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Playing Deadline, Part 4

20 Jul

We’re now closing in on the end game, tailing our two suspects, Baxter and Dunbar, as they move about the Robner estate. Succeeding at another cat-and-mouse chase lets us observe an urgent, whispered conference between the two inside the garden shed, although we can’t make out the actual words spoken. But that doesn’t matter. We have enough now to ARREST DUNBAR AND BAXTER and win the game. When we do so, Blank gives us the full story in classic Agatha Christie fashion.

Mr. Robner's life was his company, as was attested to by a number of the principals. George knew that Mr. Robner had lost control of the company, and a story in the Daily Herald indicated that Mr. Baxter intended to sell the company to Omnidyne, the multi-national conglomerate, presumably to advance his career. Baxter admitted to the merger plans, but indicated that Mr. Robner was in complete agreement. This is contrary to what George and Mrs. Robner said. The note pad found in the library was Robner's last, desperate attempt to save the company, in which Robner threatened to expose Baxter's involvement in the 'Focus' scandal, whose details are unclear. Baxter denied getting the note, but it was not in the trash. The papers detailing Baxter's criminality in the scandal were kept locked in a safe in a hidden closet near the library. Only George and Robner knew the whereabouts and the combination to the safe.

Baxter planned to murder Robner, playing on the fact that Robner was known to be depressed, even suicidal. He enlisted the help of his lover, Ms. Dunbar, one of whose medicines was found to interact fatally with the medicine Robner was taking. Clearly the relationship of Baxter and Dunbar was kept quiet, although Mrs. Rourke had an inkling of it. After the concert at the Hartford Philharmonic, which both Baxter and Dunbar attended, they returned to the Robner estate. Dunbar placed some LoBlo in Robner's tea, and Robner died some time later. Baxter, using the ladder from the shed, entered the library after Robner had died and exchanged the incriminating cup for a clean one (counting the cups and saucers in the kitchen reveals that a cup is missing). Coming down the ladder, Baxter presumably dropped the cup and inadvertently left one piece on the ground in the rose garden, nearby where Mr. McNabb found the ladder holes while tending to his roses.

If we fail to arrest Baxter and Dunbar immediately after their conference, he, fearing she is about to confess, goes up to her room and shoots her, then tries to make it look like a suicide (obviously something of a standard modus operandi for him). After that we can only clean up the damage as best we can; at least we can, if we’ve collected sufficient evidence, now arrest him for two murders instead of one. Indeed, and while the full solution is damnably difficult to get to, Deadline does allow for partial success (or failure, depending on how you look at it). It features quite a number of different possible endings. Blank saw this as key to the new adventure paradigm it represented, and a remedy to his biggest frustration with the Wheatley crime dossiers. From a contemporary article in Softline:

Reading the old game books [the Wheatley dossiers], he knew he was on to something, except that at the end, the solution packet was not able to say, “No, you’re wrong; try again”; it simply gave you the answer. It was not interactive.

“We wanted to come up with something where you have action/reaction,” Blanks recalls, “where you’re told the part that you’ve missed after you come up with a potential solution, and you can go back and try again.”

Of course, given the game’s legendary difficulty players would be trying again many, many times. In addition to that dodgy rose-garden puzzle, I believe we can point to three factors that make Deadline so hard to crack, perhaps sometimes unintentionally so.

One factor is the very dynamic nature of this storyworld, the same thing that made Deadline so innovative. By having things happen of their own accord, Deadline makes it all too easy to miss those things without even realizing anything ever occurred at all. What happens, for instance, if the player happens to be outside when the phone rings? In trying to craft an adventure that felt more like a real story, Blank ran somewhat afoul of something I’ll call “story logic”: many times in stories the protagonist simply happens to be in the right place at the right time. In a sense the player of Deadline must recreate this story logic, by carefully plotting out the movements of the world around her over many failed plays to deduce where the protagonist needs to miraculously be and when. Whether this is always, absolutely unfair is debatable. It obviously falls into the prohibition against needing “knowledge from past lives” in Graham Nelson’s Player’s Bill of Rights, but if we come to it understanding what kind of rules it’s guided by it can be very rewarding to plot out and crack as a system. This is the puzzle-box mode of play, of coming to understand the game as a system and then devising a plan to guide it where you will.

