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December 2007

"Don't trust the skull" - Final thoughts on Planescape: Torment

Planescape__torment_by_mr_nick For information on this project, be sure to check my post, In search of narrative, character, and empathy.

Parts 1 and 2 of my Planescape: Torment analysis can be found here and here. Caution: minor spoilers below.

Planescape: Torment is a text-based RPG. True, it manages to squeeze every bit of isometric splendor out of Bioware's Infinity Engine. And yes, the game occasionally treats you to a pre-rendered cutscene. But these are merely window dressing. Planescape: Torment places all its narrative eggs in one giant 800,000 word basket.

If you experience the totality of PST--completing all the side quests, talking to all the NPCs, and generally adventuring your way to the end (there are eight different ways to complete the game, with three distinct endings), you could say you played the game...or you could just as accurately say you "read" it. Designer Chris Avellone's reliance on the written word is so intensive in PST that all the most pivotal moments in the game occur as conversations conveyed via text.

As a meditation on violence and its long karmic aftermath, PST is, surprisingly, a game that's mostly about talking to people, negotiating with them, or trying to understand their philosophies of life. Amidst all the gore, dangling limbs, and festering sores, this game wants to think hard about the meaning of existence and the emergence of hope through embracing our mortality.

We don't often think about "reading" games (aside from interactive fiction), but all my memorable experiences inside the world of PST are connected to what I can only describe as literary moments of resonance, surprise, humor, and recognition. The lateral, deconstructed narrative of PST encourages an approach to playing/reading that allowed me to piece together its fragments in my own way, returning to places of interest, skipping others, recovering the Nameless One's elusive identities, and generally constructing meaning in ways few video games have done.

Such a moment occurs in the Empty Tomb. Several strands of PST's narrative come together here as the Nameless One finally discovers the journal he's been seeking with all the notes to himself (the film "Memento" comes to mind here) in the form of stone tablets. In order to access them, however, he must die and be reborn several times. Each death takes him a step closer to his destination.

Finally, he discovers a startling warning written on a tablet (conveniently ignored by his sidekick Morte in the opening scene of the game). It reads: "Don't trust the skull." What to do with this information? What does it mean, and why did I write it? Can Morte still be trusted? Should I confront him with it, or just keep my eye on him? The game does not provide an answer, not does it insist on any course of action. Instead, the player must decide. Much later in the game, all of this will matter a great deal, and our understanding of Morte and his past will grow considerably.

The genius of Avellone's narrative construction is the way he ensures an advancing plot while offering complexity and resonance to the player who is willing to explore beyond the main quest and ruminate on how all this fits together. Other games have done this--subplots and side-quests are nothing new--but these rarely matter very much. Such activities often extend the game, giving the player more to do, but adding little real thematic substance. PST unfailingly utilizes such optional activities to add color, nuance, and complexity to the story and characters. Ultimately, the Nameless One will come to know himself--the central quest of the narrative--only by coming to know others. Getting acquainted with sharp-tongued Annah, for example, isn't necessary at all. But oh what you will miss if you don't!

I began this series looking for narrative, character, and empathy. None of those are possible in a game without ideas, and PST is full of big ideas. Essentially, the world of PST is in bloody tormented conflict between groups who see the world in very different ways. It's a war of ideas, and your navigation through this world will immerse you in these warring ideologies, all tugging at you to align with them. I found an especially poignant and relevant allegory in the collision between the Mercykillers, who fanatically insist on justice with no mercy and the Chaosmen who believe truth can be found only in a state of lawlessness and anti-authoritarianism. Both are wrong, of course, but they have arrived at their conclusions looking at the same set of realities.

