunctory. Meretzky has a tendency to just tell us what something is in the manner of a tourist guidebook or government brochure rather than give a real physical sense of place. So, we learn that “Rockvil Municipal Stadium is a multipurpose sporting event facility, home of both baseball’s Rockvil Bobcats and soccer’s Rockvil Rockets.” Okay, but what’s it like there? Where am I standing inside? What do I see and smell and hear and feel? This mode of description gets particularly confusing as we go deeper into the future. The game always acts as if Perry knows this place intimately. Yet the whole ostensible purpose of visiting these future Rockvils is to find out what the (simulated) future holds. If I have full access already to the simulated memories of the Perry of the future, why do I need to go there to access them? But here we’re getting into the more problematic if also philosophically interesting parts of the game, which I’m going to reserve for the next article…

I also wish the implementation was less sketchy. There are lots of interesting little Easter eggs, but they’re hard to find because most of the time the game doesn’t much reward actions other than just wandering around and reading the room descriptions. And even when you do stumble upon them they sometimes leave you wanting more. When I played the game before writing these articles, I found in 2041 a delightful little book store where I bought The Wizard of Oz, a favorite from Perry’s childhood. Given the tradition of bookstores in dystopian literature as seats of resistance and beacons of freedom, I went back there in every later time: to see how it had changed, to see how the “kindly” proprietor was doing, to hopefully buy more books that would tell me more about Perry’s state of mind amidst the societal decline. But there was nothing new to see or do, until the place was closed completely and that was that. I of course understand that many of these complaints can be laid directly at the feet of technical limitations. Still, I can’t help but think about how A Mind Forever Voyaging could be even better with better writing and a deeper world to explore.

The other obvious complaint to make is thematic: that A Mind Forever Voyaging isn’t exactly the fairest of political critiques. At risk of sounding too inflammatory, I will say that the game puts its finger on a certain authoritarian impulse that strikes me as a bothersome undercurrent to so much Republican political thought. But still, the game’s message that we’re all going to wind up food for roving cannibalistic mutants if we vote Republican is a bit farther than I’m willing to go. In the last act of the game we meet Richard Ryder himself at last. Consistent with Meretzky’s view of Reagan as an “asshole,” he’s content to just make Ryder a mustache-twirling villain, guilty not only of bad policy but of fundamentally bad faith. There’s literally no division in the game’s universe between a Reagan Republican and a full-blown fascist.

"Now let's get a few ground rules straight, Perelman. Nothing is stopping the Plan. Even if I didn't think your damn tapes were faked, I wouldn't give a damn. A helluva lot of people have a helluva lot at stake in this thing, and so what if a lot of creeps who can't take care of themselves get a little hurt." "I'm very frightened, Senator," says Perelman, his voice laced with sarcasm. "Shut up," Ryder shouts back. "I said that I'm doing the talking here!

"And let me tell you another thing, Perelman. Don't think that just because you've been on the news and been a big hot shot around here, you're gonna get some special consideration, because all that doesn't mean diddly-squat in the kind of power circles I'm talking about!"

Ryder is getting really worked up; his normal, fatherly demeanor is completely gone. "Perelman, you're an even bigger idiot than I imagined if you think we'd let some two-bit egghead scientist and some high-tech whiz bang computer stand in our way! Remember this -- if you were to have some unforeseen accident, you wouldn't be the first person who's gotten crushed by standing in the way of the Plan!" Perelman, with a quick glance in your direction, says, "Quite an oration, Senator. Vintage thug. I wish I could save it for posterity. Would you be willing to go on the record with that statement?" Ryder becomes even more livid. "A real jokester, huh? Lemme tell you this, Perelman -- you'd better stop joking and start listening to my advice, or you're not going to be around to care about posterity, understand?