Another, less positive contributor to Deadline‘s difficulty is that it’s very difficult to know where your investigation really stands much of the time. For example, when two suspects contradict one another, as did Baxter and Dunbar there at the end, that often counts as evidence that will weigh into the final verdict after you make your arrest(s). Yet it’s very difficult to determine what the program considers important and what it does not. Nor is there any way to tell whether you have enough to arrest someone without just trying it and seeing what happens. It all leads to a constant feeling of uncertainty and confusion, not just about the case (which is to be expected), but about just what the program knows about the case. Similar problems often dog even modern mystery implementations, although the opacity could be remedied greatly in a modern reimplementation of Deadline by a simple status screen with progress bars showing the progress of evidence collection. But Infocom didn’t have the resources to spare for such niceties.

Lastly, and least positively, there is a constant smattering of low-level bugginess, especially in the early releases of Deadline. It’s much, much harder to debug a dynamic system like Deadline than it was earlier, more static adventures, and Infocom’s QA processes were not yet what they would be in years to come. Sometimes this just leads to amusing oddities, like the “quantity of Scotch” you can pour out of the bottle and carry around with you. Other times it makes you kind of nervous as a player, uncertain whether you can entirely trust Deadline as a system, as when triggers don’t seem to fire and characters don’t react like you expect them to. In this new mode of play which Deadline represents, which absolutely depends on the game being a consistent and logical construct, such distrust can be deadly to the experience. The inconsistencies are perhaps not even entirely down to bugs, but at least in one case seem more the result of a certain authorial laziness. In the climax, it seems that Baxter simply teleports into Dubar’s room to kill her rather than walking there, a stark violation of the game’s otherwise staunch commitment to realism. (I believe this at least was corrected in later versions.) At best, it all adds to that certain player uneasiness described in the previous paragraph. At worst, it destroys the player’s faith in the game as a solvable, consistent system.

In addition to the outright bugs, there are a million way in which the game fails as fiction, most coming down, predictably enough, to character interaction. It’s possible to ask the same person about the same thing over and over, with the same response; to talk about one character with another while both are in the same room; to burst in on people in their bedroom or even bathroom without them seeming to notice or care. Still, given how difficult these problems still are for us even today, and given the game’s age and the technology on which it ran, it seems silly to quibble too much about this sort of thing.

No, better to talk about the strange fascination this dynamic little story-system still manages to inspire. Many who never managed to beat it nevertheless speak of it with a certain awe. Emily Short hit on some of its appeal with her review on the Interactive Fiction Database:

What captured my imagination then, and still has a certain appeal, is the recurring sense of excitement from observing without being observed: listening in on phone extensions, looking for secret rooms, following people. There was always the sense that important and significant secrets were hidden under every surface.

That sense of being thrust into an unfolding story was unheard of in adventure games prior to Deadline. Blank, from Softline again:

“In Deadline, we wanted to appeal to the nonfantasy people who would rather be part of a real story; people who always wanted to participate when they read the books. We designed the game to be open-ended and to have a large vocabulary, but at the same time, we didn’t want it too large and too open.”

Deadline demonstrates the first inklings of a deep rather than broad philosophy of design, in which the storyworld is more compact and focused, but filled with more possibilities for interaction and a deeper commitment to mimesis and realism. Few others were thinking about design on this level in 1982.

As something genuinely new under the adventuring sun, Deadline was greeted with great excitement. It became a deservedly major hit for Infocom, selling almost 25,000 copies in the last eight months of 1982 alone and helping to cement the company’s growing reputation as the most sophisticated and adult of adventure publishers. Today it stands as one of the most important of all the company’s games for its many formal innovations.

