A Mind Forever Voyaging [1985]

(Content warnings: My suicide attempts. Racism against black and Asian people. Animal cruelty. Police brutality. Fascism.)

Continued.

Around these parts it feels like the world never even started. That’s by design. Trust me, I’ve helped build these rows of tract housing at a remove from the cities. Not even suburbia, which is immediately adjoining a city: I live in “exurbia,” the structure of suburbia slapped down in the middle of a rural area, surrounded on all sides by farms, where my daily commute to work is as long as some entire European countries. That suburban structure is pretty much explicitly counter-revolutionary. It’s designed to isolate, both its residents from each other, and its residents from the larger world since it rarely palpably bears down upon you. People these days tend to blame the way everyone lives in a bubble on new media and its fragmentation, but that’s only half the picture at most: we’ve been constructing bubbles since before TV. The world beyond the city limits has to be piped in through fiber-optic cables and over the highways, and it’s opt-in. Hell, even the world within the city limits — call it my fault for being a misanthropic shut-in disinterested in their vicinity, but I barely know my next-door neighbor who’s lived in that house for longer than my entire life, and the only time I personally get local news is when it, improbably, reaches the level of national news. Like the time those mosquitos at the The New York Times made people I’ve ridden the same busses as the subject of one of its Cleetus Safaris where they gawked at us small-town yokels while pontificating on their pre-existing political agenda… but at the same time, that article was the only way I learned my neck of the woods has a heavy opioid abuse problem, because I had never personally encountered it in my life.

Or the multiple times when the virulent anti-black racism in my county was so galling that it made national headlines, like it did just a few weeks ago. The kind of thing that makes me really not want to know my neighbors.

That’s the whole selling point of this kind of non-space, this anti-space. My father’s a die-hard liberal, so he wouldn’t like my phrasing it this way, but the reason we live out here is classic White Flight. (In my family’s case, out of Los Angeles in the mid-1990s… no big mystery there why my parents thought it was now too dangerous to raise a white kid there even though my mom already had been for like 11 years.) The idea is that you move out here to get away from whatever it is that’s bothering you about The Big City. Racial segregation is a predominant part of that, but more than just that is gone, and everything that’s disappeared (like say, community and opportunity) is replaced by Nothing. It’s living in a vacuum. Hence the drug problem.

A vacuum is unsustainable, though. You can’t simply ignore the forces of history forever. Eventually they’ll act upon you even while you cannot act upon it. That was 2020. The sky bled orange all around me with climate change-induced fires while the pandemic and presidential election alike raged. It truly, deeply felt like the actual legitimate apocalypse to me. Every deferred bill of sin was coming due. It seemed impossible for anything to ever get better ever again. Certainly I was powerless against the winds of time. I wrote my first suicide note early in the year, about how I “didn’t want to live to see 2021.” I made 4 attempts on my life last year, as things continued to deteriorate faster and worse than I even imagined. The only reason, truly, the only reason I am alive is that I am a coward. (The same reason why I’ve never taken the chance to leave my hometown.)

I didn’t die, but I stopped living. I entered a deep, numb fugue where every day was equally empty, with an activity schedule of drinking and petting my cat and watching long YouTube video essays. I cannot tell you if this funk lasted 3 days or 3 months. I eventually decided I needed something to fixate my mind upon besides fear, depression, and boiling hatred both of my life-saving cowardice and this country. So the next thing I wrote after my first suicide note was a post about Spacewar [1962]. That’s what this blog really is: a thought-sponge, with the regular schedule and small audience of about a hundred as just enough to keep me on-track. I write just to stay alive. (The new friends I’ve made through this blog are also a huge help.)

A Mind Forever Voyaging [1985] is a big mood.

Toddy Tee – Batterram [1985]. The player character suffers the blunt end of the the batterram 4 times in this game. Also: Todd Howard?

