Friday, 14 April 2017

Missed Classic 39: Suspended (1983)

By Joe Pranevich

Over the past several months, we have followed a surprisingly complete history of Infocom through my reviews of the Zork marathon plus Ilmari’s look at Deadline and other early mystery games. For me, this has been a revelation both in how amazing these games hold up today as well as filling in much more of the early history of adventure games. When Trickster played King’s Quest so many years ago, he did so without first seeing any of its antecedents, Colossal Cave or the Hi-Res Adventures. We’ve already traced the formation of Infocom through mainframe Zork and its first five games but when it came time for number six, they charted a new course.

The five previous games (three Zorks, Deadline, and Starcross) were all the brain-children of two men: Marc Blank and Dave Lebling, the founders and creative geniuses behind Infocom. To keep up with demand, the pair worked on multiple games simultaneously but by 1983 it was obvious that they needed to recruit outside talent to grow. Sierra’s own Ken and Roberta Williams went through a similar transition in their Hi-Res Adventure series, handling the reins to their first outside developer with their fourth game, Cranston Manor. (A partially-completed review of that game remains in my drafts folder. I hope to be able to share it with you eventually.)

This is where Mike Berlyn comes in. He wasn’t part of the MIT community that coalesced into the original team, rather he was a published writer with three sci-fi novels under his belt (The Integrated Man, Crystal Phoenix, and Blight, released in 1980 and 1981) plus two sci-fi text adventures, Oo-Topis (1981) and Cyborg (1981). His fiction explored human-computer interaction and cloning, with more than a bit of horror mixed in. While he was an accomplished Apple II programmer, he didn’t have the “hard computer science” education that was the hallmark at Infocom. Bringing him into the Infocom fold, a company already priding itself on its literary aspirations, seemed like a match made in heaven. The output was one of the most innovative and different games ever released by Infocom: Suspended.
Part of the inspiration behind Suspended?

Like most of the recent Infocom games, Suspended is impossible without a thorough reading of its manual and “feelies”. This is made doubly important because it is unlike any game that has come before or since. The backstory is equal parts utopia and dystopia: In the distant future on the planet of Contra, nearly all of humanity’s needs are catered to by a brilliant supercomputing cluster consisting of three “filtering computers” controlled by a “central mentality”. That mentality is you, a human plugged into the system for 500 years to unconsciously watch over the whole affair. In case of an emergency, you can be woken up to deal with the problem consciously but you must do so while still being linked to the central computer, using only a handful of robot friends. If you fail to resolve the crisis, the caretakers of the system will assume your brain has gone loopy and will kill you and replace you with a healthy clone prepared just for this purpose. There’s some deep thoughts there, but thankfully we don’t have to ponder them very much.

Those “robot friends” that I spoke of are our eyes and ears in this game as we are unable to physically disconnect from the computer link. They are:
  • Iris - A visual robot with two graspers. She is only able to wander through a small portion of the facility. 
  • Waldo - An advanced industrial robot with a great sense of touch. He has six graspers.
  • Sensa - A robot that can detect vibrations and other energy with three graspers. 
  • Auda - A robot that can hear, especially for interaction with humans. She has one grasper.
  • Poet - A diagnostic robot that has gone a bit funny: he primarily speaks in metaphors and poetry even though he has deep insight. 
  • Whiz - A robot that can interface with the central computer library with two graspers. 
The manual explains that there was a seventh robot, but he was destroyed when the previous occupant of your job went nuts and caused an incident. Unlike a typical adventure game, we can control all of these robots at once, sending them off to do tasks and “see” the complex from their own unique perspectives.

Not labeled: the location of the “movie sign” or theater. 

Another way this is not a typical adventure: no need to map! A full map of the game is included in the box. The environment is split into several parts and includes the weather, food, and transportation systems that I will need to maintain, plus the library computer, a region for human occupants of the facility, and a repair center. The game also supports multiple difficulty levels (all the way up to “impossible”) but the manual is unclear what the differences are and I’m going to play on the standard mode.

