Deadline: Just One More Thing   17 comments

I’ve finished Deadline, and while I’ll give my usual disclaimer you should read all my posts in order, I will also disclaim since this is a mystery game, there are extreme spoilers. If what you’ve seen up to now makes you interested enough to try playing Deadline yourself, you should veer away now.

I’ll also make the disclaimer early I needed hints for two major points in the game. Picture from an eBay auction.

I think my major breakthrough was to stop thinking of this as a Poirot-type mystery, with all the clues being collected and assembled together in a final group scene (as gets parodied in Death Off the Cuff, where you are tasked with pulling off such a scene without knowing who the murderer is). No, the best model for a detective here is Columbo. The moment you get incriminating evidence, find the person it incriminates, pester them with it, ask them to explain what it means, and get them to fall off a mountain of their own lies and/or have them panic and make a mistake.

The sequence of interrogation can also matter — you want to give people a chance to walk into an inconsistent story. For example, last time I had come across a letter from a “Steven” to Mrs. Robner that indicated an affair and listened in on a suspicious phone call (“But we couldn’t have planned it better. You’re free.”) The next step was to confront Leslie Robner with both these things, but to make sure to ask about Steven before showing the letter with his name.

>ask robner about steven
“I don’t know who you mean. I have no friend named Steven.”

Then show the Steven letter and ask about the phone call.

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

>ask robner about call
“I guess you know it was Steven. I admit we were lovers, and we planned to marry if I could get a divorce from Marshall. He refused to consider it, the divorce I mean, even though he had no time for me anymore. He was married to the company, and he refused to see my side of things. Steven was suggesting that now we could marry. I told him I thought the timing was poor, or at least I would have if you hadn’t eavesdropped.”

If you show the letter first, without the extra lie adding spice, she’ll just talk about him as a “dear friend”.

Incidentally, all this means Mrs. Robner is a dead end — there’s nothing more to extract here. I still had threads leading to George (being written out of the will) and Mr. Baxter (with the business merger that it appears Mr. Robner didn’t want) to pull at. With George, I showed the calendar which I had flipped to the entry about sending a new will to Mr. Coates.

>show calendar to george
George tilts his head in thought (or perhaps surprise) but recovers quickly. “All I know is that Coates is my father’s personal attorney.”

The only reason this seemed notable is nobody else reacts to the calendar, including, oddly, Mr. Coates. (I was actually stuck for a while here due to the lack of reaction from Mr. Coates, but he doesn’t have reactions to much at all — he’s there to read the will and then leave again.)

If you do the showing, then George, which is normally happy and sedate at the will reading, gets somewhat disturbed.

George, now looking quite upset, starts for the door.
“I’ve…got to be going now. I’ll see you later,” George says. He starts to leave.

You can follow George upstairs. He ducks into his room, cranks up his stereo, then (assuming he doesn’t see you) goes into the library and:

George walks purposefully toward the bookshelves. He looks around, but you react before he can see you. When you peek out again, George is fiddling with the shelves. His right arm reaches into the shelf and, to your amazement, the unit of bookshelves on the left rotates away from the wall, revealing a darkened room behind. George enters it, trembling with barely controlled fear and excitement.

followed by:

A dim light in the hidden closet comes on. In the faint light, you can see George motioning with his right hand. All at once, the shelf swings shut!

I managed to get this first try because of my attempts to eavesdrop on Mrs. Robner’s call earlier; I knew the command HIDE was recognized even though it generally says there’s nowhere to hide, but in the library the game says “You might hide on the balcony.” Given the special status I figured there had to be a library-hiding scene, although I wasn’t expecting a secret passage out of it.

The part right after is where I got stuck enough to need the Invisiclues. Before I get into detail on that, I need to go back to the eavesdropped phone call briefly.

>listen to phone
You can hear Mrs. Robner and a man whose voice you don’t recognize.

I tried, after getting this scene, timing my phone listening in all sorts of different ways, and found no matter what minute I attempted (as long as I was in the game’s “window” of the call going on) I always had the same conversation. So I figured that was how the game worked: even though there was a “real time” element, there was a stretched window where you could accomplish certain tasks and they’d always come out the same way.