Ironically, I found PST more compelling as a story than as a game. Time has not been kind to the Infinity Engine, and despite a certain old-school charm, it's a cumbersome interface to live in for a long game. Clicking to move from place to place quickly becomes tiresome, and if it weren't for the widescreen mod suggested by a couple of my readers, I would have probably torn my hair out in 640x480 chunks. Dragging my mouse cursor inch by inch across the screen searching for that one particular set of pixels to locate a door that doesn't appear on screen also frustrated me to no end. Funny how these things never bothered me way back in 1999. Guess I've gotten soft.

Imagine a game with the narrative and thematic richness of PST...inside a Mass Effect or Oblivion engine...well, I can dream, can't I? Fallout 3? Hoping beyond hope.

I've truly enjoyed this little trip down memory lane. Playing A Mind Forever Voyaging and Planescape: Torment has reminded me that video games possess the power to access those primitive places in our imaginations that treasure a tale well told with vivid characters and ideas worth pondering. The interactive dimension of video games--far more than their graphical prowess or user-interface--provides a level of immersiveness and player/character symbiosis that is unique to this medium. We already know these things, of course...but, perhaps, sometimes we forget.

A Mind Forever Voyaging and Planescape: Torment are precious reminders.

Image courtesy of Mr-Nick at DeviantArt.

The five best under-the-radar games of 2007

I'm jumping on the year-end "best of" bandwagon in hopes of drawing attention to five games released in 2007 that went undeservedly unnoticed. If you're unfamiliar with these titles, I encourage you to give them a try and support the development of unconventional games that deviate from the everyday fare.

Here they are in no particular order:

Zackewiki06m_2 Zack and Wiki - A puzzle adventure game that proved Nintendo isn't the only developer that understands how to integrate the Wii-mote into clever gesture-based gameplay. Bonus points to Capcom for creating a new IP with an art style that unifies the game in whimsical (the fun kind, not the annoying kind) cartoon style. Extra bonus points for having the courage to release a game that is actually HARD...just like they used to be. I go on and on about Zack and Wiki in Brainy Gamer Podcast - Episode 5.

Persona32 Persona 3 - The most daring game released in 2007. Manhunt 2 got all the panicky press, but Persona 3 was the real undetected "danger." How is it possible that a game which depicts teenagers shooting themselves in the head for special powers went unnoticed by the Jack Thompson crowd? Fantastic Japanese pop-art style, an incredible soundtrack, and a sturdy RPG experience make Persona 3 stand way, way out from the crowd. I rave about Persona 3 in detail in Brainy Gamer Podcast - Episode 3.

Lunarknightscover Lunar Knights - Developed by Kojima Productions, Lunar Knights is the fourth title in the underrated Boktai series. An inspired blend of Castlevania and Legend of Zelda design elements, coupled with a gothic sci-fi setting and a bit of Metal Gear stealth, Lunar Knights is a terrific adventure that makes excellent use of the DS touch screen controls. If you like games that blend genres into something unique but recognizable, this could be the game for you.

Aqscreen01 Aquaria - If you've thought about giving indie games a whirl, Aquaria will make you wonder why you've waited so long. It's a beautiful and lyrical gaming experience set in a massive underwater fantasy world. Fully handcrafted by its creators, Aquaria took the grand prize at the Independent Games Festival this year. Some games have that undefinable quality of magic in them that make you want to wander and explore with no particular goal in mind at all.  Aquaria is like that. It encourages a certain meditative mindset that just feels right. A stunning and original game.

Odinsphere34 Odin Sphere - a love letter to fans of 2D side-scrollers, Odin Sphere has the best graphics of any game released this year. That's right. No, it's not hyper-detailed photo-realism. No, it's not pushing 40 gazillion pixels around in 1080p...but I still say Odin Sphere's hand-drawn graphical design merits more praise than any number of so-called breakthrough games released this year. Atlus has released some stinkers over the years, but they deserve a lot of credit for putting out Persona 3 and Odin Sphere within months of each other, both to deafening silence from the gaming press. I wax philosophic about Odin Sphere in Brainy Gamer Podcast - Episode 1

Have I missed one of your favorite underdogs? If so, be sure to let me know.