Since you are essentially a brain in a jar and cannot move, you need to do all actions by commanding a specific robot which you can refer to by name: “Iris, do something”. You can also refer to multiple robots or all robots, plus the amazing “ARR” command which tells all robots to report on what they are doing and has absolutely nothing to do with pirates. Since we already have a map, we can tell the robots to “go to” someplace and head out, letting us known when they get there.

Got all that? It’s quite a lot to take in just to play a game. Onward!

It begins!

We “awaken”, if that’s the proper word, with the world in crisis. Earthquakes have damaged the connecting cables, and therefore the balance, between the filtering computers. All of the special robot friends do their “robot roll call” and I make a note of them on the included map. We’re going to need to figure out how to repair those cables but before we can get started a second problem emerges: Iris is damaged and cannot see.

It takes me some time to get my bearings, but I quickly discover that the robots are not individually very helpful. Waldo, for example, is sitting in Gamma Repair near a moving walkway. There is a “hollow, but not empty” object nearby. What is it? I have no idea. But bringing multiple robots together allows us to piece together what is going on. I bring the robots that I can to the room and take a look:
  • Whiz tells me that the object is a “CB3”. In general, he seems to see the serial numbers on objects rather than the objects themselves. I can send him back to the central computer to look it up, but all it says is that it is a container with a “special locking mechanism” and that Poet and Sensa can learn more.
  • Poet isn’t very helpful, telling me that it is a “cage to hold our ancestry, meek and timid, yet unwilling to openly share”. He doesn’t speak in riddles, but figuring out what he is saying is a big part of the challenge. 
  • Sensa says that it “emits strange flows” and that it is covered in filament-like circuitry concentrated near the center of one side. 
Auda and Iris may have more things to say but neither of them can join me. The former is trapped in a hallway at the bottom of a stair that she cannot climb while Iris seems to be unable to navigate to where we are.

I experiment more and find that Sensa can “turn the plates” on the mystery container to reveal… what? Waldo and Sensa just claim it is a “broken device” but Poet in this case has the straightforward answer: Fred. This is the failed robot from the Franklin incident, the event that caused me to be hired to maintain the system. Whiz tells me that it may have salvageable parts inside. If there are parts, how can I retrieve them? I try to open, pull, or lift the robot and nothing works. The manual has the solution: a game-specific command that I never would have thought to use. By using “both”, I can ask two robots to do the job where one could not and we pull Fred out of the box. That reveals a “current of life” / “conductor” / “smooth wire” coming off the back of the bot. Waldo further tells me that it’s 12 inches long but that it cannot be removed without a special tool. I don’t have one of those yet so I’ll have to come back later.

Some form of satellite dish?

That is the way the game goes, more or less. Each robot gives a frustratingly incomplete picture of the world around them; sometimes an object is completely invisible to one of the robots! This makes exploring difficult, but working the robots together does reveal most of what is going on if we have the patience for it. While I was mucking around with Fred, there were more earthquakes (affecting the cooling system of the filtering computer) and Iris complained a lot that I was ignoring her. I restore back because during even my brief exploration of this one part of the complex, 1.7 million people died on my watch, nearly 6% of the humans under my charge. This game needs you to fix things fast if you want to save lives.

I restart and ignore Iris yet again to get a lay of the land. I send my pals around in a group to find more puzzles and obstacles but there doesn’t seem to be that many:
  • Adjacent to the monitoring area where Iris is trapped, there are several storage rooms with inscrutable items, replacement chips and similar. Even with all the robots present, it’s difficult to say what everything is or what might have value. In one of the rooms is a “slanting object” which turns out to be a ramp. I have one of the robots carry it to the stair that Auda is stuck on to allow her to join the rest of her buddies. That also allows the rest of the robots to pass into the human-centric area.
  • Speaking of which, the humans also have a supply room containing a box that robots are not permitted to open plus a cutting tool high on a shelf. Fetching and using the ramp again snags it for us. I assume this is the tool I will need to cut Fred free from his box.
  • The central column in Iris’s Central Chamber has a surprise feature: me. If we open the hatch in the column, I wake up to a bright light and quizzical robots, followed immediately by death.

