Written in 1985 by Steve Meretzky (author of many other Infocom classics such as Sorcerer, Hitchhiker's Guide, and Zork Zero), this was Infocom's big attempt at doing serious science fiction in the vein of 1984 and Brave New World. Like those stories, Meretzky imagines a future where the world has gone horribly wrong and spends lots of time carefully examining the details of that future society.
The game suffers from many flaws, including an interface that is difficult to understand at first and fairly skimpy interactions with most NPCs. Ultimately where it succeeds is by presenting big ideas through a very large and lavishly described game world that changes over time.
There is a gimmick to this game. You are PRISM, the world's first truly intelligent computer. The manual explains some of your origin story. The year is 2031. Years ago, PRISM's creator, Dr. Abe Perelman, decided to raise the computer under the illusion that he was really a human. PRISM inhabits a Matrix-like virtual reality for most of his life. Believing himself to be "Perry Simm", he experiences a human childhood, growing up from a baby, experiencing bad breakups and the death of loved ones and typical human existence. When PRISM is a young man, Perelman wakes him up and tells him his true identity.
PRISM was created with a purpose. Not only can he simulate a life in the past and present, but he can also extrapolate life in the future. The world is in a political crisis, and a charismatic senator has stepped up with the Orwellian-titled "Plan for Renewed National Purpose". Your job is to simulate a world ten years in the future where this plan has been implemented, and see how things turn out. Based on the recordings you make in your simulations, the Plan might be put into effect by Congress. This is where the game begins.
Part of the reason the interface is difficult is that you are expected to act as a computer in multiple roles. In communications mode, you can "turn on" your own interface outlets and instantly visit different parts of the lab where you live. You can enter interface mode and talk to other "dumb" computers that manage the facility. There is library mode where you can review your assignment, read up on current events, learn about your creator, and study the bullet points and popularity polls of "The Plan".
Once you enter simulation mode, the game becomes a fairly standard "walk around and look at stuff" adventure game. However, your goal is not to collect treasures, but to collect recordings of interesting sights in the future. In part one, when you are getting the hang of your identity and the point of the game, you are given specific events to record (i.e., talk to a church official, visit your house, eat in a restaurant).
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Once you win part 1, things get more interesting and fun. Your processors gradually collect enough data to simulate the future in 20 years, 30 years, 40 years, and finally 50 years. It is then up to you to use your judgment about what to record. As you travel to the future, you watch society gradually crumble and fall around you. The government becomes more and more totalitarian. Weird religious cults sprout up as the decades pass. The people in the world become more close minded and cruel. This is where the game really shines. You get to explore the same map in each time zone, and the changes that occur are subtle at first, but start accelerating. For instance, in 2041 and 2051, you can visit an ordinary supermarket and buy groceries. In 2061 you notice that the shelves are sparsely stocked with unappetizing canned goods. By 2071, you can only buy a crummy soy patty and you have to show your "ration card" to get food once every three days. The library pops up a list of banned books. The zoo holds "monkey taunting" events. The courthouse hosts increasingly sinister trials for more pitiful criminals each decade.
The final year, 2081, is very creepy. No matter where you go you can experience a different violent death, and if you simply wait around, you'll die of starvation.
In part 3 you engage in a fairly short and slightly anti-climactic political struggle in the real world to stop the senator from passing the Plan. The game ends on a fairly up note as you skip ahead to the far future of a world where the Plan was never implemented.
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From a political standpoint, the game has a definite liberal slant, even more so now than it must have looked during the Reagan years. Some have called it "preachy", so factor that in to whether you would enjoy playing it. Richard Ryder is clearly a right winger, and religion and hyper-patriotism are two of the big boogeymen that the game presents for the future. Still, the game does get a little balance from the implication that the Plan is an almost understandable reaction to a recession caused by high taxes and liberalism run amok.
The future that is presented is clearly a bit of a caricature, but then again, so was 1984. The best part of this game is not seeing the author's idea of a dystopia, but in watching the logical procession of a healthy society toward that dystopia. On the whole, the game is one of the best attempts I've ever seen to introduce serious ideas into interactive fiction, and it remains one of my favorite game stories ever.