Monthly Archives: July 2012

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:


                  st time
 nsist             op       merg
       mnidy               Oth
         ocumen     y poss
  plica     y      Focus s

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.


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 than half of 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 good 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 our 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, Marshall 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 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 this 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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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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The Dennis Wheatley Crime Dossiers

As a fellow very concerned about his place in society, Dennis Wheatley carefully cultivated friendships with quite a number of people, enough so that one kind of wonders where he found time to maintain his prodigious literary output. One of the most surprising of these was an up-and-comer named Joseph Gluckstein Links, or just “Joe” to friends like Wheatley.

Born in 1904, Links was, like Wheatley, the son of a tradesman. But the similarities ended there. Links’s father was a Jewish refugee from Hungary who owned a business that served the bottom end of the fur trade, dealing in skunk. Links didn’t have the opportunities Wheatley did to finish his education and indulge his whims as a young man-about-town in London. His mother died when he was twelve, and two years later his father learned that he was also terminally ill. With no time to spare, he pulled young Joe out of school to give him a rush course on the fur trade in general and the business he would soon need to run. “I was a sullen and unwilling pupil,” Links later wrote, but “there was the business and I jolly well had to go and earn my living at it.”

Links turned out to be possessed of a shrewd business sense. And, after such an ill-starred childhood, he was lucky at last. Fur, whatever ethical dilemmas it raises today, was exploding in the fashion world of the time; every girl wanted a fur coat, more than one if she could get them. Links was able to move his firm, Calman Links, upscale to meet this demand. Even the Great Depression didn’t stop him. By the 1930s London was the epicenter of a booming luxury fur trade, and Calman Links was one of its most prominent furriers.

As a young man Links was a friend of Nancy Robinson, the wealthy heiress to the Nugget Boot Polish fortune who, in something of a social-climbing coup for Wheatley, became his wife in 1922. It was through Nancy that the two men met, but their relationship far outlasted Wheatley’s first marriage, which ended in 1930. It was a surprising friendship because Links was Jewish; in common with so many in the British Right of this period, there was a strong streak of anti-Semitism in Wheatley’s early novels. Still, Links was urbane, cultured, witty, and discreet, and, as you might expect from one who made his living through fashion, known everywhere as a very snappy dresser. Despite his humble origins and limited education, all of this seemed to come to him effortlessly. Indeed, one might say that Links was a more natural, authentic version of the man that Wheatley worked so hard throughout his life to be. He also shared Wheatley’s taste for luxury, most notably in the form of good cigars and expensive wines. He cut such an impressive figure that not only Wheatley but most of his social circle were willing to forgive him his ethnicity. The friendship was perhaps really cemented as a lifelong one during the personal crisis that precipitated Wheatley’s becoming a writer. At this critical time Links was a huge source of comfort and support, lending Wheatley money to pay his creditors and his lawyers and a secluded cottage to get away from it all and pull his first novel together.

One night over dinner, circa 1935, Links dropped a brainstorm on Wheatley: what if they put together a murder mystery not in the form of a novel but rather as a dossier of reports and clues? Since so much of contemporary crime fiction was really about giving the reader a puzzle to solve, the trappings of the novel were beginning to seem to Links like a pointless intrusion on their real appeal. “Why can’t we just have the facts and the clues?” he theorized readers must be asking.

There had been some attempts before to present mysteries explicitly as puzzles to be solved. In 1928, Lassiter Wren and Randle McKay published the first Baffle Book, consisting of the brief descriptions of fifteen cases that the reader was expected to solve from the clues in the text. These cases read, however, like generic sketches of mystery plots before the scenery and characters were painted in, and thus played more like abstract logic puzzles than participatory mysteries. Links proposed giving readers all the atmosphere and detail of a full-fledged mystery novel, but explicitly asking her to do what had only been implied in the novels for years now: to solve the crime herself. Further, he imagined including much more than text: physical props, the actual pieces of evidence — what a later generation would come to call “feelies” — would be a key component. The dossier would end with a sealed section containing the solution, which the reader should only open when she believed she had solved the case for herself.