Like Steve Meretzky’s previous Infocom title, The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy [1984], A Mind Forever Voyaging depicts an apocalypse — but one that happens much slower. It is slow-burn, so each successive step descending has time to become a numb fact of life to the people who are living through it, that numbness eventually graduating to dumbstruck catatonic depression. From an in-text “present” of 2031 which is obviously the real-world election seasons of 1984 or 1980 but with hovercars, the player character gets to skip ahead from 2041 to 2081 a decade at a time, observing in pieces the decline and fall of the 7-block-wide urban metro area and abbreviated industrial district of the fictional Anytown USA, Rockvil, South Dakota. This fall is a step by step inexorable slide from the policies of Reagan (here fictionalized as Richard Ryder) into full-fledged fascism. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, that might seem alarmist to the point of even being silly in the 80s themselves or even up through the early 2010s, but not here in the 2021, when you can look back and see a similar downhill slide decade over decade since 1981. Which leaves someone like me sitting with the uncomfortable notion that fate was sealed before I was born. Indeed, with America you could play infinite regression with that notion, because us settler-colonists never weren’t evil.

It nevertheless goes far over-the-top, with things like the fascists openly reinstating both serfdom and slavery. The sequence that really sticks in my mind as emblematic of the whole enterprise here is when, in 2061, you see some children torturing a monkey with a stick at the zoo. That’s fine, that’s grimy and unsettling and indicative, although it does perhaps confuse the fascist mind with the pop-culture-monster psychopath. Then you skip ahead 10 years to 2071, and there’s a banner up cheerfully declaring the daily scheduled monkey-torturing events: a passing moment of bored cruelty has become a beloved, regular institution. It’s completely ridiculous, the only way I can take it seriously is if I take it as a really dark joke. But that’s fundamentally the basic form of the argumentation here: “If you vote for Reagan, in 50 years’ time zoos will be reduced to active animal torture as public spectacle!” It’s that, over and over again, with a lot of variation in just how hysterical or accurate its claims are. Some of its called shots have come true, so true that a modern reader doesn’t even notice them (like the ubiquity of credit cards for a mild example,) but you can see how that is fundamentally unpersuasive and arbitrary logic from the perspective of 1985, and an escape hatch from its potential emotional devastation in 2021.

The only way that AMFV gets away with its claims is its verisimilitude, its granularity. I’m frankly tempted to invoke the word “realism” as its aspiration, but that just muddies the waters when I can immediately think of two senses of the word “realism” by which AMFV fails (as non-“genre”, as good graphics,) and two by which it qualifies (as grounded in the quotidian, as having some kind of sorta-left-wing social conscience.) Even moreso than Deadline [1982], A Mind Forever Voyaging is not a “Text Adventure”, but it’s built on top of its technology and its aesthetic predilections. The parser-driven game has always had a natural emphasis on locations and objects and careful attention to text, especially subtly-changing text, and AMFV expands these aspects to the exclusion of all but one puzzle. It’s the first “walking sim,” where the main verb is observe, with a video camera hidden behind your eyes. (It’s almost, but not quite, a photography game like Umurangi Generation [2020]. Instead it’s a videography game, which is the full name of video game you use when you get parentally upset at it.) The only point-scoring actions you take are recording things on video. It’s a game of details, it’s packed to the brim with them, and it needs all of them in mass to amount to a convincing portrait of a city. Wandering around 2041 for the first time is actually pretty tedious, pacing poison along with the truly ridiculous amount of just waiting around you’ll also have to do, because the whole point of 2041 is set-up. ’31 is the 80s, ’41 is the 90s. Little is obviously wrong, so there’s simultaneously a large space to comprehensively explore for the first time whilst there’s little that’s intriguing about any of it. That’s somewhat counterbalanced, though, by how the intimate memory of “normal” Rockvil 2041 guides you physically around the rest of the game, while haunting it, playing countermelody against every successive revision, each of which adds to the increasingly dissonant polyphony. A neat trick on your brain. It needs every single step in its progression. If you cut it down to the 2041, 2061, and 2081 sections without otherwise changing anything, the story would be incoherent.