Next time I want to talk just a bit more about Infocom before we shift to something else for a while…

 

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13 Responses to Playing Deadline, Part 4

  1. Howard Lewis Ship

    July 20, 2012 at 6:09 pm

    A riff on Emily Short’s note, about observing interactions without being seen, recurs in more modern games; Deus Ex is my wife’s favorite, given that there are lots of NPC conversations you can overhear. I’m also a fan of the Splinter Cell games where such NPC conversations either add flavor, or are important to completing a level.

     
    • Martin

      May 31, 2016 at 1:56 am

      Deus Ex actually has a scene early in the game where you might actually check out the women’s bathrooms while someone in in there. If you go in there, she’ll treat you like a creep later on while if you don’t, she treats you like a normal person. Your boss also tells you to keep out of the women’s bathroom too.

       
  2. Mark

    July 28, 2012 at 4:42 pm

    Very interesting review. Do you have a copy of this interview Marc Blank did?

    I played this game for the first time last summer. The one thing I find very unfair is where you catch the son opening the safe. First,as you said,it is very easy to be unaware of the fact that this event happens in the first place. Secondly if you come in too soon or too late then you will not be able to find the papers that give Baxter a motive for the murder. And therefore be unable to win. It is not even possible to know that you need to find this. One could play this game without ever knowing that you barged in too soon. This is the biggest flaw in the game.

    The second criticism you made about not knowing what the game expects of you is another problem. After showing the ticket and getting two different stories you are supposed to arrest Baxter and Dunbar. Here is the logical flaw I find in this part. There is certainly enough evidence to arrest her but the case against Baxter is circumstantial. The safe papers give a motive for and the contradiction about the alibi gives the possibility of opportunity. Neither one gives proof that he was involved in the murder. Her part might have a motive but we have physical evidence linking her to the crime.

    And yes there is a physical evidence of a second person being involved with the broken china and the ladder. However that does not point to Baxter himself. It does suggest the person did not have access to the house but would eliminate the other suspects but this is not taken as proof by the game.

    Despite these flaws I think the game actually is pretty good. If it was remade with these problems fixed up it would be a great game instead of a good one.

     
    • Jimmy Maher

      July 28, 2012 at 7:26 pm

      Do you have a copy of this interview Marc Blank did?

      The interview is in the September 1982 Softline, which is archived in PDF form at htp://cgw.vintagegaming.org.

      The one thing I find very unfair is where you catch the son opening the safe.

      It’s definitely tricky, but I’m not sure I’d call it outrageously unfair in comparison to the rest of the game. I think that the thoughtful player can probably realize that George is up to something when he hightails it from the will-reading, and also, when she bursts in on George struggling with the locked safe, that waiting a few more turns might have been a good idea. Of course, the latter is an outrageous example of learning by death, so if you consider that automatically unfair then so be it. (But then, in that case you’ll find plenty else to gripe about in Deadline.) Within the rules Deadline plays by, though… I think it’s passable. I sure wouldn’t implement a modern game this way, of course, and a modern player working with different expectations would be justifiably livid if she encountered it.

      The second criticism you made about not knowing what the game expects of you is another problem. After showing the ticket and getting two different stories you are supposed to arrest Baxter and Dunbar.

      Yes, I think you raise a good point here. You really have very little on Baxter, other than motive and opportunity, and little concrete motive on Dunbar. I kept looking for more when I played, which kept giving Baxter time to kill Dunbar. In the end I finally just typed ARREST DUNBAR AND BAXTER, fully expecting to not have enough to get two convictions. Surprisingly, I’d had all I needed all along.

      You’re apparently meant to take the fact that Baxter dropped off Dunbar at the house as proof that he way there later, a sort of smoking gun. This seems quite a stretch to me. Even if Dunbar had indeed taken a cab home on her own, what’s to have prevented Baxter from coming by later? And even if he did drop her off, where’s the proof that he hung around until the murder was committed?