Wheatley was for a time unconvinced. Links was a businessman with no background in writing (or game design, for that matter). As for him, he was a writer, of course, but also a very busy one already selling plenty of books, and he had no experience or following in the already overstuffed genre of detective novels. But Links persisted, and Wheatley was finally taken with the same enthusiasm, with the rare opportunity to do something really, truly new. He took the idea to his publisher, Hutchinson. They were, unsurprisingly, very lukewarm. Producing and stuffing the dossiers with all those physical clues, not to mention typesetting telegrams, handwritten letters, and police reports, would be like nothing they had ever done before — and expensive. Yet Wheatley persisted. He was a very valuable author whom it behooved Hutchinson to keep happy, so at last they agreed — on the condition that Links and Wheatley would be willing to accept no royalties at all on the first 10,000 copies sold, and just one penny per copy after that. It’s a marker of how excited Wheatley was by the project that he agreed; he was normally always very careful to get everything financially coming to him. And so Links and Wheatley set to work, Links planning out the mystery and devising the clues and Wheatley writing the actual text. The dossier would be credited to Wheatley, with a “planned by J.G. Links” blurb inserted in smaller letters. The credits should probably have been reversed; Links had the original idea, after all, and the case at root was apparently his. Still, Links was a very private man happy to continue his life of relatively anonymous privilege. And, more practically, Wheatley’s name definitely sold books.

The result was published on July 23, 1936, as Murder off Miami.

A pleasure yacht, the Golden Gull, has just left Miami for a few days of cruising when one of the passengers, a soap magnate named Bolitho Blaine, apparently commits suicide, leading the yacht to return to port just hours after it left. You follow along with the investigation of the detective who meets the boat — through interviews, on-the-scene hunting for physical evidence, etc. In best golden-age-detective-fiction fashion, it quickly transpires that not only was Blaine murdered, but virtually everyone else on the boat has both Dark Secrets to hide and a plausible motive for wanting Blaine dead.

Detective fiction wasn’t Wheatley’s normal gig, but in an odd way he was suited for it, and probably could have done pretty well at it in an alternate reality. Much as he loved to play the cultured libertine, there was also a fussy, detail-oriented side to his personality. Sometimes the two came together in revealing if unappealing ways. His biographer Phil Baker describes a careful list he kept as a young man of every woman he had any sort of amorous contact with, from prostitutes (lots of these) to one-night-stands to proper girlfriends, along with dates and locations and a neat check next to those with which he went all the way. (When he forgot — or never had — names, he just used a shorthand description of the girl.) In Murder, he goes endlessly over suspects and times and locations and alibis, reveling in all this careful, systemic detail in an almost hackerish way; in still another reality, he might have been drawn to programming. If it is hardly revolutionary for a story of its time and genre, the solution to Murder is reasonable (at least by whodunit logic) and satisfying enough, requiring some out-of-the-box thinking that probably comes easier to people steeped in golden-age detective fiction than it did to my wife and me. We came up with a suspect based on an alibi of which the in-story detective seemed a little too trusting, but the answer of course turned out to be something else entirely.

Still, the striking aspect of Murder off Miami is not the case but how it’s presented. In addition to more prosaic text, the dossier contains telegrams, handwritten notes (some of which we had a devil of a time deciphering), photos of crime scenes and suspects, suspect police records, even a blood-stained swatch of curtain.

Like all of Wheatley’s work it’s almost defiantly of its time. For instance, there’s a poor Japanese fellow on the yacht whom no one deigns to call by his real name. He’s just “the Jap,” whom our detective hero warns not to try his “Oriental mind games” on him. Yet it’s still an interesting and unique experience today, even divorced from its historical importance. My wife and I had a lot of fun with it, even if we did fail to crack the case in the end.

