Game Shows Touch Our Lives: Final Thoughts on Suspended

Winning isn’t everything.

Warning: the following essay contains open spoilers for Suspended, up to and including its ending.

A Clarification of Terms

Perhaps it is correct to say: “The protagonist of Suspend is an unfortunate nobody.” However, problems quickly arise:

  • What is the cause of their misfortune? Perhaps the Winner expected to sleep uninterrupted for 500 years, only to wake to a comfortable government pension of some sort. Winning itself might be good fortune.
    • In such a case, the “cryogenic nightmare” is not the sleeping but the waking.
  • Ascribing a change in fortune–for better or for worse–requires knowledge of the Winner’s life situation before the lottery.
    • The state of existence before winning is unknown. The state before waking is known.
  • In a literal sense, there is no such thing as a “nobody.” All persons are somebody–they have a history, personality, and life circumstances.
    • The Winner, therefore, is an effaced somebody, not a nobody. The causes of their effacement warrant discussion.

Let us try again. The Winner, an effaced somebody, has the misfortune of awaking early from cryogenic sleep. The underground data center that is their home has been damaged. Commanding six robots via a sort of neuroelectric telnet, they must diagnose and repair the damage before their employment and life are terminated.

The Limits of Human Knowledge in Suspended

In Suspended, the Winner has no way to interact with or perceive the data center with their own faculties. Nor, for that matter, do they communicate directly with their robot helpers. Instead, the Winner transmits commands to the “Filtering Computers” (which are, themselves, damaged). The FC’s, acting as an intermediary, send and receive data to and from the six robots.

In other words, the FCs serve a sort of translation function between the robots and the Winner. It is not completely clear how faithful these translations are. Each of the six robots has a distinct personality, or, more accurately, the FCs’ feedback implies personality. While the manual’s description of Poet (one of the robots) almost answers the question of whether the robots or the FCs are the originators of the six unique “voices,” it stops short: “Poet is a peculiar robot whose function was somehow altered over time by the Filtering Computers.”

The possible inaccuracies injected by the FCs translation yield an abstracting or estranging effect. Ultimately, the Winner cannot be certain that the information they received is infallibly accurate. Even in the best attempts at faithful translation, meaning is often lost. This is the first sense in which the Winner’s knowledge of the game world is constrained.

A poster for the 1962 horror The Brain That Wouldn't Die. The title occupies the left third of the poster. Below and to the left of it, a man is carrying the limp form of a woman with both arms. On the right two-thirds of the poster, a decapitated woman's head, wearing a terrified expression, looks forward and down. The stump of the next is resting in a shallow tray of fluid. A syringe is nearby. Wires are connected to the head in multiple places. Behind the head and over its "shoulder" is a brain in a jar that is also attached to wires. It has a very large eye embedded in its center-front. Intended as a humorous illustration of philosophical issues in Suspended.

The problem of constrained knowledge is a central underlying theme of Suspended. The obfuscating effect of translation is compounded by the unique sensory capabilities of each robot. Only one robot, Iris, can “see” as many humans do, and her specific purpose is watching the monitoring systems that report on planetary conditions (in the old, 80s future of Suspended, neither robots nor Winner can recive this data directly). Her purpose is so narrowly construed that she cannot travel far from these monitors.

In this passage, five robots “look” (this command is used even though the robots don’t see) at the Maintenance Access room. An understanding of what is happening here is crucial to completing the game. A pipe is leaking acid, which is spraying into another location, where it prevents access to the FCs. A valve, if closed, will stop the spray:

FC: Full report from WALDO
WALDO: Internal map reference -- Maintenance Access
I've reached the end of the eastern corridor. Before me, high overhead, is a strange combination of circular protuberances.
Sonar detects a circular object mounted on the wall high overhead, out of reach. A small spray is also detected, going upward through the ceiling.
In the room with me are Sensa, Auda, Poet and Whiz.
WALDO: My extensions grasp nothing.

FC: Full report from SENSA
SENSA: Internal map reference -- Maintenance Access
Mechanical devices can be detected far out of range.
Sensory mechanisms can detect a low concentration of acid in the air. Its origin is directly overhead. Approximately 99.87 percent of these acid droplets are going up into the room above.
In the room with me are Waldo, Auda, Poet and Whiz.
SENSA: I cannot sense a thing in my grasping extensions.

FC: Full report from AUDA
AUDA: Internal map reference -- Maintenance Access
I am in the Maintenance Access.
I can hear hissing coming from high overhead here.
In the room with me are Waldo, Sensa, Poet and Whiz.
AUDA: I can't hear a thing in my extension.
Auditory circuits active.

FC: Full report from POET
POET: Internal map reference -- Maintenance Access
Round and round she goes, where she stops, nobody knows.
The turning of the screw, like the delicate machinations of life, goes on far out of the reach of ordinary mortals.
In the room with me are Waldo, Sensa, Auda and Whiz.
POET: As far as I know, I'm Zen on inventory.
POET: Sensory pads detect no abnormal flow.

In this example, it is clear that no single robot has a complete sense of what is happening here. Sensa can detect the nature of the chemical but cannot detect the valve. Waldo can perceive “circular protuberances.” Poet’s report is rather… poetic, but can possibly be interpreted as identifying the valve (a wheel).

Suspended is, again, profoundly concerned with the way in which sensory data constrains our knowledge of the world. What does it mean to “know” what is or isn’t in a given location? In the above example, sight would have immediately revealed the leak and the means to end it. To what extent do sighted individuals take sight for granted? Moreover, to what extent do they devalue other sources of knowledge? With three very specialized exceptions (involving reading and discerning color), sight plays no role in repairing the facility, and zero role in understanding the game’s geography.

