Archive for the ‘deadline’ Tag

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.

ENHANCE.

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

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Deadline: Everything Would Be Easier If He Was Dead   3 comments

On July 7, 1982, Marshall Robner worked late into the night, last being seen alive at around 11 PM. In morning, he was found dead of an apparent intentional overdose of medication.

The initial investigator on the case, G. K. Anderson, did a number of interviews of the people in the house with the deceased. First came the wife, who testified she woke in the morning to find her husband was not in bed; she assumed that he had fallen asleep working in the library, but he did not wake when she knocked at the library door. Eventually, Mrs. Dunbar (the housekeeper) and George (the Robner’s son) were awakened by Ms. Robner’s attempts to awaken Marshall. Eventually the police was called with axes. The police broke down the door to find the body of Mr. Robner.

ANDERSON: Did your husband ever talk of suicide?
ROBNER: He did, actually, though I never took it seriously. He would talk about how everything would be easier if he were dead, but when he would start again talking about how he was going to have to keep the business going. I’m…I’m stunned, really.
ANDERSON: Mrs. Robner, do you know of anyone who might have wanted to kill your husband?
ROBNER: Why, no. Of course not. He wasn’t a very friendly man; he was very quiet. But he was a great philanthropist, you know, and everyone that knew him respected him. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to hurt Marshall. Do you really suspect he didn’t commit suicide?
ANDERSON: I don’t suspect anything. I just want to understand what’s happened

The coroner’s report noted a bruise on the left temple, “consistent with falling to the floor from a chair”. There was a blood level of 27mg% for Ebullion, with a fatal dose being from 10-20mg%, and no other “common” drugs were found. (This incidentally suggests “uncommon” drugs are still possible.)

There was massive liver damage (which corresponds with an Ebullion overdose) and 10mg of Ebullion in the stomach. Time of death was sometime between midnight and 2 AM.

There’s a photograph of the crime scene, and I see two things of concern:

Issue #1: the placement of the china. The idea, theoretically, is that Mr. Robner turned around and fell over, and the china fell down along with himself and the chair. Somehow, the saucer ended up underneath the chair, and doesn’t look like it suffered any damage. Was it placed there?

Issue #2: the coroner report mentioned the front left temple. Assuming he turned around and fell forward, hitting the furniture as shown (the chalk outline actually goes underneath, slightly) it seems reasonable he’d have some manner of temple injury, but unless I’m misunderstanding, wouldn’t the damage be to the right temple?

The actual events of the day before, July 7, seem to be (according to the testimony of the housekeeper) that Mrs. Rourke was settled down in her room at 10:30 PM, with everyone on the second floor of the estate except for the secretary Ms. Dunbar, who had just arrived. At around 11 PM Dunbar brought up tea, and was the last (that we currently know of) to see Mr. Robner alive.

DUNBAR: Why, yes. I brought him some tea at about I 1 PM that night. On nights when he expected to work late, he would always expect tea at that hour. I brought him the tea and he asked me to leave. That’s all.
ANDERSON: Did Mr. Robner seem at all upset?
DUNBAR: He did appear quite nervous, but he had been upset for some time, as you know.

Regarding “being upset for some time”, Mr. Robner’s business he had founded was doing badly, and according to an interview with Mr. Baxter (Mr. Robner’s business partner) there was a “drastic plan” to save the business. Jumping ahead a smidge to my first playthrough, Baxter goes into more detail what this means when asked:

Before Marshall died, we agreed that the only reasonable way to protect our interests was to be bought out by a larger company which could then provide us with capital for expansion. I had been talking to people at Omnidyne and we agreed in principle on the terms for such an agreement last week. I’m hopeful that we can close the deal quickly.

Other than the wife, business partner, and secretary, there was an attempt at interviewing the son (George) who was apparently quite wasteful with money and the week before the death Mr. Robner had said he was going to rewrite his will and take George out of it. This had been threatened before but this time was different? Except no new will has surfaced at the time of the start of the game. (This irregularity with the will is why we, the Chief of Detectives, have been summoned in the first place; this was as a favor to Mr. Coates, the lawyer for Mr. Robner.) The interview didn’t go well.

ROBNER: Look, I don’t get what you’re driving at. You find the poor guy dead in his room. The room was locked. His bottle of medicine is nearly empty. What sort of detective are you, anyway?
ANDERSON: I’m doing the asking, if you don’t mind.
ROBNER: Then ask someone else.