Murder off Miami wasn’t something anyone knew quite how to classify. Is it a book or a game? asked reviewers and editorialists in articles that presage some of the discussion that would later swirl around the interactive fiction of Infocom and others. Luckily, Wheatley, you’ll remember, was “very good at selling” books; he tirelessly wined and dined top book buyers during the lead-up to publication to convince them to stock the dossier. Despite no real promotion other than that personally undertaken by Wheatley, Murder off Miami became a minor sensation. It ended up selling over 200,000 copies in Britain in its first year, and was eventually translated into many other languages. Always the royal watcher, Wheatley was delighted to learn that Queen Mary herself bought six copies. Naturally, Links and Wheatley soon set to work on another.

That second dossier, Who Killed Robert Prentice? (1937), is a particularly cold-blooded little number, and as comically dated as ever. Links and Wheatley have fallen afoul of the 1930s rage for Adlerian psychology; the murder victim is defined as a walking, talking bundle of inferiority complexes. Yet the case is more believable and more interesting. Solving it is a three-step process this time, of which my wife and I managed to get two correct. The evidence, meanwhile, is even more impressive than in the first dossier, including more physical props like railway tickets and stamps.

Some of the letters this time were even scented with unique perfumes, providing vital clues about their origins; sadly, this element didn’t survive its journey down through the years to us. Links and Wheatley also show a willingness to get more playful with the format. The centerpiece of the second dossier is a big fold-out newspaper that features not only articles about the case but also real advertisements from various sponsors, another demonstration of Wheatley’s nose for moneymaking opportunities.

There’s also an interview in the newspaper with Wheatley and Links themselves, who do discuss whom they think might have done the crime, but which Wheatley mainly uses as a platform to plug his books. The third dossier would continue to take advantage of Wheatley’s near celebrity in Britain, using him as a character in his own stories in a very postmodern sort of way that’s surprising for this time and this author.

Robert Prentice‘s most risque clue was a torn-up photograph of the victim cavorting with a naked woman. The reader had to assemble this, jigsaw-style, in a way that a later generation would soon be doing in a thousand graphic adventures.

The dossiers were not easy to assemble. During the height of the dossier boomlet, Hutchinson’s employed forty girls to cut swatches out of fabric and stain them, spray perfume on letters, tear corners off of envelopes, and, yes, rip up risque photographs. This hand-assembled aspect of the dossiers gives them an additional appeal today; every one is at least a little bit unique.

Robert Prentice was another sizable hit, thus spawning a third dossier for 1938, The Malinsay Massacre. Conventional wisdom holds that this is the point where the series began a dramatic decline in quality, but we didn’t really see that. It is true that the feelies have been dramatically reduced in number, to just one, an allegedly poisoned tablet. Still, said tablet is one of the most impressive of all the feelies. If one eats this tablet, one apparently learns an important clue: that it tastes like peppermint. (We weren’t going to try it after all these years and all the hands it must have passed through…)

The photos in Malinsay do look a bit low-rent, which apparently caused some conflict between the partners. Links managed the photo-shoot while Wheatley was out of town. The location he chose, a local hotel, doesn’t much look like the ancestral Scottish castle where the mystery plays out. Wheatley was very unhappy with the results upon his return.

While the rest of the third dossier contains nothing as impressive as the mock-newspaper from the second, we found the mystery itself the most believable and compelling of all — and, with a bit of thought and care, very solvable. We got this one pretty much right, a very satisfying experience. I’d imagine the experience we had with Malinsay came the closest to what Links and Wheatley envisioned when they first started thinking about making the dossiers.

About the fourth dossier, alas, the conventional wisdom is correct. In reaction to grumblings about the dearth of feelies in the previous dossier, the pair went in the other direction this time: “Five times as many clues as in any of the previous dossiers!” the cover trumpets. Unfortunately, that’s about all it’s got going for it. Produced with much less involvement from Wheatley, who was both ill at the time and getting somewhat tired of the exercise, Herewith the Clues sadly lacks his talent for weaving an interesting potboiler narrative. It has far less text than any of the other dossiers, and is the most explicitly gamelike of them all, reading more like the logic-puzzle mystery stubs of Wren and McKay than Wheatley and Links’s previous dossiers. The whole devolves into deciding which of a group of suspects can be identified as having been in a certain room at a certain time; the one who was not present must be the murderer. For the first time a scoring system is provided along with multiple sheets of paper to record your conclusions, so that “each member of the family may fill one up.” Some of the solutions are made more difficult by the cultural gulf between then and now:

Carlotta Casado can be eliminated because: Exhibit E, a sheet of Papier Poudre, Rachel shade, was found in the waste-paper basket. Carlotta is a black-haired Spaniard, with a sun-tanned skin; and none of the other women in the group even approaches a brunette type. Therefore, the Rachel shade sheet of Papier Poudre must have been used by her.