A plea for journalistic integrity

Zoegarcia A 7-year-old girl named Zoe Garcia was killed a few days ago after being brutally beaten, allegedly by her sister and sister's boyfriend. According to the police report, the teens hit, kicked, and body-slammed her until she lost consciousness.

Before anything else, we must consider the pain and anguish of the family and friends of Zoe Garcia and extend to them our deepest condolences. Any death is bound to cause suffering, but when the victim is a small child, it's impossible to fathom the emotional devastation faced by those closest to her.

In light of these thoughts, I find myself especially disturbed by the callous and sensationalized reporting of this tragic event. In what will come as no surprise to anyone who follows the mainstream U.S. media, video games are once again being linked as a cause.

A brief sampling of headlines:

  • "Teens Charged in 'Mortal Kombat' Killing" - CNN
  • "Mortal Kombat Killing: Zoe Garcia Murdered by Sister, Boyfriend" - The Post Chronicle
  • "Sister Charged in 'Mortal Kombat' Death of 7-year-old - The Denver Post
  • "Teens Charged in 'Mortal Kombat' Death" - USA Today
  • "Still No Burial Plans in 'Mortal Kombat' Killing" - Fox News Colorado
  • "Teens Charged in Video Game-Related Slaying" - WJBF-TV
  • "Mortal Kombat" Teens Fatality 7-year-old - CrunchGear

Recent reports suggest conflicting information about whether or not the couple had been playing the game Mortal Kombat prior to the incident. It's also unclear whether the police affidavit obtained from the sister specifically claims the couple were imitating the game.

Certain other facts, however, are very clear...even if they appear nowhere in the headlines:

  • Court records show a history of neglect and abuse charges against Dana Trujillo, Zoe Garcia's mother, in both Colorado and New Mexico.

  • Trujillo has had six children with four different fathers, one of whom had been living with Trujillo and the girls until he was arrested Dec. 3 for escaping from jail earlier this year.[1]

  • Authorities in Socorro, N.M., filed three counts of abandonment or abuse of a child against Trujillo in November 2003. The complaint states that Trujillo left her children in the house with a babysitter and didn't return that night. A neighbor complained the next day, and police went to the house with the paternal grandmother of the Garcia girls and woke up the babysitter in the back bedroom. The girls said they hadn't eaten or bathed that day.[2]

  • The girls had been removed from the home twice by authorities before being returned to their mother.

  • School District Superintendent Dr. Martin Foster has confirmed that the district sent a referral to the county Social Services agency at the beginning of the school year because staff had noticed marks and bruises on Zoe.[3]

  • The boyfriend charged has confessed to being drunk at the time of the incident.

I realize video games have become easy targets, and I understand the market-driven necessity to sell papers, hook viewers, and drive traffic. I can even accept the occasional need to hype a hot scoop that may otherwise go unnoticed. This is not one of those stories.

My question to the journalists and editors covering the story is simple. With all this pertinent information available--nearly all of it publicly accessible--how can you defend a headline or report that suggests this girl's death was somehow caused by a video game?

It's time we demand more accountability from journalists who uncritically scapegoat video games for all manner of social ills. To newspapers like the Denver Post, which has continued to dig through this story in all its tragic complexity, I say thank you. To Fox News Colorado and all the other outlets who chose to include graphic gameplay footage of Mortal Kombat in their reporting of this story, I say shame on you. You can do better, and in the future I hope you will.

Gamer's log: Planescape Torment - Day 5

Ignus For information on this project, be sure to check my post, In search of narrative, character, and empathy.

You can easily spend five days navigating your way through Planescape: Torment's first two sections: the Mausoleum and the Hive. While it certainly didn't take me 5 days of non-stop play (I could do that when I was 19 with a handy supply of Pop-Tarts and Pepsi)--and I restarted the game once--PST contains enough rich content to supply completists like me with enough quests, conversations, exploration, and reflection to fill that much time. This is a game that richly rewards you for going slowly.

