Thursday, 2 June 2016

Missed Classic 23: Suspect (1984)

By Ilmari

Dracula, werewolf and a gorilla - all we need is Lucy

Since Joe is now playing another detective adventure, this is a perfect time to look at Suspect, which concludes Infocom’s detective adventure trilogy (previous titles were Deadline and Witness). Unlike in previous games, you do not assume the role of a police detective. Instead, player character is the prime suspect of the murder, which makes the atmosphere quite different than in the earlier games. Part of the difference is probably also due to a change of implementor. It’s not Marc Blanc with the original idea of Deadline nor is it Stu Galley with his finely tuned writing skills, but Dave Lebling, a man behind many Infocom classics and one of the makers of original Zork.

Let’s again begin with the feelies. Just like with Witness, there’s a magazine, which has almost nothing to do with the actual plot of the game. Murder and Modern Manners is a guide, aimed for people who have been invited to a murder party. Presumably a murder party game is meant, but the guide is written tongue firmly in cheek, as if it’s all about a real murder.

What do you get when you combine bad humour with a jail cell?

A more informative feelie is the newspaper Maryland Rambler. We are apparently back in modern days and a battle between the old Maryland elite and newcomers is about to begin. The Montgomery County used to be a paradise for the filthy rich, whose main hobby was fox hunting and throwing fabulous parties in grand mansions. Then came real estate developers, like William Cochrane, who started buying land from down-on-luck landowners and building houses for middle class. Soon, there would be no space for fox hunting, unless the oppressed landowners would do something against the onslaught of lower classes.

The leading figure in the battle against the middle class is Veronica Ashcroft-Wellman - and what better way to start the battle than hold a grandiose masquerade at Ashcroft Farm. Among the guests are close friends of Veronica and some of them are also quite influential, like the local senator.

The player character is an old friend of Veronica, who has been invited to the party. He is also a journalist working for Washington Representative, and his editor, Earl David Jackson, thinks this might be a great opportunity for a news report.

An old bearded guy trying to kill his son or a masked swordsman? Tough choice.

Game begins in a ballroom, with most of the important people already there. There’s Veronica’s husband, Michael Wellman, who apparently loves her wife dearly and who is dressed as a sheikh. There’s Colonel Robert Marston, director of the Ashcroft Trust and responsible for Veronica’s funds. There’s Richard Ashcroft, Veronica’s brother, dressed as a werewolf, and his lady friend, Linda Meade, who is reputed to be a bit of an airhead. Even infamous Cochrane is here, dressed as an astronaut, along with a rival real estate dealer, Samuel Ostmann, dressed as a vampire. The only important person who is coming late is Alicia Barron, a good friend of Veronica.

A faery queen, whom we are told is Veronica, is talking with a group of people about her new horse, Lurking Grue, when she spills Singapore Sling on her white dress. She throws the glass on floor and tells Michael that she will go and change her clothes. We can try to follow her, but we’ll be intercepted by a large gorilla - the butler Smythe in a disguise - who is having trouble with the wet overcoats of the guests (it’s very rainy outside). When the incident has stopped, Veronica is not in sight. We can find her later in her office - strangled with a lariat that was part of our own cowboy costume.

I wonder what your own personal copier must have cost in 1980s?

Eventually other people will find Veronica’s body also and someone calls the police - you can even call the police yourself. A nameless detective arrives to the scene, with Sergeant Duffy, a fine public servant. Is it the same Duffy as in the two previous games? If he is, he must be well past his retirement age by now, as his career started already in 1930s. Duffy has also transferred a lot, since Witness happened in L.A. and Deadline in Connecticut. Or perhaps U.S. police departments just regularly hire sergeants called Duffy.

The detective in Suspect is not so bright and will spend a lot of time weighing the evidence. He will eventually come to the obvious conclusion and send Duffy to take you in his iron grip. This creates a very tight time limit at the beginning of the game, which makes solving the crime rather difficult. First task is then to point the finger of suspicion toward another candidate.

Couldn't you have revealed who the real murderer was?

Luckily, there’s some evidence pointing to another direction, just lying on Veronica’s desk. There’s a folder describing a deal between Veronica and Ostmann - she’s selling the Ashcroft Farm! Also, there’s a business card from Cochrane, who still urges Veronica to change her mind. By showing these documents to detective, his suspicions turn toward Cochrane, who might resent the fact that the deal of the century went to his biggest rival.

Of course, like all first solutions in detective fiction, this is just a red herring. Indeed, there is no shortage of people having grudge against Veronica. Just take Richard, Veronica’s brother, who is economically dependent on Veronica. Could he have done the deed, especially as his wife Linda thinks that the allowance given to Richard is far too small? No, if the previous Infocom detective adventures have proven anything, it’s never the black sheep of the family.

Let’s take another approach. Why did Veronica even have to sell his farm? Wasn’t she heir to one of the wealthiest families in the land and also a devout opposer of modernization? Something fishy is going on.

Let’s follow Colonel Marston, the man behind Ashcroft Trust. At one point, the good old colonel has a suspicious meeting with Veronica’s husband, Michael. The two gentlemen come to the library, check that there are no other people around and lock the doors for a while. If you are hiding behind a chair, you can see Michael giving a piece of paper to Colonel, who goes quickly to a fireplace and throws it to flames.

Getting the paper from the fireplace, before it burns, we see it mentions Southeast Planning Corporation, with Colonel and Michael as equal shareholders. The paper has a torn corner, showing that it was formerly stapled to other documents. Where are those documents?

