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Playing Deadline, Part 4

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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Playing Deadline, Part 3

At the end of my last post we started analyzing the broken piece of porcelain we found below the library balcony for any trace of the various substances we found in the suspects’ bedrooms. While we’re keeping Duffy busy with that, the 12:00 will-reading rolls around, and everyone gathers in the living room along with Mr. Robner’s lawyer, Coates. It goes as expected. Because Mr. Robner had not yet delivered the promised new will to Coates before his death, the old must still be taken as in effect, dividing the estate equally between Mrs. Robner and George, who now sees even more lavish parties in his future. Coates does say, “Should a more recent will actually exist and be found within a reasonable period, the present one will be voided.” Sounds like a nudge to me.

We now can have a little fun by making almost everyone very uncomfortable using what we’ve already found out. Let’s start with Mrs. Robner.

>show letter to mrs. robner
"You have certainly stooped to a new low, haven't you, Inspector? Opening people's mail. I think there are laws against that sort of thing, but I guess you wouldn't know. I suppose you also know that Steven is my lover and that we were planning to be married. Don't look so melodramatic: I didn't kill my husband. You think my talk of divorce may have driven him to it? Why don't you leave me alone!"

>ask mrs. robner about steven
“I might as well tell you. Steven and I were lovers. We were going to be married as soon as I could divorce Marshall. I asked Marshall about it, but he became angry and refused. I didn’t know what to do. Don’t look at me that way. I had nothing to do with my husband’s death. Driving him to it with talk of divorce? Hah! You didn’t know Marshall, that’s for sure! I should have told the police earlier, I suppose, but it’s really none of your business.”

This passage highlights an interesting aspect of Deadline: despite being ostensibly set in then-current times, it doesn’t feel like 1982. The way that Mrs. Robner is so plainly subservient to her husband; the way everyone is referred to as Mr. or Mrs. So-and-So instead of her first name; the rather patrician lifestyle of the family; the way that Dunbar, a supposedly professional and competent woman integral to the running of Mr. Robner’s business, was still expected to serve him his tea at 11:00 each night; even some of the language choices, such as Mr. Robner being a noted “industrialist” — all make this story feel like an artifact of Dennis Wheatley’s heyday, another sign of the huge influence the crime dossiers had on the whole project. Now we have a husband “refusing” to let his wife divorce him.

And Mrs. Robner is of course right, not only about our mail tampering (which should constitute a federal crime if I’m not mistaken) but about our behavior in general. If all detectives could behave like we do in Deadline, most Law and Order plots would be a hell of a lot simpler. A postmodern implementation of Deadline might let us identify the killer, only to throw the case out and throw us in jail because of all the laws we broke getting there.

Anyway, we’ve discovered that Mrs. Robner certainly had her secrets, but it still doesn’t quite seem to add up to murder somehow. Baxter is even less satisfying, shrugging his shoulders at the fragment of a note, claiming never to have seen it and not to know what it could be about. With George, though, we score:

>turn calendar
It is open to July 8.
There is only one notation here, under the 9AM column: "Call Coates: Will completed".

>show calendar to george
“I … uh … I don’t really know what to say. I guess that maybe Dad … but there is no other … I can’t help you … sorry.” George appears to be quite agitated.
“I’ve… got to be going now. I’ll see you later,” George says. He starts to leave.
George heads off to the east.

What follows is a delicate cat-and-mouse chase, in which we need to trail George through the house without spooking him so much that he doesn’t do what he wants to do next. Here the emergent possibilities that I mentioned in my first post really come to the fore; we can duck into closets and the like (or not), and George will react accordingly. Like so much in this game, it takes a number of restores and some careful time management to get right. When we do so, however, he leads us to a secret room — naturally, behind the bookshelves in the library. And, if we time our bursting in on him just right, we catch him next to an open safe, Mr. Robner’s new will in hand. Sure enough, it disowns George, leaving the entire estate to his mother. Presumably George meant to destroy it before it was discovered by someone else.

Still, we haven’t really proven much more than that. George apparently didn’t know the new will had actually been completed until we brought it to his attention in the living room. Then, knowing it must be in his father’s secret safe, he acted impulsively and desperately to get rid of it. We’re far from proving murder. George doesn’t seem smart enough to have come up with the subtly diabolical plot the murder increasingly looks to have been. And, barring a co-conspirator, it’s hard to see how he could have pulled it off, given Rourke’s testimony that he didn’t come down from his room after 11:00.

Given all that, of more ultimate importance than the new will are the other papers we find in the safe.

>examine safe
A stack of papers bound together is in the safe.

