Inside the 1985 text adventure that made a scathing – and prescient – political statement at a time when no one thought games were capable of it
Inside the 1985 text adventure that made a scathing – and prescient – political statement at a time when no one thought games were capable of it
Perry Simm wandered the streets of his small Midwestern hometown bearing witness to the misery and deprivation all around him. Poverty was endemic, jobs were impossible to find, and only the rich could afford medical care. The Border Security Force was ubiquitous, assaulting anyone who could not show proper ID. The prison was well over its maximum capacity, now that any young person could be summarily sentenced on the suspicion of a violation of the Uniform Morality Code. The marquee above the movie theater touted new releases Gutsplosion and Gringo Wars and Let's Kill Some Slants – popular culture had been reduced to simplistic bigotry and brutality masquerading as humor.
As Perry passed a boarded up museum, he remembered how the government had promised that the Plan for Renewed National Purpose, enacted three decades prior, would usher in a new Golden Age. Instead, that package of social and economic reforms had touched off a societal collapse.
That's a scene from the computer game called A Mind Forever Voyaging, created 32 years ago by Steve Meretzky. Meretzky, who was 27-years-old at the time, was profoundly unhappy with the leader of his country. He felt that the president's policies, his rhetoric, and the groups that he had chosen to align himself with would all have terrible long-term consequences for America. Meretzky, who had previously been known for the quirky humor found in his work, tried to express his misgivings through a bleak and somber science fiction game.
A Mind Forever Voyaging portrays the ruinous effects that a set of government policies have on a single town over the course of several decades. The game was released in 1985, the same year that Ronald Reagan took the oath of office a second time after winning reelection by the most lopsided electoral college victory in history. It was a sales disappointment for Meretzky's employer Infocom, and it didn't have the sort of cultural impact of other 1985 releases like Super Mario Bros or Gauntlet or Space Harrier. It certainly didn't change the political conversation in America. "I jokingly say that I did such a good job making this game about the terrible effects of a conservative president that we've never had one again," says Meretzky.
But now, more than three decades after release, A Mind Forever Voyaging is widely regarded as a classic. (If you want to check it out, iPhone owners can purchase it for a few bucks as part of the Lost Treasures of Infocom compilation.) Moreover, it offered a concrete example of how a game could offer pointed social commentary at a time when no one really thought that was something that a game was capable of. And it did so in a way that only a game could, through its mechanics and its systems."I wanted to make a political statement, which hadn't been done in this medium before," Meretzky told Newsweek reporter Bill Barol at the time of the game's release. "To a very large degree, he succeeded," declared Barol. The reporter felt that the game's "richly imagined anti-Utopian futureworld" was breathtaking. "A Mind Forever Voyaging isn't George Orwell's 1984," Barol added, "but in some ways it's even scarier."
Sam Barlow, contemporary designer of Her Story and Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, is a big fan. He gushes about it at length on the podcast My Favourite Game. "It anticipates so many things!" he raves. "You have the freedom to go anywhere in this whole simulated city – it has an open world approach to its progression." The game was clearly an inspiration for Barlow's award-winning Her Story, in which the progression is also built around simply exploring video clips and learning more about what's going on.
Gary Whitta, writer of films like Rogue One and Book of Eli as well as several entries in Telltale's Walking Dead game franchise, encountered the game in his early teens, and was also profoundly influenced by it. "I think of it as a classic not just as a computer game but within the wider pantheon of science fiction," he says. "As a kid it was probably one of the first really high-level, intellectually stimulating works of true sci-fi I had experienced in any medium. I credit a lot of my own ambition to become a writer to my experience with that game." Whitta was so entranced by A Mind Forever Voyaging that he even wrote a film script based on it. "I'm still fighting to get some kind of screen adaptation going," he says. "As a piece of socio-political science fiction, I think it's more relevant now than at any time since it was first created during the Reagan years."
The 1980s are often dubbed the Reagan Era. But for many geeks, they are also remembered as the Golden Age of the Text Adventure. At a time when graphics were still rudimentary, text-only games offered some of the most sophisticated interactive experiences you could find.
Text-based games, which also went by the highfalutin name of "interactive fiction," describe a setting and scenario for players with words. It's up to the players to fill in the graphics in their head. A text parser allowed players to type in simple commands and tell the game what action they wanted to perform and where they wanted to go. "In the early 1980s, speaking to your computer in plain English sentences seemed like the most magical and advanced thing you could do," says Meretzky. The text games created by the company Infocom quickly set themselves apart with their mix of good writing, clever puzzles, and quirky humor. With Infocom games, it was fun to simply type in a nonsensical command or even just a piece of profanity, just to see if the Infocom designer had anticipated it and written a wry response. (They often had.)