It’s still a bit of a mess, but it hangs together. The premise is inordinately elaborate: I haven’t even mentioned up to now, but the entire main part of the game takes place inside a real-as-life simulation and you play as a functionally-human AI (Perry Simms) who grew up inside of it but can also be outside of it (as PRISM.) This whole situation raises a raft of technical and ethical and philosophical questions that the text itself simply does not address. This is one of the few stories where adding time travel would have made it simpler. It tries to pitch itself a little on “if you found out you were a computer and everything you knew was a simulation, how would you feel?” but PRISM/Perry Simms takes it entirely in stride, remaining pretty blithe even as he watches everything he ever knew crumble rapidly into a brutal nightmare dystopia as a laboratory experiment, even when he suffers a violent death. The whole simulation/AI angle is just kinda pointless from underexploration, a leftover from the original pitch where the game was to be a simulation game along the lines of Hamurabi [1968] or SimCity [1989]. The only things it really does in the final product is 1) open the door to metatextual reflection, a way of grappling with its own status as a computerized prophecy, 2) likewise open the door to counter-readings of unreliable narration (more on which later,) and 3) break up the oppressive horror of the 40-year apocalypse by introducing a “come up for air” rhythm, since it’s been made such that you can only record so many minutes of simulation before having to dump it.

The manual’s backstory, a traditional linear narrative masquerading convincingly as a magazine article, actually mirrors this structure, going from the Perry Simms story flashing forward through time in leaps, to the Perelman story which is full of technobabble, and back and forth. It shows us Perry Simms’ upbringing, the most notable feature of which is certainly that on his first day of kindergarten, instead of going home to his parents he goes home with a kindly adult male stranger… and it works out great! They strike up a life-changing friendship, the stranger becomes an honorary uncle. Rockvil 2007 is an over-the-top idyllic place, a nostalgic reverie I’ll just go ahead and call Mayberry-esque despite not having ever watched The Andy Griffith Show [1960-1968] for reasons of last name. Later, the VR Joybooths of 2041 will directly tap into, repackage, and regurgitate this nostalgia back to Perry Simms for a fee — it’s an addictive cyberdrug, but it’s also kinda television or even video games themselves as much as it’s an analog for any existing media over which to panic, not the first time that connection’s been drawn. But it flashes forward and things get rougher for Perry: his dad dies, so he has to move to a new part of town with a new school alienating him also from that honorary uncle father-figure, later he crashes his car because he’s upset that he’ll have to go to a local college. This decline mirrors the main game’s structure, but to a different end: All of these are meant to hit a “growing up is hard” chord more than painting the world itself as terrible, and it also hits on Perry’s downward economic mobility that doesn’t stifle his middle-class ambitions except materially. Perry Simms will wind up living in the same 1-bed-1-bath apartment from age 30 to age 80. It’s a bit of a mystery where even the money to keep this arrangement comes from: Him and his wife are both struggling artists for decades on end in a world increasingly hostile to art, and if the either of them have day jobs it’s not addressed. Perry is a little more specific a character than blank-slate player-avatars, but he doesn’t venture TOO far outside of “relatable everyman” — he’s a bookish nerd, a gifted kid burn-out even, but the presumed consumer of Interactive Fiction is too. And within the game itself, he’s deeply passive.

Perry Simms, or PRISM rather, essentially takes only three actions in the plot. First, he writes that backstory article in the manual, which is pretty convincing magazine feature writing. Second, if you can call it an action, he observes things and reports them back to Perelman (the core loop.) Third, and climactically, he delivers to not-CNN footage of a politician’s indiscretions (think “Corporations are people, my friend.”) Nominally, Perry is a novelist, but practically, he’s a journalist. That marks three games in a row for me where you can easily think of the gameplay as “wandering around journalistically gathering information,” but this one has a different flavor because it doesn’t revolve around talking to people.

In fact, if we put the actual explicit political stances of A Mind Forever Voyaging aside for yet another moment (believe me, I can’t NOT get back around to those,) I’d like to posit that what it actually revolves around is the news. TV news is not only a vital part of the climax but the most vibrant part of the very beginning. You have to wait like thirty in-game minutes before the simulated time travel is even accessible, and in the meantime the player is meant to poke around aimlessly, get acquainted with the systems you won’t have any reason to use until the endgame, most of which are still useless even then. Worth noting, though, that this disembodied existence spent operating devices (done much more elaborately in Micheal Berlyn’s earlier Suspended [1983]) foreshadows future parser-driven Interactive Fiction from around the turn of the century just as much as the non-linear exploration in this game. The two systems that can actually hold prolonged attention at the start both deliver the news of 2031.