Lots of RPGs supply the standard activities of questing, interacting with NPCs, collecting items and skills...but the reflection aspect is what sets PST apart, in my view, and it's what elevates an excellent but structurally traditional RPG to a higher to speak.

Like A Mind Forever Voyaging, which I examined last week, PST distinguishes itself for very simple dramaturgical reasons, the most important being its thematic complexity and ambitiousness. The voyage you undertake as the Nameless One leads you in many directions, all of which present compelling and often competing philosophical questions about the very nature of existence. If that's not thematic ambition, I don't know what is.

The ubiquitous amnesiac hero is an RPG staple (some would say cliché), so I was initially disappointed that Black Isle Studios chose to center its story on such a worn-out character (though it was less threadbare in 1999 than it is today...hello The Witcher). I suppose the real question for designers going the tabula rasa route is this: if your character is a blank slate, what are you going to do with that blank slate? Or more importantly, what does that blank slate mean and how did it get that way? PST doesn't simply lean on the amnesiac hero for lack of a better idea or to provide customization options. It incorporates The Nameless One's search for identity into the the very core of its narrative.

From the earliest interactions with NPCs from factions like the Mercykillers and the Dustmen it becomes clear that PST will not function as a moralizing homily on good vs. evil. Groups exist and compete for your alignment based on the persuasiveness of their ideas and philosophies of life. In other words, your encounters in Plansescape, coupled presumably with your real-life experiences, will determine which of these competing views, if any, you choose to accept and align with.

Human nature--the real focus of PST's discourse--will sometimes choose good, sometimes evil actions. When Sev'Tai asks you to avenge the death of her three sisters, you can simply kill the three Starved Dogs Barking, or you can let them live and lie to Sev'Tai telling her they are dead. In this situation, tellingly, the game rewards you more for lying than for doing the job.

These choices are simply part of the journey, and as The Nameless One learns and grows in his awareness, he opens doors that awaken memories and clarify the nature of his existence. Sigil, the "City of Doors," serves as an apt metaphor for this process, and those doors require a lot of hard work to open...for both The Nameless One and the player for whom he functions as avatar.

Planescape also exhibits a ribald sense of humor and a self-reflexive awareness of RPG chestnuts. The cynical old woman outside the Smoldering Corpse Bar berates you for asking questions with the mocking inquiry, "Do ye know where the Holy Flamin' Frost-Brand, Gronk-slayin' Vorpal Hammer of Woundin' and Returnin' and Shootin'-Lightening-Out-Yer-Bum is?" Classic.

As narrative, all these interactions and sub-quests may occasionally overwhelm the main story arc. Doing everything makes you stronger and wiser, but it also may make you confused. Quests like finding Nestor's lost fork can seem rather pointless amidst all the other missions. PST also relies a bit too heavily on fetch and deliver quests in the early stages, but that may change as I get further along. Having a journal is helpful, but its clumsy interface isn't.

Planescape: Torment is a long journey, and I have many, many more doors to open. I'll report back soon with a view from beyond the Hive.

Gamer's log: Planescape Torment - Day 3

Slow I just realized that if I read the title of this post in my best Captain Kirk voice, it sounds infinitely more impressive.

I decided to back up and play through The Hive again, and I'm nearly finished there. I did mention I'm slow, didn't I? If these NPCs weren't so infernally interesting, I could actually make some progress in this game! ;-) The sheer amount of storytelling that emerges if you take the time to seek it is truly remarkable. 

Truth be told, the more significant reason for my dawdling is that we have a baby with tummy troubles (nothing serious, just very fussy and needy), so priorities have shifted a bit to things that actually matter.

I've got plenty to say about Planescape--taking lots of notes--so please look for a proper post very soon. I especially appreciate all the good advice from Planescape veterans who posted strategy recommendations - very useful in helping me get the most out of my time in the game.