By the Laws of Mystery Plots, the most suspicious person at the start is not the one who did it. Even if we back up and ignore the meta, the locked-room plot does seem to be a little past George working alone.

The big problem is: how did the medicine get in Mr. Robner in the first place? A fatal dose was found in the stomach so he really did ingest a lot of the substance, but given only the one (oddly-placed wound) it seems unlikely he could have been “forced” into taking the pills. The tea was detected as clean from Ebullion. Is the substance dissolvable, somehow? I get the impression from what little I’ve played a great deal of the mystery is in howdunnit, and that once that gets entirely resolved, the suspects will get narrowed down by themselves.

Then there’s the locked-room aspect itself. Assuming the housekeeper was telling the truth (admittedly a big assumption in a mystery) then past the secretary delivering the tea, nobody went up or down the stairs past 10:30 PM as they were very noisy. The only possibility would be out the window of the library to a balcony, possibly down a ladder. There is a shed outside the estate with a ladder but it didn’t have an obvious place for fingerprints; this is something I’m still investigating.

A “meta-map” of the estate.

Even if we assume an entrance via ladder, that doesn’t work consistently with what happened — Mr. Robner would no doubt be quite alarmed by an intruder from the outside. This suggests that perhaps the criminal was hiding in the room somehow (it’s a small library, though) and only left by ladder as opposed to climbing in that way. That of course still requires some coordination to manage correctly.

This squeezed everything I could out of the starting documents. I did get through an initial play, but it was a very non-narrative playthrough when where I was creating a map and testing out verbs; there’s a slew of special commands for the game. I’ll save talking about all that for next time, but let me add one thing, a central event. At noon there is a reading of the will from the lawyer who summoned our protagonist.

Mr. Coates begins: “This is an awkward situation. Mr. Robner told me five days ago that he wanted to execute a new will, and promised to call me when it was completed. As I never heard from him, I must assume that he either changed his mind or did not complete the new will. Therefore, the one in my possession must be considered the most recent testament.”

From the corner of your eye, you catch George nodding his head, as if in approval, and smiling broadly.

Continuing, Mr. Coates says: “Naturally, should a more recent will exist and be found within a reasonable period, the present one will be voided. I will proceed with reading the will here in my hands, which was executed three years ago last month.” He reads the will, simply written and direct, leaving equal parts of the estate to his son, George Arthur Robner, and his wife, Mrs. Leslie Phillips Robner.

Again, the game seems to be pointing out George as an obvious suspect, probably too obvious. I’ve made a couple of extra discoveries but I want to fill in some more background and create a narrative for next time. Still, the “more recent will” line sounds ominous, sort of a Chekov’s Gun for information (Chekov’s Clue?) Is there anyone other than George that would have benefited from the new will going missing, assuming there is one?

(Thanks to Drew Cook for providing a scan for the photograph with enough resolution for me to make some zoomed-in shots.)

Posted April 4, 2022 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction, Video Games

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Deadline: Clues in Negative Space   3 comments

The two most significant clues I gathered since last time were from things I didn’t find.

Deadline runs into a design paradox when you look at the outside of the Robner house.

The official map of the Robner Estate, from the Invisiclues for the game. I carefully avoided the maps of the inside but I figured the outside was safe.

You want realistic terrain, like above (as drawn by Steve Meretzky, who spent time in the construction industry) and you want to not have many superfluous rooms, like Time Zone did. How would you make the map so as to not be confusing? Well, not like this:

Given I was getting lost trying to make sure I had every outdoors room accounted for, I really did need to figure out how everything was tangled. In multiple cases there are one-way exits, so you can go from (for example) Among the Roses to the West Lawn but not back again.

Another spot with confusing one-way directions. I got lost here figuring out how things were oriented.

Even if the obvious “glitches” are fixed, it’s unclear what you’d do for a circumstance like this:

Yes, if you’re West of the Front Door, it should be possible to move, SW, S, and SE, and yes, the South Lawn is the only logical room to send the player to, but it still is confusing. You could add more South Lawn rooms so the convergence isn’t quite this heavy, but that would go counter to the goal of not having many superfluous rooms.

I remember when I first played Infocom games with a map like this I would simply ignore most of the “extra” exits — just connect the South Lawn to the Front Door and be done with it — but that leads to potentially missing something, and indeed it took me a while to realize that West Side of House was a reachable room (it can only be entered in two different ways).

There’s a fence to the north which is the reason for the restriction.

I mentioned last time the “tool shed” which has a ladder in it. To get to the library window you have to go to the garden area, and it appears that the window is directly over some roses.