The first one is the not-CNN (“WNN”) television feed, which I immediately gravitated to because it’s very funny to me to imagine making a big expensive complicated human-level AI and they’re just a TV-watching couch potato. There’s a little over 30 in-game minutes of TV you can watch, exclusively in the prelude to the future-sim stuff. This delivers less of interest in terms of actual news than it does the flavor of life in 2031 as imagined as an extrapolation from 1985: For example, the sports section is headlined and dominated by talk of soccer, and all the temperatures in the weather forecast are in Celsius, indicating clearly that it is already a grim dystopia. The talk of “the sports section” and “the weather forecast” when I’m talking about a CNN analogue should also be jarring to the modern reader — AMFV imagines the future of 24/7 cable news as a scaled-up version of the then-more-popular time-bound news television programs, when by now it’s fragmented such that you get your sports and weather from different, dedicated sources. By modern standards, there’s even far too much in the way of straight-up news from around the world, since these days across all 3 major American cable news networks world news seems to be covered only by Fareed Zakaria GPS [2008-2021], a highly-opinionated hour-long Sunday morning segment. CNBC also shows up on WNN, with a financial advisor giving direct instruction to the amateur investor. It has this quirky little note of a 28% interest rate but hard numbers that line up in a steady trajectory with our real-world 2021 which hasn’t had more than a single-digit inflation rate since the 80s. Hyperinflation slips right in with a major gas crisis also alluded to as quintessentially 1970s kind of panic-points, as is (elsewhere) acid rain being AMFV’s specific environmental issue of choice, though it points the finger at other forms of pollution, the blase attitude towards the firey effects of which remind me of how we on the West Coast treat the increase in wildfires. Most interesting as a tell of the times is perhaps the advertising, which is strikingly old-fashioned in how they’re actually trying to provide straightforward, logical, explicit pitches on why you should buy the advertised product. Basically, in 2031, we’re still doing The Pepsi Challenge. At least one of the ads smacks to me of a deliberate throwback: a woman washing dishes turns to the camera and pitches the viewer on disposable cookware because washing dishes is just so darn tiring. It’s not explicitly a “housewife,” but it really seems to indicate Richard Ryder’s 1950s-cultural-values nostalgia is in the zeitgeist.

There’s also a “Library Mode” that you can sift through in any order you want, which allows you to sort through Perelman’s personal files, additional instructions on how to use the other mostly-useless systems, and newspaper clippings that stand in heavy contrast to the headline-level skimming of TV news. Two of these stories have direct plot relevance and function as set-up: there’s a Bundy Ranch type scenario (unfun fact, that’s also from my neck of the woods) where a religious cult in Arizona seizes a high-tech satellite dish observatory from the government and then for some reason the US government just lets them keep it, and backstory on the Border Security Force, which includes an offhand mention of a Space Force, another dead-on called shot.

There’s two more that don’t have any direct relevance but are interesting because their called shots are largely so dead wrong. There’s a tax study that envisions the top-bracket tax rates inexorably spiraling UP from 1985, a really odd note to hit in what is meant to be a critique of Ronald “Drown Government In The Bathtub” Reagan. Right up at the top of Richard Ryder’s Plan For Renewed National Purpose, he at once declares he is going to half all tax rates but vigorously prosecute tax evasion, the implication is that that makes up the revenue and we see that this tax evasion is in fact a major problem facing the IRS in-fiction, and later in the game when PRISM is given access to the IRS’s tax-processing computers for no explained reason, you can see it’s auditing 4% of all tax filings, which I think we’re meant to think is low even though it’s double what it was at its 1980s peak and ten times as much as it is now. (AMFV has a slippery grasp on economics, especially when it gets down to quoting exact percentage points at you.) Basically, it’s conceding this entire scenario to Richard Ryder and real-life conservative economics — it’s just plain written such that they’re completely correct and honest about the facts, if not the solution. Similarly, there’s also a news story that speaks about a nuclear Libya run by Muammar Kaddafi in the 1990s, a topic right in-line with era conservative scaremongering. These are unnecessary concessions to the face-value seriousness of conservative rhetoric on issues that are pretty abstract and distant to the average American. It’s indicative to me less of some deliberate maneuver of centrist appeasement than to the stupefyingly popular dominance of conservative thought in the 1980s, where even if you’re a staunch opponent you end up granting premises you don’t have the expertise to challenge, because everyone around accepts them as uncontroversially real.

