Suspended: Welcome to the Machine

You may already be a Winner.

About Suspended‘s “Death Mask” and “Winning” Notification

Although the folio “death mask” package of Suspended is generally valued lower than the Starcross “flying saucer” (a relative bargain at $1,625 as of this writing), a convincing case can be made for its superiority. For one thing, it is relevant to the game it represents: there are no flying saucers in Starcross. If this seems nit-picky, remember that the philosophy here is that everything–game, box, manual, feelies–are all part of the overall text that the user experiences. In such an interpretive model, the death mask performs the important work of providing the reader with their first impression.

And what an impression it is. The mask’s white featurelessness is only approximately human. When viewed in concert with its blank, featureless expression, there is a disquieting sense of of the uncanny. This is a human face stripped of its (for that’s the right word, “it”) humanity, lacking as it does all distinguishing features, affect, and vitality. The only sign of life is a pair of yellow, red-rimmed corneas punctuated by two black, red-rimmed irises. These irises are almost all pupil, as if their owner is frozen in a state of surprise, shock, or terror.

What can be made of such a face? The eyes, we will learn, belong to the protagonist–the Winner. It is their human uniqueness, their subjectivity, that has been erased. Their personhood has been eradicated, and they are no longer an entity but rather a category. This is the sight that must be impressed upon the player before they are swept up in the machinery of Suspended‘s simulation. Distracted by the affected personalities of the robots and their quirks–in truth, they have neither intelligence nor personality–it is easy to forget the engine powering the massive contraption of Suspended‘s world: this unperson. While more will be said tomorrow, this mask is a vital, contextualising element of the text. It is more than a “cool box.”

The eyes beneath the mask belong to the reality that waits behind it. It features a black and white drawing–mostly black–of a face frozen in a horrified scream. Electrical leads are affixed to its scalp (again, “it” is used deliberately) indicating that its mind is in some way attached to computing machinery.

This face, its features lost in darkness, is also an essential, contextualizing image. It is the subjective experience subsumed in the impersonal mask. Never before or after would Infocom cover art be so thematically important to interpreting the text of an Infocom game (feel free to disagree or offer alternatives in the comments).

This image of a face, presented without text of any sort, is the cover of the Suspended manual. The first interior page reproduces a letter on the official stationery of the rather innocuous sounding “XR27 Central Contra Lottery Commision Headquarters,” begins with a bang:

Occupant/Subcluster B93000
Sector 12, Contra SW RP35/34412.8

Congratulations. You have been chosen as the winner of the semi-millenial Lottery, and as such will have the honor of serving as Contra’s Central Mentality for the next 500 years.

Naturally, this title brings with it certain responsibilities, not the least of which is ensuring the survival of life on this planet. To this end, in accordance with Procedural Substatute 2.5X:845A77b, you will be placed in a state of limited cryogenic suspension. In this sleep-like mode, your mind will monitor the Filtering Computers that maintain the delicate balance of our surface-side systems. Should an emergency occur which causes a Filtering Computer imbalance, you will be awakened. It will then be up to you to ascertain the problem and perform such remedial actions as you deem necessary. The penalties for failure are all too obvious.

It’s a lot to take in: the notably impersonal salutation, the Shirley Jackson-style lottery, and the ominous mention of “penalties for failure.” The letter, simultaneously outlining game objectives and failure conditions while efficiently asserting key socio-political characteristics of the game world, is as significant as the box itself.

The cover of Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery and Other Stories." The cover art features a black and white photo of Jackson that has been cut into rounded, irregular shapes. They appear to have been placed at random, so her face cannot be easily seen as a face.

The letter also describes the disastrous tenure of the Winner’s predecessor, Gregory Frankin (presumably his infamy has earned him the unique privilege of being designated by name) who, due to some sort of computing mishap, awoke 33 years early. Apparently, the experience of being trapped in a coffin-sized metal canister drove him insane. Siezing control of the facility’s controls, he used the planetary transportation and weather systems to kill several thousand people. He additionally used the robots under his control to sabotage computers and disable the most capable one under his control.

The letter’s language is all couched in a tone of dystopic officialese. In the wake of the incident, dissidents were “dealt with summarily by the Authority.” By its close, the letter is openly threatening. The sender, “Ignatz Feroukin,” observes that the Winner’s psychiatric profile revealed potentially “deviant” characteristics, then assures them that “you can be replaced.”

The Suspended Manual

The manual provides a reasonable rationale for why the Winner would transmit commands and receive feedback via text. I believe that, with the exception of a small handful of commands in A Mind Forever Voyaging, is only one way in which Suspended is unique to the Infocom canon. In Suspended, the Winner sends commands in plain English to the “Filtering Computers.” These computers then send translated directives to the six robots in the facility, which in turn send feedback to the computers. At no time does the Winner interact with anything directly, and there are only two occasions in which they can observe the world with their own eyes. In both cases, doing so has fatal consequences. The implications of the Winner’s abstraction from the concrete world of the facility poses a number of philosophical questions that will be explored tomorrow.