It is fair to say that Suspended asserts three vital philosophical questions about knowledge. The first deals with the relationship between different types of sensory data and knowledge. The second examines the potentially distorting effects of translation. Finally, it invites us to consider what sorts of data are privileged in our society. It is easy, I think, to miss or minimize the depth of Suspended‘s philosophical implications with talk of “story” or “simulation.” It is, in many ways, more thoughtful than many traditional works of interactive fiction.

Working For the Man: Power and Effacement in Suspended

To reiterate: the Winner is not a “nobody.” Rather, they are an effaced somebody. In the last installment of this series, I observed that the death mask, presumably part of the Winner’s cryogenic apparatus, had reduced the individual (whoever the Winner once had been) to a category (generically human).

However, a mask can be removed. If this is the extent of the Winner’s effacement, then there is little to discuss. The mask is a symbol of the protagonist’s relationship to their society on two axes. First, it represents the Winner’s relationship to the state (Contra Central) as a citizen. In the second place, it is indicative of their relationship as a worker. In both cases, they are defined by demonstrations of state power that reduce the Winner to the status of anonymous resource. While many governments may view their citizens as resources, the important distinction here is publicly performed application or threat of governmental power, directed at the people of Contra.

A World War I enlistment poster. A group of individuals from various professions and backgrounds slowly merge into a long line of uniformed soldiers that extends into the distance. At the top of the poster, a message in blue capital letters reads: "Step into your place." Posted because it illustrates the way in which individual characteristics can vanish under government pressure in Suspended.

The state of Contra Central is totalitarian and at least partially fascistic. The Winner’s home address, “Occupant/Subcluster B93000, Sector 12, Contra SW RP35/34412.8,” is illustrative. The address implies that housing is state-provided, and the Winner is a nameless “occupant” that lives in a thing called a “Subcluster.” Contra Central not only crushes dissidents, but it also openly brags about doing so. Such performances are almost certainly aired with an intent to frighten citizens and discourage political discourse:

In the tragedy’s aftermath, several known malcontents protested that the system had proven itself infeasible; these complaints were dealt with summarily by the Authority, which assures all citizens that new improvements in the system and the method for selecting future central mentalities have eliminated any cause for alarm…

While the state asserts that the citizens of Contra lead lives of leisure, it is hard to reconcile this notion with the presence of dissidents and government-constrained speech.

If a reader did accept the state’s position, then that would make Suspended a retooled “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.” I don’t read it that way, but perhaps we will be lucky enough to see such an argument one day.

Contra Central’s attitude toward its workers is similarly effacing. Its only recognition that the Winner is an individual is a dehumanizing threat:

Addendum: The Office of Cloning and Personnel Development informs us that a number of replicates of you are currently under production, for use in the event that we find it necessary to remove you. This should in no way be construed as a reflection on you as a person; despite the fact that your psychological profile revealed a few characteristics which could be termed “deviant:’ we have only the highest expectations for you. Needless to say, however, the Authority desires no repeats of Franklin’s performance. Therefore, remember: you can be replaced.

Contra Central’s sole means of motivation is through threats, both veiled and unveiled. There are no promised rewards for success beyond survival. In terms of working conditions, there have been no apparent enhancements made to the facility or its technology since the beginning of Franklin’s tenure 500 years ago. The most useful robot, Fred, has been disabled since Franklin. Rather than repair him, Contra Central stuffed his broken shell in a cabinet.

It’s worth wondering whether the Winner is expected to repair anything, or if they are merely installed as a contingent scapegoat should anything go wrong in the facility. In any case, Contra Central has not taken sufficient steps to assure the Winner’s success and has relied exclusively on fear for their motivation.

As citizen-worker, the Winner is quite literally a cog in the machine. In a Kantian sense, they are always a means and never an end. They have, in a sense, become their own mask.

Final Thoughts on Suspended

I must have been ten or twelve when I first played Suspended. It was a pirated copy, so I did not have any idea what the game was about. I eventually figured out that I was supposed to be commanding various robots with different abilities. I didn’t get far, though. I think I managed to fix Iris and get up the step at Central Junction. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be doing, and neither did any of my friends. I liked the idea of controlling robots but had to move on.

In my early twenties, I played the Lost Treasures of Infocom version of Suspended. Recalling my frustrations with it as a boy, I had many enjoyable “ah-ha” moments while reading its documentation. I did not appreciate Suspended, though. When I finally repaired the computers, the score that I got implied that I would be executed at the end of my 500-year term. The score seemed to suggest that I play again, but I did not. For whatever reason, it seemed like a hassle.

Several months ago, I played it for the third time, and this time things came together. I found myself speculating about the Winner’s horrible life on a horrible planet and the government that put them in a cylinder underground. The more I thought about the capabilities of each robot, the more fascinated I became. I kept playing until I earned the highest score and felt very satisfied for doing so.

In the course of writing this series of essays about Suspended, I have wondered if something has changed in me that would so radically alter my opinion of it. I suspect that my experiences with mental illness have made all the difference. One of the game’s central conceits is the mechanism by which text input and output become part of a basic command-feedback-command loop. At the center of this spiral are the Filtering Computers, which serve as translators between the robots and the Winner. The idea of viewing the world as a translation feels oddly familiar to me, as does the question of whether or not sensory data can be trusted.

There is also something compelling about Suspended‘s dramatization of constrained existence. All life is constrained–we must obey certain societal and scientific laws–but disabilities can present as constraints. too. Centering a game around such constraints is an audacious act, even today. Suspended invites us to consider the robots’ operating conditions in terms of effectiveness rather than of incapability.

Next Up:

This Wednesday, we begin discussion of The Witness. Get ready for murder and unabashed orientalism in the second Interlogic mystery!

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