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A Tale of Six Rather Unoptimized Robots, August 20, 2021
Of all of Infocom's folio release titles, Suspended is the least-reviewed and second least-rated here at IFDB. I have seen it referred to as a "management and optimization" game, and I think the intended meaning is that Suspended is not "real" IF.
I don't agree.
This is because most of Infocom's early games have major management components. In Planetfall, consider the juggling required to get all potentially useful items from one complex to another. If you don't think these matters are serious in Planetfall, try carrying a ladder someplace while hungry or tired. Zork II likely requires at least two playthroughs: one where you learn what to do, and one where you do it before your lamp runs out. To solve Deadline, you will likely plan and then follow a strict schedule, making sure to be in exactly the right places at exactly the right time.
Suspended is different in that it is open about its management components. Quite open. In fact, the folio's manual dedicates real estate to "strategic planning." I appreciate it when a game lets me know what I am in for, provided it can deliver in an interesting way.
Speaking of the folio, I believe Suspended is the game that suffers the most in its transition from folio to grey box. The folio's featureless, white face, masking a terrified visage crowned with electrical leads, is instantly compelling. While Infocom would never really embrace graphics, they certainly seem to realize how effectively the right visuals can induce potent emotional responses. The folio manual is better, too, and I encourage new players to retrieve all package materials from the Museum of Computer Adventure Game History before starting.
In Suspended, you play a cryogenically frozen person that must, should an emergency occur, be roused from slumber. Awake as you suddenly are, it is your task to stabilize the "Filtering Computers" responsible for controlling weather, food production, and mass transportation for the entire planet of Contra. Casualties mount by the minute, and should you take too long, you will be killed and replaced by a clone.
The protagonist never leaves the cryochamber. Instead, they interface with six robots that both act and perceive on the player's behalf, and these robots constantly feed the player information. Each has different sensory abilities, so they have different names and descriptions for objects they encounter. Their descriptions of rooms differ as well. In the first playthrough it would be wise to send every robot to every room, just to see what all of them say. I really enjoyed this dimension of the game; it is a bit like the parable of the blind men and the elephant. The game world is small, but you get to see it six different ways.
I have also seen it said that there isn't a story here. I believe the documents included create a strong sense of place which is reinforced by certain observable events. I also think Suspended is the only Infocom game with what I would call enduring narrative propulsion. Starcross begins with a clear sense of forward movement, but once you reach a certain point there are no time constraints. In Suspended, you have to deal with the evolving situation effectively or you will die. You have to do so by immediately mitigating problems while developing a permanent solution. The urgency never lets up. The plot, modest as it is, remains, er... suspenseful due to constraints, temporal and otherwise.
Just as in other early Infocom games, multiple playthroughs are likely needed before solving Suspended. There are traditional puzzles to solve--some of them quite challenging. I remember my satisfaction upon completing Suspended for the first time, only to discover that I had allowed so many casualties that the populace wanted to burn me at the stake! After a few more tries I was able to get the best possible score. That time, only 12,000 people died. Getting the best score was unusually satisfying, even compared with other Infocom titles.
I have seen at least one critic attempt to psychoanalyze the sort of person who likes Suspended. I don't think that's necessary, but I will say that not everyone will care for it. I believe players open to multiple playthroughs will enjoy it the most. Trying to get everything right the first time will lead only to frustration. The sort of person who would enjoy making a map from complex data (Suspended actually comes with a map, but it doesn't say what is in each room) and interpreting non-visual descriptions of places and things will probably enjoy mastering Suspended. Players who dislike learning from failure or using knowledge gained from previous playthroughs probably should give it a miss.
Suspended's gameplay scenario is one that only interactive fiction could handle well, given that most video games rely exclusively on visual and auditory stimuli. Sight and hearing are the least-utilized senses in Suspended.
It's worth noting that Suspended is Mike Berlyn's first Infocom game, and I believe Marc Blank recruited him for his writing chops. I suppose some might find it ironic that Suspended is so narratively non-traditional, but I think that perspective sells IF short. Surely we all realize now that IF is a much bigger tent than we may have assumed way back when, no matter which robot is in the room.