"So, here's the bottom line, Perelman. My men are going to stay here and keep the lid shut tight on you troublemakers, until the Plan is the law of this land. Nobody leaves, no communications at all, and don't worry about visitors; we'll take care of that. And if I get any trouble out of you, I swear to God I'll personally pull the plug on that goddam wonder machine of yours. Got it?" He stomps out without waiting for a reply, leaving Perelman sputtering in anger. A few seconds later, National Guardsmen enter and escort Perelman away.

Again, and while righteous anger certainly has a power of its own, I sometimes wish A Mind Forever Voyaging had a little more nuance about it.

After we prevent Ryder from pulling PRISM’s plug and thwart his Plan, a sequence which contains the only significant puzzles in the game, we come to the lengthy and justifiably oft-remarked epilogue in a Rockvil of the 2091 of a different timeline, a veritable liberal utopia.

The headline story is about a newly released study which indicates that the average life expectancy for both sexes has now passed one hundred years, and success in the development of regeneratives should send that figure even higher. Despite the dropping mortality rate, global population remains stable at just under two billion, with offworlding now running at a staggering seven million people annually.

To celebrate next month's special twentieth anniversary Disarmament Day, the World Council has passed a bill authorizing fireworks displays in each of the former capital cities of the twenty-two former nuclear powers. The fireworks displays, by Aerialist designer Jean M'gomo, will feature disarmament themes, and will be the largest display of pyrotechnic art in this century.

A story on an inside page catches your eye: "Perry Simm, Noted Author, To Join Crew of Silver Dove," reads the headline. "Perry Simm, author and poet, recipient of the 2089 Mexicana Prize, has been selected from nearly a thousand applicants to be the resident author aboard the Silver Dove, the space colony that is currently being equipped for mankind's first interstellar journey, a trip expected to last a dozen generations."

The epilogue, of which the above newspaper is only a modest part, goes on to show Perry reunited with a healthy and happy Jill and with a clean, prosperous, and peaceful Rockvil in which everyone has excellent health care, access to higher education, support when they need it, and freedom to do and be whatever they wish. And you know what? Having lived for almost five years now in two of the three happiest countries in the world, I have to say that that’s just a better way to run a country. Oh, sure, the epilogue is over the top, so much so that it’s almost hard to take entirely at face value. Yet Meretzky clearly, profoundly cares. In this era of irony and antiheroes and cool detachment, the gawky sentimentality of A Mind Forever Voyaging‘s epilogue comes across as brave and inspiring and kind of beautiful. Really, what is so funny about peace, love, and understanding?

Infocom saw A Mind Forever Voyaging as likely to prompt discussion and controversy, just as a similarly strident book-borne critique of Reaganomics would. Far from running from it, they positively courted such a response, a remarkable fact indeed when one considers that they were still desperately trying to sell Cornerstone to a corporate America who thought Reagan was pretty great. The back of the package announced A Mind Forever Voyaging as a “major departure for Infocom,” and the game was announced at a press conference held at the New York Public Library to emphasize its literary qualities. In light of all this, the game’s reception was perhaps the most dismaying possible: nobody seemed to have much of anything substantive to say about it. Astonishingly given how unsubtle it is, many or most reviewers didn’t realize the political critique existed at all — or, if they did, knew better (or their editors did) than to touch on it even in passing. A Mind Forever Voyaging attracted none of the buzz of Chris Crawford’s contemporaneous Balance of Power. The mainstream press was moving on from bookware and with it moving on from Infocom, and everyone inside the industry took it as just another adventure game, albeit one with a weird shortage of puzzles. Sales amounted to no more than 30,000 or so, making A Mind Forever Voyaging Infocom’s least successful game to date (excepting the oddball Fooblitzky). Infocom took this as a rejection of the whole idea of puzzleless interactive fiction, even though their final game of 1985, the much more traditional Spellbreaker, wouldn’t sell much better despite being available on many more platforms. Neither Meretzky nor Infocom would ever attempt anything quite like A Mind Forever Voyaging again.

We, however, aren’t yet done with the game. There’s a whole additional set of ideas here which are if anything even more interesting than the more straightforward political allegory. We’ll get to them next time.