OK, back to the George scene. If you go back in and check, there’s a book that’s been moved revealing a black button. You can press the button to find George trying to get into a safe:

The leftmost shelf quietly swings out against the balcony window.
As the bookshelf swings open, you see George carefully dialing a combination into a large wall safe. He turns in panic and, with an exclamation, knocks you down and bolts out of the library.

I tested, just like the phone call, a few different timings, and the scene always ran this way: interrupting the safe-opening in progress. I figured that was that, and there was no better way to run the scene.

I was quite wrong about this: there’s a magic time — one specific minute, maybe — that you can catch George right when he has opened the safe, and he has the new will in his hands.

As the shelf swings open, George spins to face you. His expression, first seemingly wild with happiness, changes to one of panic and horror. He jerks around, trying feebly to conceal a piece of paper in his hands. He jumps toward you, then recoils in fear. Finally, sobbing, he crumples to the floor, clutching the paper beneath him. A large combination safe, imbedded in a wall, is lying open. You enter the hidden closet.

The new will entirely disowns George, as threatened. (The third way the scene can run is that you let George go through the whole process without interruption. George will then make a beeline for the lake and toss the will in. You can retrieve it but it then is just a soggy paper.)

Inside the just-opened-safe — and this is the only way to get at it, since George is the only one who knows the combination, there’s no secret piece of paper or word puzzle to solve —

Leafing through these papers, it becomes obvious that they incriminate Mr. Baxter in wrongdoings regarding the Focus scandal. They document funds which were embezzled by Baxter and tell how the scandal was hushed up. This evidence would be sufficient to convict Mr. Baxter in the Focus case.

Oh, this is a good time to go back to the fragmentary message on the pad:

I had trouble the first time, but I was trying too hard assuming the blank space would line up perfectly with the number of missing letters. Without that, you can get something like:

For the last time, I insist that you stop the merger with Omnidyne. Otherwise I will be forced to (show? produce?) the documents in my possession which implicate you in the Focus scandal. Stop before it is too late!

This is enough to get a strong reaction out of Baxter, but not quite enough to nail him on the crime. He could have easily been the person with the ladder doing the swap with the cup (he said he was alone at a concert, but that could just be a lie). However, this doesn’t explain how the crime was able to happen in the first place.

(George isn’t ruled out here yet technically, but it didn’t make sense to me George’s plan would involve going outside with a ladder, it just didn’t fit the sequence of events that well.)

But!… speaking of the ladder, it was worth a second check at the holes and did SEARCH NEAR HOLES. And for some reason, rather than “tiny pieces of a hard, shiny, substance” I found a piece of porcelain! This must be the piece of cup I suspected Baxter dropped out on the way out. I think this didn’t actually happened for any timing reason, it’s just random what you find perhaps? Intensely frustrating, to be honest, but at least I worked it out.

Analyzing the fragment led to the knowledge that it had tea, but also some unknown substance the lab wasn’t able to figure out due to there being too many possibilities. I immediately jammed through my list of substances and kept sending the piece of cup to Duffy: Allergone, Sneezo, LoBlo, Ebullion. I got misses on the first two, but analyzing for LOBLO got a hit, and a full lab report.

Dear Inspector,

In response to your request for analysis of the ceramic fragment, we have found evidence of a drug called Methsparin, which is usually sold in this country under the name “LoBlo”. It is a blood pressure lowering agent used primarily in Europe, which explains the oversight in our blood analysis of the deceased. A double check reveals a high blood level of Methsparin. While the amount of Methsparin in the blood isn’t dangerous in itself, a strong reaction between it and various other drugs has been well documented. As you may have gathered, one of those drugs is Amitraxin (Ebullion). The effect of Methsparin is to displace Amitraxin from protein binding, leaving more free in the blood and simulating an overdose.

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


Arthur Chatworth, Pathologist

Sweet! So somehow the LoBlo ended up in the tea, and then separately Baxter took away the evidence.