>examine stack
In leafing through these papers, it becomes obvious that they are documents that incriminate Mr. Baxter in wrongdoings regarding the Focus scandal. They document funds which were embezzled by Mr. Baxter and give a general idea of how the scandal was hushed up. This evidence should be sufficient to convict Mr. Baxter in the Focus case.

There’s a solid motive here. But let’s not jump to conclusions too fast. By this time Duffy’s lab runs have turned up another key piece of information. The fragment of porcelain found in the rose garden contains traces of the blood-pressure medication Dunbar is taking.

>read report
Dear Inspector,

In response to your request for analysis of the cup fragment, we have found a considerable quantity of a drug called Methsparin, which is occasionally sold in this country under the name "LoBlo". It is a blood pressure lowering agent used in Europe, but infrequently used here, which explains the oversight in our blood analysis of the deceased. A review of that blood reveals a high blood level of Methsparin. While the amount of Methsparin in the blood is not dangerous in itself, a strong interaction between it and various other drugs has been well documented. As you may have gathered, one of those drugs is Amitraxin (Ebullion). The effect of Methsparin is to displace drugs from protein binding sites, leaving more free in the blood and simulating an overdose.

Your new evidence leads me to conclude that the cause of death of the deceased is Amitraxin toxicity secondary to ingestion of Methsparin and Amitraxin in combination.

Sincerely,

Arthur Chatworth, Pathologist

Marc Blank’s other life — as you may remember, he graduated from the Albert Einstein School of Medicine, only to drop out of his internship to come to Infocom — comes through for him here. I asked my doctor wife, who normally gets as frustrated with depictions of medicine in fictions as I do with depictions of computers and hacking, whether the above made sense. She said it made perfect sense in theory, although she doesn’t know of any drugs with that effect which actually exist.

With two new favorite suspects, we set what we’ve learned before them to see what we can turn up.

>show stack to baxter
He reads slowly and leafs through the pages. "I'm afraid I have not been altogether candid with you. There was some trouble a few years ago with Focus Corp. because of some, let us say, irresponsible dealings on my part. Marshall agreed to cover up my involvement to save the company from bad publicity."

"I can't understand why he would be insisting that I do this or that, though, as it seems to say on that note you showed me. He must have changed his mind, however, since I never received the note."

>ask baxter about merger
“Ah! I didn’t realize you had an interest in finance. Before Marshall died, we agreed that the only reasonable way to protect our interests was to be bought out by a larger company which would be able to provide us with more capital for expansion. I had been talking to people at Omnidyne and we agreed in principle on the terms for such an agreement last week. I am hopeful that we can accomplish the deal quickly.”

Mrs. Robner, however, already told us that her husband was not in favor of the deal. As for Dunbar, her denial and attempt to cast the blame on everyone’s favorite scapegoat are quite feeble:

>show report to dunbar
She seems stunned but recovers quickly. "He didn't commit suicide, then?" she says. "But LoBlo, that's a pill that I take for my blood pressure." She pauses. "I can tell what you're thinking, but I didn't, couldn't have done it. Why should I? Someone must have taken them, maybe George. He knew I used them."

Flustered, she soon leaves the room. If we follow, we see her conveniently drop a ticket stub — to the same symphony that Baxter claimed to have attended alone on the night of the murder. When we ask each about it separately, we find they’ve failed to get their stories entirely straight.

>show stub to baxter
"Ah, that must be Ms. Dunbar's ticket stub. I should have told you earlier. Ms. Dunbar was with me at the concert on the night that Marshall killed himself. She became ill at intermission time and hired a car to take her back home. You see, Inspector, I know how much Ms. Dunbar appreciates classical music, and I occasionally ask her along with me to my subscription series. I really should have told the other detective, but I didn't think it mattered."

>show stub to dunbar
“Oh, I … well, I guess I should tell you. You see, Mr. Baxter and I, we go together to concerts, only occasionally, you understand. We went that night, the night Marshall died. And then he took me home and that’s it. I should have said something before, I know. I just didn’t think it was important, and, well, I didn’t think that the others should know that we were seeing each other socially. Our … nobody knows about it, you know. Please don’t say anything!”

What are they hiding? If Dunbar’s version is the truth, Baxter was in fact at the house that night. And in either case, it seems their relationship was much closer than anyone associated with them had previously believed.

At this point the ultimate answer to the puzzle of Mr. Robner’s murder is becoming pretty clear. We’ll lock the case down with one more piece of evidence next time, and also make room for some final thoughts on the whole experience.