Step into the light…
  • There are acid droplets falling from the ceiling in Maintenance Access and I quickly work out that it is because there is an acid leak in the Cavernous Room just above it. Any robots that enter die very quickly; I assume I’ll need to figure out how to either stop the leak or protect the robots.
  • There is a room, not marked on the map, to the west of the “Sterilization Room” in the far northwest of the complex. Robots are not permitted to enter so I do not know what is there yet.
  • There is a forcefield at the end of the hallway in the human-centric library and no obvious way to get past it. 
During my explorations, millions and millions of humans died. Every few turns, more humans died as the problems expanded into transportation and hydroponics. Eventually, a group of intruders entered the facility. I ignored them but died a few turns later when they ripped me out of the system and replaced me with a clone. Infocom games sure love their time limits!

A handy chart to memorize if you are 10 and trying to avoid wearing glasses.

With the environment mapped out, I focus on Iris. Waldo is able to locate her maintenance panel but his usual grasper is unable to do the delicate work required to open it. Whiz tells me that Waldo is the right one to do it (according to the library computer) so I search around. I do not go far because one of the items in the pile of junk in the maintenance room is an “arm-shaped extension”. When Waldo “wears” it, he’s able to open up Iris and peek inside. She contains three devices (smooth, bumpy, and rough) but Waldo isn’t able to see which one is faulty. Since the maintenance hatch is open, Poet can peek in but he sees “brains” instead of “devices”. Either way, I have him touch each one to figure out that the “brain uno” is the malfunctioning unit. The fact that each robot has different names for all of the key objects makes this game much harder! Whiz is able to work out that it is a “scanning processor” that failed and I find a replacement in the next room. With it installed, Iris is happy and can see again! One puzzle solved.

Now that Iris can see, she can look at the several status monitors in her area. (Why they would have to relay the information visually is left as an exercise for the reader.) By moving Iris to each of the three “Monitor” rooms (weather hydroponics, and transit), I can work on saving lives. It takes me a few minutes to figure out that the rooms that while Iris can see the problems, managing the various functions is done in the far northeastern part of the facility in the three “control” rooms. It all seems over-engineered to me!

The weather monitors report torrential sleet with temperature “34” and wind “36”. Since this is an American game, I assume that is degrees Fahrenheit and knots, in other words just above freezing with winds approaching tropical storm range. The problem seems to be that the three weather control towers are out of sync with the first and third set to “55” while the second one is stuck at “32”. What units? I have no idea. I push up the second lever to try to even them out and that seems to help but even when I push the dial to 100, it doesn’t quite even out. I try lowering the others but that just makes the weather worse. No matter what I try, I can make the weather suck less but not become nice. I suppose that will have to do.

Christmas in July!

I then hit up transport and hydroponics but they both seem fine. Why? Because I restored back to before they broke! I’ll have to try and fix them after their relevant earthquakes pass so I work on the acid leak instead.

While each of the robots have a different viewpoint, it’s once again Whiz that gives me the real scoop: there is a wheel above the reach of the robots that controls the cooling acid for the FCs. We cannot reach to turn the wheel. Trying to puzzle this out, I eventually run out of time because the humans arrive. This time, I have Auda in place to follow them around and “listen” to their conversations. After getting in and taking something out of the mysterious “no robots allowed” box, they settle down for a quick rest. It seems strange that they would do so when millions of people are suffering outside, but I won’t ask questions. Auda hears a jingling noise and I get an idea: I grab the bag of tools and have her run like hell to the maintenance access room. When the humans are lured there, they use their extra height and manual dexterity to turn the wheel and stop the acid. The technicians admit that maybe I’m not at fault after all and give me more time to figure things out while they go off to play a game of Starcross. (Really!)

With the wheel turned, my robots can finally explore the last hidden bit of the underground complex: the three Filtering Computers at the far east end of the environment. Whiz’s interrogation of the computer reveals that I will need to identify and replace damaged wires in the primary and secondary channels, the rooms that service the conduits between each of the FCs. To make the matter more difficult, I will have to replace the damaged cable with one of the same color. Iris is the only robot that can detect color and she can’t head all the way out there so that seems a bit of a poor design decision. Once the cables are repaired, I can trigger a reset command on a terminal near Iris somewhere that I have not found yet. I work on the “Primary Channel” first and can’t quite work out what cable is the one needing to be replaced. I take so long at this that the technicians finish their game of Starcross and decide to replace me after all. What am I missing?

