A Mind Forever Voyaging: The Original Political Game

In 1985, Infocom released a groundbreaking game written by Steve Meretzky that no one has tried to re-invent or iterate on since. Not only did it put its political message front and center, it also created an open world so ambitious that it might be impossible to create outside of a text parser. That game is A Mind Forever Voyaging and to this day it is unparalleled in many ways.

In the game. you are Perry Sim, a normal guy who has had a tumultuous childhood but whose life has finally stabilized a bit. Then, you are suddenly pulled out of your life and find out that you are a computer and the life you have had up to this point was just a simulation. You were built for the purpose of simulating the near future and your first test run is to see how some new political policies will affect the country. These new policies are being introduced by a right-wing populist politician by the name of Richard Ryder, a stand-in for Ronald Reagan, whose policies Meretzky was directly challenging with the game. Ryder wants to pass what he calls the Plan for Renewed National Purpose, which in short wants to achieve the following:

* 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

These policies, which don’t look out of place in modern day, are entered into the computer and the simulation is run for a decade. Then, as Perry Sim, you are able to explore Rockvil and your under these new policies.

Your first mission is to record some daily interactions which will be used by the government to evaluate and, if favorable, implement these new policies. Ten years into the future life seems pretty good. You can explore the whole city – a physical map was included with the game – and check out the landmarks. There is the power station, the mall, the sports arena. There are multiple residential structures and busy streets. Although it is presented in text, the city is vast, life buzzes past you and it feels real. Even the short and perfunctory descriptions of certain locations, probably due to memory space limitations and time, help the player feel at home. How much do you really have to say about the roads you take every day to and from work?

You can even check in with your simulated family. Your wife Jill is at home painting and your baby son is sleeping in his crib. Life seems pretty good and you return to the real world with your recorded screens. The politicians are happy with your work and start the process of implementing their policies.

The computer, however, continues to simulate and soon you can do twenty years into the future. Then thirty. Then forty.

Each decade, life in Rockvil gets worse.

Armed guards start patrolling the streets, the population becomes increasingly poor. Around the malls, you notice “suicide booths” being set up. They are like telephone booths, but instead of phone calls, they dispose of people who no longer have the will to live. In a peaceful and sanitary way of course. Visiting your family becomes brutal. Random apartment searches turn your living space upside down and stress your family. Eventually, family life breaks down as your son joins a political/religious cult and comes home to accuse Jill of being an non-believer and poisoner of minds.

“She is the one.” The voice is Mitchell’s, but the tone is cold, unrecognizable, sending shivers through you. “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.

The final decade limits the once sprawling map to a few locations as you are now homeless and no matter what you do, you get eaten by wild dogs or mutants.

Since these are simulations, you can leave and jump in at any time, but each time you enter it starts from the beginning, allowing you to “relive” these memories. When I first played the game, I tried countless times to find a solution. To stop the guards from taking away my son, to find shelter and protection from the wild dogs. No matter what I did, the situation always turned out badly. There was nothing I could do to make a difference inside the simulation but it was clear that these policies had to go.

The first amazing part of A Mind Forever Voyaging was the world of Rockvil. By Infocom text-adventure standards, the map was huge. A whole city replicated multiple times (once for each decade) and each decade gives different descriptions for a lot of the locations. The player had to notice changes from one decade to the next so most things could ever be exactly the same. In one way, AMFV reminds me of the TV show The Wire. While The Wire is about police and drug dealers and corrupt politicians, as a whole it is about the city of Baltimore. I feel the same about AMFV that despite its political criticism and story about Perry Sim, it is about the city of Rockvil – which sounds strange because even within the game, Rockvil is not a real place. However, it is incredibly hard to play through the city over and over again through time and not get attached to it in some way. When I playing the game for the first time I was a less than ten years old. Seeing the city slowly descend into chaos and ultimately into ruin profoundly affected me. A Mind Forever Voyaging is one of the few games I have ever felt deeply saddened by.

The state of the city and it’s citizens is also the core of the political message of the game. It is what tells you that things are going to shit.

Today, open political critique rarely makes its way into big budget games (and Infocom was a big budget equivalent back then) in such a sharp way. AAA studios rarely want to go all-in on politics,

which is understandable to a certain extent, and while games like Mafia 3 and Watch_Dogs 2 made progress in talking about the politics of race, usually any message is fumbled or simplified to either not get in the way of the game’s systems or to not offend. Remember how Deus Ex:Mankind Divided tries to tackle race but does so extremely clumsily by incorporating real life movements and slogans. The thought is there at least, I guess. The Bioshock series tries to critique a sort of Randian utopia but in the end the thing you remember the most is shooting people. On the other hand, games are so satirical (how many Donald Trump simulators are on Steam now?) that it is hard to take them seriously.

What makes and breaks its critique is the fact that you live and explore it. There is literally one puzzle in this game and its strength lies in experiencing the city and the slow descent into ruin. You see it, you live it, it comes gradually. This is also where the critique gets weak. Each decade needs to push the enveloper farther, and it steers into 1984 territory but not necessarily in a good way. Eventually, it is as if everything bad possible happens and in the last available decades, it starts to look implausible.

The final push comes when you solve the game’s one and only real puzzle, the epilogue is a Utopian dream that is the complete opposite of life before. Perry Sim and his family are happy and about to leave on vacation. They have healthcare, social security, and the whole world just seems like a safer place. I love those things and they should be a human right in every country, but it did feel a bit heavy handed. However, there are plenty of negative things in the game that have come to pass in our actual world, so it is not completely off the mark. That is a little frightening.

Videogames from big budgets are no longer auteur works and understand the difficulties in creating a strictly political game with a teams of hundreds of people, even though I would really like to see some. But if AAA studios can’t go political (and time has proven so far that this is best done in the indie space anyway) then they can still learn from AMFV in the ambitious creation of the open world, where the player comes to love it by experiencing it through time.

A Mind Forever Voyaging was never commercially successful and not terribly popular, but since the whole industry seems to be caught up in nostalgia, it deserves to be looked at anew and iterated on. After all, it was released in 1985 and its political message is just a relevant now as it was back then.

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