 
 

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Playing Deadline, Part 2

Having gotten the lay of the land and gotten a pretty good picture of the suspects, the victim, and their relationships with one another in my last post, we’ll restart today and begin investigating in earnest in the library, the scene of the crime itself. The body has of course already been hauled away, but otherwise most of what we find there is as expected from the descriptions included with the documentation. Some careful investigating, however, reveals a few vital clues that the police have overlooked.

A close look at the carpet shows a trail of mud leading from the adjoining balcony door to the position where the body was found. Going out onto the balcony, we find that one of the railings has been scuffed. Suddenly the solution to at least the locked-door part of this mystery looks pretty clear. A blank pad of paper is on the desk, along with a convenient pencil. Anyone who’s ever played an adventure game knows what to do when she sees those two things together. Sure enough, rubbing the pad with the pencil unveils fragments of the last message that Mr. Robner wrote on it:

  Baxter,

                  st time
 nsist             op       merg
       mnidy               Oth
          forc
         ocumen     y poss
  plica     y      Focus s
          recons
late!
                              rsha

Mr. Robner’s desk calendar is still open to the day of his death, showing that he had a meeting that afternoon with Baxter. Turning the page to the next day, we see that he had planned to deliver his new will to Coates on the morning his body was discovered. From all this we can feel pretty confident that it was in fact a murder (as if we were in doubt…), that the murderer entered and exited via the balcony, and that George is a more likely candidate than ever — although it would be nice to know what that note to Baxter said in its entirety.

Rifling through our suspects’ bedrooms — apparently our assignment gives us authority to go and search wherever we like — turns up some seemingly innocuous items that will become important later. In George’s room we find (no surprise) some liquors; in the Robners’ room two kinds of allergy medication prescribed to Mrs. Robner; and in Dunbar’s room some blood-pressure medication along with cough medicine and aspirin.

While we are likely still in the midst of all this, at 9:07, the first of the game’s timed events fires: the phone rings. If we are smart, and near a telephone, we can be the one to answer it.

>answer telephone
You take the phone and hear a man's voice, which you don't recognize, say "Hello? Is Leslie [Mrs. Robner] there?" You start to reply, but Mrs. Robner picks up the phone from another extension and hears you speak. "I've got it, inspector," she says. "Hello? Oh, it's you. I can't talk now. I'll call you back soon. Bye!" You hear two clicks and the line goes dead.

Mrs. Robner now makes for her bedroom to return this obviously very private call. If we realize what she’s doing, we can make our own way to another extension and listen in as she returns the call.

>answer telephone
You can hear Mrs. Robner and a man whose voice you don't recognize. Robner: "...really much too early to consider it."
Voice: "But we couldn't have planned it better. You're free."
Robner: "Yes, but it will... Wait a second ... I think ..."
"Click." You realize that the call has been disconnected.

Very interesting stuff. It looks like Mrs. Robner does indeed have a paramour. “We couldn’t have planned it better” is quite ambiguous, no? Does it mean that Mr. Robner’s death was a happy accident that they couldn’t have planned better, or that their planned murder literally could not have been better, having gone off so perfectly? It seems that Mrs. Robner is guilty of being a cold-hearted bitch. But is she guilty of murder? We shall see…

When my wife and I were playing the Dennis Wheatley dossiers together, we struggled with some things that a contemporary reader probably would not have: cues like the different appearance in photographs of a “safety razor” versus a (rather alarming sounding) “cut-throat razor”. And then there were several feelies in the last dossier in particular which we just didn’t have a clue what the hell they were. Similarly, solving Deadline requires knowing something about how a land-line phone installation functions, and knowing it is possible to listen in on others from other extensions. I suspect that in not too many more years this will be forgotten, making Deadline even more difficult than it was meant to be if it should ever receive its equivalent of the dossiers’ reprint. Maybe there are already young people running around today who lack the necessary knowledge. It’s interesting and a little disconcerting how time marches on.

But speaking of time: at 9:55 Baxter arrives and proceeds to lounge around the living room waiting for the reading of the will at noon. Then, at 10:07, the next important plot event fires: the mail arrives. It’s critical that we be on the front porch at that time to accept delivery of the one letter that comes from the mailman, because we want to see what that’s about before its recipient can get her hands on it. Said recipient is Mrs. Robner; it’s pay dirt, a letter from her lover, who is apparently named Steven. (Not, then, as I first expected, Mr. Baxter.)