Apologies for my sluggish pace. Stay tuned.

Raindrops on roses and whiskers on dogs, these are a few of my favorite blogs

Musketeer_blogger_by_monstara One of the very best things about diving into the murky waters known as the blogosphere is the marvelous group of bloggers you bump into as you splash around trying to stay afloat. (How's that for stretching a metaphor past its limits?)

You already know about Kotaku, Joystiq, and the other uberblogs devoted to gaming. You may not, however, have come across some of the smaller game-focused sites that regularly produce cogent, thoughtful writing about the interactive medium we all know and love.

Here's a list of independent gaming blogs I follow regularly. All are well worth your time and support. If I've omitted one of your favorites (my list is by no means comprehensive), be sure to post a comment and I'll add it to the list.

  • Japanmanship - "JC Barnett is the nom de plume of a video games developer working and living in Japan."
  • Fullbright - "The progress diary of a video game level designer, and a place for my thoughts on games and game design."

  • Castle in the Air - "Castle in the Air is a place for me to collect thoughts on the games I love, or on anything else, for that matter. My head is in the clouds, so I might as well chatter about the palaces of giants I see there!"
  • The Artful Gamer - "in search of the poetic and lyrical in video games."

  • Gameology - "Commentary and resources for the game studies community."
  • Terra Nova - "a weblog about virtual worlds. Terra Nova authors include scholars and practitioners from a variety of disciplines."
  • Lesbian Gamers - "Gay gaming for girls."

  • Sexy Videogameland - "Game blather for the uncensored gamer. Sexy Videogameland is the blog of game writer Leigh Alexander" (personal blogger hero of The Brainy Gamer).
  • High Dynamic Range Lying - "HDRL is created, and maintained solely, by Nayan Ramachandran, an english teacher and freelance journalist living in the bustling town of Takarazuka Hyogo-ken, between Osaka and Kobe, in the Kansai Region of Japan."

  • Hit Self Destruct - "Video games, writing in" Duncan Fyfe.
  • Write the Game - "This is a blog that’s designed to help you understand games; the process of development, the sweat, toil and tears that get sunk into thirty seconds of action, and the tightrope line of success across the sea of failure."

Update: these blogs were suggested by readers:

Image courtesy of monstara at DeviantArt.

A less dastardly spam filter

Spam1_2 Several of you have tried posting comments recently, only to have them kicked back to you as spam. I contacted Typepad to complain (along with hundreds of other bloggers, evidently), and the following message has been posted on the official Typepad blog: 

Spam service update
Thank you for all of your comments letting us know that the spam service is being overaggressive in categorizing your blogs' comments as spam! This is great feedback. We’ve heard you and have made a change to the service that will help direct legitimate comments straight to your comments folder.

If you post a comment that is rejected by Typepad, don't worry. I still receive it (labeled as spam), and can simply override that setting and ensure the message is posted exactly as you wrote it.

If you've run into this problem, I apologize. Spam is a real issue, unfortunately, and Typepad is trying hard to keep it out of its blogs...perhaps a bit too hard. I encourage you to keep those comments coming - I read every one and benefit greatly from the collective expertise of my readers.

Now back to Planescape: Torment. Oh, how I love the Mage life!!

Gamer's log: Planescape Torment - Day 1

Planescape_startroom For information on this project, be sure to check my post, In search of narrative, character, and empathy.

This one will take awhile. I'll continue posting on other subjects while periodically updating this log as I make my way through the game. A Mind Forever Voyaging can be completed in a few days; Planescape: Torment will require at least a couple of weeks. I hope you'll stick with me.

Narrative in RPGs is a unique and fascinating beast. Your avatar demands a tremendous amount of attention. So much, in fact, that regardless of the game's setting or story arc, a significant portion of the storytelling inevitably emerges from the ongoing growth and evolution of that customized character. You aren't merely progressing through a predetermined story. You're enabling your avatar to confront that story in an individualized way.