"Text adventures in general were very popular back then," says Whitta. "But strangely, for games that relied entirely on text, most made very rudimentary use of it. Infocom was the only company actually paying attention to crafting evocative prose, to telling a story as vivid as anything you'd read in a novel. I never thought the term they used, ‘interactive fiction', was hyperbole at all."
The technical constraints of making text adventures in the 1980s were mind-boggling. Developers didn't simply have to create an entire 20-30 hour gaming experience that only employed words, they had to squeeze it all into impossibly tiny file sizes. "It was a huge deal when we went from 128K to 256K," recalls Meretzky. "Nowadays, the sig file in my emails is larger than that." Designers would inevitably hit the size limit at some point in development, and after that, every new word added to a game meant that another word would have to be deleted somewhere else.
Even so, the genre offered a lot of creative freedom to developers, and many developed their own distinct authorial voice. "I loved writing text adventures because I could do the whole game by myself," says Meretzky. "Nowadays, game design is much more about managing a team with a whole bunch of different specialities. The ability to control everything back then was intoxicating. And the entire Infocom line gave all of the authors leeway to explore what they wanted to." The company released fantasy games, detective games, absurdist comedies, kid-friendly titles, historical adventures, and science fiction.
Meretzky quickly made a name for himself with science fiction games. His first release Planetfall in 1983 was an immediate hit, and it still has a devoted following. You play as a lowly starship janitor marooned on an alien world, who befriends a childlike robot companion named Floyd. Floyd eventually sacrifices itself to save you. "I thought that if I stranded the player on deserted planet, I could devote a lot more of the very limited text and code to creating one believable, realistic character that the player could form an emotional connection with," says Meretzky. "It clearly worked. I hear people say that the death of Floyd is a keystone emotional moment in the history of games."
His next game, Sorcerer in 1984, featured several ingeniously innovative puzzles. "I'm very proud of a time travel puzzle where you get to meet yourself," he says. "It creates this tiny time loop where you encounter a slightly older version of yourself, and then a little later you encounter a slightly younger version of yourself who's doing all of the things that you did a few turns earlier. That was really fun to design and write."
His third game, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy released the same year, was one of the most popular and fondly remembered text adventures ever made. For many, it's become synonymous with the genre. The game is an adaptation of the satirical sci-fi novel of the same name, made in collaboration with author Douglas Adams, and it manages to capture the sprung logic and sly wit of the book. (You can try it here.) "It was the number one computer game on the sales charts for the better part of a year," says Meretzky.
Trickle down economics was really just a con, a way to transfer money from future generations to a few people in the present day. And at the same time, Reagan was coddling the religious right and eroding the separation of church and state.
By the time he was in his late twenties, Meretzky had become a standout star within his company and his industry. He was newly married, and doing work that gave creative satisfaction. There was plenty for him to be happy about in 1985, but the lopsided reelection victory of Ronald Reagan weighed on him. "It was so disheartening," says Meretzky. "I thought his agenda was horrible in countless ways."
"Reagan was creating a huge budget deficit to give tax cuts to the wealthy. Trickle down economics was really just a con, a way to transfer money from future generations to a few people in the present day. And at the same time, Reagan was coddling the religious right and eroding the separation of church and state."
Fresh off of the enormous success of Hitchhiker's Guide, Meretzky began to conceptualize a game with a public policy angle. "I thought, what if I could make people realize the horribleness of Reagan's policies?" he says. "Text adventures tend to soak up all of your attention, even when you aren't playing them. Like, you're driving around town or mowing the lawn, but you're thinking about a puzzle you can't beat, or some solution you haven't tried yet. If the games could do that with puzzles, maybe I could harness interactive fiction to get inside people's heads and change their minds about political ideas."
Infocom allowed him to run with the concept, despite its uncommercial nature. "There was discussion internally of whether a game with such a strong political bias was a bad idea," says Meretzky. "Dave Lebling, who was sort of the office conservative back then, was the biggest defender of it. His take was that someday he might want to write a game with political content, and he didn't want anyone telling him that he couldn't.'"