>s
In the distance you hear “Hey! WHAT? You, there!” and other choice words muffled by a strong Scottish burr and a stiff breeze. Now, standing at the edge of the garden, can be seen the person of Mr. Angus McNabb, the gardener. He advances, looking crazed and gesticulating wildly. With each carefully chosen step in your direction, a barely visible wince of pain comes to his deeply-lined face. He regards you as you would regard the man whose car just ran over your little puppy dog.
Among the Roses
You are among rows of roses. The ground is soft, and your footsteps leave a rather bad impression as many poor seedlings are trampled underfoot. A safer place to admire the flowers lies to the north. A window to the south allows a view into the house.
There is no way into the house from here.
Mr. McNabb is here. He seems pretty angry about something.

That’s the gardener, Mr. McNabb. As the game kicks off he’s tending to the North Lawn, pulling weeds. He liked Mr. Robner — they’d “talk for hours” about gardening — but didn’t care much for any of the other residents of the estate, and says “I barely know which is which”.

McNabb will happy talk about gardening with you if you ASK MCNABB ABOUT ROSES, but will get upset if you’ve done a visible bout of squishing:

“I dinna give a hoot about you or your questions! Now, begone! Steppin’ all o’er me roses. A crime, it is! I’ll call the police is what!” He seems pretty angry.

If you wait until 9:59, he’ll move to the East Lawn. At around 11:10 he’ll shift to the Garden Path and start cutting flowers. If you keep hanging with him until 11:20:

All of a sudden, Mr. McNabb starts talking to himself quite loudly about his poor roses being ruined. He walks up to you and says “You canna believe the holes someone’s made. Crushed my roses. It’ll take me plenty a time to set it right. I just canna believe it!” He shakes his head dejectedly.

You can then specify MCNABB, SHOW ME THE HOLES and he’ll lead you there. Since he’s leading he doesn’t get furious at you for entering the rose area, but rather:

McNabb grabs your arm and leads you to a spot deep within the garden and near the house. You might never have found this place alone. He points at the ground, where you see two holes in the soft earth.

The holes measure two by four inches and are three inches deep, rather like there was a ladder placed there! SEARCH HOLES yields nothing unusual, but SEARCH NEAR HOLES yields paydirt:

You are making quite a mess, but you do run across some tiny pieces of a hard, shiny substance, which drop from your fingers and back onto the ground.

I think I know what the substance is, but I’ll get back to that later. I think this is a good time to pause and talk about Deadline’s special commands, as I’ve already been using some, and there’s a lot of them.

Deadline essentially invented a large number of new “standard commands” wholesale.

ACCUSE (someone) OF (something)
ARREST (someone)

ARREST will end the game (if you have enough evidence) and show the result. I’m curious what possibilities (something) has other for accusing other than murder: theft, perhaps?

ANALYZE (something)
ANALYZE (something) for (something)
EXAMINE (something)
FINGERPRINT (something)
SEARCH (someone) FOR (something)
SEARCH NEAR (something)

Lots of analyzing and searching commands. If you ANALYZE an item, Sergeant Duffy (who otherwise doesn’t appear in the game) will come scoop it up.

>examine saucer
The saucer is hand-painted with a mythological scene. It has a couple of small areas of brown discoloration.

>test saucer for allergone
Sergeant Duffy walks up as quietly as a mouse. He takes the saucer from you. “I’ll return soon with the results,” he says, and leaves as silently as he entered.

Not every item can be tested, and sometimes an item can be too big or not portable (“With all respect, I don’t think I can take THAT to the laboratory!”). I oddly haven’t got a lot of hits from testing, although something important did come up once which I’ll mention shortly.

ASK (someone) ABOUT (someone or something)
SHOW (something) TO (someone)
SHOW ME (something)
WHAT’S WRONG?
WHERE IS (someone or something)

ASK was in Zork (kind of) but even it doesn’t get regularized until here. SHOW ME you got to see with the gardener; the fascinating thing with that command is I didn’t actually remember it was a special command, but just thought SHOW ME THE HOLES was the natural response to McNabb’s complaint, and the game responded appropriately.

TIME
WAIT FOR (someone or some amount of time)
WAIT UNTIL (time)

Also fairly novel; you had time play a small part in Warp, and a big part in Savage Island Part 1, but otherwise needing this level of control was unheard of in 1982.