>read letter
"Dear Leslie,
I am sorry to learn that Marshall has been despondent again. His obsessive interest in business must be causing you terrible anguish. It doesn't surprise me that he talks of suicide when he's in this state, but he's full of such stupid talk. I think the thought of the business going to Baxter after he's gone will keep him alive.
George has finally gone too far, eh? After all those empty threats, Marshall actually followed through. It serves the little leech right too, if you ask me. This means that should the unthinkable happen, you will be provided for as you deserve.
I'll see you Friday as usual.

Love,
Steven"

While pretty much confirming the affair, the letter if anything tends to weaken any theory of the murder as a conspiracy of the two lovers. Not only did Steven give no hint of any plan in the offing, but the fact that the new will was due to be delivered to Coates gave the lovers every reason to at least delay until that was done, and Mrs. Robner was guaranteed all rather then half of the Mr. Robner’s fortune. (There certainly seems to be no love lost between her and her son.) No, this rather tends to point the finger of suspicion back toward George.

At 11:20 the newspaper comes.

>examine newspaper
The Daily Herald is a local paper in two sections. In your cursory look at the first, only a small obituary for Mr. Robner can be found. It retraces some of his career, going into some detail about the formation of Robner Corp. A few years ago, Mr. Robner and the Robner Corp. were given a prestigious award for works in the community. At that time Robner said "I am proud to accept this award for the Corporation. Robner Corp is my whole life, and I will continue to guide it for the public interest as long as I am living." Robner himself had won great public acclaim for his charitable works and community service.

>read second section
In your study of the second section, a small item in the financial section catches your eye. It seems that a merger between Robner Corp. and Omnidyne is set to be concluded shortly. There is a picture of Mr. Baxter with Omnidyne president Starkwell, both smiling broadly. Mr. Baxter is quoted as saying that the deal will enable the financially ailing Robner Corp. to continue to produce the highest-quality products. The article points out that Mr. Marshall Robner, who founded Robner Corp. but no longer is its major stockholder, had been found dead yesterday morning, an apparent suicide victim. Mr. Baxter was quoted as saying that he knew that Mr. Robner was in full agreement with the terms of the merger deal.

That phrase “as long as I am living” sounds ominous, and we’re beginning more and more to have a sense that something was not quite right between Mr. Robner and Baxter.

In the midst of making sure we are at the right place at the right time for these timed events, we should also be completing our careful examination of the house and its grounds. On the latter we find a gardening shed containing a muddy ladder (no pun intended), another innocuous object that will prove very important. We also meet a new character, the crusty old gardener Mr. McNabb, who does not live in the house or have much to do with its inhabitants and who is not considered a suspect. He is, however, vital to our investigation. A little observation will reveal that McNabb is very upset about something, and it’s not Mr. Robner’s death. A little more will reveal that someone apparently trampled all over his rose garden. We need to talk with him to learn where exactly the roses were damaged. He shows us the spot — directly below the balcony of the library. Things are becoming even clearer, especially when we compare the ladder’s feet to two holes we find in the ground there, and get a perfect match.

And now we come to the dodgiest moment in the game, the one place where it crosses from gleeful but fair cruelty (which it possesses in spades) to the sort of unfairness that was so rife in other adventure games of its era. We need to somehow divine that it’s possible to interact with the ground here, and dig three times. Doing that turns up the key clue of the game, a fragment of porcelain of the sort used in the Robners’ teacups. Sure enough, counting the cups in the kitchen reveals that, even accounting for the one still in the library, one is still missing. Everything that follows hinges on finding this fragment. Given how easy it is to miss by even the most diligent player, I suspect that this is the vital piece missed by most who attempt to solve the game, and thus the primary reason for its reputation for extreme difficulty.

So, now we have a pretty idea how the crime was committed: the tea that Dunbar delivered to Mr. Robner must have been poisoned somehow, by her or someone else, with an overdose of his antidepressant medicine. (Significantly, George was downstairs for 10 minutes while she was making the tea.) Then someone climbed onto the balcony and into the library to replace the poisoned teacup with another, the one the lab already analyzed to find only the expected traces of tea and sugar. This same someone must have dropped the old cup while making his or her way back down the ladder, breaking it. He or she gathered the pieces as best as possible, but missed this one in the dark and stress. The puzzle, of course, is who this someone could have been. Rourke has confirmed that Mrs. Robner, George, and Dunbar must all have been snug in their beds by the time Mr. Robner died, and it’s hard to see Rourke herself climbing a ladder and vaulting a balcony railing.