The “Papier Poudre” just looked like a blank square of stiff paper to us, and otherwise we have no idea what any of that is on about.

Other times the solutions are just stupid. Clever, but stupid.

Mug Masters can be eliminated because: Exhibit F, a screw of plain paper found in the waste-paper basket, has invisible writing on it, which at once becomes apparent if the paper is dipped in water. The writing is a personal note to Masters summoning him to the full group meeting to be held on the night of the 23rd; so obviously it was he who threw this paper into the waste-paper basket in the secret room.

Who the hell would start immersing their clues in water? We didn’t spend too much time on trying to solve this one, and when we flipped to the solution and saw stuff like that we were decidedly glad we hadn’t.

Herewith the Clues was published at a fraught historical moment, just six weeks or so before the outbreak of World War II. For all its flaws as a story and game, it’s perhaps even more interesting than the earlier dossiers as a time capsule, an artifact of a proudly snobbish upper-class London social set that was about to be changed forever by war and by the welfare state that would follow. Wheatley being Wheatley, he’s unable to resist breaking the fourth wall in the caption below the picture of each suspect to announce who is really shown there: lords, ladies, and respected society figures all.

When the war began, that was it for the dossiers. All went out of print, and, whatever appeasement sympathies they may have held in earlier lives, Links and Wheatley both joined up and devoted all their energies to the war effort. After the war, the time that had spawned the dossiers seemed to have passed. Agatha Christie’s continuing popularity aside, the detective novel changed again, away from the puzzle-box designs of the golden age to works that again placed more emphasis on realism and literary nuances. The idea of the mystery as an implied game between author and reader moved again into the background, and Wheatley went back to writing his thrillers and his occult pastiches, with only one more detour into ludic mystery. In 1953 he published a board game called Alibi, which appears to have played like a more sophisticated, narrative-rich version of the family staple Cluedo (Clue in North America). It seems that Alibi was not a success, and copies are extremely rare today. I thus don’t know much more about how it played.

Links, meanwhile went back to the fur business — and to a remarkable new career. A longtime bachelor, he finally married just as the war ended. The couple traveled to Venice for their honeymoon. Links fell in love with the city and with one of its famous sons, the landscape painter Canaletto. Over the years that followed Links cultivated both passions. Showing again that talent for moving in circles where he had by all rights no business going, this fellow who had quit school at fourteen and never attended a single class at university became perhaps the world’s foremost expert on Canaletto, writing books, speaking at countless academic conferences, and curating major exhibitions. He also wrote what has sometimes been called the greatest travel guidebook ever written, Venice for Pleasure (1966). He died in 1997 after what was by all accounts a long, varied, happy, and always discreet life.

As a major commercial success, at least in its earlier incarnations, the Wheatley/Links dossier series spawned some imitators. Most notably, William Morrow in the United States republished the first dossier as Crime File Number 1: File on Bolitho Blane, then continued the series with at least three more Crime Files written by American mystery writers. It’s worth speculating what might have happened to the budding genre had World War II not come along to disrupt it. As it was, though, the genre was not resumed after the war, going into history as a curiosity and a footnote to the careers of Wheatley and Links.

Until about 1980, that is. By that time, with the rise of Dungeons and Dragons, Adventure, and the Choose Your Own Adventure line of children’s books, the idea of this sort of blending of story and game was again beginning to feel in step with the times. Hutchinson published new editions of all four dossiers to modest press notices and modest sales. After a few years, they fell out of print again. However, during that brief window when they were easily available once more, a fair number of contemporary creators found them inspiring. In an obvious response to them, Simon Goodenough published a series of three new dossiers based on Sherlock Holmes stories. You can also see a lot of the Wheatley/Links dossiers in a pair of detective board games published originally around this time by Sleuth Publications, Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective and Gumshoe. A bit later two of the dossiers would be directly adapted into rather uninspiring computer games.

