First published in CubedGamers (Printed Edition): September 2016
Video game box art in the 1980s and 1990s was an important indicator of content for gamers. With primitive graphics, companies had to work hard to create attractive covers, and in no genre was this more challenging than text adventures. With little or no graphics to speak of (games by Magnetic Scrolls and Legend incorporated first-person graphics into their engine, as did latter day Infocom titles) companies had to use all their skills to lured gamers into buying their titles.
The best text adventure makers was Infocom, and among their many titles, it is A Mind Forever Voyaging by Steve Meretzky that is most fondly remembered, indeed, it still regularly makes lists of best games ever made. A politically charged science fiction story unparalleled in its originality and complexity pushed the medium to new heights, arguably they have rarely been matched – of Infocom’s titles, only Trinity – a mediation on time travel and nuclear war – came close to matching it.
Part of the uniqueness of Infocom was that at a time when most games came with only rudimentary packaging, Infocom games came in custom boxes, with additional items – journals, maps, and other items that enhanced the gaming experience. Other companies, noticeably Origin, copied the idea in their Ultima titles, but no one ever did “feelies” better than Infocom. And A Mind Forever Voyaging is no exception.
The games plot is introduced in a short story packaged with the game. Perry Simm as a recently married young man who leads an ordinary life, until one day, he is called for a job interview, at which it is revealed that his entire world is in fact an elaborate simulation, and that he is actually PRISM, the world’s first truly sentient AI program. None of this is referenced in the game, which opens with PRISM being informed that the simulation he was “grown in” is being retooled to serve as a test for a new “revitalisation” plan being put forward by Senator Richard Ryder, a stand in for Ronald Reagan, of whose policies and re-election creator Steve Meretsky was opposed too.
The player controls PRISM in the year 2031, when the economy of the United States of North America (USNA) is failing, and the youth of the country is turning to drugs. A new arms race has developed, with miniature nuclear weapons, and Ryders plan, which calls for renewed purpose through deregulation of government and industry, military conscription, trade protectionism, and a return to traditional values. PRISM’s role is to analyse the success of the plan.
With such a complicated story, added to the fact that the game has no puzzles, Infocom had a challenge to represent the themes of the game. Previous Infocom game box art had closely matched the theme of the game, but with so complex a premise, A Mind Forever Voyaging needed something more cerebral. In the centre we see Perry Simm / PRISM, reminiscent of 1984’s Winston Smith or Brave New World’s Bernard Marx, as they experience alternate futures to our own. Around him, the themes of the game, war, drugs, politics and space travel hang abstractly.
Perhaps it is not the greatest box art ever, but as a hugely symbolic indicator of the lofty narrative ideals of the game, A Mind Forever Voyaging is an important milestone. Without graphics, the box art creates a sense of mystery, of the possibility of a grand adventure, and ultimately, a game with an important message, a critique against the consequences of right-wing and populist policies.