It's telling that when RPG players discuss their experiences--and this applies to both tabletop and video game players--they nearly always compare notes on their characters and their chosen race, class, alignment, etc.. These things matter in an RPG, and they augment the overarching story in ways the player can manage and control to a certain degree.

Planescape: Torment is no exception, and developer Black Isle nimbly exploits this avatar/narrative symbiosis by centering its story on The Nameless One, a mutilated warrior who awakens in a mortuary with no memory of his own identity, aside from the writing carved into his back. Video game RPGs customarily rely on such a "blank slate" approach, which mimics the traditional D&D procedure of rolling a new character, and PT does its best to present those options from the outset. The first decision you make in the game is determining how to distribute 21 character points among the traditional six D&D abilities.

I have completed the opening Mortuary chapter and have just entered the Hive. I'll include more substantive impressions in my next post, but a few brief notes:

  • Running a 640x480 game on a widescreen LCD monitor SUCKS. My two options are: maintain the original size and aspect ratio (resulting in a very small image in the middle of my very big screen); or enlarge the image to fit my screen (resulting in hideously pixelated images). I SO regret getting rid of my old multi-sync CRT monitor. If anyone knows how to overcome this issue, please let me know
  • If you're going to incorporate a sardonic sidekick character to teach the player the ropes and join his party, be sure to model that character after Morte in PT. He's funny, but not overbearing; useful, but not in your face. And who doesn't love a floating talking skull?
  • Choices matter. They are presented if you seek them out, and they directly affect the story and experience. I began the game killing everything that moved, ignoring Morte's advice. I got the job done and escaped with little knowledge of what had been going on in that mortuary. I then restarted the game and made the effort to speak to a few zombies, including Vaxis and Deionarra, and my whole experience was dramatically altered, both in terms of items received and memories retrieved. If you want a rich narrative experience (the first short chapter alone contains hundreds of lines of text), PT will deliver it to you.

FYI, I'm playing PT with no mods installed. The Infinity Engine driving the visuals is definitely showing its age, but I'm reacclimating to it. I keep reminding myself that only 8 years ago, these  graphics were state of the art. I wonder if I'll feel the same way about the storytelling.

More soon.

Final thoughts on A Mind Forever Voyaging


For information on this project, be sure to check my post, In search of narrative, character, and empathy. You can find my first two entries on AMFV here and here.

"A mind forever voyaging through strange seas of thought, alone." --William Wordsworth, 1850

To anyone under the age of 30, text adventure games are a ridiculous proposition. You are expected to traverse and chart a complex environment with no map or help system (sold separately via mail order). You are provided no visual framework aside from words on a screen, and you are offered no opportunity for character creation or customization. NPCs won't talk to you if you use the wrong words. If you get stuck or lost, the game is more likely to ridicule you than help you. And if you're prone to typing errors, you're in for a brutally frustrating experience. How can I possibly find what I'm looking for in such a game?

Despite these obstacles (and partially because of them), Steve Meretzky's A Mind Forever Voyaging succeeds where many modern games fail. It tells a rich, thematically ambitious story with a fully articulated point of view. It goes places very few video games have dared or bothered to go.

AMFV is a meditation on the dangers of paranoid nationalism and religious extremism. Written in the era of Reagan, AMFV asks the player to contemplate real contemporary social and political issues. Unlike games that only purport to do so, Meretzky's masterpiece stakes its claim on relevant issues like the expansion of presidential powers, the elimination of the social welfare system, the dangers of border militias, and the insidiousness of conservative religious fanaticism. Meretzky doesn't simply toss these issues around as in-game newspaper headlines. He advances a particular position on them, painting a dire picture of a future America that uncritically embraced Reagan's "new dawn."

