RIP Michael Berlyn, Infocom and Bubsy designer

Mike was probably best known for Bubsy, the first platformer many gamers of a certain generation played. But to a slightly older cohort, he was the designer behind Infocom text adventures such as Suspended and Infidel. These were unique. Suspended had you as playing basically a brain in a jar who could only influence the space colony you’re responsible for running through a collection of robot drones, each of which had different abilities. Infidel was an Indiana Jones tomb raiding adventure, with the (at the time highly controversial) twist that you turned out to be the bad guy (because of, you know, all the tomb robbing.)

He worked on a wild variety of things - text adventures, platformers, stealth games, a Columbo game for the Newton (!) It’s a variety that’s unusual in designers these days. But it was perfectly normal back in the early days, when the game business was the wild west. Farewell to a pioneer!

Oh wow, I think Suspended was one of the first games I tried on my Commodore 64 back in the day - I was completely lost but very taken with the story and ideas. Really imaginative work.

I think Suspended is my favorite Infocom game. It’s a shame a lot of people will only know him for Bubsy.

I remember coming home from the lab when I was in grad school and, late at night, sitting in front of my Apple ][ with my cool amber text new monitor, and starting oo topos. It was an eerie world and you could tell that Berlyn was a writer. It was a scary, surreal atmosphere. When I think of that experience it’s hard to believe it wasn’t a high res graphic adventure because I have the images as ingrained in my mind, as vivid as the images I currently have of Elden Ring.

I never finished the game because I got heavy into my grad work end-game, thesis and defense, job interviews etc. I wonder if I can find a version I could play on my phone….

Back in my Amiga days I was really into Tass Times. I even wrote a walkthrough for it using some fancy editor with colored text.

I loved Tass Times in Tonetown. It is like gaming comfort food to me.

He was also behind Accolade’s adventure Altered Destiny.

Loved Suspended. I wish I’d kept those original Infocom game boxes.

Didn’t know Busby (never have been much of a platformer fan), but for those this sad news made nostalgic, there’s a PC package on Steam that has the first two games.

I fired up Suspended yesterday after hearing the news. Such a great concept. I think the first time I played it I was simply mystified. Eventually I figured out what it was doing and it blew my mind.

Playing it today, you really see the limits (there’s an information repository one of the robots plugs into that gives you hints and background, but what it can actually tell you is incredibly scant; I spent so many turns–while innocent civilians are perishing–just trying to learn anything from it). But it is such a special game in the Infocom canon regardless.

I, too, loved Tass Times in Tonetown

What exactly do you perceive as the limits? It was a pretty sophisticated parser, and, while certainly limited, the devs are pretty good at communicating what the limits were in the documentation, the context of their work at the time, and the game itself. I haven’t dove too far into Suspended but I’m curious what you see as limits that weren’t intended as gameplay. (The documentation concedes that the robot in question “does have his limits.” It’s likely that part of your job as a player is to figure out what those limits are ASAP. Also, Suspended was known to be a hard game. Beating the sword-headed unicorns or whatever in Dark Souls is difficult, but the fact that I can’t do it isn’t the fault of the UI being “limited,” even though, of course, everything is limited. Dark Souls can’t make me dinner.)

Of course, as with all Infocom games, all of the included material is necessary to successfully play. In Suspended’s case, this includes a map and chits to be manipulated IRL, and in-game background material that likely provided context for what to ask the Central Library Core.

Edit: there’s actually a whole page on it.

The Central Library Core (CLC) is composed of several
distinct parts: Whiz, the Peripherals and the Library
Whiz. Whiz’s function with the CLC is to act as your
querying device. By plugging him in, you can ask
questions about objects and get advice on situations.
The Peripherals. There are four peripherals accessible
to Whiz:
The Index Peripheral-Querying this peripheral
performs the following operations: The object is passed along
to the Central Language Core, at which point its name is matched against an
index. If the name is not found, you will be informed that the object is not on
file and no peripheral will contain any reference to it. If the object is found
within the Language Core, it is passed to the Index Core. The Index Core then
scans through the tagging device for references. If no references are found, you
will be told that no data is available at any peripheral. If references are found,
you will be told at which peripherals information can be retrieved.
The Technical Peripheral-This peripheral can provide technical data on
some objects. If you absolutely need to know how something works, querying
this peripheral can sometimes prove helpful. Technical information is not
available on all objects.
The Advisory Peripheral-When you need advice and just can’t understand
what’s going on with something, ask this peripheral. It is attuned to provide
Hierarchical Information for Newly Terraformed Systems (H.I.N.T.S.).
The Historical Peripheral-This peripheral can provide you with historical
references for certain objects found within the Complex, adding a greater understanding
of what these things do and how they interact.
The Library Core. The CLC itself is also accessible from the Lower Access area,
but all interactions and queries here are designed solely for human interaction.
Whiz cannot perform queries from this area since there isn’t a suitable peripheral
for him.

Yeah, I had the manual and map in front of me.

