Playing Deadline, Part 1

13 Jul

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.


Tags: ,

12 Responses to Playing Deadline, Part 1

  1. David

    July 14, 2012 at 3:16 am

    I think Deadline and Suspect were the only Infocom games that I didn’t come anywhere close to completing without heavy reliance on walkthroughs. From the beginning, it was clear in both cases that a numbing number of replays would be required to solve the game unassisted. Even Suspended, which has strong similarities to the mysteries, didn’t seem as punishing. Witness was a much smaller game, in terms of locations and moves to solve, and seemed to get the mystery idea right for my taste. It’s telling that Infocom did most of its experimenting with this story-as-puzzle format early on and abandoned it by the midpoint of its oeuvre. (Sherlock, a late “mystery” entry, was really a treasure hunt in disguise.
    I think there’s a case to be made that the story-as-puzzle game wasn’t revived until Andrew Plotkin’s IF Comp winner “A Change in the Weather,” a very short game indeed.

    • Jimmy Maher

      July 14, 2012 at 10:31 am

      Yeah. The mysteries are amongst the most complex and realistic of Infocom’s games as systems (or stories). The problem, to the extent you consider it one, is indeed that it becomes so easy to miss things thanks to the dynamic nature of the storyworld. It’s a problem Infocom never came close to solving.

      I’m not sure I would make habit of playing games like Deadline, but I can appreciate a game like this occasionally on its merits, where restarting and restoring and slowly mapping out the story as a system are really the heart of the experience. That sort of play is, however, very unfashionable today, and seems to have grown increasingly unpopular even in Infocom’s time, if we take as evidence the fact that each of the mysteries sold fewer copies than the previous — until, as you say, Infocom just gave up on the format.

    • Nathanael

      March 6, 2021 at 5:45 am

      I never got very far in Infocom’s “big three” mysteries; oddly, in Deadline and Witness I worked out what had happened, but not how to *prove* it. The evidence-collecting side of the puzzle was brutal, and I got stymied by guess-the-command in a late part of Witness. I never even got close to that far in Deadline. Moonmist was far more manageable. The style was gorgeous but their reach exceeded their grasp in the first three mysteries…

  2. Sven

    October 2, 2013 at 9:18 am

    Playing the game now for a few hours reminds me of playing Sierra´s “The Colonel´s Bequest”. While not so punishing as Deadline, you could also miss most of the story in this game by simply beeing not at the right place at the right time.

  3. Rob Lyons

    August 2, 2016 at 2:42 am

    A bit late to this party, but the site has been a joy to read, and very educational.

    Reading about Deadline reminds me heavily of the Sega CD game Night Trap, and I now see what they were really trying to do with Night Trap.

    I’ll also admit that I rather enjoyed that game, and it was the first time my 12 yr old self ever did a mapping for a game. Although in Night Trap’s case, it was marking the “time X location” instead of twisting caves.

  4. Will Moczarski

    March 24, 2020 at 3:39 pm

    We have have just 12 hours
    -> have

    In a clear sign that is going to be
    -> it is going to be?

    • Jimmy Maher

      March 26, 2020 at 9:58 am


  5. Ben

    June 22, 2020 at 6:25 pm

    Marshal Robner -> Marshall Robner

    • Jimmy Maher

      June 23, 2020 at 11:06 am


  6. Jeff Nyman

    September 19, 2021 at 5:12 pm

    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.

    That isn’t emergent behavior, though. Emergence in game design is defined as novel and unexpected properties discovered in a system as whole, without them being deducible from the individually designed components of the system.

    More generally emergent behavior allows the player to create solutions or elements that the designer never intended. The standard truism you are taught in game design is: “if it’s authored, it isn’t emergent.”

    For truly emergent gameplay there must always be multiple options for the player to achieve their goal. It doesn’t matter how unique or distinct your mechanics are if there’s still only one way to actually play the game or achieve the outcome. In the case of Deadline, while you have branching aspects of the narrative, nothing emerges from that. Yes, you can hide in a closet and maybe hear something you otherwise wouldn’t have heard or see an interaction you wouldn’t have seen otherwise; but that’s just going down a particular branch. That’s not at all what emergence means in the context of game design.

  7. Jeff Nyman

    September 19, 2021 at 5:24 pm

    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.

    Yep! And here’s where it falls over as a story (but perhaps not as a game). To do all this plotting, you have to essentially play out the story multiple times. You have to learn the mechanism by which the plotting happens. “If I wait right here for hours, what happens? Who goes where? Who does what?” Thus the mechanism really becomes the plot. You have very little chance to determine this during the course of any one game play-through.

    This is sort of like those mystery stories you brought up in a previous post, where the author might hide crucial clues from the reader that only the detective (like Sherlock Holmes) is privy to. Just as you can re-read those stories and now know what you didn’t before, the same can be said for Deadline. You can discover — just as in those books — what the author hid from you.

    I think this is a telling aspect of the whole “story as game” element that made it difficult for text adventures to gain traction. Other genres of games had the same kind of mechanic but the text adventure had the most similarity to reading a book. So it could be more so the feeling that the game parts and the story parts didn’t intersect as well. A debatable point, to be sure. It’s one I’ve been investigating as a thought experiment.

  8. Jeff Nyman

    September 19, 2021 at 5:26 pm

    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.

    Not really, though, right? After all, CRPGs had been doing this: deducing how the whole system and then learning how to use the mechanics in a way to win. Consider games like pedit5 or dnd that basically has you forming strategies based on what spells you had and the limited times you could use them, plus the varying effects on creatures those spells had. So the paradigm was very much there.

    The addition here with Deadline was the gloss of story. But I think it’s important to note that it was just a gloss, particularly when you consider the CRPG went on to dominate and, eventually infuse other games whereas the text adventure largely died out.

    Overall I think the big historical bit here is the use of conversation and, by that, to start to model motivations and mental states of the NPCs based on how they react. That combined with the “learn the holistic dynamics” combined with the trappings of story is what I think, historically, sets Deadline very much apart from its competition. But the fact that, ultimately, it actually led to very little in Infocom’s future canon also tells us something indicative.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.