As with all Infocom games, you started playing A Mind Forever Voyaging long before you inserted the floppy disc into your computer. Its releases were all packaged with "feelies," physical versions of items from the gameworld that provided clues or helped players get acclimated to the setting. The feelies included with Meretzky's game included a map of the town of Rockvil, South Dakota, where the bulk of the game takes place. There are almost 200 different locations you can visit, including a bookshop, a museum, a high school, a liquor store, a Chinese restaurant, a university, a city hall, a zoological garden, a museum, an airport, a bar, and a church. "That's something I'm sort of good at, creating geography," says Meretzky. "Rockvil is a fictional place, but in a very specific nonfictional location, right on the Little Sioux River."
Another feelie that came with the game is a printed short story written by Meretzky. It outlines the life of Rockvil resident Perry Simm, tracing his development from age four to age 20. Along the way, it introduces details about the near future time period – the game is set in the year 2031.
At age 20, when Perry's life finally seems to be falling into place after a somewhat tumultuous childhood, he faces the biggest existential crisis imaginable: he learns that he's not really a person. Perry Simm is actually PRISM, an artificial intelligence who's been living a simulated life inside of a virtual version of Rockvil. PRISM actually exists within a series of computers at a research facility. "Imagine yourself in the same circumstance," Meretzky writes. "You have spent 20 years living a normal, unsuspecting life. You are YOU. Then suddenly, one day, the universe around you is torn away, and you learn that your whole life has been a charade, a carefully calculated scientific experiment. Perhaps, at this very moment, you are a normal human being, sitting in some comfortable armchair reading this story. But – perhaps you are not. Imagine the shock; imagine the terror."
Insert the game disc into your computer, and you learn more about why PRISM/Perry was created. Researchers needed a sophisticated AI who thinks and perceives like a real human in order to allow them to test out possible future scenarios. In particular, they want to simulate the effects of the ambitious political program proposed by a charismatic rightwing populist senator named Richard Ryder. (Get it? RR. Richard Ryder = Ronald Reagan. The game is really not subtle about its source of inspiration.)
Ryder's sweeping reforms include a 50% cut in tax rates, a massive rollback of regulations and foreign aid, a restrictive trade policy, a concentration of power in the executive branch, and a return to traditional values in education. Scientists program these policies into their simulated version of Rockvil, then let the simulation run until a decade has passed. PRISM will then be able to explore the simulated city as the human Perry Simm, and observe what effects the policies have had after 10 years.
Puzzles are the lifeblood of text adventures, but there are almost no puzzles in A Mind Forever Voyaging. Instead, your goal is to simply notice things. Gameplay is centered around recording events that demonstrate how the city of Rockvil has changed. There are specific tasks assigned to you, but they mostly involve everyday activities – reading a newspaper, going to a movie, eating at a restaurant, visiting a courthouse or a church, riding public transit, or going home to your family. (At this point in his simulated life, Perry has a wife and child.) Once you have provided the scientists with sufficient data, they are able to run the simulation further, and you can visit Rockvil 10 more years into the future. Then 10 more years after that. Et cetera.
Infrastructure crumbles, poverty skyrockets, airport security becomes ludicrously stringent, and police raids become commonplace. Within a few decades, the town of Rockvil is an Orwellian nightmare.
It's noteworthy that Meretzky managed to make observing the long term effects of policy central to the actual gameplay of A Mind Forever Voyaging, because games that riff on real world events often tend to do so on a surface level. For instance, the classic 1980s arcade brawler Bad Dudes is ostensibly about the two titular dudes rescuing President Ronnie from the clutches of the evil DragonNinja. (Win the game, and Ronnie invites you to join him for a celebratory burger.) With just a few minor tweaks, you could change the story of Bad Dudes to be about two badass Greenpeace activists who rescue Shamu from the clutches of the evil WhalerNinja. But the real subject matter of the game would be the same – you run around kicking and punching scores of henchmen until they die.
A Mind Forever Voyaging required you to get to know the town you live in. The more you explore the Rockvil, the more it begins to feel like a real place. And Meretzky allows enough nuance that the changes to Rockvil don't seem so bad at first. Oh sure, the underprivileged people on the bad side of town seem to be having a hard time, and you hear rumblings about prisons being filled to capacity. But the scientists are initially convinced that the Plan for Renewed National Purpose will prove to be beneficial.
The evidence to the contrary becomes more and more apparent as your proceed through subsequent iterations of the town. Infrastructure crumbles, poverty skyrockets, airport security becomes ludicrously stringent, and police raids become commonplace. Within a few decades, the town of Rockvil is an Orwellian nightmare. A couple of decades after that, it's a post-apocalyptic hellscape. Ultimately, the political message of the game is about as subtle as a jackboot to the skull by a member of the Border Security Force. "There's no question that it's polemical, and like all true science fiction it uses some very outlandish conceits to illustrate and comment upon some very relevant and contemporary issues," says Whitta.