Tags: , ,

A Mind Forever Voyaging, Part 1: Steve Meretzky’s Interiors

A Mind Forever Voyaging

Steve Meretzky earned the right to write A Mind Forever Voyaging. That, anyway, is one way to look at it, and one with which I believe many staffers at Infocom tacitly agreed. After his first game, Planetfall, his next two games had been works created to specifications with cheerful equanimity and breathtaking efficiency and not a trace of artistic angst. First there had been Sorcerer, the necessary second installment in the Enchanter trilogy that freed up Marc Blank to work on technology and Dave Lebling to write Suspect. And then of course there was The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which fell into Meretzky’s lap because he was the only available Imp willing to play the subordinate role in a creative partnership with Douglas Adams. That game’s huge sales were almost certainly the only thing that allowed Infocom to survive (after a fashion) their disastrous 1985, thus making Meretzky in some sense the savior of everyone still employed there. Throw in the four contract-fulfilling Zork gamebooks he cranked out betwixt and between the computer games, plus all the help he gave to others with their designs, plus the way he just kept everyone insanely sane during all of the trials of the Cornerstone era with his parties and games and antics… yeah, Meretzky deserved carte blanche to make his next game exactly what he wanted it to be.

As funny a guy as he was, Meretzky was interested in being more than just Infocom’s go-to wacky comedy writer. Indeed, and even setting aside Floyd, anyone really looking at Planetfall can’t help but see an attention to science-fictional realism, even a certain amount of earnest worldbuilding, that its oft-cited similarity to Douglas Adams’s just-in-it-for-the-jokes settings and characters belies. Had he had his druthers, Meretzky’s follow-up to Planetfall may very well have been a carefully researched and very sober historical piece taking place aboard the Titanic. “Meretzky’s Titanic game” hung about Infocom so long and was proposed by him so many times that it became a running joke in itself. The rest of the company never warmed to the idea, feeling it lacked commercial potential — an extraordinary judgment call indeed in light of a certain movie from the following decade. Then again, Meretzky didn’t have Leonardo DiCaprio.

But in the immediate aftermath of Hitchhiker’s in late 1984, with complete carte blanche for the first and only time during his tenure with Infocom, Meretzky decided to go in another direction entirely. Even as he was basking in the glow of Hitchhiker’s huge initial sales and publicity, Ronald Reagan was defeating Walter Mondale in one of the biggest routs in American electoral history; Mondale carried exactly 1 state to Reagan’s 49.

The impetus to start working on it was Reagan’s reelection. I was appalled that he was not only reelected but reelected in a landslide. Everyone was talking about what an absorbing medium computer games in general and particularly interactive fiction was because even when you weren’t playing you were spending all your time thinking about it. You were always working on puzzles. When you were playing you were absorbed in it 100 percent, and when you weren’t playing part of your brain was still working on it, thinking about it.

I thought about how other media were constantly trying to get messages across, change people’s thinking. It seemed to me that interactive fiction could be an even more powerful medium for doing that. So that was my mission. I wanted to show people what a war-mongering, Christian-Right-pandering, environment-trashing, rights-trampling asshole Reagan was.

And of course the game was so successful that we’ve never had another President like that!

The question of just how to convey that message within the context of an interesting, playable work of interactive fiction was rather more fraught than the above description might imply. Could interactive fiction change hearts and minds the way that Art does it, not by offering reasoned arguments but by making the player really see and feel? Whatever else you could say about them, adventure games — even Infocom’s interactive fiction — hadn’t been doing a lot of that sort of thing. They’d been more than content to work within safe, established, inoffensive genre boundaries, a defensible enough choice at a time when just offering, say, a reasonably good interactive facsimile of a forgettable mystery novel could be rightly greeted as an amazing achievement. There had been glimpses of potential to do and be more, like Floyd’s death in Planetfall or Infidel‘s shocking ending. But could something like that be maintained over the course of an entire work? Sure, Meretzky could craft a broad satire in which Reagan would stand in for Lord Dimwit Flathead the Excessive, but he wanted to do something more thoughtful, more expressive.