Luckily, we have another ability at are disposal that I’ve heretofore neglected to mention: we can make use of the police laboratory. When we do so, a hyper-efficient fellow named Sergeant Duffy, who would become a kind of running joke with Infocom, featuring in their later mystery games as well, sweeps onto the scene to carry the object in question off to the lab; 30 minutes or so later he sweeps back in with a report. We can check an object for fingerprints (all suspects are on file), analyze it for oddities in general, or analyze it for a specific substance. As far as I know the first possibility is a red herring; I couldn’t find any useful prints on anything. The second can turn up some useful tidbits, although nothing absolutely vital. The third, however, is vital. Remember all those innocuous ingestables we found in the suspects’ bedrooms? We need to have Duffy analyze the fragment for each of those substances to see if we can learn anything more.

 

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Playing Deadline, Part 1

I thought we would dive into Deadline today. But first just a couple of caveats.

I’m not going to provide the game for you to download or play online this time. There are signs that Activision, the current owner of the Infocom intellectual property, perceives their games to still have some commercial value, and I don’t want to ruffle any feathers or jeopardize any possible future plans. I’m sure most of you are enterprising enough to find the game elsewhere online — and, as long as Activision doesn’t make it available by some other means, I don’t blame you for going that route. I just don’t think that hosting it here is a wise choice.

Also, I’m going to spoil Deadline rather more aggressively than I did previous games. I don’t know how to avoid doing that in this game where the story really is the puzzle. So, if you want to try to solve Marshall Robner’s murder on your own, maybe set these posts aside until after you’ve played. They’ll still be here after you’ve finished or given up in frustration. (And believe me, you will be frustrated…)

So, let’s get started!

The documents included with the game set the stage. A wealthy entrepreneur and philanthropist, Marshal Robner, was found dead the previous morning in his library. The cause of death was an overdose of an antidepressant that Robner had recently begun taking; his business had fallen on hard times, and he was very stressed and unhappy about it. The door to the library was still locked from the inside, and the body was unmarked. Altogether, everything seemed to point to suicide. There was just one factor that raised the concern of Robner’s lawyer, Mr. Coates: Robner had called him just three days before to tell him that he was changing his will. Coates had expected him to come to his office very soon with the new will, likely the very day the body was discovered. He has therefore asked us, the “Chief of Detectives,” to poke around the house one more time the day after the regular police finished their investigations with a verdict of suicide. We have have just 12 hours, from 8:00 AM to 8:00 PM; thus the name of the game. Time passes at the rate of one minute per turn.

Let’s return yet again to this notion of the story itself being the puzzle in Deadline. To solve the game requires coming to an understanding of how the story as a whole plays out, so that you the player can be in the right place at the right time to affect it. It requires, in other words, plotting the flow of the dynamic system that is Deadline as a whole. That in turn requires lots of experimenting, restoring and restarting, and learning from failure as you slowly make up a master plan of exactly what needs to be done and, just as importantly, when, in order to keep advancing toward the winning end. It’s true that Deadline is more realistic and more story-oriented than Zork. However, that very realism is pretty brutal, adding the whole new dimension of time to the player’s concerns. Deadline is no less a puzzle box than Zork. It’s just a different kind of puzzle box, that requires a different sort of thought process. While we could do very well in Zork just solving the individual puzzles as inspiration came, we have to always be thinking about the whole in Deadline. Over the course of many plays, we deduce how the holistic system works and how to manipulate it to our desired ends. It’s nothing less than a whole new paradigm of play for adventure games.

A good first step is to map out the geography of the Robner estate. In a clear sign that is going to be a different sort of adventure, every single room is accessible to us from the very start, with only one exception which we’ll come to later. It’s also very modest in size compared to the Zorks, only about 50 locations divided between the inside of the house and the outside surroundings. Nor are there any mazes or other time-wasters, just an ordinary house with about what you would expect to find there — in addition to a smattering of vital clues, of course. Much of the geography facilitates emergent behavior. There are, for instance, lots of closets to duck into to avoid being spotted by members of the household as they move down hallways. Rather than being the focus of the game, the geography and even the objects contained therein are the stage and props for the real action in Deadline.

In the midst of exploring and mapping, we also come upon each of our five possible suspects. A little bit of preliminary questioning, combined with the police interviews in the documentation, give a pretty good picture of the field. In standard golden-age fashion, we’ll find secrets and possible motives for murder in most of them over the course of our investigation. Indeed, Deadline is the first adventure game in which conversation plays a prominent role. To the extent that earlier games had conversation at all, it was limited to mouthing passwords and the like, or a simple TALK TO that yielded an infodump. Here, however, we must interrogate each person carefully to ferret out clues, and, later, to turn up the heat and trigger the guilty to out themselves. This also makes Deadline the first adventure to model, albeit in a very rudimentary way, the emotional state of the non-player characters. The list of firsts to which this game has claim is long and varied. Here’s another one for the list: after the rather awkward conversational constructions of Zork II, Blank for this game invented the conversational model that would stay with Infocom for the rest of the company’s lifetime. One can either type a character’s name, followed by a comma, followed by a question or demand (MRS ROBNER, TELL ME ABOUT GEORGE); or use an ASK X ABOUT X or TELL X ABOUT X construction.