Like this but in space? 

I take a hint but it is one of the dumber hints that I will ever take: I completely forgot about the mysterious force field at the end of the hall near the maintenance access even though the map clearly shows a laboratory on the other side. It took me only 30 seconds this time to realize that I can climb in a “car” next to the forcefield to take the journey to the other building. Once there, I explore each of the rooms to find a small sphere with a jack coming out one end. Whiz calls it a TV while Sensa says it is a transmitter. The technicians playing in the activities area don’t want it, so what am I supposed to do with it? I take a second hint, feeling even more foolish, and learn that it’s a spherical camera of some sort, but there are places to plug it in inside the channels. When I do so, Iris gets a new direct feed to her brain showing the stuff in the room. I can see the colors of the cables as well as a sign containing the Filtering Computer reset code: KLABOZ. A Zork reference? I disconnect and check the secondary corridor and it has the same sign but differently colored cables.

I make note of the colors of the cables in the primary channel:
  • Four-inch cable is red
  • Eighteen-inch cable is yellow
  • Ten-inch cable is green
  • Six-inch cable is pink
Just having the camera doesn’t let me see if anything is wrong, nor can Poet or Sensa find any difficulties. How do I tell which one of the four is damaged?

I check the secondary channel in the same way but Poet easily finds a damaged cable there, the nine-inch orange one. Now, how can I find a replacement? Fred had a cable that was holding him in place back at the beginning of the game but I didn’t bother pursuing it any further. I easily snip the wire with the cutting tool I found in the human-side maintenance room and take it back to Iris for analysis. Unfortunately that turns out to be a red herring because that wire is red, not orange. I’ll have to keep looking.

The one in the game is probably more high-tech than this. 

I am getting frustrated and get another hint to learn that the orange wire can be scavenged from the reset computer. I hadn’t even looked at that computer yet plus why would I scavenge a wire from a computer that I need to have turned on? The reset computer turns out to be the strange device in the western maintenance room with two fried chips: a switching processor in the red port and a replacement switching processor in the yellow one. I search and search but do not find any more switching processors before taking yet another clue: that you don’t replace it with more switching processors but rather just match the color of the chips to the port. How does that make any sense? When we fixed Iris, we had to replace her chips with others of the same kind, not the same color.

Once I have the right color chips in place, I can open a door in the machine to reveal a number of buttons: FOO, MUM, BLE, BAR, KLA, CON, BOZ, and TRA. Those are clearly for the reset code, but I also find a fuse and a yellow wire. I remove the fuse then pull out the wire (safety first!) and deliver the correct cable to the waiting robots in the secondary channel. We pop the one one out, the new one in, and everything seems in order… except we still cannot enter the reset code because the FCs are still out of balance.

I take one final hint in exasperation to discover that it is the red cable that needs to be replaced in the primary channel, just as I should have been able to deduce. I have no idea how to tell this since none of the robots can see the damage, but I swap out the red one and enter the reset sequence and… I win! The population of the planet wants to skin me alive, but at least we saved some of them!

I won and only killed 3.8 million people!

Consulting a walkthrough, it appears that I could have fixed the transit, hydroponics, and weather immediately, even before they broke. I could also have done more to prepare before the technicians came so that I could sprint the rest of the way as soon as the acid bath was turned off. I think I’ll leave a better score as an exercise for the reader...

Total time: 8 hr 20 min
Hints taken: 4

Final Score

It’s time for the score! Since this post is long enough already, I’ll keep this short:

Puzzles and Solvability - I needed too many hints but the game is fairly difficult all the way through, especially when you are trying to puzzle out what the robots are seeing from context clues. I never figured out how to tell that we had to replace the red wire. This game is full of fantastic ideas but the execution could have used more polish. My score: 3.

Interface and Inventory - Infocom stepped up their game to support manipulating all of the robots at once and so a few inconsistencies here and there are not the end of the world. I suspect that I was supposed to find the alternate terms for every item (plus the fact that some items are invisible to some robots) as a cool part of the puzzle, but mostly I found it frustrating. My score: 4.