This is actually how you end up with the entire 2041 scenario, the one where Ryder’s plan works out in broad strokes. There’s another newspaper there, and it’s full of good news, which is odd since that’s never really been what “the news” is. And furthermore, it’s good news for wonks — the front page headline is about a new report from the “Index of Leading Economic Indicators.” I don’t even think you can plausibly hypothesize that the newspaper of 2041 is meant to be heavily biased in favor of the Ryder administration, especially since conservative media relies on scaremongering not telling everyone things are great… it’s just meant to be read as accurate, as it is in 2051 when it’s reporting on encroaching famine and the end of humanity’s presence in space, both of which are tied directly to a lack of government funding.

After 2051, when we move from warning signs straight into theocracy, there is no more source of outside news, which is an excellent touch — as you watch things crumble, you have no idea if like Ryder is still the president or if there even is such an office anymore. The most hint that you get about what is happening outside of Rockvil is that the sixth-tallest building in the world becomes the fifth, then the third, without itself changing size, indicating buildings are collapsing elsewhere but letting you imagine why they might be. The world of 2081 is downright uninhabitable, the full apocalypse, with the city in ruins. It doesn’t follow on from 2071, bleak as that was; something surely had to happen to Rockvil from outside of Rockvil, and you’ll never know just what. Instant death is no more than 1 move away. With the complete collapse of civilization, it may be by the hands of Saturday morning cartoon tribal-stereotype cannibals, because that’s what savagery looks like.

Hey! Speaking of government-funded space programs, the very first thing you see in 2041 is a statue of John F. Kennedy. Later, his book Profiles In Courage [1956] makes the banned books list of the bad guys. This is the best referent for what political ideology AMFV actually subscribes to, past all the nay-saying of right-wing ideology. The most confusing way I can put it is that it’s New Frontier Liberalism, or the latter-day remnants of New Deal Liberalism if you prefer, agog at Neo-Liberalism. AMFV believes in, broadly, Big Government. The main issue it takes with Reaganomics is the federal devolution, really: the way institutions like the zoo and the post office and even city hall can’t fund their continued operations, the way deregulation lets the rich get away with social murder, the way infrastructure like water towers and subways continually rust away, and ending subsidies to private industries like the aforementioned farming program is calamitous. You get the sense from association with Ryder that it thinks reinstating the military draft and termination of foreign aid programs are bad, but these do not actually make any kind of direct impression on Rockvil. There’s a lot of optimism in 2041 around construction of public housing that goes from seeming reminiscent of, like, the dream of Co-Op City to being the reality of Grenfell, one of its most striking called shots to me even though by 1985 “the projects” already had a nest of bad associations and horror stories. The public high school gets sold to a private buyer with their own acutely-religious agenda. In 2071, rationing is imposed, which is meant to be spooky because it’s rations, but is also a central authority stepping in during a time of massive food shortages to feed the poor, like Perry by then is. This faint compassion cuts against everything else we see out of later Rockvil, authoritarian and austere as it is.