LoBlo’s perscription is to none other than … Ms. Dunbar, the secretary, who had not been on my radar previous to this point. Of course, following the Columbo Process™, the next step is interrogating her about the pills, and showing the report. She rather quickly tries to finger George:

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

I wasn’t able to get anything concrete, but I noticed that shortly after, Ms. Dunbar (who was resting in her room when I found her, and I knew from previous playthroughs normally hung out there for longer) suddenly started wandering the house. I did some following, sort of, but really just got lucky being in the same room as this happening:

Front Path
You are at the Robners’ front door, which is open.
You can walk around the house from here to the east or west. To the south a rolling lawn leads to the entrance of the estate.
Ms. Dunbar spots you and stops. She reaches into her pocket and pulls out a cigarette. As she does so, what appears to be a ticket stub falls out of her pocket and floats to the ground. She checks her pocket again, apparently for a match, but finds none and puts the cigarette back in her pocket.

What was rather unlucky is I hit some sort of bug so the game didn’t recognize the ticket stub as being in the room. It took a restore and a bit of fussing about before I finally was able to get a hold of the stub that was dropped.

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

As long as you do this while Mr. Baxter is not present, running the same ticket stub by him gets a different story.

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

Gotcha! I had the motive — the business blackmail — and the method — getting Ms. Dunbar to poison the tea with LoBlo, which was easy since she was the one that gave it to Mr. Robner in the first place. I figured I could ARREST BAXTER, and… failure?

I am sorry to report that Mr. Baxter was acquitted yesterday of the murder of Mr. Robner. In speaking to the District Attorney, I gathered that the jury was almost convinced of Baxter’s guilt, given that he had both motive and a means to enter the house using the ladder. However, the theory had a number of serious flaws, including the means by which Baxter could have administered the drug either without Robner’s knowledge or without a struggle. I must confess that I too am baffled. I am convinced that Baxter is guilty, but I fear we will never know for certain.

I was deeply, deeply, puzzled here, and this is where I needed to reach for hints again (not even Invisiclues, a straight-up walkthrough). I had been assuming, upon arresting Baxter, that all the evidence I had connecting him with Dunbar would come up and her connection would be clear, especially since it seemed like ARREST PERSON was the only possible syntax. But no: it turns out you can arrest two people at once. I needed to have Robner and Baxter in the same room at the same time and then ARREST ROBNER AND BAXTER.

Text of a letter from Police Commissioner Klutz dated September 5:

Dear Inspector,

Congratulations on your superb handling of the Robner case. As you have probably heard, a jury convicted Mr. Baxter and Ms. Dunbar today of the murder of Mr. Robner. Thanks to you, the murderers will be behind bars, possibly for the rest of their lives. Thanks for a job brilliantly done. Which reminds me of another fascinating case I would like to assign you to…

Coming soon: Another INTERLOGIC Mystery from Infocom

This would have annoyed me more, except I was pleased that I managed to nail the entire story the game gives after, explaining all the details of the crime.

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

Baxter planned to murder his partner, aided by the fact that Robner was known to be depressed, even suicidal. He enlisted the help of his lover, Dunbar, one of whose medicines was found to interact fatally with the pills Robner was taking. The relationship of Baxter and Dunbar was kept quiet, although Mrs. Rourke had an inkling of it. After the concert in Hartford which both Baxter and Dunbar attended, they returned to the Robner estate. Dunbar placed some LoBlo in Robner’s tea. After Robner died, Baxter used the ladder from the shed to enter the library and exchange the incriminating cup for a clean one (counting the china in the kitchen reveals that a cup is missing). Coming down the ladder, Baxter presumably dropped the cup and inadvertently left one piece on the ground in the rose garden, near the ladder holes that McNabb found while tending his roses.

The only bit I didn’t have down was noting that Baxter must have seen the note from the note pad since it didn’t end up in the trash. (I’m not sure that’s ironclad, given there was a time delay and the waste basket could easily have been cleaned, but I appreciate the game did another “clue in the negative space” for good measure.)

Despite the stumble at the end, this game was staggeringly good. Jimmy Maher talked (in his historical intro) about how it used global state. We’ve had other games with global state (like Savage Island Part 1, or Philosopher’s Quest) but this game leaps rather much farther than that, with characters that not only have schedules, but schedules that modify on the fly based on the actions of the player and who happens to be in the room at a particular time.

