"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?!