But most significantly for our purposes, one Marc Blank of Infocom picked them up, and was inspired to create Deadline, as dramatic a literary leap forward for digital ludic narrative as Zork had been a technical. Having ended this little detour into the 1930s, we’ll pick up with that next time.

(I owe huge thanks for this article to Zack Urlocker, who dug up editions of all four of the Wheatley/Links dossiers from his personal collection, shipped them to me in Norway, and refused to let me pay for any of it. Thank you again, Zack!)


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Britain’s Occult Uncle

There are some successful writers who are, as Ben Jonson wrote of Shakespeare, “not of an age but for all time.” But there are many more who become rich and famous in their own time only to be forgotten by later generations — or, if and when recalled by academics and diehards, remembered not for their continuing resonance but as curiosities, clues to understanding those strange people who lived all those years ago. Dennis Wheatley, for four decades one of the most bankable bestsellers in the book trade, belongs to this category. Upon his death in 1977, the vast majority of his immense oeuvre went almost immediately out of print even in his native Britain, and that was pretty much that for a fellow whose books even while he was still writing them had begun to seem painfully out of joint with the times.

To modern sensibilities, Wheatley’s life story is perhaps more interesting than his fiction. Born the son of an increasingly prosperous middle-class wine merchant in 1897, he was groomed virtually from birth to take over the business from his father when the time came. In that spirit, he received a respectable if not exceptional English public-school education. Indeed, “respectable but not exceptional” is a good way to describe the young Wheatley. Thanks to his family’s growing influence, he was able to finagle an officer’s billet in World War I and, even more importantly, to get himself posted to an artillery unit rather than the meat-grinder that was the infantry. Thus Wheatley had a comparatively easy war of it, in which, in the words of his biographer Phil Baker, “he did his duty; no less, if no more.” With that behind him, Wheatley, desperately class-conscious in the way that only one of somewhat uncertain status himself (in this case the son of a tradesman) could be, devoted himself to climbing society’s ranks while dabbling just enough in the business to keep his father soothed.

In 1927 his father died, leaving Wheatley in sole charge of the business. Unfortunately, thanks to the Great Depression that arrived a couple of years later and perhaps also to Wheatley’s decision to refocus the business on selling only very expensive wines and liquors to the most exclusive social sets, things started to go badly. Soon Wheatley, now entering his mid-30s, was forced to sell the failing business before it collapsed entirely. Worse, the purchasers upon examining the books began to speak of irregularities with regard to the money that Wheatley personally had taken out of the business. Soon they were threatening legal action in criminal court, and Wheatley was contemplating the prospect of jail time in addition to destitution. This man who had for 35 years been exactly what you would expect him to be now made the one really unexpected, audacious decision of his life. Despite having only his boyhood love of adventure novels and some earlier, unpublished and halfhearted stabs at fiction to his credit, he would write his way out of his financial straits. And so, in 1933, Dennis Wheatley the novelist was born.

In a great bit of damning with faint praise, Baker notes that Wheatley turned out to be only “good at writing books, after a fashion,” but “extremely good at selling them.” The critics, or at least those who didn’t lunch with him at one of his clubs, delighted in eviscerating him, and for many good reasons. His prose was remarkably awful, his characters paper-thin, his politics reactionary. Wheatley was a thoroughgoing manichean. People are either Good (Tories, businessmen, military men, the aristocracy, fascists in the early years) or Evil (communists, socialists, labor, Satanists, fascists after appeasement went out of fashion amongst the British Right, still later hippies and civil-rights activists). As time went on all of these latter groups started to blend into one overarching conspiracy of Evil in his books, communists walking hand in hand with Satanists. Wheatley does not allow the possibility of equally well-meaning people who simply disagree about means as opposed to ends. There is only Good and Evil, the former usually handsome or beautiful, the latter ugly. Subtle Wheatley ain’t.

