[2/3] But Is It Art? The Intermittently-Beloved Art of Suspect

Alan E. Cober’s artwork for Suspect has proven so controversial that few authors have paused to consider whether the metatext bundled with Suspect has any utility in the first place (narrative, gameplay, or otherwise).

A Curious Metatextual Trend in the Mysteries of Infocom

NOTE: THIS ESSAY CONTAINS SPOILERS

In the last update from Gold Machine, I shared links to the various materials that accompanied each purchased copy of Suspect. If you haven’t seen them before, heading back might be worth your time. Since this is the third and final game in what I refer to as the “Quantum Detective” series of mysteries, it will likely be instructive to step back and consider the packaging for all such titles. Perhaps there is a trend or underlying movement that might say something about the narrative evolution of Infocom’s mysteries.

Deadline was the first Infocom game to include feelies. Its metatext served two purposes. One was utilitarian in the sense that the documents informed the player’s decision-making and understanding of the game world. The other function was the creation of atmosphere, since the feelies were presented in recognizable formats (reports, interview transcripts, etc.) that fostered a sense of belonging to a crime-solving bureaucracy—all objects are things that a “Chief of Detectives” might have. Importantly, these documents were neither window dressing nor garnish. They were essential elements included to solve a design problem. The limitations of the z-machine (Infocom’s virtual machine used for running games across multiple platforms) at that time dictated a theoretical size limit of 128 KB for game files. The practical reality, though, was that many games could not even reach that ceiling. This included some important customer bases in 1982—I believe the TI/99 was especially limited—so, Marc Blank needed to figure out a way to include all of the text that was part of the design some other way.

As much as we all love Infocom packaging, I think we must admit that most of it isn’t in place to meet design goals (other than copy protection). This is most obviously the case with the gray box rereleases, but it’s a general trend that crops up everywhere, including the mysteries that we’ve gathered here today to discuss. Take The Witness, for instance. The newspaper is fun to read, and it is an incredible recreation of period ephemera. It has very little to do with playing the game. While Deadline prepared players by introducing the suspects and providing significant details regarding the crime, only a few facts in this large, multi-paged newspaper have any bearing on the crime or its suspects: we learn that Monica Linder is a mechanical engineer (oh noes!), that Virginia Linder committed suicide, and that Freeman Linder is a war profiteer of some sort.

This shortcoming is masked by the undeniable charm of the newspaper’s incredibly eccentric stories, but it ultimately does nothing that the Deadline metatextual elements do. It isn’t like that information was not needed. The characters are largely types or loose collections of cultural assumptions. If The Witness gets away with such omissions, it is only because it is a narrative held together with cultural assumptions—not exactly a strength—and because there are so few characters that very little is needed to keep them straight.

An advertisement for binoculars. Sturdy-looking case with neck strap included. The caption reads: "Move in on the action! American Optical Company."
Detail from a vintage binoculars ad that was part of the folio release of The Witness.

What of Suspect, then, our game of the day and the culmination of simulation-based mystery at Infocom? It is like The Witness, only more so. More so because someone must have gotten the memo that “funny” browsies were a recipe for sales success, while the earliest mysteries may not have been able to capitalize on this business reality. The browsie—Suspect was the only classic mystery to initially release in the gray box format—was a booklet titled “Murder and Modern Manners,” a rather dark (for Infocom) satire of etiquette advice authors (they were popular syndicated features at the time) illustrated by then-recognizable commercial artist Alan E. Cober, future inductee into the Illustrators Hall of Fame. A surprisingly large and vocal number of Infocom fans dislike the art. However, it’s a quality browsie to be sure, with strong art, writing, and presentation. Whatever one’s tastes, it is well-made. Unfortunately, it does nothing to answer some important questions for the player. Chief among them is likely to be “who in the world are these people wandering around?” If Deadline players required such assistance, then why wouldn’t readers need help identifying the more numerous and ambulatory inhabitants of Suspect?

As in the case of The Witness, Lebling (and the marketing department, one must assume) seem to know what made Deadline cool while overlooking what made it work. The enclosed 2-page excerpt from the “Maryland Rambler” fares better, identifying as it does a small subset of the game’s cast (largely with a sentence or two), but it’s hardly enough to reflect an investigative reporter’s (that’s the protagonist, by the way) background research and preparation.

Like Deadline, the story file for Suspect is stuffed to the point of bursting. Unlike Deadline, the metatext of Suspect does little-to-nothing to fill in gaps in the player’s knowledge—gaps that the protagonist would almost certainly not have. If I haven’t already made this clear in earlier discussions of Infocom’s changing attitude toward metatext and product marketing: while feelies originated as a way to overcome design limitations, browsies had no duty to the games they accompanied. As a bit of in-store promotional material, they were at least as concerned with marketing as they were with enhancing player experience with the games themselves. The browsie for Suspect could have solved some glaring in-game problems, but that was not its objective.