      Oddly, these holes in the case could have been easily filled if it was just possible to overhear the content of the two’s urgent conversation in the garden shed. Perhaps Blank just judged that that would be making the game too easy. Go figure.

      If it was remade with these problems fixed up it would be a great game instead of a good one.

      While I cut the game a lot of slack due to its age and pioneering nature, a modern remake that was less persistently opaque about some things would indeed be cool to see.

       
  3. Mark

    July 29, 2012 at 11:07 pm

    The source of this game is available on Baf’s guide and the IFDB. Do you know any company that would be willing to do a remake? Assuming of course that Activision would allow them to do it. But if the source code is public domain it seems they are not too concerned. I would be willing to work on a remake with another person who would need to have much more inform programming experience than myself.

     
    • Harry Kaplan

      July 29, 2012 at 11:48 pm

      The source code is not in public domain. Here is a link that will explain things – Volker Lanz sort of ported the original to Inform.

      http://www.volker-lanz.de/interactive-fiction/infocoms-deadline-ported-inform

       
      • Mark

        July 30, 2012 at 7:23 pm

        Thanks for the link. This was interesting. However isn’t inform the same language that was used by infocom in creating in Deadline. Graham Nelson basically reverse enginered Infocom’s original language. So except for some modern modifications like the undo command it is really the same language it was written in back in 1981.
        So calling it ported is a bit of a stretch.

        Maybe I am wrong. Does anyone have any thoughts on this?

         
        • Arthur

          October 27, 2012 at 12:32 am

          The link on Volker Lanz’s site seems to be dead, but his Deadline source code is still available on IFDB. http://ifdb.tads.org/viewgame?id=p976o7x5ies9ltdh

          @Mark: Graham Nelson’s Inform is not at all similar to Infocom’s original source language. Remember, Infocom started out using MDL (later ZIL), a Lisp dialect. Contrariwise, Inform 6 is a “curly brace language” descended from C. Nelson’s Inform compiler does *output* the same Z-machine bytecode format used by Infocom, but the *input* language is totally different.

          I vaguely recall that Nelson had to reverse-engineer the Z-machine’s specs from scratch, and didn’t have any inside information about ZIL; it was only many years later (in Internet terms) that official details of ZIL started appearing in the antiquarian community. :) See for example this internal Infocom manual from 1989: http://www.xlisp.org/zil.pdf

           
  4. Dan Weber

    July 18, 2014 at 1:52 am

    1. general issues

    This game has parser problems, and not just from design decisions, like GARDEN and GARDENer being the same thing. When interacting with the ebullion, the game sometimes refuses to distinguish between the “bottle of ebullion tablets” and the “ebullion tablets,” necessitating dropping one of them in another room to properly interact.

    As you said, Baxter seems to teleport. If you cheat you way into the bedroom balcony he’s not there, and if you happen to be sitting under the balcony, you can’t ever catch him.

    I don’t know how to turn the calendar backwards, only forwards. “CLOSE CALENDAR” gives me a double ‘error’ message: “It’s not worth the effort” and “You must be very clever to do that do the calendar.”

    Version 27 is missing critical abbreviations: “G” isn’t “AGAIN” and “Z” isn’t “WAIT”

    You can accuse Marshall (the victim) of murder from anywhere.

    You can “FOLLOW PERSON” to essentially teleport to them, even if you see them through a second story window.re

    Oh, this has a very useful bug I also found in “Infidel”: You can “LOOK AT ALL”. (In “Infidel” you can “EXAMINE ALL”.) It makes finding every single thing in a room very fast.

    2. rooms

    Directions are very confusing. You can’t always tell in which direction something is. Trying to map the outdoors as going SOUTH then NORTH can land you in a different place.

    The room description doesn’t always list exits. If you are in a bathroom, you can’t EXIT or LEAVE (although some rooms, like the dining room, recognize this). You need to say WEST if that’s where the door is, but the room description doesn’t say that.

    I’m disappointed that there isn’t a traditional Zork-like map in the Invisiclues bundle.

