a cryogenic nightmare

Suspended is without a doubt my favorite piece of interactive fiction. Not only is it sci-fi, which was not common in the old Infocom games, but it was also a heavily resource planning game.

I first saw the game when I was visiting my cousins in Wetzlar, Germany. My cousin Frederik had it for his computer, which I think was a Commodore 64 or 128. I don’t think he felt like I was capable of appreciating the game, but I was hooked just watching over his shoulder. I got a copy as soon as I was able, which was (sadly) a few years later. When I got back from Germany, I had no source of funds and didn’t even know the name of the game! By the time I had both, Infocom games were impossible to find. I finally got my hands on it around the time that the Lost Treasures of Infocom came out.

It was even better than I’d remembered.

The basic idea is that you’ve won the lottery; think “drafted” not “rich.” Your happy duty is to serve as the Central Mentality of the planet Contra for the next five centuries. While you lie in cryogenic stasis, you serve as a backup in case the computers that run the planet’s systems fail. In an effort to make the game interesting, the developers make sure that the systems do fail, and pretty much across the board.

Your mind is brought on-line, and you must restore order to the computers. The trick is that your body is still frozen; you can only act through your robots, each of which is slightly weird.

  • Auda has big sonar ears for listening to stuff, including people
  • Fred has many arms, is tall, and is acid-resistant; also, totally broken
  • Iris can see, but is malfunctioning when the game starts
  • Poet can sense electrical flow, but has communication “issues”
  • Sensa has lots of random sensors for electronics and movement
  • Waldo has lots of arms
  • Whiz looks up information in the datastores

Once you’ve played the game enough, Poet and Whiz’s special features aren’t really needed, and you can use them for general purpose grunt work. Still, most of the robots’ special functions make sense and matter.

Suspended was one of the few Infocom games to come with a map. It also came with markers to show where your robots were. The point was clear: this game wasn’t about exploring or mapping, it was about solving the problem in the fewest possible moves. It’s got more replayability than any other IF game I know. I’ve played it dozens and dozens of times, and I could probably recite a decent solution from memory.

I don’t think that modern resource-management games have managed to hit the level of elegance exhibited by Suspended. They either have problems or resources that are too generic. Suspended is a small problem, but the perfect combination of tools and challenges enables the player to progress from rudimentary success to a highly efficient solution.

Further, the setting is just good. The complex makes sense, the scenario is engaging, the famously dry Infocom wit pervades the whole game, and you end up with a real feel for the game. Despite that, it’s one of the few IF games that I enjoy playing without reading everything. Once you’re familiar with the complex, the game stays interesting.

My interest in writing IF was nearly entirely in response to Suspended, and I’ve always wanted to create a Suspended-like experience.

I know it’s probably dangerous to say this, but I think I’m safe: Suspended is probably my favorite computer game, ever. I suggest that anyone reading this stop whatever he’s doing and play it over and over.

Written on January 16, 2003
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