"As social commentary, the game's a bit of a mixed bag," says Jimmy Maher, a historian of computer games who's written extensively about A Mind Forever Voyaging on his site The Digital Antiquarian. "It's at its worst when it merely cribs from classic dystopian literature like 1984, and at its best when it tries to seriously explore the potential ramifications of the Republican positions of its day."
Still, some of the least subtle moments of the game are among the most memorable. "There's a scene where Mitchell, your son within the simulation, has joined the church, which at this point has become a cult-like arm of the government," says Meretzky. "He comes into your home with church police and levels accusations at his mother, your wife, Jill. I've heard many people say that this moment was particularly horrifying for them."
It unfolds like this:
"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.
Ultimately, the game has a happy ending. (I won't spoil it, but reaching it does involve solving a puzzle.) "You manage to singlehandedly defeat and discredit the evil senator who tried to get his policies in place," says Meretzky. "And when you do, one final simulation becomes available – ten years even further into the future, but it's a good future now. Instead of everything going wrong, everything has gone right." Perry Simm is an elderly man living in a utopia brought about by progressive political policies. War is obsolete, the human lifespan has been extended, crime and poverty are almost nonexistent.
"The ending of the game is a thing of beauty," says Maher. "It's a fervently imagined dream for the better world that could be if we would all wake up and start looking forward to a brighter future instead of back to some fabled past."
Infocom believed that what Meretzky had created was more than just a game – it was a piece of interactive literature. To stress the seriousness of its ambitions, they held a press conference for A Mind Forever Voyaging's release at the New York Public Library. Meretzky himself desperately wanted to see the game's pointed message spark some real controversy. "I was hoping I'd get dragged in front of a congressional committee," he says.
People can't spend all of their time discussing politics and fighting evil. They are still going to need distractions and downtime. And we provide that. I think that's a pretty damn important function at any time, but it's especially important now.
No outcry greeted its release. Apart from the rave writeup in Newsweek, and rapturous notices in some enthusiast magazines, it did not spark much of a reaction at all. "Sales were somewhat disappointing," says Meretzky. "Fifty thousand was kind of the goal, but it ended up moving thirty or forty thousand." The core fanbase for Infocom games was nonplussed with A Mind Forever Voyaging as well. "Many people in our player community did not like the lack of puzzles," says Meretzky. "They complained that it was too easy, too different, or just not what they wanted."
Meretzky felt that he had learned his lesson about making an explicitly political game. "I never really tried to do that again," he says. He decided to court controversy a little more brazenly. His next game was a romp called Leather Goddesses of Phobos. It was a highly sexualized sendup of classic sci-fi serials of the 1930s, and allowed players to opt for Lewd Mode, which offered more profanity and risque situations. The game was a big hit, selling twice as many copies as A Mind Forever Voyaging. Meretzky later made a sequel called Leather Goddesses of Phobos 2: Gas Pump Girls Meet the Pulsating Inconvenience from Planet X!
He would go on to make many more acclaimed and popular games, including the Spellcaster series, which was like a naughtier precursor to the Harry Potter books. He has since worked for game companies like WorldWinning, Playdom/Disney, and GSN. He's currently a VP at King, the makers of Candy Crush games, where he's developing an unannounced project with a small team.
"It's interesting," says Meretzky. "The early part of my career was very focused on games with storytelling and narrative, but the second half has been more about designing game systems and economies. I've had several forays back into the core game world, but the majority of the time now, I'm designing stuff aimed at a casual audience."
He says he's not interested in pursuing another political game at the moment, even though he feels that the current White House occupant makes Ronal Reagan look like FDR. "So many of the things I was worried about in the 1980s have come to pass," he says. "All of the warmongering and trickle down economics produced exactly the sort of results I was afraid of. And the whole Trump thing is massively demoralizing, particularly at my age.The day Obama left office was the peak of what the world will achieve in my lifetime. People certainly won't repair all of the damage that will be done by the Trump administration before I die."
Many game designers are now saying that they're driven to distraction by current events, that it's hard to focus on their work when they don't see how it will have any effect on what's happening in the world. "What I would say to them is that what we do may seem trifling, but it really is important, particularly at a time when so many people are so dispirited," says Meretzky. "People can't spend all of their time discussing politics and fighting evil. They are still going to need distractions and downtime. And we provide that. I think that's a pretty damn important function at any time, but it's especially important now."