Interactive fiction is an almost perversely limited medium from the perspective of a writer of static fiction. There are many, many things that it just can’t do well, and any sort of direct facsimile of literary fiction, even literary science fiction, is one of them. Such works invariably end up being either fundamentally un-interactive, the proverbial railroaded novel separated by the occasional command prompt, or impossible to implement; the grand bargains and life choices that are the stuff of literature represent a combinatorial explosion with which interactive fiction is utterly unequipped to deal. This doesn’t mean that interactive fiction can’t move and change us. It does, however, mean that its authors must approach their goals in different, more oblique ways than conventional authors.

Steve Meretzky, about to craft the first largely puzzleless work of interactive fiction ever to be released by a publisher, intuitively grasped this reality that has eluded many would-be “literary” interactive-fiction authors since. The central premise of the game that would become A Mind Forever Voyaging came to him one day at his breakfast table. It was an idea that played perfectly to his medium’s strengths. Interactive fiction does setting incredibly well, perhaps better than it does anything else. Intricate plotting it does painfully and reluctantly and usually clunkily. Therefore why not make the player not so much a participant in the plot as an observer? He would make the player’s avatar a “self-aware computer” observing the effects of Republican policies over a span of decades inside a simulation. There would still be room for player agency, secrets to be found and hidden corners to be investigated. But the larger-scale machinery of the simulation could grind on largely unaffected by this. A cop out? Perhaps, but also a brilliant one. The rest of the story — about the computer, named PRISM, and how he came to be — now began to flow.

Cop out or not, Meretzky’s idea was still hugely ambitious. He wanted to do nothing less than create a whole city in software not once but five times — the same place over a span of five decades. And woven around this central simulation would have to be a lot more material relating to PRISM’s operation and his exploratory mission. The scale of the whole was out of line with anything Infocom had attempted since the original PDP-10 Zork — you know, the one they’d had to chop into pieces to get onto microcomputers. Thankfully, Meretzky had a trump card in the form of a new technology that had been born at Infocom during 1984.

The system would be known to the world as Interactive Fiction Plus, and internally as either the version 4 Z-Machine or just EZIP. (“Extended Z-Machine Interpreter”; ordinary interpreters were customarily called “ZIPs,” a name which has nothing to do with the compression format of the same name.) The Imps had been growing increasingly frustrated with the Z-Machine, with its sharp limitations of 128 K of total code and data (allowing at best a short novella’s worth of text), its maximum of 256 objects (a much more restrictive number than it might appear at first glance when you consider that objects included not only items in the game but also rooms, your avatar and other people and animals, and even various abstractions like compass directions), its support for nothing more elaborate in the way of onscreen formatting than a fixed status line and a scrolling stream of text. They were aching to push their worlds and their parsers further than the cramped Z-Machine could allow.

Marc Blank and Mike Berlyn, who made a surprising but enduring pair of running buddies, worked toward a next-generation technology for interactive fiction even as Berlyn was also heading the cross-platform graphics initiative and designing Fooblitzky and also writing Cutthroats. They dreamed of a parser capable of understanding “kinds and qualities,” capable of facilitating real conversations with other characters. Blank:

We worked on it for quite a while before we realized it just wasn’t getting anywhere. It was too open-ended; it was hard to know where to go with it and what was going to be the interesting part of it. Or were you turning it into a simulation, where you build a big world you can wander around in but not much happens? We kind of hit a wall.

It of course didn’t help that Cornerstone was continuing to suck more and more oxygen away from such blue-sky initiatives, nor that Blank himself was getting more and more distracted and embroiled in his disputes with Al Vezza and the rest of the Board. Berlyn and Blank’s grander plans never saw the light of day. However, the more plebeian technological foundation Blank had laid to support them did as Interactive Fiction Plus.

