A Mind Forever Voyaging flashback review

A Mind Forever Voyaging
A Mind Forever Voyaging
The Good:
  • Welcome non-linearity and sense of exploration in a large and fascinating world
  • Potential for replayability
  • A topic seldom tackled in games
The Bad:
  • Map can be confusing to navigate
  • Prose is too plain
  • Simplistic political narrative
  • Underdeveloped characters
Our Verdict:

Infocom’s A Mind Forever Voyaging was an innovative and bold game in its time, and though it never quite achieves its lofty ambitions, it does come admirably close.

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Politics are a rare foundation for a game. How many political-centred games can you name? For me, it's depressingly few. And those I can think of have nearly all been made during the indie game boom of recent years. Yet back in 1985, Infocom released A Mind Forever Voyaging, an unabashedly political text adventure, at the time unique in both its subject matter and game design. On this fact alone, the game is remarkable. But even disregarding the context in which it was written, it is a well-made game – flawed, yes, but vividly conceived and fascinating to experience even 30 years later.

You play as PRISM, an artificial intelligence unit who is suddenly awakened to the fact that he is a computer, after unknowingly living 20 years of his life in a simulation as Perry Simm. He was awoken so that he could be used to experience and then report on the effects of "The Plan for Renewed Purpose", a strongly right-wing plan put forth to revitalise the newly-formed USNA's (United States of North America) collapsing economy and society. You are told to re-enter the simulation and record footage pertaining to The Plan's effect on Perry's fictional hometown of Rockvil, as seen over a period of several decades.

In effect, the game becomes an interactive polemic against American Republican party politics, in particular the Reagan government. But what's curious is just how not-dated it is. I would even say its points are more relevant today than in the 1980s. Richard Ryder, the fictional Senator who proposed The Plan, is the synthesis of typical right-wing ideas at the time and possesses the rhetoric skills and popularity of then-President Reagan. The Republican Party has by no means changed course since Reagan, though. And with the emergence of real-world Senators like Ted Cruz, Senator Ryder becomes an even more relevant character, one whose proposal of dramatic tax cuts, talk of “flim-flam bureaucracies”, disdain for foreign aid and dubious interpretation of the Establishment Clause will doubtless have a strong familiarity.

When it comes to gameplay, A Mind Forever Voyaging also seems modern and innovative. Yes, it's a text adventure, which some may wrongly view as self-evidently antiquated. But it's also a largely puzzle-less, combat-less story that could almost be compared to games like Gone Home or Dear Esther, but with a larger and more open world to explore. It is a bit more intricate than that, however – as the player character is a computer, you have various modes and controls that give the gameplay greater complexity and make you feel like more than a passive observer. This contributes to the sense that the game was ahead of its time, and I couldn't help but notice the prescience of its design, mostly eschewing puzzles and traditional gameplay in favour of something more “literary”.

Perhaps more importantly, the gameplay makes for an engaging experience, regardless of how innovative it was. Providing a vast and changing world allows players to experience a linear narrative in a non-linear way. It is inevitable that certain events will happen, and that societal change like increasing poverty will occur, but you are given the freedom to explore the effects of these changes and discover many of the scripted events that take place in your own way, gathering evidence and piecing together the narrative. While playing, I almost thought of myself as a journalist, or a historian perhaps – not just a player or reader. And not just a sentient computer following instructions either: PRISM is a being built to fulfil the role of a researcher.

This, of course, wouldn't be compelling without the world and story themselves being interesting. Fortunately, A Mind Forever Voyaging is a game with a huge map and a plethora of details and occurrences that create not only a fascinating backdrop, but a level of replayability that is otherwise rare in adventure games. You could stumble into the raids conducted by the newly-formed Border Security Force, take a ride along the Tube, or visit the increasingly spartan supermarkets. Alternatively, you could just sit back and read the news broadcasts detailing the actions of white terrorist groups in South Africa or Senator Ryder's empty rhetoric on problems of crime and education. This all makes for an immersive setting worthy of several hours – if not more – of exploration.

Nonetheless, the gameplay is not without its problems. The large world, for which there is a very unspecific map that comes with the game, can be confusing to navigate. Like most text adventures at the time, it has a few too many non-reciprocal winding paths and will probably require most players to do some manual mapping. This isn't too bad, though, especially considering that some homemade maps can be found online, and free computer programs do exist to help map out Interactive Fiction (I recommend Trizbort). It's certainly an endurable sacrifice for such a large and vivid world.

More irritating is the fact that to enter this world, you'll have to get past the game's pesky copyright protection. Whenever you wish to begin simulation mode, which you will do frequently, an access code will be requested, at which point you'll have to whip out the Class One Security Mode Access Decoder, a rotating paper wheel that originally shipped with the game. (Alternatively, if you buy the iOS version, you get a virtual paper wheel to use.) Don't worry if you no longer have access to the decoder, however, as you can easily find a table online in which some poor soul has transferred all the access codes. So while annoying, this requirement never becomes game-breaking.

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