A Mind Forever Voyaging proves that a video game can place a player squarely in the middle of a complex set of social and moral issues without dumbing them down. And because the player is free to explore each era in whatever way he or she chooses, the immersion you experience is largely the product of your own curiosity and vivid imagination. Your relationship with Dr. Pereleman--your creator--acquires a new dimension as you discover the political imperative he has charged you with, and the game rewards you for seizing the initiative and pushing forward on your own. You are not forced to do anything. You choose your own way.

Having completed AMFV (I cop to leaning on a downloaded game map after several hours of inept cartography), I found myself wondering: why do so many modern, graphically sophisticated video games say so little? Final Fantasy XII is a terrific and well-designed game that seems to be full of important weighty stuff, but in the end we're left with the same old overcooked hash. The shelves at Gamestop are filled with such sweeping epics "full of sound and fury, signifying...nothing."

Is such thematic timidness really all about the market ("political" games won't sell) or have we gamers decided to settle for the glitzy easy stuff? It should be noted that AMFV was not commercially successful when it was released, so it would be inaccurate to suggest we once lived in an enlightened age of gaming. I do think, however, that the very existence of interactive fiction suggests a certain willingness on the part of gamers to tackle heady themes, and a small but thriving community still exists for these text-based games.

I mentioned in my last post a bit of concern about my emotional attachment to AMFV. I can't say much without revealing key narrative elements, but certain things happen to PRISM (you) and family in the second half of the game that do raise your level of empathy considerably. Having said that, AMFV wisely steers clear of sentimentality...but at the cost, perhaps, of my full emotional engagement. Playing as a sentient computer is fascinating in itself, but it may detract somewhat from the humanity of the game. This is by no means a fatal flaw.

I went looking for rich narrative, complex characters, and empathy in a prior-era video game and found them in A Mind Forever Voyaging. Interactive fiction isn't for everyone, and I've had mixed success assigning it to my students. Games like Planetfall, Zork, and Leather Goddesses of Phobos present a series of gameplay challenges that many contemporary gamers will find onerous. But if you're willing to climb the text adventure mountain, I think you'll discover it's well worth the effort. And the view is spectacular.

Next up: Planescape: Torment. Is this fun, or what?!

Gamer's log: A Mind Forever Voyaging - Day 2

Amfv1_2 For information on this project, be sure to check my post, In search of narrative, character, and empathy.

Certain things become clear when playing A Mind Forever Voyaging:

  • Text adventures are hard work. Hard work can engage and reward the player. Hard work can also occasionally feel like drudgery.

  • When writing is *everything* in a game, it's more likely to be interesting, and in this case, powerful and compelling writing.

  • Steve "Nostradamus" Meretzky is a frighteningly prescient storyteller.

  • Games that force us to use our imaginations speak to us in ways modern games rarely access.

  • Cartography is best left to professionals.

I'm roughly halfway through the game. To say that A Mind Forever Voyaging has me in its spell would be an understatement. I took a nap today and dreamed I was in Dr. Perelman's office waiting for him to return with a mission for me. I'm an avid gamer, but I can't recall ever dragging one into REM with me.

I attribute this odd experience to the single most important aspect of AMFV: it thoroughly engages me intellectually, far more than any modern game I can think of. I simply can't stop thinking about it.

Without revealing any spoilers, I will say that AMFV seamlessly weaves into its futuristic narrative a dizzying array of contemporary issues--religious extremism, border security, terrorism, fundamentalism, executive branch expansion of power, and many others--all addressed by a game created over 20 years ago. It is frequently rather chilling, and I find myself repeatedly marveling at the many ways this narrative--a self-conscious rendering of a future America--paints an unsettlingly accurate picture of today.