For all his failings, however, Wheatley did have a flair for exciting plotting. He knew how to layer on the unexpected twists and turns, to get his heroes in and out of jam after jam by the skin of their teeth, each more dangerous and improbable than the last. For readers who shared his politics, and probably even a fair number of guilty-pleasure seekers who did not, his books were reliable comfort reads. To his credit, he never claimed them to be anything more. He replied to bad reviews with a bemused shrug, saying that he had “no pretensions to literary merit”; was “better aware than most of my shortcomings where fine English is concerned.” And anyway, he said, reading his books was at least better than going to the cinema, which was what his customers would otherwise do.

Wheatley took his customers’ wishes very, very seriously. Some of his books ended with a questionnaire, asking what they had thought of the book and what they would like to see in the next: what setting, which of his cast of recurring heroes and villains, even what percentage should be devoted to romance. Apropos this last: one other key to Wheatley’s success was his inclusion of a love story in each novel. This was thought to attract women readers — and, it must be said, he did sell far more books to women than did other writers in the traditionally male-dominated genres of thrillers and adventure stories. Wheatley wrote quickly, ensuring his fans were never kept waiting long for new material. In 1933, his first year as a working writer, he churned out an incredible three novels as well as one nonfiction book (on King Charles II of England, his personal hero) to buy himself out of his legal difficulties. After that outburst he settled into the only slightly more sedate pace of two novels per year, year after year.

But, you might be wondering, what does this fellow have to do with videogames? More than you might expect, actually. Wheatley, despite being very much a character of a different era than my usual concerns on this blog, is nevertheless important to them in two ways. One is somewhat tangential and one surprisingly direct. Let’s talk about the former today.

On Halloween, 1934, The Daily Mail began publishing a new Wheatley novel in serial form. It was called The Devil Rides Out, and concerned a cabal of Satan worshipers out to plunge the world into an at-the-time-still-hypothetical World War II by stirring up opposition to Hitler’s new Nazi regime. There are parts of the book that read just horribly wrong today. The heroes’ talisman of good, for instance, which when hung around the neck functions to protect them against the Satanists much as does garlic against vampires, is a swastika, “the oldest symbol of wisdom and right thinking in the world.” Despite — or perhaps because of — stuff like this, it’s become a kitschy classic of sorts today, the book most of the few who do bother to read Wheatley begin with — and, one suspects, usually end with.

In its own time, Devil became a sensation. Wheatley had been successful before, but Devil took him to a whole new level of fortune and fame, as Britain’s foremost popular pundit on all things occult. The book was in fact broadly if shallowly researched. Wheatley cultivated relationships with such figures as Montague Summers, a loathsome old reprobate of a priest who was convinced that witches in the medieval tradition remained a clear and present danger; and even an aging and ever more ridiculous Aleister Crowley, whose name still left many people in terror for their immortal soul but who in person was more likely to ask to borrow a fiver to feed his various addictions than anything more threatening. Crowley, Summers and a handful of other similarly dissipated, over-privileged Edwardians with too much time on their hands had in the decades before his book been largely responsible for reviving the notion of the occult, previously thought banished to the Middle Ages where it belonged, as an at least theoretically vital force again.

The problem with Satanism, at least from a certain point of view, is that there’s just not a whole lot of there there. Our perception of it through the ages is not down to any actual evidence from Satanists themselves, who seem to have barely existed if at all, but rather the fever dreams of those on the side of Good who claim to be desperate to stamp it out. From the Malleus Maleficarum down to the works of Summer, the scholarship on Satanism and witchcraft consists entirely of what the Good side of the hypothetical debate speculated that those on the side of Evil must be doing. The entire scholarly edifice is built on sand. Wheatley based much of the detail in Devil on Summers, who drew from the Malleus Maleficarum, which drew from… what? The whole is a chain of conjecture and imaginings (and, one suspects, fantasizing) of what a genuine cult of Satanists must be like if anyone ever met one. Direct experience is entirely absent. As we’re about to see, Wheatley just added another link to that chain.