It keeps track of the knowledge that the NPCs have about what you know. Did you catch them in a lie based on their prior statement? Then they’ll modify their dialogue accordingly. If Robner originally denies knowing Steven, it’s harder for her to claim he’s just a “dear friend”. If Baxter hears Robner’s story about the ticket, he tries to be consistent with his own lie. I can’t even think of many modern games that do this, let alone ones from 1982.

Jon Ingold recently gave a GDC talk about the difficulties of detective games — how it’s hard to “prove” you made a deduction, how subtle hints like the count of the dishes are hard to express as any kind of game verb without giving things away — but Deadline’s format really manages to handle things just fine. Some of the sub-clues are good for leading to the bigger ones — I really might not have searched the holes again if I wasn’t absolutely sure there had to be a substitute cup, for instance. I don’t think the “you have lost” text after a missed arrest is always explanatory enough, but I never felt “cheated” out of the ability to put the pieces together, or felt that what ought to be a complex series of inferences ever got reduced to a simple object puzzle.

I haven’t even talked about the multiple endings. Apparently there’s a way to have Baxter be onto you in such a way that he tries to kill Dunbar, with a gun? And you can do an arrest after the second murder, or even get murdered yourself if you try to stop him en route? I’m not sure how that sequencing goes (my arrest came very shortly after my ticket stub find, so there was no time for anything like that to happen).

I’m honestly not sure, 100 years from now, if anyone will still be playing Zork, but I predict Deadline will still be considered a classic.

Posted April 9, 2022 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction, Video Games

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17 responses to “Deadline: Just One More Thing

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  1. Another fascinating writeup. Curious if you play Inkle (Jon Ingold’s) games? I mentioned in a previous comment that Deadline’s time-dependent mechanics removed me of their game Overboard, but really they have published several excellent games which are a marvel of modern adventure game storytelling. 80 Days, for example, though a linear experience, changes on each playthrough partially by introducing new (previously undiscovered) elements the more times you play through the narrative, and partially because the actions (and route you take) as you travel around the world create a mind numbing stay of possible story branches that sometimes affect future events.

    Anyone who is interested in All The Adventures should download 80 Days. It’s well worth the $5.00 (or whatever the app costs).

    • *…reminded me of their game…
      *…previously undiscoverable…
      *…mind-numbing array

      Sorry for the typos!

    • Ingold started with text adventures and I’ve played them since Mulldoon Legacy in 2000. If you want his take on Deadline-style games try Make It Good.

      The call comes through. Of all the dicks; you get the call, sitting in the front seat of your car, hands shaking on the steering wheel. An urgent call; but all you were thinking of was the bottle in the liquor store and so that’s where you went first.

      Now you’re pulled up outside the house. The rear mirror’s showing two steely eyes. You adjust your hat, stiffen up your collar and grab your badge off the dash. Here goes. You’ve one last chance so…

      An Interactive Detective Story, by Jon Ingold

      (Also, we know each other and I know he’s read at least one of my blog posts, I don’t know if he reads regularly, but if so, hello!)

  2. The comparison with Columbo is very apt!

    It took me years to beat Deadline. Not playing all the time, of course, but long breaks waiting for inspiration. I don’t have that kind of patience anymore, but that was a pre-internet world. The primary sticking point was, of course, the “magic time” in the secret room. I’ve seen many people say that “search near” is unmotivated, but it is right there in the manual. Doing it repeatedly, well, that may come down to the individual player.

    Deadline’s mediocre-to-low placement on IFDB’s list of Infocom games surprises me. It is technically brilliant and deeply satisfying to beat. It is one of my all-time favorite games, Infocom or otherwise.

    • I found out after the fact Colombo is even mentioned in the Invisiclues (written a year after the game).

      The weird thing about the secret room is that if I hadn’t tested the telephone timing earlier, I probably would have kept going on the room. I just had spotted the same pattern after three tries so stopped.

      SEARCH NEAR I was trying everywhere, for sure. It isn’t common in later Infocom games so I can see why people missed it.