Here’s what we know after asking everyone about everyone else and carefully reading through the printed interviews that came with the game:

Mr. Robner’s relationship with his wife was very strained in the years before his death. He was a good man in that he performed extensive public charitable works, but apparently very taciturn and rather a cold fish personally, especially in recent years. She, on the other hand, loves to entertain and socialize, and felt bored with and socially smothered by her husband. We pick up hints that she might have started to step out on old Marshall with other men. She says that it wasn’t unusual for her husband to spend the night working behind the locked door of the library, particularly of late with the business doing so poorly. She says she went to bed at her normal time, well before the time of death of approximately midnight, and slept soundly through the night. She discovered her husband in the morning, when he didn’t answer her knocks at the library door and she finally called the police to bash the door down.

About Mr. and Mrs. Robner’s only son, George, no one has anything good to say. At 26, he’s never held a job or accomplished anything else, and spends his nights boozing and his days sleeping. George is the only person who has an immediately obvious motive for killing Mr. Robner: the latter had finally decided to disinherit him, and this was almost certainly the reason for the change to the will. With strong motive and a universally recognized bad character, he has to be Suspect #1. (Of course, if you’ve read many mystery novels you know that the obvious suspect is virtually never the final killer.) He’s very uncooperative under questioning, but says he spent the entire night in his room except for ten minutes or so spent reading in the living room.

Ms. Dunbar was Mr. Robner’s live-in assistant, involved with every aspect of his work. Beyond being attractive, professional, and very competent she’s a bit of a cipher. She says she was out with a friend on the night in question, returning about 10:30. At 11:00, she brought Mr. Robner some tea, a normal routine. This makes her apparently the last person to see him alive. However, the teacup in the room has already been analyzed, and contained nothing other than the expected traces of tea and sugar.

Mrs. Rourke is the family housekeeper. She’s a matronly sort who’s something of a gossip — which can make her a very interesting information source for us. She says she was in her room all night, which unlike the others is on the ground floor of the house. Since her room is close to the very squeaky staircase, and since she was up until 4:00 with a juicy novel, she can confirm that no one went up or down the stairs after Dunbar brought Mr. Robner his tea and then retired herself — i.e., from roughly 11:00 until 4:00.

Mr. Baxter shows up at the house at 9:55 on the day of our investigation to lend his support to the family and for a reading of the will that is scheduled for noon. He was the business partner of Mr. Robner for some 25 years, yet claims to have considered him a colleague rather than a friend. Still, by all accounts the two men worked well together, and had both been trying desperately to save the business. Like Dunbar, he’s described as reserved, smart, professional, and not much else. He claims to have attended the symphony alone on the night of Mr. Robner’s death, and not to have been at the Robner house for some days before that event.

More soon! And if you haven’t played Deadline and want to guess or speculate about the killer in best Wheatley-crime-dossier style as these posts unfold, feel free.

 
 

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Deadline

As 1982 dawned, Infocom had two hit games available in new, snazzy packaging under their own imprint along with a growing reputation for being the class of the adventure-game field. The future was looking pretty rosy. That January they moved from their tiny one-room office above Boston’s Faneuil Hall Marketplace to much larger accommodations on nearby Wheeler Street. So large, in fact, that they might have seemed like overkill, except that Infocom had big plans to become a major player in the growing software market. But right now they had just a few full-time employees to house there. One of these was Steve Meretzky, late of the Zork User’s Group, hired as Infocom’s first full-time tester shortly after the move. A much larger crew of part-timers and moonlighters cycled in and out at all hours.