Story and Setting - Mike Berlyn has built a great little sci-fi universe that is unlike anything that I have read before. I enjoyed it so much that I even picked up his novels to see how/if they play around with any of the same themes. This game is also rare in that there is no villain except time. This is man-vs-nature and that is unique. My score: 4.

Sound and Graphics - Sorry, neither. My score: 0.

Environment and Atmosphere - The different robotic viewpoints was one of the most memorable facets of the game yet the rooms still felt oddly sterile. Other than the well-meaninged technicians, there was not much sense of dread or tension to speak of. My score: 4.

Dialog and Acting - Despite being written by a published author, the prose in this outing seems to be more stilted than in other games, lacking the literary quality that kept so many of the previous games flowing. Poet’s dialog was awesome no matter how you slide it. My score: 3.

I am also going to reward a +1 bonus for being absolutely unique and memorable. Being able to control the several robots is one of the few things about this series that I remember really being drawn to as a child.

Add them up: (3+4+4+0+4+3)/.6 + 1 = 31!

I’m very comfortable with that score, around the same as The Hobbit and less than Zork II. This is a flawed game whose reach exceeded its grasp but it was still a ton of fun to play. I may have to fool around with the other difficulty settings at some point. That’s enough of a detour for the day. Up next will be either Planetfall or Hook depending on how the schedule works out.


  1. It's an awesome concept for a game. A new, modern take could be very interesting.

    1. I agree! Although part of the reason why text works so well for this is because how do you describe the non-visual way that each of the robots interact with the world with a modern VISUAL interface? It's a fun puzzle to try to solve.

      I came into this game loving it and ended it frustrated by the difficulty. I suspect that had I rated it earlier, I probably would have given it a higher score. I at least feel good that I made it all the way to the last set of puzzles before I botched it.

  2. I bought a non-Infocom hint book for this that I found online and it revealed a very neat bug: you can nearly control and kill the humans.

    It turns out that they are implemented as robots as well. You can't control them by doing "humans, do this" because the parser is smart, but if you do "iris and humans, do something" you can trick the game into letting you control them. Mostly it doesn't work because it wasn't designed to, but for some reason you CAN ask them to kill themselves and they do.

    I wonder if this is just a bug or a smidge of a puzzle that wasn't finished. Could you have maneuvered the humans somewhere to let you to control them like a robot? That's in-line with some of Mr. Berlyn's fiction. I suspect though that it's just a bug triggered because they used the same code to manage the humans as they did the bots.

  3. A cyogenic nightmare? That cover would probably given me nightmares. Otherwise an interesting idea to get past the rampaging AI controlling everything in most Sci-Fi movies I've seen. Otherwise it usually ends with the protagonist taking over at the end of the story to save the world. Or the equivalent in fantasy, taking over the godhood from a deranged god.

  4. I appreciate the MST3k references. Do you consider yourself more of a Joel or a Mike?

    1. How could I resist with the newest season of the show dropping TODAY on Netflix? (Although I wasn't sure the post calendar would line up that well, I'm glad it did.)

      My first MST3k episode was the very first Sci-Fi Channel one and so I am one of the few fans that really loved the light serialization between episodes. Pearl Forrester will always be *MY* Mad so I guess I should say that I am a "Mike" guy. After I became a fan, I ate up as many episodes of the series as I could, Mike and Joel, and they still sit proudly on my DVD shelf. Joel's era is just a bit too lethargic for my tastes but he had a better knack for prop comedy.

      The new show concerns me slightly because it overtly returns to the Joel-era in some ways (all the Gizmonic references are back!) but it's a very different vibe. I've just watched the host segments of the first episode so far and they are AMAZING. I can easily see a number of new fans growing up with Jonah as their host of choice. I'll need more free time to actually watch the riffing however.

    2. Talking MST3k, I don't think the show was ever played in Australia, so my first episode was the movie, which was on late one night and I decided to watch it on a whim.

      The thing it reminded me of was an Australian movie I'd seen years before and found equally hilarious.

      As for the new series, I've seen the first 3 so far and really enjoying them.