The US federal government is also posited by way of absence as the guarantor of civil rights, the bulwark against bigotry and tyranny. All this federal devolution leaves a power vacuum for bad-faith operators to seize control, that’s how things go from warning signs to dystopia between 2051 and 2061. In Rockvil, the evil fascists that take over civic governance, like that public high school, are The Church Of God’s Word, which grows by leaps and bounds in prominence every decade, from a fringe cult to a megachurch to the only church. They’re the Arizona Bundy Ranch types I mentioned earlier. (Frankly, it feels a bit like the simulation running away with itself like when contemporary machine-learning gets weirdly fixated on a detail and progressively exaggerates it. Same as the monkey-torturing.) The testament upon which their church is founded is a satellite transmission from space that could have been aliens and quasars or maybe just random garbage from interference, that’s the God’s Word in question. This might be meant as just something a little quirky that approximates the idea of the “cargo cult,” or something about how we humans interpret signal from noise in light of cosmic insignificance. Satellites, to A Mind Forever Voyaging’s 1985, is a whizz-bang technology that’s already kinda around but is gonna be huge in a few years, as indicated by the 2031 weatherman’s strenuous sci-fi phrasing of a “composite satellite photo,” which is a correct called shot for 2031 tech but is meant to impress the 1985 reader. This church of the satellite is lightly gesturing at how modern communications technology is going to change society, though it stops shy of predicting the World Wide Web. Closest I think you can plausibly get is the transformation within the 1980s of the television landscape, where cable and satellite television have both become somewhat viable for the home consumer. It’s about 45 degrees off from worshipping InfoWars’ satellite feed and storming the capitol, an essentially accidental strike of the tuning fork.

While it’s careful not to denigrate religion or Christianity itself, with the local Catholic church setting up a soup kitchen for example, religious fervor overriding all compassion and good sense is used as the sole explanation for the rapid ascent of evil, cruelty, violence, and fascism. It’s an outside-looking-in perspective on both deep religious conviction and fascism, held at a mystified remove that cannot really comprehend the dark depths of people choosing to be bad.

Their villainy flourishing in the absence of the feds might imply that upstart fringe religions ought to be suppressed by the federal government on first blush, but probably the more accurate read is the more modest idea that maybe they should not be given the space and fuel to grow, and that church and state should remain separate. The Church Of God’s Word is pretty transparently a commentary on the ascent of Evangelical Christianity within living memory from disparate kooky snake-handlers of anthropological interest to inner-circle power-brokers and an organized, even decisive voting bloc, the backbone of the “Moral Majority.” These days, it kinda looks like American Christianity of all stripes got swallowed by right-wing ideologues instead of the other way around, but who knows, that could change around again. Interestingly, there is absolutely no connection made of any kind between Richard Ryder and The Church Of God’s Word whatsoever, which would have been an easy way to make Ryder even more clearly the villain. Instead, hardline conservatism here opens the door to fascism, even cultivates the conditions that lead to fascism, but is not itself fascism.

God’s Word, and accordingly the latter-day society of Rockvil that they control utterly, is also explicitly racist. This is shown through graffiti, or through church members and law enforcement (who smoothly transition into God’s Word lackeys) demeaning and committing violence upon those of different religion or race. In Deadline [1982], I inferred that the maid character might be black, but could possibly just be southern — here, characters are racialized specifically to then be racially abused, with all others being assumed white. Many of them do not otherwise get to be characters in any capacity, they just show up, get beaten up or even killed by the fascists, and that’s the extent of their existence. In particular, the bulk of their ire turns towards Asian Americans. The bad guys, on 3 occasions, use real-world slurs against Asians, ones from World War 2. One could mount an argument that the use of these slurs is okay because it’s satirical literature, and not even a ha-ha satire but one that is meant to be bleak and harrowing, and it’s all in the mouths of people we know are bad, and against fascism which is inextricable from racism… but then, if this is your unflinching conviction, why would you be using old-timey World War 2 slurs except as a flinch, except because you judge it would be wrong to use more hardcore, live-wire contemporary racial slurs? Why make Asians and only Asians this punching bag, except that they seem… safe targets, or safe to make into targets? Maybe it’s because you want just enough to shock without enough to hurt. Even if I’m sympathetic to satire against fascism, in 1985 basically only white people were making video games (especially Interactive Fiction) in America. People of color did not get to tell stories in this medium about their own oppression, or about anything else, before a white person considerately wrote a story where they get brutalized by the racist authorities for them. Indeed, it kinda seems that the part where some cops beat up a black youth, and you can videotape it thus prefiguring the Rodney King tape, is meant to be a shocking future-dystopia thing from and for the cloistered perspective of people who don’t realize that’s never not been happening constantly in American history, up to and certainly including the 1980s.

