Deadline (1982)   11 comments

Imagine: instead of passively reading your favorite detective stories, having full control over the investigation. Infocom, the creators of the unexcelled Zork adventures, has made another major advance in the development of the electronic novel.

— From the New Zork Times Summer 1983 Catalog

Sometime late in 1981, Marc Blank (after having worked on Zork I and II) embarked on a new game entitled Was It Murder? premised, in its very title, with a murder mystery (or as the History of Zork called it, “Zork: the Mystery”).

From a printing of the manual, for C64.

The game was eventually published in April 1982 and is honestly flabbergasting. While we’ve technically had mysteries before in the Robert Lafore line (notably Local Call for Death) this game rolls out a cavalcade of invention in both technical and design elements.

You, Chief of Detectives, have been summoned to the Robner estate to investigate a suicide. It seems open-and-shut: Mr. Robner was found locked in his room having taken an overdose of the anti-depressant Ebullion, all the people involved have been interviewed and accounted for, and Robner was depressed with his business failing. But since a whole game has been written about it, something more sinister must be going on.

The game included a passel of real-life materials prepared by Infocom’s ad company Giardini/Russell: a bag of pills as physical evidence (I think someone tried them once and it was candy, but I can’t find the post verifying that), a photograph of the scene, transcripts of interviews. This was Infocom’s first set of “feelies” and it really does add to the mood, especially since — despite them having the best technology for text games at the time — they were still fighting against the same computer limits everyone else was.

Yet, they managed to stuff a game into those limits that was (according to a 1983 account) akin to “playing with a wonderful dollhouse or a model train set”. You have 12 hours to solve the crime and not only does time move forward of its own accord but all the characters do as well, and the impression (based on the very short amount of game I’ve tried so far) is poking at a holodeck in text form.

Regarding “very short amount of game” — yes, this is the first time I’ve tried this. I’ve owned it since grabbing Lost Treasures of Infocom Volume I but just never have gotten round to it, so y’all get to see me react to things for the first time. I will likely get terribly stuck and make wrong inferences and those of you who know the mystery already can be amused.

If you really want to “read ahead”, Jimmy Maher has a terrific history rundown and what appears to be a long series on what playing the game is really like — I haven’t read anything past the history, of course.

Please do note, as I already confessed with The Colonel’s Bequest, I have in the past been very bad at mystery adventure games. I’ve still haven’t totally isolated why, but I have a theory I may have been playing them wrong. I’ve usually thought of adventure games as, despite the presence of softlocks, arranged with the sort of story where a sufficiently smart and lucky protagonist can get all the way through without trouble. That doesn’t seem to be what this sort of game is wanting. There are supposedly timed events where you have to be at the right place at the right time. There’s the possibility of analyzing evidence where nothing is found. It really seems to be an investigation made by multiple clones through time in order to form a “final run”, not something where I can keep a save file called Good which I think is composed entirely of “good progress”. Progress is with information more than with solving puzzles.

I also do have a request for anyone who has a physical copy, especially anyone who had one in the 80s: are the pills supposed to be “clean” or are they supposed to have brown spots? I’ve seen other pictures (like here) with the spots. I would guess it’s just degradation over time and a zoom in the picture above reveals relatively normal pills, but if they are supposed to look tea-stained that would technically be a hint.


Posted April 1, 2022 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction, Video Games

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11 responses to “Deadline (1982)

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  1. Funnily enough I struggled with this game too. From memory, the pills were plain. I can’t recall any markings at all.

  2. I’ve been looking forward to your take on Deadline!

    I remember the pills as white.

    I recall giving mine an experimental lick way back when–it was tasteless, though any brave soul who bit into one would know better. I feel that I’d be more likely to lick a white “pill” than a discolored one, but that is not exactly evidence.

    It’s one of my favorite games of all time. Because of Deadline’s exciting experiments with linear time (and multiple playthroughs), I referred to the protagonist as a “quantum detective.”

  3. Whooot!!! 1982! YAY!

  4. I’ve been wanting to play this game myself since reading Jimmy Maher’s article on it a few years back – the incorporation of ‘feelies’ into the game-solving experience is such a cool idea that really elevates the game beyond a traditional adventure game, imo. Having not played the game and only read about, I don’t know if the idea *works* or not, but it’s fascinating to me. This should be fun to follow along with.

    Also, “…a save file called Good…” made me crack up XD

  5. “I will likely get terribly stuck and make wrong inferences and those of you who know the mystery already can be amused.”

    It won’t be too bad (or amusing), I guess. Compared to some of the games you’ve already solved “Deadline” should be a walk in the park. Some serious Excel usage will be necessary, though.

  6. I think you will play and solve this without problems, because of the way you play text adventures: very systematically.

    You have your list of verbs, you map systematically, you even test patiently all exists when needed, etc. So in this case I have no doubt you will be the perfect detective for this case. Of course, you will use several playthroughs to crack the case, and in the end, have an optimized final run.

  7. Could Deadline by the very first example in computer of the “multiple playthroughs” mechanic?

    I’m sure there have now been countless examples of this. I experienced it most recently in the excellent Inkle game “Overboard!”, which has many parallels to Deadline in that you play through a very Poirot-style murder mystery where events take place in real time, and you must play through many times to gather the full story.

    Which suddenly begs the question, how deep will you dive to wear the crown of having playing “All the adventures”? Will you be extending your venture into the later annals of gaming history when the lines between adventury/action/rpg begin to blur?

    • In this exact sense, maybe? You’d have to work to turn it into a definition (there have been plenty of games where learning-by-dying is clearly a thing, like the two Balrog games which have exits that kill where there’s no indicator). Something about the need to keep track of scheduling, I guess, “Temporal softlock”?

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