      Having it work or not work at random is a bad move. My first attempts had me finding the small pieces, followed by a message that strongly hinted I found all that I could. I originally thought maybe there was some invisible flag I trigged wrong (I didn’t remember passing through the roses early, but that thought occurred to me, and was part of the reason why I gave searching another go). Relatedly, I could easily see someone having George heading for the room trigger on one playthrough but not another (and not understand why) because his reaction to the calendar was subtle enough it isn’t obvious that’s what’s going on.

    • oh, and re: patience, it’s funny, because the Internet essentially has had the reverse effect on me. Would not have beaten Time Zone even ten years ago. Couldn’t beat The Witness as a kid, it’s supposed to be easy. Probably bailed too fast.

      • Given your track record here, I was confident that you would beat Time Zone. I’m sure patience plays a role, but you seem to have arrived at a good method (and frame of mind) for approaching and beating adventure games.

        I think the main reason I stuck with those games in the 80’s was the simple fact that I couldn’t afford more games, and I always wanted Infocom games for gifts. I owned them, which wasn’t the case for my entire library. The games my friends and I cracked were another story. I moved on quickly because because there were so many of them (and I valued them less).

      • The “value” thing is interesting; games being part of The List kind of adds intrinsic value for me, which helps. I know I would have dumped Castle Fantasy after several minutes if I wasn’t trying to do History on it.

        For a long time the only game of any length/difficulty I beat hintless was Countdown to Doom (which is a 1982 game, so it won’t be that long before I get to do a replay).

        I got close with Anchorhead (only got stuck with what turned out to be a verb issue).

        Always used hints with Infocom (even had an Official Invisiclues for Zork 1 with the pen).

  3. There’s another scene where Baxter and Dunbar meet up in the tools shed to discuss how they’re going to proceed. You can listen at the door for further proof of guilt and then arrest them there.

    If you wait too long after you show them proof of their guilt, Baxter does murder Dunbar but tries to make it look like a suicide. There’s another puzzle at that point in proving Baxter murdered her so you may want to try to let that happen.

  4. There’s a funny bit if the “Baxter goes to kill Dunbar” ending happens, because it involves him basically recreating the murder of Mr. Robner, in that he uses the ladder to get to her balcony. A clever person might then restore the game and make sure the ladder is missing by doing an ANALYZE LADDER just before this… but if you do, Duffy shows up and tells you that the “Department of Ladder Analyzing” (or something like that) is closed for lunch, preventing you from taking the ladder out of the picture.
    (And yes, Baxter will totally murder you if you try to intercept him on the way – there’s basically no way to stop Dunbar’s murder once that sequence begins. But it’s rather easy to finger Baxter for the phony ‘suicide’ once it happens.)

  5. I got stuck on finding the magic moment too, and yes I did confirm that it was a single-minute window discoverable only by sheer luck or trial-and-error in the face of no reason to think that you’re barking up the right tree, at least in my playthrough. Also amusing: I thought maybe I could catch and arrest George (for destroying evidence, not for murder,) which didn’t work, and I figured I could use the ladder to climb off the balcony to intercept him on the way to the lake, but the minute George gets into his secret passage is the very moment where the ladder simply teleports back to the shed!

    • Even if you catch George while holding the intact will, he won’t consent to a search, so there’s nothing you can do. He just barrels ahead.

      • Yup, but I sure tried to catch him! I still can’t tell if it all adds up to like, a heavy-handed moment of GM railroading (like the disappearing ladder would suggest) or just a lack of anticipation and thus implementation of what seemed to me to be the most obvious course of action.

  6. Coming back to reread this some time later, I have a couple insights from the source code to offer.

    One, you’re right that finding the piece of porcelain is random. You have a 30% chance of finding it every time you SEARCH NEAR HOLES.

    Two, this is a game where adverbs in your commands can actually matter! For example, even if you don’t manage to hide in the library, you can discover the hidden button with EXAMINE SHELVES CAREFULLY any time after George uses it. You can also discover the indentations in the note paper with EXAMINE PAPER CAREFULLY. (Thanks to Torbjörn Andersson for pointing out this one.)

  7. If you follow George around in the morning (before the reading of the will), he goes into the kitchen to make a snack for himself. After he’s prepared it, you’ll see this:


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