“Your lovin’ gives me a thrill / But your lovin’ don’t pay my bills.”
—Barrett Strong, “Money (That’s What I Want)”
[Spoilers for Suspect Follow]
Big Time: Suspect
1984 was Infocom’s biggest sales year yet, and if storm clouds had gathered at the edges of things, numbers and money might have made them easy to overlook. Despite a middling year in terms of critical legacy, Infocom was apparently at the top of their game. It’s worth listing off those 1984 games, which I name chronologically:
- Sorcerer: I realize I represent a minority opinion, but I consider Sorcerer the weakest entry in the six-game Zork saga. As Jimmy Maher writes, “It’s not one of the more ambitious games of Infocom nor, truth be told, one of the absolute best, but it is a solid, occasionally charming, playable game.”
- Seastalker: While I’m sure someone out there loves it, I have never encountered anyone who will admit to liking Seastalker. Its themes haven’t aged well, either.
- Cutthroats: It certainly has its adherents, but its critical legacy is that of a disappointing game with some good ideas.
- Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Unquestionably the brightest spot of the 1984 release calendar, HHGG would become Infocom’s second-highest selling game in terms of lifetime sales. It additionally remains a fan favorite despite its difficulty.
- Suspect: The end of Infocom’s “Quantum Detective” trilogy, poorly remembered at IFDB and elsewhere, whose most vividly recalled quality seems to be its mechanical complexity.
While sales were strong in 1984, it’s important to note that many high-selling titles were legacy games released prior to that year. Zork I, that tireless golden goose, was Infocom’s top seller for 1984 (it would be dethroned by HHGG in 1985). Zork II, Planetfall, Zork III, and The Witness would all outsell Seastalker and Sorcerer (sales data retrieved from one of Steve Meretzky’s Infocom Cabinets. I recommend downloading a PDF for more comfortable reading).
Such is the commercial context of Suspect‘s release: record annual sales (Infocom’s peak, in fact) buoyed in large part by long-tailed legacy software. Perhaps there was a sense that there was nowhere to go but up. Cornerstone would release only one month later, and perhaps hopes were high for that new venture. The release of Suspect would be celebrated at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas with a lavish murder mystery gala in a rented mansion. At the time, David H. Ahl, reporting on CES events, wrote, “Most intriguing CES party: The Infocom participatory murder mystery staged by the New York based Murder-To-Go troupe. Guests were witness to various incriminating scenes and could examine the place where the body was found as well as police reports. Nine people solved the mystery, and the top winner won a trip to Bermuda” (Creative Computing 11.4).
It’s worth repeating for emphasis: the winner of the murder mystery game, staged by a troupe of New York actors, was a trip to Bermuda. There was no doubt about it: Infocom had hit the big time.
Suspect and Its Overtly Mechanical Population
It has to be admitted: Suspect is mechanically impressive. Just as the simulations of Suspended and Deadline were novel and appealing in their day, Suspect was, under the hood, more sophisticated than either. It featured more potential suspects than Deadline, and their schedules were far more complex.
Unfortunately, this complexity was generally made manifest by references to undifferentiated names walking someplace off in the distance:
Colonel Marston is to the west, heading toward the east. To the west the Astronaut comes into view from the south. Smythe is to the north, heading away from you.
Most turns in which the player is mobile end with such messages. As has been previously discussed here, the beginning player is likely to be completely at a loss as to who these disembodied names are.
It has been frequently mentioned elsewhere (perhaps most humorously on the Eaten by a Grue podcast): the human machinery of Suspect is apparently incapable of mourning. After a perfunctory performance of dismay, the guests return to the dance floor as if nothing has happened.
Michael stops here. Michael stares, horrified, at the body. Colonel Marston stops here. Colonel Marston stares, horrified, at the body. The Astronaut stops here. The Astronaut stares, horrified, at the body.
The result is a narrative uncanniness. While Suspect seems to assume the characters’ humanity, it fails to convince most players of the same. These are not people any more than the tiny figures that populate an elaborate model train display are.
Suspect may be the only Infocom game that is best experienced by reading its source code, since doing so better marries form with content.
Not in My Backyard
The inhuman machinery of Suspect is an uncritical participant in various elements of wider social phenomena. For instance, the “Maryland Rambler” article about the encroachment of the middle class upon the properties of the landed gentry has as its sentimental heart an anecdote about “privileged equestrians” (note that the word lacked its present sociological implications in 1984) and their fox hunts that “refuse to be bullied.”
The “Rambler,” generally speaking, is concerned with upper middle-class rabble violating the forested seclusion of Maryland’s financial and political elite (a senator attends the party). The only choice that Maryland’s wealthy have in this fiction is leave or shut the interlopers out. Coexistence is simply not an option for Suspect‘s elites. Meanwhile, persons who sell their property are perceived as class traitors: “A group of old-money landowners has formed a coalition to save what’s left of the Hunt Country life; they are making no concessions to Cochrane and others like him. Their weapons? Money and influence.”
The phenomenon of working-class people moving away from the city (Washington, D.C. is mentioned in the “Rambler”) is widely recognized by American sociologists as a symptom of urban decay whereby middle-class families leave the city, potentially displacing wealthier people. When more people leave the city, suburban residents are driven to the exurbs. And so forth. These movements are typically driven by racism and classism, and Suspect‘s failure to engage with these factors despite a primary concern with land values and class pressures is, like its clockwork simulacra, a failure to believably render what is human.
Suspect: More Human Than Human
These two factors—the social and the programmatic—make it hard for a player to ignore that they participate in a fiction. This insistently fictional quality makes reader immersion difficult for many and impossible for the rest of us. One might say, “Well of course it is fiction. Zork is obviously fiction, too.” Granted, but the best fiction distracts us from its nature. It misdirects us, it allows us to forget about what it is and does. In the best cases, fiction makes it possible for us to forget what we are doing altogether; it holds our entire consciousness captive.
Metafiction is, of course, a notable exception, but beyond some inside jokes—a bit about a trapdoor and a rug; a horse named “Lurking Grue”—its constantly on-the-move characters seem quite sincere in their incredibility. The “Rambler” does not feel satirical—its angst over vanishing opportunities for fox hunting is presented as a real thing that we, its readers, might find relatable.
While it is true that Suspect‘s browsie is satirical, it appears to be a satire of a certain type of discourse about etiquette rather than a parody of the class issues subsumed within its content. It even goes so far as to mock “guilt-ridden liberals”, even though we likely believe today that it is the wealth and material plentitude of the rich that fascinate so many far more ordinary people.
It is accident, it must be, that Infocom’s next release would be Cornerstone, a fever dream borne aloft by unsecured capital and a slash and burn disposition toward its chief product line, its name recognizability, and, ultimately, the sole source of its independence. In other words, Infocom made a choice to bet the farm on what would ultimately be their legacy. Not so terribly different from what happens in Suspect, is it?
In two weeks, Gold Machine will feature a one-shot piece on Cornerstone—remember that this project covers all releases—which will focus on historical analysis with references to some great secondary sources. It represents the fulcrum of Infocom’s game development seesaw and is an important topic for fans of their interactive fiction content.
Next: ParserComp 2022
As some of you may know, the contemporary interactive fiction scene is built around a schedule of competitions held throughout the year. ParserComp, a competition happening right now, has some great games available that you can play for free (and even rate in the contest!). I have some reviews up at the Interactive Fiction Community Forum if you’d like to check them out. Next week, I’ll feature interviews with the organizers, as well as with two authors who wrote games I really enjoyed. If you’ve wanted to check out contemporary IF but haven’t known where to start, try some of the games I liked and then tune in next week!