EZIP extended the basic Z-Machine in a fairly elegant, straightforward way. Maximum story size doubled to 256 K. The maximum number of objects expanded to a number big enough that nobody would ever, ever — even in the modern era — need to think about it again. A modest new set of opcodes building on work that had been begun to facilitate Seastalker‘s sonar display gave some new options for text layout and screen formatting. And that was about it really. Still, it should be just enough to let Meretzky build his city.

The luxuries of EZIP didn’t come without a steep price tag. Getting EZIP onto many of the target machines stretched the considerable talents of Dan Horn’s Micro Group to the limit. Andrew Kaluzniacki, for instance, had to invent a new filesystem for the Apple II to increase the capacity of a disk side. Even with such wizardry the new system was simply too much for a huge swathe of the many machines Infocom supported with the standard Z-Machine, like the Commodore 64, the Atari 8-bit line, and the many extant Apple IIs with less than 128 K of memory. The lowest common denominator for EZIP would have to be a machine with 128 K and an 80-column text display.

That looked like a dangerous move, especially in 1984 before the arrival of many of the more powerful consumer-focused machines of the latter 1980s like the Commodore 128 and Amiga and the Atari ST. But even then it wasn’t completely unprecedented. Sierra had elected to make 128 K a requirement for King’s Quest and its sequels, and had done quite well commercially by it. In fact, that game seemed to have discovered an audience of players with higher-speced machines who bought it because it required 128 K and thus was presumably more advanced than others on the market. Perhaps a similar touch of snobbery would rub off on Interactive Fiction Plus.

It was just one more way in which Meretzky’s project was an iffy proposition. Yet he got remarkably little pushback from marketing or anyone else about his game. He had gotten it off the ground at the perfect time, just before the disasters of 1985 would make such a risky project look crazy indeed to the embattled company. By the time the full horror of their financial situation started to become clear around mid-year, the game was far too far along to stop even had anyone seriously wanted to. But it’s far from clear that anyone did. Even Dave Lebling, the most conservative of the Imps and thus the most likely to find Meretzky’s game objectionable, declared that he was fine with the game, that it was a point of view which Meretzky had every right to express.

It was “Hollywood” Dave Anderson, a key tester who would later become an Implementor in his own right, who gave the project its enduring label inside Infocom: “Steve Meretzky’s Interiors.” Interiors, for those of you who aren’t Woody Allen fans, was Allen’s 1978 follow-up to the Best Picture-winning Annie Hall. All of Allen’s previous films had been comedies, if funny in increasingly nuanced ways. Interiors, however, was a complete departure, a somber Bergman-esque character study that begins with a separation and ends with a suicide, with nary a laugh in between. Allen later incorporated the reaction of many of his fans into Stardust Memories, whose filmmaker protagonist is constantly being asked when he’s going to get back to making “funny” movies again. Anderson’s epithet knowingly or unknowingly foreshadowed the similar reaction many of Infocom’s fans would soon have to Meretzky’s great artistic experiment.

Meretzky found a particularly great supporter and booster in Jon Palace, who still names the game today as by far his favorite. Palace, who when hired at the beginning of 1984 had not even known what interactive fiction was, had become one of the foremost proponents within Infocom of the medium’s potential to be meaningful and relevant and beautiful — to be Art. Many of the more experimental games of Infocom’s second half, beginning with A Mind Forever Voyaging, owe Palace an enormous debt for his dedication to the proposition of Infocom interactive fiction as something more than endless Zork rehashes even as times got leaner and commercial pressures mounted. Palace:

I really tried to emphasize the storytelling aspect rather than the puzzle aspect just because that’s what I liked. AMFV started as a story without puzzles, and even though puzzles went back in AMFV was about the story. It wasn’t about the puzzles. I was very, very pleased with that one.

At the same time, its reception was definitely mixed. A lot of the rabid puzzle-loving fans did not like it. They might have liked the politics — or maybe they didn’t like the politics — but some people did not like the lack of puzzles. But for me it was, like, “Great! Look, we can really elicit an emotional response!” — an emotional response which isn’t trite. That for me was the best.