It’s fascinating from the perspective of today to watch as the pieces of the Infocom that so many of us remember and love fall into place one by one. By early 1982 they already had their classic logo and text style, their professional but also friendly and easygoing editorial voice, and their distinctive Zork packaging iconography. As Jason Scott has pointed out, the unsung hero through this process was the advertising agency that Mort Rosenthal hooked Infocom up with during his brief stay with the company: Giardini/Russell — or, more easily, G/R Copy. G/R’s role went far beyond just crafting the occasional magazine ad. They were intimately involved with virtually every aspect of the Infocom experience that wasn’t contained on the actual disks, suggesting and crafting the packaging and the feelies contained therein, even writing large swathes of the instruction manuals. They even named a surprising number of the games, including Deadline, the one I’m going to be talking about today; it bore the much less compelling name Was It Murder? before G/R got a hold of it. Scott puts it succinctly: “A lot of what people think of as ‘Infocom’ is in fact Giardini/Russell.” It’s a classic example of creative, artistic image-crafting that can stand alongside such iconic campaigns as the work that Arnold Worldwide did for Volkswagen around the millennium. Infocom were lucky to have them, and smart enough to give them freedom to work their magic. G/R are the main reason why, even today, Infocom’s games and advertising look so fresh and enticing.

Still, in early 1982 major parts of the final Infocom puzzle were still missing. Most notably, they still hadn’t decided what to call the games, not being comfortable with “text adventures” but having not yet come up with the label “interactive fiction.” The long-term ambition of Al Vezza and at least some of the other founders remained to use games as an eventual sideline, a springboard into the lucrative business software market that was now growing like crazy in the wake of the IBM PC’s introduction. In that light, it felt important to distinguish the games line from the company’s identity as a whole. For now, they could only come up with the rather tepid designation of “InterLogic Adventures,” apparently imagining InterLogic becoming a subsidiary brand within the Infocom empire. In the end, it would be a blessedly short-lived name.

Whatever they called their games, Marc Blank, now with the newly minted title of Vice-President for Product Development, was still showing a restless determination to try new things with them. Having written much of the original Zork, designed and endlessly polished the famed Infocom parser, and then come up with the concept and design of the Z-Machine, he was now working on what would prove to be the most significant leap forward for digital ludic narrative since Zork‘s debut on the micros. It started when one or two of the Dennis Wheatley crime dossier reprints came his way. Blank found the idea of solving a crime yourself, of playing a detective in your own mystery story, to be very compelling. And of course it was a natural choice for a text adventure, perhaps a more natural fit than a fantasy romp. After all, and as I described recently, classic mystery novels were really games dressed up as stories. All he had to do was what Wheatley and Links had done, to make the implicit explicit. But by doing that on a computer he could create something much more interactive than the crime dossiers, with their piles of static clues to read to come to a single conclusion at the end of it all. No, on the computer the player would be able to guide every step of the investigation for herself — to really play the detective. He spent the latter months of 1981 and the early weeks of 1982 crafting the game that would become Deadline, “first of the InterLogic Mystery Series from Infocom.”

There were other mysteries of a sort already available on computers — titles such as Jyym Pearson’s Curse of Crowley Manor (published by Scott Adams’s Adventure International as part of their OtherVentures line) and of course Ken and Roberta Williams’s debut, Mystery House. But, while these games included the trappings of mystery, their puzzles and gameplay mark them as standard text adventures, a collection of unrelated, static puzzles; they were Adventure in mystery clothing. Blank was envisioning a work where, just like in a classic detective novel, the story itself is the puzzle. Let me take just a moment to try to make clear what I’m getting at here.

While writing about Time Zone, Carl Muckenhoupt noted how separated each zone in that game is from all the others, then leaped to this:

Maybe it’s just that the author was used to thinking in terms of local effects, because that’s how early adventure games generally worked. The whole idea of non-local effects was a major leap in sophistication for adventure games, arguably more significant than the full-sentence parser.

Let’s run a little bit further with that.

It’s true that all adventure games at some level are, as Zork put it, “self-contained and self-maintaining universes.” Yet adventures prior to Deadline had been curiously static universes. Annoyances like Adventure‘s dwarfs and Zork‘s thief aside, their designers thought only in terms of local interactions. And, expiring light sources aside, they thought not at all about the passage of time. Early text adventures have environments to explore and (static) problems to solve, but they only occasionally and sporadically contain any sense of plotting, at best limited to an end game that triggers when the player has collected all the treasures or otherwise accomplished most of her goals. Blank, however, proposed to immerse the player in a real story, filled with other characters moving about with agendas of their own, with a plot arc rising to a real climax, and with — necessarily for the preceding to work — realistic passage of time culminating in the deadline from which the game drew its name. Scott Adams’s The Count had done some of this way back in 1979, but it had been inevitably limited by Adams’s primitive engine and the need to fit everything into 16 K of memory. Armed with Infocom’s superior technology, Blank now wanted to do it right. For the first time, the player of Deadline would have to act locally but think globally.