For the CLC, the parser is fine. You type “QUERY X” and it’ll tell you something about it, depending on which station Whiz is at. I was just kind of shocked that there weren’t any entries for, for example, “weather controls” (or a variety of similar terms I tried for one of the major systems) or for “FC”, which stands for Filtering Computer, which are the main computers that run everything. And querying one of the robot names gave a sentence on each that you would know from reading the manual. The impression I got (which was not how I remembered it) was that the CLC wasn’t really an open-ended tool that you could wade into and potentially find clues to solve the various problems facing you. I didn’t get far enough in to find something where the CLC had the critical piece of information, so I don’t know (and don’t remember from playing in the past) what kind of role it’s meant to play in the gameplay. I just know that 80% of the things I queried came back with nothing at all, and 10% with one unhelpful statement. I think if a game like this was made today, the CLC would be a veritable built-in encyclopedia, but this game ran on a 64k Apple II, so I’m sure it couldn’t hold THAT much text.

In fact, that might explain a lot of the other shortcomings I experienced. The robots’ descriptions of things were more often than not very generic, when I thought they could have added some useful context (that might need some interpretation) or at least some flavor. Room and object descriptions are also very terse. With four to six descriptions needed of everything (not every robot can go everywhere), that might have chewed up the space for more elaborate prose.

It’s not a typical Infocom game, because it’s not simply about exploring and solving puzzles. It’s meant to be played and replayed to not only find all the solutions, but then to find efficiencies in how to order your robots around to solve them all with minimal casualties. It’s almost a management game. And it deemphasizes the literary qualities of the genre. None of that is a criticism! It’s what makes the game unique.

Oh, I found a website that lists all the things you can ask the CLC about:

Objects you can ask the CLC Peripherals about

Advisory, Historical, and Technical: column, car, groove (the channels or tracks holding the cables in the Primary and Secondary Channels), first/second/third switches (the Transit Control switches), machine (the FC reset machine in Main Supply), Contra, FCs, cables, each robot by name

Advisory and Technical: panel (Iris’s repair panel), walkway (the moving belt in Alpha/Beta/Gamma repair), tool (the wire cutters), cage (the cabinet in Gamma Repair), first/second/third dials (the Weather Control dials), camera, button (the orange button on the reset machine), sign (the signs in the Primary or Secondary Channels)

Advisory only: Wedge/ramp, grasper

Historical only: beds (in the Sleep Chamber), complex, Franklin (or Gregory), clones

Technical only: blue/rough chip (CX1, Iris’s faulty chip), burned chip (CX3), fried chip (CX4), red/smooth IC (RX0), yellow/bumpy IC (RX2), green/wavy IC (RX3), plaid/pebbled IC (RX4), wheel (the wheel in Maintenance Access), first/second/third levers (in Hydroponics Control), levers (also collectively, for some reason), red/yellow sockets

Looks like I should have asked more often about specific items in the world than larger concepts or systems. (And I should have searched “FCs” instead of “FC”.)

Ah, I see, so you think it was dealing with storage/word-count limits.

That got me curious! Looks like Suspended had fewer than half as many words as “A Mind Forever Voyaging” or “Bureaucracy,” which I believe were from the same era, tech-wise. I suspect the terseness was a creative choice! I agree with you that it’s off-putting. After all, I’ve completed AMFV and Bureaucracy, and barely scratched the surface on Suspended.

As I recall, A Mind Forever Voyaging was the one game in the Infocom ouvre (of that era, at least) that required 128k. (Maybe Bureaucracy did too–I didn’t play that until later, when I got the Lost Treasures of Infocom collections.)

I also want to mention that Berlyn made like 4 graphic adventure/mystery type games with his wife in recent years.

If anyone can figure out how to play them on PC, I’d be much obliged…

  • The Art of Murder (with Muffy Berlyn), iOS, Windows, OS X, Flexible Tales
  • Grok the Monkey (aka Carnival of Death) (with Muffy Berlyn), iOS, Windows, Flexible Tales
  • A Taste for Murder (with Muffy Berlyn), iOS, Windows, Flexible Tales
  • Reconstructing Remy (an interactive novel with Muffy Berlyn), iOS, Windows, Flexible Tales

I saw a Taste for Murder is no longer in the app store. Apparently was out around 2013.

I looked up oo topos, and apparently it was made into a graphical adventure. I think it would lose a lot moved from the all text to primitive graphics,

Yes, it also required 128K. For example, it was one of few C-128-only games in the Commodore 8-bit world (as was AMFV).

However, Suspended was released in 1983, 4 years before Bureaucracy and 2 before AMFV (according to Wikipedia).

That makes sense. I really do think Suspended was limited, then, by memory. It needs four to six descriptions of every object and location (not all robots can go everywhere), six sets of general messages like “I can’t do that/go there,” plus the library data. If you are used to Infocom games and you play Suspended, it will definitely feel terse. Again, that’s not really a criticism, except that I would argue the library doesn’t fulfill its potential as a feature.

My friend Harry posted this on Instagram just last week from the National Videogame Museum. This pic of Infocom classics gave me all the nostalgia. RIP MB

That image is absolutely beautiful. I wish I had those official boxes, not the old pirated copies I had.