Which brings us to the law enforcement, the sole exception to all the defunding going around. Over time, they only grow more draconian, militarized, and cruel. Even in 2041, the big sign that anything is wrong is that the prison is massively overcrowded. Soon, the death penalty is implemented, then turned into popular public spectacle. So far, so predictable. But there’s a second law enforcement agency stomping around Rockvil other than the normal cops: the Border Security Patrol I mentioned earlier. What they do is they bust into your home and tear it apart, searching for contraband, increasingly violently each passing decade. This jackbooted thuggery is interestingly multi-valanced. First of all, this exact kind of policing was a hot topic in 1985, with Darryl Gates’ LAPD debuting their shiny new battering ram tank that February (which is exactly what the linked song is about.) The contraband for the real-life LAPD of the 1980s was drugs, and the “no-knock warrant” authority on which they used their fancy batterram was first established as constitutional by Kennedy’s contemporary Warren Court, and was used 3 thousand times in 1981, a number which has increased dramatically over time.

But the BSP of 2031 aren’t searching for crack, they’re searching for “mini-nukes” with Geiger counters. This is, in AMFV, the latest freshest development in the Cold War, which despite being only 4 years from ending, seemed eternal because of the constant presence in Baby Boomers’ lifespan. (See also: This game’s continued popular prominence of The Beatles, and rock music generally, into the year 2061. There’s a variant called tri-rock, which I suppose is rock & rock & rock & roll.) Mini-nukes are an interesting wrinkle because they bring warfare to the individual level, something that can be concealed on any person or any tiny location. In short, the BSP are at once operatives of the War On Drugs and the War On Terror. Like, there’s constantly increasing amounts of airport security theatre, which is another one of those things that might not even strike a modern reader as all that strange at first. It makes sense, many architects and intellectuals of the War On Terror thought of it in as many words as a perfect substitute for ye olde War On Communism: a nice, amorphous conceptual foe to get maximally paranoid about, just like the good old days. People can get nostalgic for anything…

But what the Border Security Patrol raids call to mind most readily in 2021, due to their name, is ICE, especially when they bust your door off and kidnap Jill on flimsy decades-old pretext. This is the emotional nadir of the game, since it’s none other than your own son Mitchell, who joined God’s Word at 20, who points the finger at dear old Mom and signs her death warrant. (Note the damsel-in-distress angle.) The manual actually makes this analogy explicit, despite predating Immigration & Customs Enforcement by 18 years. Infocom games have a tradition of including “sample transcripts” that demonstrate all the necessary and especially novel commands and syntax for playing the game, and the narrative inside of those is usually like 10 degrees off from the actual game. Here, its alternate-universe symmetries commentate on the real game. In it, the political concerns have shifted (demonstrating that fundamentally they could sophistically shift any direction) to a classic overpopulation panic sci-fi, like Make Room! Make Room! [1966], and it seems to endorse the sinister-sounding “Population Control Bill” as a way of… preventing eugenics? Point is, here in the sample transcript, the BSP simply stop Jill on the street, ask her for her documents that prove her residence, and when she doesn’t have them, summarily spirits her away off the sidewalk into a van to who-knows-where but Perry will never see her again. This has been actual Arizona law since 2010.

This is probably more meant to make you think of the original Nazis than of contemporary American institutions. Depressingly. Kinda cuts against the whole grain of the US Federal Government as the protector of our rights.

For the most part, Richard Ryder himself doesn’t actually seem malicious, exactly. He’s a committed ideologue and demagogue with reprehensible views about entire swathes of the population, pretty much the devil for this game, but you get the sense that he at least buys his own line, that he thinks his way is what’s best and he’s misguided, only correct in the very short term. He only really becomes your villain at the finale, when he uses the armed National Guard to occupy the facility that houses PRISM such that nobody can get out while sending in some special crew of disguised technicians to kill you. (Stopping them and Ryder is the only puzzle-y bit.) Ryder himself storms into Perelman’s office in a rage, and proceeds to give a whole villain monologue full of mobster intimidation and strategy — somewhat reminiscent of Phil Hartman’s more-flattering take on Reagan as a phony charmer who drops the act and gets both mean and smart when the general public isn’t watching — kicking off with: “Nothing is stopping the Plan. Even if I didn’t think your damn tapes were faked, I wouldn’t give a damn.”