Like most text adventures, AMFV makes you work harder than you're accustomed to in a game, and that effort is a double-edged sword. Your investment certainly draws you into the game and makes you feel as if you have a stake in it, but all that work can also feel overwhelming at times. Taking notes, drawing detailed maps, and tracking your various operational modes (you're a sentient computer) can begin to feel tiresome, particularly after you've been at it a while. I'm finding that a 2-hour session is all I can manage without a break, but with a baby in the house that's about all I get anyway! :-)

The question of empathy is still up in the air for me. AMFV absolutely clicks as a story, and the evolution of PRISM's (i.e. my)  knowledge of the world and relationship with Dr. Pereleman continue to make me feel very attached to the game and eager to track its unfolding events. But I believe designer Meretzky also wants me to care about the several bleak futures presented by the game...and I'm not quite there yet. Can a computer experience pathos? If a computer is my avatar, will I experience an empathetic disconnect from the other human characters and events? So far my engagement has been intellectually vigorous but emotionally a bit torpid. That could easily change, however.

Tomorrow I hope to finish A Mind Forever Voyaging and conclude this mini-diary. More soon.

If you're reading these posts and want to know more about the history of interactive fiction, I recommend Nick Montfort's book "Twisty Little Passages," which you can find in my "bookshelf" on the left side of this page.

Gamer's log: A Mind Forever Voyaging - Day 1

Amfv2_2 For information on this project, be sure to check my post, In search of narrative, character, and empathy.

If you want to read a novel written 200 years ago, you can probably find it at your local library or bookstore. If you want to play a video game created 20 years ago, you may have a problem.

Such is the case with A Mind Forever Voyaging, a classic piece of interactive fiction written by Steve Meretzky and released by Infocom in 1985. The first issue I faced trying to play this game was simply locating it in its original form, with all the included materials intact. Yes, I once owned this game. No, I can't find it anywhere. So, yes, I'm officially an idiot.

Ordinarily, tracking down a copy of the game file and a z-code interpreter would suffice, but that would be a mistake in this case. Infocom famously kickstarts the player's immersion into its games from the moment you open the box, and A Mind Forever Voyaging is no exception. The original AMFV box contained the following items (pictured above):

  • a printed copy of "Dakota Online Magazine," dated April 2031
  • a map of Rockvil, South Dakota, including ads from local businesses
  • a yellow ball-point pen ("Quad Mutual Insurance")
  • a "Class One Security Mode Access Decoder"

Each of these fictionalized items draws you into the world presented by the game and, in the case of the map and decoder, will serve as invaluable keys to your success. Perhaps more importantly, the included "magazine" contains stories that flesh out the narrative you are about to enter, contextualizing people and places that will soon matter to you.

Fortunately, devoted Infocom fans have scanned and archived all this stuff, so even if you can't hold them in your hands, the magazine, map, and decoder are all available (see below).

I find myself greatly enjoying these well designed pre-gameplay materials. Part of what I'm interested in with this project is examining how video games engage us as players (or in this case, player-readers) and hook us into their stories, characters, and environments. The April 2031 edition of Dakota Online Magazine cleverly initiates this process before I have even booted up the game.

I eagerly read the intriguing short story "A Mind Forever Voyaging" and perused the rest of the magazine when I experienced a sudden realization: I can't remember the last time I actually looked at a game manual (which these cleverly disguised AMFV materials function as). I routinely ignore them with today's games, and the vast majority of manuals I own have never been removed from their cases.

A recent exception is the collector's edition of Mass Effect, which comes with a small art book and a "codex" outlining the races, alliances, ships, etc. of the game. As impressive as these are, however, they seem to me devoid of the cleverness and fun Infocom routinely infused into its game materials--I mean, Dakota Online Magazine contains an ad for "Glutman's Restaurant: All the pizza you can eat for only $39.75, with your choice of onion, kelp, or olive topping!" Perusing AMFV's box materials reminds me of the lighthearted spirit of play Infocom infused into its games...even the ones with powerfully somber themes.

So, my initial incursion into A Mind Forever Voyaging is well underway...and now its time to begin playing the game!

You can find all the materials included in the original box version of AMFV (including scans of the pen and decoder wheel) in pdf format here.

If you are new to interactive fiction, also known as text adventures, you can find some excellent help for beginners here.

More soon.