    3. easter eggs:

    SNIFF SUGAR: There is no high from sniffing this powder.

    MOLEST: You can do this (or something more aggressive) and sometimes the game reminds you of the criminal code, and sometimes you do it, and go to jail.

    CLEAN WINDOW: You think you’re clever, don’t you? The window is so dirty that it isn’t easily cleaned.

    You can turn the stereo on and off. This can trigger some kind of significant parser error when the song was supposed to end:

    The vRobner vnggnt6wp qdoesn’t vsomething vv iare gdkgThere kseems yn has ended (and not soon enough).

    I can take the book from Baxter but he still reads it. It seems to exist in a ghost state at this point.

    I and Dunbar can both sit on the sofa, but LOOK AT SOFA asys there is nothing on the sofa.

    GET ON CHAIR: This isn’t the kind of thing to sit on! (oh, kay.)

    4. on the fairness of the game

    I remember from my misspent youth that there was a way to make _someone_ panic after the will reading. Your walkthrough helped me remember to show the calendar to George.

    I was lucky and on my first playthrough I opened the door on George at just the right time. But between opening it too soon (when he has nothing) and opening it too late (when he has the will) so I think I would have figured out that there was a proper time to open it.

    I, too, was surprised that I just needed to say ARREST BAXTER AND DUNBAR. I didn’t even need both of them to be in the room when I said it! I did like the fact that I could feel myself getting closer and closer to the “right solution” when I would read the arrest reports and see just what more was needed for the jury to convict.

    The game felt a little short. There was a breadth and difficulty of puzzles, but not much depth. Then again, I don’t think I ever solved it before, so I guess it took me decades to complete.

     
    • Jimmy Maher

      July 18, 2014 at 5:52 am

      Deadline provides a very good negative demonstration of just how much Infocom’s rigorous testing and polishing regime added to the games, having been created before that regime was in place. I’d say it’s definitely the “roughest” of all the games. The Zorks and Starcross also pre-date the version of Infocom we would come to know and love, but, being much more traditional and less dynamic creations, there’s nowhere near as much to go wrong.

      No game written for the standard Z-Machine, however, would have been able to distinguish GARDEN from GARDENER. For technical reasons, the parser only reads the first six letters of each word…

      Thanks for sharing your experiences/impressions here!

       
    • Lisa

      July 19, 2014 at 5:59 am

      I don’t know how to turn the calendar backwards, only forwards.

      Turn the calendar to a specific date prior to the one currently showing, e.g. TURN CALENDAR TO JULY 6.

      Directions are very confusing. You can’t always tell in which direction something is. Trying to map the outdoors as going SOUTH then NORTH can land you in a different place.

      This is true of a number of locations across various Infocom games, though (and indeed IF in general). That said, I found the outdoor geography in Deadline unusually confusing as well.

       
      • Dan Weber

        July 19, 2014 at 7:42 pm

        Ah, I can “TURN TO JULY 15”. That led to the following fun things:

        >turn to july 0
        Do you suppose that would be June 30?

        >turn to july 31
        Thirty days hath September,
        April, June, and November,
        All the rest have 31???

        Looks like an off-by-one error on how many days in July.

        Other fun things I found looking through the source code that weren’t mentioned in the Invisiclues:

        >break china with basket
        As you reach for the china, you think of the pension awaiting you upon retirement. “Is it worth it?” you think, to be booted off the force for an impulse of anger and stupidity. Fortunately, you calm your temper.

        >break china with basket
        With a sweep of your hand, you smash all of them! Mrs. Rourke runs into the room, screaming.

        >kill baxter with gun
        A shot rings out and Mr. Baxter falls to the ground, dead. Good shot.

        >play player
        You are adept only at playing the fool.

        >sigh
        It has been a long day, hasn’t it?

        >hello
        Good day.

         
    • Lisa

      July 21, 2014 at 7:07 am

      Bug #22 here seems to address the stereo: http://www.microheaven.com/InfocomBugs/deadline.shtml

       

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