The latter half of that second sentence basically confirms what we may already suspect, that Ryder’s not much of a long-term political thinker and is willing, even eager, to trade away tomorrow for today. But the first half, “tapes were faked,” casting the slightest of aspersions towards the veracity of the simulation, contains within it the potential to explode the entire premise of the game. The counter-reading follows immediately on: Is the simulation reliable, and does Perelman have an agenda he’s pushing? Well, when 2041 looks good, he immediately rushes off to Congress to support Ryder’s Plan. The existence of the 2051 and onwards scenarios are entirely unexpected by both you and seemingly him — if he were planning on doing projections out to 2081, why would he do the whole song and dance and cross-country flight and lie to you? Does he think that publicly changing his mind 180 degrees is going to boost his credibility?

No, the deception involved is too unnecessarily elaborate to posit. But that doesn’t mean he’s not entirely unsavvy. When he gets back Perry’s 2071 recordings, the ones depicting the reinstatement of serfdom and slavery and the kidnapping of his wife by the fascists for thoughtcrime, he says that he wants PRISM to get some footage from 2081 because quote-unquote “perhaps things turn around.” No way he actually thinks that! It’s entirely gratuitous, he just wants the gruesome footage of Perry Simms’ continued suffering for dramatic effect! And that’s the core of it, that’s what all this footage is really for, not anodyne data collection but to shock and horrify and hopefully convince the right people and upset the wrong people.

Which, of course, is exactly the purpose of this work of fiction itself. Anything you can do to impugn the veracity of the simulation comes right back around to its real-world status as fiction. So, can we can trust computerized fiction more than politicians and religion? Depends on the particulars of their accuracy, don’t it.

Onto the big finale, finally. To finish off PRISM’s journalistic, possibly propagandistic efforts with his third act of plot importance, he broadcasts Richard Ryder’s tough-guy intimidation act on Perelman over the WNN, neatly bookending my experience. The scandal of this blowhard caught playing rough with the egghead overnight undoes the tremendous popularity of the man and his Plan — which sits at 84.7% of liberals in recent polling, even though you’d think it on the face of it goes against everything that it means to identify as a mid-century American liberal. But then, many American liberals seem to love the real Ronald Reagan even today. To me in 2021, after years of Trump, it immediately seemed risibly, exhaustingly, hopelessly naïve that a right-wing politician’s coarse words and bad behavior, any hypocrisy, crime, scandal, act of pure evil, no matter how extreme, could ever have any consequence whatsoever upon them once exposed in the news media, much less a dramatic one.

Then I remembered Watergate happened when Steve Meretzky was 17 years old. The most significant change in news media between then and 1985 was the launch of CNN, which still didn’t reach most people. It wasn’t ALWAYS such in America that a right-wing demagogue was readily apparently invincible to news media’s reproach. In fact, that was a direct consequence of Reagan’s just-beginning second term, with the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 opening the door for eg The Rush Limbaugh Show [1988-2021] to remake the entire news-and-views landscape such that there was an entire competing and detached right-wing disinformation landscape.

I’ve gotten into reading about history in the past year or so, dabbling here and there. Something I’ve learned is that there really isn’t a floor — things can just get worse, and worse, and stay horrible for centuries on end. There’s some cold comfort in our ability to endure past those dark periods even dying in droves. But an upturn is never guaranteed, especially not by virtue of some kind of bounce-back. Something I’ve also learned about history is that as much as I often don’t feel that way, nothing is inevitable, not for the better or the worse. Everything is contingent. Other than forces of nature, it’s up to us.

One more observation on A Mind Forever Voyaging and how things got so bad, for the road. There were a lot of victims, but in this bleak simulation, no resistance to oppression whatsoever. No underground cell of freedom fighters, nobody standing up for themselves, not even a protest. Just numb, depressed, isolated resignation.


Further reading at Literate Machine, The Digital Antiquarian, and 50 Years Of Text Games, all of which I tried not to overlap with. And here’s the source code, and here’s an interview-feature with Steve Meretzky about AMFV in 2017, and here’s almost 500 pages of notes taken in the process of making the game.

One thought on “A Mind Forever Voyaging [1985]

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