A Mind Forever Voyaging

Posted by Joseph Lindell.
First posted on 10 July 2011. Last updated on 10 July 2011.
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A Mind Forever Voyaging
A Mind Forever Voyaging explores the danger of a dystrophic future as simulated by a sentient supercomputer.

There was a time when computer games had no visual candy to appeal to the eye but had plenty of stories for the mind's eye. In these games, a player with a healthy dose of imagination was not limited to envisioning a world created by a developer; rather, such a player could create a story all on his or her own.

A Mind Forever Voyaging, an interactive fiction game published in 1985 by Infocom, was one of those games in which imagery took a backseat to imagination. Written by the consummate storyteller Steve Meretzky, A Mind Forever Voyaging was a game with a number of unique and endearing premises that made it a classic in the genre.

In A Mind Forever Voyaging, you play PRISM—the world's first sentient supercomputer. You are endowed with the capability to simulate the past and the future from the perspective of a human being. For 20 years, you live out an ordinary life as Perry Simms, an aspiring writer with memories of a childhood and an adulthood as if he is a real person. In 2031 (the year in which the game begins), you are finally awakened from simulation mode for a purpose. The world is on the brink of collapse, filled as it is with crime, decay, poverty, crackpot religions, and a fear of nuclear holocaust. When Senator Richard Ryder of the United States of North America (USNA) proposes a plan (dubbed the Plan) to renew national purpose that promises to impose order, almost every citizen is more than happy to embrace it. Your creator Dr. Abraham Perelman, however, has some misgivings. As PRISM, your task is to look into the future as Perry and divine what the Plan will bring. Your journey into the future will find danger, and the very existence of humankind will soon be in jeopardy.

The back story in A Mind Forever Voyaging is exquisitely detailed and richly constructed. The original version of the game is packaged with Infocom's well-known "feelies"—fictional printed materials that help to evoke the world which the game tries to create. Examples include a copy of tickets to Rockvil's train museum and a reprint of an April 2031 issue of the Dakota Magazine which relays PRISM's history in the form of a short story. The magazine even includes authentic 2031 advertisements for, amongst other items, clothing and joybooths—the latter being virtual reality machines that can lead to psychological addiction. Finally, there is a map of Rockvil, which is very useful in your travels, as well as a decoder to get through the copyright protection sequences in the game.

This level of detail informs the gameplay in A Mind Forever Voyaging as well, which primarily consists of simulations of Rockvil in successive decades, in which you observe as well as record subtle and not so subtle changes due to the implementation of the Plan. Walking around the city and taking in the vistas and events provides the framework in which your creator can properly evaluate the changes due to the Plan. In this sense, A Mind Forever Voyaging is a game to be experienced but not really to be played. There are no traditional puzzles until the endgame, and even then, they are innovative, requiring you as the player to think like the machine you are supposed to represent. Rather, A Mind Forever Voyaging is about watching the life of a singular individual as it is effected by global changes and about observing a city's descent into mismanagement, neglect, and despair.

Yet, it is because of its innovative premise that A Mind Forever Voyaging ultimately falls short. The story that it casts is too simplistic, with few shades of grey. Like too many works of science fiction, it tells of a socialistic government obsessed with order and security that lapses into totalitarianism, a techno church that can preach only wacky space babble and a medieval strain of intolerance, and credit card breadlines that run dry. As well, the characters encountered tend to be as flat as a computer simulation in 1985—they have no personality. Frankly, the back story in the Dakota Magazine, which concerns the nature of artificial intelligence and the rude awakening of a sentient machine which thinks that it is a living person, is far more evocative than the unexceptional dystopia which Meretzky tries to cook up for the actual game. Although the plot of A Mind Forever Voyaging is easily understood against the backdrop of the Cold War, it lacks the very innovativeness it appears to inspire.

In A Mind Forever Voyaging, like in many other interactive fiction games, death lies unexpectedly around the corner—although in this case, since you are a computer which cannot die, you are just returned to "communications mode" from which you can restart the particular simulation of the year you have just been experiencing. However, being a computer has annoying drawbacks as well. PRISM must record events from each of the simulations, but to do so, you must remember to turn the recorder "on" and then "off" in every instance. If you forget to turn it "on" and do not catch a particular event, or if you are unaware that the event is about to occur, you must restart the simulation at some point and try again. Likewise, if you forget to turn the recorder "off", the record buffer will fill up, and you will need to restart the simulation. This leads to a great deal of repetition, which only compounds the problem that much of the game is spent waiting around for events to occur. Then again, it can be argued that all of these gameplay elements merely make the game more in sync with what it is trying to portray—mimicking the life of a computer. The concept, however, takes some getting used to.

Ultimately, the game's innovative premise falls short of a resonant message that does little more than tow the party line. The premise itself makes A Mind Forever Voyaging a classic, but playing it may not blow your mind away.

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