Meretzky hugely valued Palace’s unstinting “advice and support” as he ventured into these uncharted waters, thanking him lastly and most prominently in the acknowledgements of the finished game.

Called simply PRISM through most of its development, A Mind Forever Voyaging‘s final name is lifted from a passage in William Wordsworth’s lifetime endeavor, the epic narrative poem The Prelude. There it’s applied to Isaac Newton, a statue of whom stood near the “nook obscure” where the young Wordsworth slept at Cambridge:

And from my pillow, looking forth by light
Of moon or favouring stars, I could behold
The antechapel where the statue stood
Of Newton with his prism and silent face,
The marble index of a mind for ever
Voyaging through strange seas of Thought, alone.

The original Apple Computer logo

The original Apple Computer logo

It’s a passage that already had a place in hacker lore long before Meretzky stumbled upon it in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. The first logo deployed by the nascent Apple Computer, created by the company’s forgotten third founder Ronald Gerald Wayne using pen and ink, consisted of a picture of Newton leaning against a tree, with the end of the passage quoted above running along the border. The very un-Apple-like logo didn’t last long; neither did Wayne, who sold his share back to Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak for $800 less than two weeks later.

While the strong political message remained, A Mind Forever Voyaging gradually evolved into a scenario much more complicated than Meretzky’s initial determination simply to out Reagan as an “asshole” might imply. Drawing upon the knowledge of artificial-intelligence theory which the collection of refugees from MIT’s Lab for Computer Science surrounding him possessed in spades, he created a detailed backstory for Perry Simm — i.e., PRISM — as an entity who has unknowingly lived his first two decades inside a computer simulation before suddenly being jerked out of his simulated reality and into the real world, to be assigned the mission of investigating the likely effects of one Senator Richard Ryder’s Plan for Renewed National Purpose on his home town, the fictional Rockvil, South Dakota, ten years in the future. The “present” in the game’s world is 2031, with simulated futures eventually reaching as far as 2081, making A Mind Forever Voyaging one more entry in science fiction’s huge catalog of works that are ostensibly about the future but really about the here and now. The implications and philosophical questions that surround Perry’s simulated version of existence, many of which the game doesn’t directly address and sometimes seems oddly oblivious of, end up being at least as intriguing as its more straightforward political message.

A Mind Forever Voyaging isn’t the unblemished masterpiece many fans accuse it of being. The writing is compelling in many places, cursory in other places, gawky and awkward in yet others — sometimes endearingly so and sometimes just, well, awkwardly so. The sprawling city of Rockvil itself, impressive as it is as by far the largest contiguous space ever to appear in an Infocom game, is also often only sketchily implemented and described. (Much of this is certainly down to the space limitations of even the version 4 Z-Machine; the final game file reportedly has about ten bytes to spare, not enough for even a single extra sentence.) The dystopia that gradually emerges as you progress further into the simulation is, to say the least, rather derivative of Nineteen Eighty-Four; even some of the vocabulary, like “lustfilm” and “hatefilm,” seems lifted straight from a Newspeak dictionary. And as political commentary it’s at best simplistic and heavy-handed.

Yet A Mind Forever Voyaging manages the neat trick of being interesting because of its flaws rather than despite them. It’s a big, messy piece of work that tries to do a lot of things with mixed success even as it sort of accidentally does other things that I’m not entirely sure its maker was even aware of. Its nooks and crannies offer a downright bewildering number of things to talk about, seemingly endless philosophical tangents to wander down. While I can’t promise we’ll get to all of them, we are going to take our time here, not only because it’s one of the most significant games in interactive-fiction history but also because — and more so, really — the ideas it contains are just so interesting to think about. Thus the “Part 1” in this article’s title. With its history and technical logistics behind us, we’ll be ready next time to delve into the game itself.

(This and the following articles are drawn from, in addition to the game itself, my usual Infocom source of Jason Scott’s Get Lamp interview archives. Also useful was the Steve Meretzky interview in Richard Rouse III’s Game Design: Theory and Practice.)


Tags: , ,