Just to make this very important idea absolutely clear, I’m going to quote at some length from an interview that Blank gave to SoftSide magazine in 1983. It shows that he knew exactly what he was doing in trying to create a new model for adventure games that would let them truly work as stories.

I think the elements of characters, interaction, and time flow are what make an adventure more like a story. Time flow is the critical one. In Zork I, the situation is static — you’re walking around in an effectively dead place. You find these problems and you try to solve them. If you can’t, you go on to some other problem and come back to it later. Nothing’s changed because very little is going on. Deadline, on the other hand, is much more like a story. Things happen at a certain time. The phone rings sometime around nine o’clock. You could pick it up, you could be some other place when it rings, or you could wait to see if someone else picks it up. What you can’t you do is hear the conversation at ten o’clock, because it happened at nine. Because of this event, the story changes — in other words, you’ve left that section of the story and moved on. There are some things you can’t go back to and they are usually time-related.

In a way it is like a novel. In fact, you’re drawn along with the course of things. You can’t just sit. The world is passing you by.

And the story changes. The difference between this and a traditional story is that the story changes, depending on what you do. If you walk into the Robner house and wait in the foyer until seven o’clock, you’ll see people coming and going. People talk to you, the phone rings, and at the end of the day someone comes to you and says you didn’t solve the case. Too bad. The whole story happened. The same thing is not true in Zork.

I won’t go so far as to say that it’s impossible to create an artistically compelling adventure in which the player merely wanders through a deserted environment. There are quite a lot of adventures which do succeed ludically and aesthetically within those constraints. Yet, if that is all that adventures can do, they must be a very limited and specific art form indeed. For adventures to be viable as a new form of literature (something Infocom would soon be talking about more and more), they needed to take this step — even though, as soon as they do, life must inevitably become a whole lot more complicated for the poor souls trying to design them.

Indeed, the sheer difficulty of the task in the face of the still absurdly limited technology at hand was the main reason that no one had created a more dynamic, story-driven adventure before. Even leaving aside the more advanced world-modeling that would be needed, telling a real story would require a lot more text than the bare stubs of descriptions that had previously sufficed. Given the limited disk and memory capacities of contemporary computers, that was a huge problem. Infocom’s Z-Machine was the most advanced microcomputer adventure engine in the world, but even it allowed, when stretched to the very limit, perhaps 35,000 words of text, about the equivalent of a novella. And in a way this figure is even less than it seems, as it must allow for blind alleys and utilitarian responses that a printed novella doesn’t. Looking at the problem, Blank hit upon a solution that would change not only Infocom but the whole industry. It once again came from Dennis Wheatley and J.G. Links.

Those crime dossiers are, as I described in my last post, packed with documents and assorted physical “feelies” that describe the case the reader is attempting to solve. A certain portion of this information is effectively backstory, setting up the suspects, the crime, and the scenery before the investigation really begins in earnest. For his computer mystery, Blank realized that he could also move this information off the disk and onto paper. Through interviews with each of the possible suspects conducted by an out-of-game previous investigator, he could establish all the details of the crime as well as the general character of each suspect and her alibi. He could also include coroner and lab reports about the crime. Doing this would leave much more space on the disk for the stuff that really needed to be presented interactively. There were also a couple of other advantages to be had.

Piracy was, then as now, a constant thorn in the side of publishers. By moving all of this essential information out of the game proper, Infocom would make it unsolvable for anyone who just copied the disk. It was of course still possible to make copies of the extra goodies, but this was neither as convenient nor as cheap as it would be today. And there was no practical way in 1982 of preserving the documents digitally for transfer over the pirate BBS networks, short of retyping them all by hand.

Less cynically, the idea of giving the player her own little crime dossier was just plain cool. Working as always with G/R Copy, Blank and Infocom went all out. They packaged everything within an “evidence folder.”



Inside were the disk, the manual, and all of the documents related to the crime, along with a final fun little addition: a few of the pills that the victim had allegedly used to commit suicide. (Shades of The Malinsay Massacre…) Designing and fabricating all of this wasn’t cheap; in fact, it was the reason Infocom charged $10 more for Deadline than they had for their previous two games. But people loved it. Deadline heralded the beginning of a new era of similarly innovative computer-game packaging: cloth maps, physical props, novellas and novels, gate-fold boxes, lengthy and elaborate manuals. All of this stuff would soon be making the actual disks look like afterthoughts. A far cry indeed from the Ziploc baggies stuffed with hand-copied tapes and perhaps a mimeographed sheet of instructions of just a few years before.

Having dispensed with the externals, we’ll dive into Deadline the game next time.

 
 

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