The manual goes on to describe the six (seven, technically) robots within the facility. Each has a unique way of perceiving the world, typically limited to a single human sense or machine-specific sensory data (sonar, detection of electrical current, etc.). In this way, the robots–the sole sources of information about the facility–constrain the Winner’s knowledge of the game world. Each robot additionally has its own “voice,” and their affectations range from the “all business” tone of Waldo to the wildly figurative language of Poet. These affectations pose philosophical questions as well.

Finally, the Suspended package contains two instances of what I would call “soft” copy protection. In one case the manual contains a command that a player is unlikely to use: BOTH r1 AND r2, [predicate]. In the second case, a second letter from Ignatz Feroukin explicitly explains the commands used to replace a cable. Moreover, he identifies a cable that is useless to the Winner. It closes, rather comically, with “Best wishes for a happy 500 years.”

While You Were Sleeping: The Story of Suspended

An earthquake rocks a datacenter deep below the earth, damaging the Filtering Computers that control critical, life-sustaining systems on the planet Contra. Because the computers can no longer regulate the weather, transportation, and food production machinery for the planet, a failsafe is engaged. This failsafe is a cryogenically frozen human returned to a minimal state of consciousness. This human–the Winner of a bimillennial lottery–will engage with a presumably still-functioning part of the Filtering Computers to stabilize the facility while repairing the damage.

In the course of minimizing casualties caused by the malfunction, humans arrive to kill and replace the Winner. They must be made to understand the situation within the facility, so that the protagonist can perform the needed repairs. If the player is clever, they will ultimately arrange for the replacement of two cables while manually controlling the planet’s critical systems, and subsequently reset the computers.

Yes, that’s right. The goal of Suspended is to replace two cables. It’s a difficult ride, though, and despite the strangeness of controlling the various robots, it is very much a short-but-difficult puzzle-solving endeavor. Determining the way machines work is a familiar sort of problem pushed here to an extreme (or extremes). For most players, the first successful playthrough will focus on solving problems while surviving to the end. Most players will likely discover that this sort of “winning” isn’t terribly satisfying. Too many people have died, and the citizens of Contra would like to see you dead. Presumably, the government will oblige them when your term is completed.

The next successful playthrough is an optimization exercise: the player must minimize casualties while repairing the computers. This time, there will hardly seem to be a story at all. The Winner sends the robots racing around the facility, never bothering to examine anything. This playthrough will not appeal to all fans of interactive fiction. In fact, it did not appeal to me back in 1994. When I replayed Suspended earlier this year, something had changed. I wanted to get the best possible score, and, after a couple of tries, I did.

The Contra Authority’s failsafe plan is obviously inadequate; surely a Winner would need to examine things from time to time.

(EDIT: or perhaps it would be more appropriate to construct facilities and systems that do not require sight.)

>iris, push sixth circle
FC: Cryolink already established to Iris.
FC: Second access code accepted. 

FC INTERRUPT:

All systems returning to normal.
  Weather systems slowly approaching balance.
  Hydroponic systems working at full capacity.
Surface life in recovery mode.

Extrapolation based on current weather systems and food supplies:
  Total recovery in 15 cycles.
  Current surface casualties: 12,000
  Projected casualties during recovery: 0
  Original population: 30,172,000
  Total possible survivors: 30,160,000

This score gives you the possibility of being considered for a home in the country and an unlimited bank account. On a scale of 1 (the best) to 7 (the worst), your ranking was 1.

You successfully completed your task, bringing the Filtering Computers back into balance, in 130 cycles.

Coming This Monday:

In Gold Machine’s final essay about Suspended, two philosophical questions will be examined. In the first case, I will evaluate the epistemological implications of a frozen body in a tube, communicating via termial emulation with a so-called “Filtering Computer.” In the second case, I will discuss the material and ideological implications of a literally dehumanized citizen/worker. See you there!

5 thoughts on “Suspended: Welcome to the Machine

  1. Small typo: “mostly back” should probably be “mostly black”. (I’ll read the rest of the article later.)

  2. For one thing, it is relevant to the game it represents: there are no flying saucers in Starcross.

    Not explicitly, but I always pictured it as being representative of the Starcross itself.

    To me, Suspended is a real monster of a logic/optimization puzzle with little emotional reward. It was the last one I even started to try to play off the “Masterpieces” CD.

    1. The physical appearance of the “mining vessel Starcross” is an enduring Infocom mystery. It really does not seem to be a flying saucer. With only three rooms arrayed in a line, a saucer would be mostly empty space (unless the rooms were very strangely shaped). Still, that is not definitive. Jimmy Maher’s implication is that the saucer package was proposed by G/R Copy, and that no one from Infocom had ever said anything about Starcross being a flying saucer. But that, too, is implied rather than explicit

      The folio manual says nothing about the ship’s physical description (IIRC).

      That leaves us with the grey box package, which clearly shows a triangular spacecraft, but I am on record, repeatedly asserting that folios are definitive sources while grey boxes can introduce problems. Sigh.

      Starcross itself unhelpfully brushes off any inquiries: “The Starcross looks the same as always.” From within the Starcross, standing near it on the surface of the Artifact, asking >WHAT IS STARCROSS? etc.

      Suspended is an arthouse film about depersonalization at the hands of an authoritative state and is definitely not offering emotional payoffs of any kind. Which, understandably, makes it a tough sell for many players.

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