As already described, Wheatley was always eager to give his public exactly what they wanted. And what they wanted, judging from sales of The Devil Rides Out and the excitement it generated, was more novels about Satanism and the occult. And so for the remainder of his life, interspersed with his tremendous output of other novels, he continued to churn them out. He also continued to cultivate his persona as “Britain’s occult uncle,” one on the side of Good who nevertheless had access to Dark Secrets that could be dangerous to lesser men. And he continued the bizarre, and increasingly ridiculous, practice of mixing worldly politics with spiritual struggle as he aged and the world around him agreed less and less with his traditionalist Tory values. “Is it possible that riots, wildcat strikes, anti-apartheid demonstrations and the appalling increase in crime have any connection with magic and Satanism?” he asked in 1971. The answer, as far as he was concerned, was a quite definite yes. He even advocated for a reinstatement of Britain’s anti-witchcraft laws, despite the last of them having only recently been taken off the books. Late in his life Wheatley almost seemed to morph into the now-deceased Montague Summers. He published a non-fiction treatise of his own, The Devil and All His Works, and sponsored the “Dennis Wheatley Library of the Occult,” a series of paperback editions that ranged from classic literature (Stoker’s Dracula, Goethe’s Faust) to the ramblings of Crowley and his ilk.

It’s hard to say to what extent Wheatley really believed this nonsense. He loved to sell books, and, while his books on other subjects were very successful, this stuff sold a whole order of magnitude better. It’s hard to understand why, if he thought Satanism a genuine danger to society, he continued to make it sound so damn appealing to so many of his readers via his novels, all of which featured a nubile, naked young virgin almost deflowered on an altar of Satan or similarly charged mixtures of black magic, sex, and sadism. Readers were not clucking over them as warnings about the spiritual dangers around them; no, they were getting off on the stuff. Wheatley therefore shouldn’t have been surprised when one of the elements of modern culture he hated most, a rock band, drew from his work — or, rather, pretty much blatantly ripped him off.

The band in question, Coven, was the first to really cement the link between Satanism and rock and roll. They were, however, far from one of the more talented bands to be accused of witchcraft. Their first album, the ponderously titled Witchcraft Destroys and Reaps Souls (1969), was a very contrived affair, largely the brainchild not of the band (who frankly don’t strike me as the brightest sorts) but of the producer, Bill Traut. He hired an outside songwriter, James Vincent, to put most of the album together:

“Bill brought me a large box full of books about witchcraft and related subjects. He told me to read them and start writing some songs … Sometime before the sun came up, I had completely written all the material requested of me for the entire album.”

It is, as you might imagine from a gestation like that, pretty dire stuff, like Jefferson Airplane with less impressive instrumentalists and very generic songs (apart from the EEEVVVVIIILLLL lyrics, of course). The most interesting track is not a song at all, but rather the 13-minute recording of an allegedly “authentic” Black Mass that concludes the album.

I have to put “authentic” in quotes in the context of a Black Mass because it’s very debatable whether there is such a thing. All evidence would seem to indicate that the Black Mass is not an ancient, timeless ritual, but an invention of the twentieth century. Further, it seems that none other than Wheatley’s erstwhile mentor Montague Summers may have been the man who invented it. Before suffering a spiritual “shock” that led him to God, Summers was himself a budding Satanist, one of the community of occult dabblers that swirled around Aleister Crowley. In his superb Lure of the Sinister, Gareth Medway accords a ritual conducted by Summers at his home in 1918 as “the earliest Black Mass for which there is reliable evidence.” Indeed, the younger Summers was quite a piece of work. A recollection from this era given by an acquaintance, from Baker’s Wheatley biography:

James was not invited to the Black Mass again, but he continued to see Summers socially: heavily made up and perfumed, drunk on liqueurs, Summers would cruise the London streets in search of young men. One day Summers confided his particular taste: “He was aroused only by devout young Catholics, their subsequent corruption giving him inexhaustible pleasure.”