The next step requires some backtracking. We have to find out the movements of Michael, before he meets Marston in the library (yeah, it makes no sense storywise, but imagine this is yet another example of a Groundhog Day). We can see him taking something from the trunk of his BMW. Opening the trunk with crowbar, we find some incriminating documents.

We have a motive

It appears then that Michael and Colonel have for quite some time been transferring the Ashcroft funds to their own hands. No wonder Veronica had to sell her own farm! If Veronica had found out their embezzlement, they both would have had a motive to get her out of the way. The problem is that neither of them had a chance to kill her.

An important clue for solving the case is hidden by the faery mask Veronica supposedly wore at the party. Looking in it, you’ll see a hair, which has different colour from the colour of Veronica’s. This might not seem much of an evidence, since the hair might belong to a previous renter of the faery queen costume. Fortunately, there’s more evidence pointing to the same direction.

Remember the glass that broke at the beginning of the game? The ever dutiful butler Smythe cleaned up the fragments and threw them in waste basket, which you can luckily find in the kitchen. You don’t want to take the shards with your bare hands, since that would ruin the fingerprints, but you could take the whole wastebasket and ask the detective to analyse the content of the basket. The analysis shows that fingerprints on the shards do not belong to Veronica. This means that someone else was impersonating her at the party, and Veronica might have been killed earlier by her husband.

How did this guy ever become a detective?

Who could have been the female accomplice of Michael Wellman? One guest, Alicia Barron, joined the party later. What’s more, she assumedly arrived at a time, when rain had already ended. Still, her coat was wet through and through. We can now reveal the solution to the detective - or we can show our evidence to Michael and Alicia, who will try to make an escape and die trying. In any case, we've got our Pulitzer.


Puzzles and Solvability

I’ve noted several times that Deadline-games resemble a lot the Groundhog Day, because finding a successful ending requires going through the same events over and over again. In Suspect this is very blatant, because you literally need to know where to hide, in order to witness an important event that occurs only once. In addition, the time limit at the beginning is quite tough and it is not so obvious what to do to get the police off your scent. To top all that, interrogating the suspects is pretty annoying. The NPCs have a tendency to wander around a lot, and you have to run after them just to get a reply for a question. All in all, I felt that the puzzles of the game were not so tightly planned as in the two predecessors.

Rating: 3

Interface and Inventory

Thankfully, Infocom appears to have fixed the inventory problems of Deadline and Witness (or then the game just has so few items to carry). Both interface and inventory appeared quite professional and I couldn’t find any obvious parser problems.

Rating: 6

Story and Setting

I just don’t get at all, why Alicia Barron wanted to get involved in Michael’s plot against Veronica. Were they lovers? Did Alicia get some share of Michael’s financial gains? Did she avenge something for Veronica? None of these questions really matter, since both Alicia and Michael can be arrested without ever bothering about the plot holes. Still, it irks me that no answer to such a central question appears to be available.

Rating: 5

Sounds and Graphics

Rating: 0

Environment and Atmosphere

Somehow I just wasn’t as interested of Suspect as of its predecessors. There’s clearly some kind of social criticism going on and fun is made of upperclass twits, spending their time with decadent luxury. But I think that’s a part of the problem. There’s no passion, no obvious love story nor any repressed emotions - Suspect is just about money and how to get it more, and it’s difficult to get excited about mere finances. And trying to make fun of things doesn’t mix well with a crime drama. Slapstick moments with a butler dressed as a gorilla and a police officer with as much skills as inspector Clouseau don’t just make a convincing detective fiction.

Rating: 5

If I want to see upper class twits, I'll watch this instead

Dialogue and Acting

The writing is back to being merely professional and there seems nothing very distinctive in Lebling’s prose. Add to that the fact that you are mostly reading about the comings and goings of the various characters (“Michael just moved to west. Colonel is coming from south. Alicia leaves you and goes to bar.”) and you get the impression that the game is more of a technical experiment in handling as many NPCs as possible than a piece of literature.

Rating: 4

3 + 6 + 5 + 0 + 5 + 4 = 23, which divided by 0,6 makes 38. I think this reflects my feelings when playing the game quite well, since I didn’t the enjoy Suspect as much as I liked Deadline and Witness.


  1. As someone who grew up in "the" Montgomery Country in the '80s, I found this very amusing. Those kind of shady land deals still occur, although it's more like farmers selling out to developers of huge tracts of mcmansions and "luxury" townhomes. My own hometown was transformed by such deals.

    However, the era of the very rich families down in Potomac and Bethesda selling their land ended long before the 80s, with the passage of some density laws in the ritzy areas. Plus there was never a shortage of wealthy people orbiting DC who were willing to pay for the privilege of those zip codes.

    Sadly, I don't think there is a 312 address on Wisconsin Ave (a real major thoroughfare that from the top of Montgomery Country all the way down to Georgetown here in Washington DC and terminates at the Potomac River).

    I wonder where the writers/developers were located and/or grew up.

    1. Dave Lebling was born in DC and grew up in Maryland, in which I guess the game was situated (although my knowledge of the finer details of American geography is poor). My impression was that the plot of the game was directly inspired by his experiences of the development of the area.

    2. He probably had the same experience I did - grew up in a rural agriculturally-based town that was parcelled off subdivision by subdivision until the whole place was a sprawl of strip malls, chain retail, and quickly constructed, unattractive housing. He just experienced it at a different time and in a different sector of the county, one that was already transformed by the time I encountered it. Crazy to run into my small area of the world here on the blog, though! I did a double take.