A highly stylized drawing of a murder that was part of Suspect's documentation. A man lies face down on the ground while another man kneels on the victim's back, holding a revolver to his head.
One of Alan E. Cober’s illustrations for Suspect.

Do Automata Have Stories?

Another advantage of Deadline‘s metatext is that it constructs something recognizable as a narrative context: an “industrialist” dies, the body is found, various people characterize their relationships to the deceased and account for their day, a detective finds that suicide is the likely cause. You, that detective’s supervisor, have this story as a context while simultaneously coming to dismantle that story.

Suspect is a different beast. You, an investigative reporter, go to a fancy society party and get framed for murder. As a player, your goal is to follow these strangers (few will join you in conversation, so they remain strangers) around until you figure out where and when someone(s) have arrived at specific coordinates on a temporal map until you have the killer identified. In principle, this isn’t so different from Deadline or The Witness. The problem is that these characters are so undeveloped that it will be impossible for many players to suspend disbelief, accepting that these untalkative wind-up toys are in fact people. Both Deadline and, to a lesser extent, The Witness stave off this sense of inhuman clockwork through atmosphere and metatext. Suspect seems most concerned with complicating the simulation—with technical achievement, in other words—rather than with recreating what made Deadline work in spite of its impersonal simulations.

Suspect, then, is a matter of being in the right places at the right time. One of those places is outside, checking the weather when Michael’s girlfriend arrives. Another is next to a fireplace when Marston burns a document (I’m not sure that there is a way to discover this without following him around all night). The player must also fingerprint a glass in a trash can. Following all of the characters will make for a great many playthroughs, sometimes finding nothing at all. Deadline pushed the tolerance envelope for this type of play, in my opinion. Did anyone finish Deadline only to say: “This is fine, but I wish that there were more people moving around more frequently?”

Rather than leave you in suspense: Veronica was killed by her husband Michael who conspired with his girlfriend Alicia. Michael was trying to cover up the fact that he and Colonel Marston were embezzling her funds.

This may or may not surprise you, but neither Alicia nor Michael are mentioned in Suspect‘s metatext.

Suspect: Get Rich or kill Trying

Next time around, Gold Machine will problematize Suspect‘s uncritical portrayal of classism, its subsumed fears of working and/or nonwhite persons, and the ways in which its inhuman portrayal of mechanical personhood serves to amplify these phenomena.

It’s shaping up to be a doozy! Don’t miss the third and final piece in Gold Machine’s series on Suspect.

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4 thoughts on “[2/3] But Is It Art? The Intermittently-Beloved Art of Suspect

  1. I’ve always known of Suspect’s existence but never played it. So concerning its artwork, which I’d also never looked at much before, I thought I could express my reaction to it today.

    My glance-reaction to the cover image is that its clutter and detail stops it selling any one idea quickly the way other Infocom covers (or most game covers) do. It does reward closer inspection. There are subtle visual tricks with overlapping elements, like the masked woman’s hair which becomes both the sheik’s Keffiyeh (had to look that up) and the background plane for the wolfman.

    Texture and detail are more important than colour. If it had even more texture, it would start looking like an old etching. Still, even close up, the blurb writing is not easy to read. The whole image is tricky and a little resistant. Maybe like the game is supposed to be.

    The gun/guy-on-the-floor image is, at a glance, visually easier to parse than the cover, but only initially. The pose is hard to explain. Is this a picture of the murder (which would make the neutral facial expression baffling) with some omniscient annotations, or a picture of an investigator demonstrating the murder? Either way is strange. How many murders are carried out with a Magnum pressed to the head in this arrangement? Almost nil, I’d wager!

    The way the corner of the room is agitated and doubling as some kind of energy from the gun again shows that overlapping of elements present on the game’s cover. When I googled up more of Cover’s art, I began to see that this collapsing and flattening of the planes of things is a major element of his style.

    Inevitably, the time spent staring at the pictures made me like them a lot more, when my instant first reaction to the Suspect cover had been ‘Bleh!’. The images have abstract elements and don’t convey things directly. This should make them a match for the game, or at least its subject matter, but maybe they don’t suit the context the other Infocom covers created. More so if the game can’t stand up to the images.

    1. I think that’s a good read. Whether I enjoy them or not, I have to admit that the images are complex and technically sophisticated in a way that other Infocom box art was not. I agree that they do get more interesting the more I look at them. In fact, when I started this journey, I disliked Cover’s art, but it has certainly grown on me.

      I think that asking if Cover’s art is a match for Suspect is an important—if often overlooked—question. I personally don’t think it works in that context. The characters in Suspect feel mechanical in an inhuman way, while the figures on the box seem idiosyncratic and individuated.

      Thanks for mulling it over!

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