There is evil here, but its source is not the supernatural entities the later Summers was so eager to stamp out.

So, we now have the older Summers feverishly describing and condemning the “ancient” ritual of the Black Mass which he himself likely invented as a younger man. Next, inevitably, we have Wheatley putting all of the “authentic” details into his novels. And then… then along comes Coven. Their recorded Black Mass is hilarious in its own right; for starters, the priest of Satan serving as master of ceremonies has the stentorian voice of a radio DJ, a far cry from the Voice of Evil one might expect. It gets even funnier, however, when you realize that virtually the entire ritual is plagiarized from one of Wheatley’s novels, The Satanist (1960).

The Coven album generated just the sort of controversy it had been intended to provoke. More so, actually; the outcry was so extreme that their record company pulled the album from shelves entirely in fairly short order. Thus in this case the real object of the endeavor, which was (in common with so much of the Satan industry) to make lots of money off cheap sensationalism, didn’t quite pan out. However, other bands, particularly in the emerging genre of heavy metal, now began dabbling in occult subject matter, most notably Black Sabbath. (In an odd coincidence, Coven’s bassist was named Oz Osbourne and the first song on their album was called “Black Sabbath.”) Most of these bands simply wrote about Satanism and the occult — with the usual dodgy research — rather than claiming to be full-on devil worshipers. Mostly it was all just silly fun perfect for teenage boys, and some of it was even pretty good; I’m still known to spin the occasional Iron Maiden. Yet it caused a firestorm of fear and anger from conservative Christians and orthodox Establishment-types who imagined their headbanging children being seduced to Satan through this music. What went unnoticed and unremarked, of course, was that the real source of most of the Satanic tropes they condemned was a man who was in a very real sense one of their own, Dennis Wheatley. One can make a pretty strong case that Wheatley essentially invented Satanism as it has existed in the popular imagination of the last 50 years — not a bad legacy for an otherwise forgotten author.

So, let’s see if we can bring this around to games at last, by looking at the urtext of ludic narrative, Dungeons and Dragons. There’s actually very little occult influence in the original edition of the game. It was, as I described in an earlier post, a product of dedicated wargamers with an interest in fantasy literature; there was nary an occultist among them. Later sourcebooks would begin to introduce somewhat generic devils and demons, and even to outline entire religious pantheons via the Deities and Demigods tome, but TSR was smart enough to stay well clear of any sort of obviously Christian mythos; certainly you won’t find stats for Satan in any of the Dungeons & Dragons rule books. Still, demons and devils and other horrors were in the game, as were spells. Many apparently found these elements hard to place outside of a Christian context. Nor was the artwork always helpful; in a picture, an evil efreeti from the Elemental Plane of Fire and Satan look pretty much the same.

Further, there was a substantial crossover between the kids listening to all this allegedly Satanic heavy-metal music and those playing D&D. While the lure of the forbidden (i.e., Satanism) was certainly part of heavy metal’s appeal, it also gave them grand themes of heroism and villainy, fantasy and history — all just the thing for teenagers looking for an escape from the trials and tribulations of high school. D&D, of course, gave them some of the same things. When concerned elders worried over the lurid heavy-metal posters on Junior’s bedroom walls, then saw that he was also playing this odd game of imagination full of spells and devils, and with similarly lurid artwork… well, it wasn’t a difficult leap to make. D&D and heavy metal must be the new face of Satanism — which, as we have seen and although no one seemed to realize it, didn’t actually have an old face.

The wrath of these crusaders would largely come down on D&D the tabletop RPG, as opposed to its computerized descendents that I’ve been writing about on this blog. Yet even they would not be immune. Richard Garriott received plenty of outraged letters accusing him of being an ambassador of Satan, particularly after Ultima III came out with its particularly Satanic-looking figure on the cover.

All of this controversy ended up playing a significant role in Garriott’s work as well as that of others, and I’ll be returning to it again in the future. However, I don’t want to move too far afield from Wheatley himself at just this moment. You see, he had yet another, completely different role to play in the field — in fact, the one I teased you with in my last post. We’ll pick that up again at last next time.


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