For All We Know: Suspended

In Suspended the absence of story is the story.

Suspended: A Cryogenic Nightmare (1983)
Implemented by Mike Berlyn

Packaging and Documentation

Suspended: Packaging, folio edition (retrieved from MoCAGH)
Suspended: packaging, grey box edition (retrieved from MoCAGH)
For best results, open MoCAGH images in new tab.
Suspended Invisiclues in z-code format. Retrieved from IDP.
The Obsessively Complete Infocom Catalog: Suspended.

Suspended: Specifications

(Courtesy of the Infocom Fact Sheet and this forum post). For comparison’s sake, Zork I‘s specifications follow in parentheses (this idea comes from the excellent Eaten by a Grue podcast).

Rooms: 63 (110)
Vocabulary: 676 (697)
Takeable Objects: 33 (60)
Size: 103.11 (76KB)
Total Word Count (outputted text): 16811 (14214)

Opening Crawl

SUSPENDED: INTERLOGIC Science Fiction
Copyright (c) 1983 by Infocom, Inc. All rights reserved.
SUSPENDED and INTERLOGIC are trademarks of Infocom, Inc.
Release 8 / Serial number 830521

FC ALERT! Planetside systems are deteriorating. FC imbalance detected. Emergency reviving systems completed. You are now in control of the complex.

SENSA INTERRUPT: Seismic aftershock detected ten meters north of Beta FC. Tremor intensity 9.7. Projected damage: connecting cables in Primary and Secondary Channels.

FC INTERRUPT: All Robots, report locations.

IRIS: In the Weather Monitors.
WALDO: In the Gamma Repair.
SENSA: In the Central Chamber.
AUDA: In the Entry Area.
POET: In the Central Chamber.
WHIZ: In the Advisory Peripheral.

A Critical Introduction to Suspended

Graeme Cree has the mixed fortune of penning the most-quoted and best-known review of Suspended:

It might be best not to think of Suspended as a work of Interactive Fiction at all. It is a pseudo-simulation game, written before software technology was developed enough to develop real simulation games. It is a game for frustrated would-be air traffic controllers who enjoy coordinating multiple activities from a central location, much more than it is a work of fiction. It is a game for people who like to play WITH games, not merely play them.

While Interactive Fiction is a far bigger tent than it was in 1996, it is fair to say that Suspended‘s uniqueness within the Infocom canon may surprise–alarm, even–new players. Like Deadline, Suspended requires the player to deliberately play dead-end games in order to complete a highly optimized, canon playthrough. Also, like Deadline, the world changes from turn to turn, posing temporal challenges that are not present in the Zork trilogy or Starcross.

Briefly stated, the protagonist is a cryogenically frozen person who by design has no characteristics, no stated history, and no goals beyond surviving a catastrophic computer failure caused by an earthquake. If this person, narratively reduced to a disembodied mind, cannot stabilize the computers within a set amount of time, they will be killed and replaced by a clone.

In terms of gameplay, the protagonist (henceforth referred to as the Winner) sends text commands to six different robots under their control in order to manipulate and monitor the game world, an underground sort of data center housing the failed computer systems. These robots respond to the Winner via text. Presumably the protagonist is using a sort of terminal/telnet functionality that is part of the developers’ 80s idea of the distant future. This may be one of the first games (is it first?) in which text commands and feedback were not just player control mechanisms but a justified part of the game’s world.

Cree is right to imply that Suspended is not, in a strict and perhaps conservative sense, a work of fiction. However, this is a bit like suggesting that post-modern novels and stories are not fiction. It does have quite a lot to say, particularly about the way in which sensory data constrain our knowledge of our world. Suspended has a spare plot, compensated for by thematic richness. Whether that will satisfy a player is a matter of taste, but it is worth noting that Suspended appeared in the “Interactive Fiction Top 50 of All Time” for the first time in 2019. It is, apparently, a game that holds greater appeal today than it did a quarter of a century ago. Perhaps people are at last ready for it.

Suspended, with its requirement for repeated and deliberately failed playthroughs, has two objectives:

  • Repair the computers before the Winner is replaced–an interface mastery and puzzle-solving exercise.
  • Repair the computers with minimal casualties (an optimization problem), with an ultimate goal of earning the best score, a rank of 1 (best) out of 7 (worst).

The scoring system gives Suspended a replay value absent in other Infocom games. Additionally, the player can configure difficulty options for an additional challenge.

Suspended is a game that is fundamentally concerned with epistemology. Not only does it dramatize the classic brain in a vat problem, but the robots (which all have a narrow and specific way of perceiving the world) pose novel challenges for the player. In fact, one of my earliest playthroughs of Suspended involved sending every robot to every location that was available to then. The goal was to synthesize each of their unique perceptions in order to arrive at a “true” understanding of the world. Suspended asks us to consider the ways in which we humans come to know our world and what the boundaries of that knowledge might be.

In a clever and effective way, Suspended interweaves its themes and gameplay in a manner that no Infocom game to date had. It is also a technical showpiece. Marc Blank took responsibility for enhancing the z-machine to be able to handle the new requirements of Suspended. The need to control and receive feedback from six protagonists–in technical terms only, the Winner takes that title–as well modifications to the scoring system were among Suspended‘s new requirements.

Suspended would be Infocom’s last “serious” science fiction work until Steve Meretzky’s A Mind Forever Voyaging (1985). It was also–I’m not sure many would disagree–Mike Berlyn’s best game at Infocom. I have always felt that his talents were squandered on the “Tales of Adventure” series, though perhaps I am selling Infidel short. In any case, Suspended is a fantastic first Infocom release for Berlyn and one of my favorites over all.

Tangent: Did anyone every play the Berlyns’ Tass Times at Tonetown? I’ve always found the cover art interesting.

Extras

My Suspended transcript. Somewhat optimized, so it’s missing some interesting stuff (examining items, etc).

While biography and history are not part of Gold Machine’s scope, the consistently thoughtful and interesting Jimmy Maher provides excellent background.

Next at Gold Machine:

In Friday’s post, I’ll discuss Suspended‘s excellent packaging, and how it serves to illuminate the plot (such as it is).

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