In an alternate universe where I didn’t spend the entire span of gameplay goofing about outside:

>knock on door
You hear footsteps inside the house. Mrs. Robner, dressed in black, opens the door and greets you.

“Hello,” she says, “I’m Mrs. Robner. Please come in. I’m afraid I really can’t help you much. This is surely a terrible waste of time, not to mention upsetting, having all these police marching around the house. This has been a trying time, as I suppose you can understand. As I told Mr. Coates and the other detective, you may look around but you must be out by 8 o’clock at the latest. Oh, I almost forgot…Mr. Coates will be reading my husband’s will at noon in the living room. You may attend if you wish.”

Mrs. Robner leads you into the house and closes the door behind you.

One of the interesting aspects is why we have a deadline: here it is given to us by Mrs. Robner. It’s odd we agree to this given Mrs. Robner is one of the suspects.

I do think it fair to say the “case will be closed” so to speak if the day passes without an arrest (given the death already got declared a suicide) but the deadline of 8 pm still felt odd and casual.

The realism-issue with outdoors doesn’t happen in here: everything at right angles. It’s curious how spare and simple everything is, and how the game is quite willing to even toss “useless” rooms on the map just for geographic integrity.

Upstairs Closet
The closet is rather shallow and has some shelves full of assorted linens, towels, and uninteresting toilet articles.

Downstairs, the first place of interest is the Living Room, where the will is read at noon.

Living Room
This is a large and impressive room, whose furnishings bespeak the great personal wealth of the Robners. The south side of the room is a large bay window, now closed, which looks out onto the front yard. A wood pile sits beside a huge fieldstone fireplace. A double doorway leading to the main hall is the only exit. Pictures of Mrs. Robner’s colonial ancestors line one wall. The room contains formal seating for at least fifteen people, in several groups of chairs and couches. Tables and cabinets, all of the finest mahogany and walnut, complete the furnishings. On one of the tables is a telephone.

I already described the will-reading last time — the fortune is split evenly between the wife and son, and George seems rather happy. Despite filling in the details above I’m unclear if anything else is important. It feels like someone might have tried to burn something in the fireplace (…or will try in the future) but nothing came up from searches, and the tables and cabinets have no further description. The telephone is notable; at one point there’s a phone call for Mrs. Robner from an unknown voice on the phone (you can listen in as it happens on a different line). Even if you aren’t listening, Mrs. Robner goes upstairs to the master bedroom to resume the phone call. You can try to HIDE there but it doesn’t work (the verb is recognized, the game just says there’s no good hiding place) and listening at the door is too muffled (although the game lets you try!) The way to hear is to pick up the line while the call is in progress:

>listen to phone
You can hear Mrs. Robner and a man whose voice you don’t recognize.
Robner: “…much too early to consider it.”
Man’s 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.

While we’re at it poking at incriminating material, there’s also a letter that arrives during the day, that you can snag and read assuming you are fast enough (first time around, I put the letter back in the envelope and returned it to its original spot, and later it was gone).

“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 the thought of the business going to Baxter after he’s gone will keep him alive.
So George has finally gone too far? It’s hard to believe, after all those empty threats, that Marshall actually followed through. It serves that little leech right, if you ask me. This means that, should the unthinkable happen, you will be provided for as you deserve.
I’ll see you Friday as usual.

Love,
Steven”

I’m not sure what to make of this; the phone call indicates a plan of some sort that was being carried out, but it would be to Leslie’s benefit if George was written out of the will (so her preference would for him to be dead after it was made, not before). Was it Steven on the other end or yet another third party?

There’s (unfortunately?) less incriminating material on the business partner, Mr. Baxter (although interestingly enough, you can show the letter above and he’ll tell you “this fellow is quite off base about the business”. There’s a pencil and empty writing pad at the murder scene where you can RUB PAD WITH PENCIL and get something of a message…

…but Mr. Baxter says he doesn’t know what it is getting at, and I’m unclear as well. I’m most interested in the line

plica y Focus s

where “plica” could be… replica? replication? I don’t know what would make sense in the context here.

Speaking of the murder scene, let’s visit up there now:

I’ve marked it in red.

This has the most complex description of the game.

This is the library where Mr. Robner’s body was found. It is decorated in a simple but comfortable style. Mr. Robner obviously spent a great deal of time here. A wide executive desk sits before tall balcony windows which lie at the north of the room. A telephone is sitting on the desk. The east side of the room is composed of three large bookshelf units containing numerous volumes on many topics. The floor is carpeted from wall to wall. The massive oak door which blocked the entrance has been forcibly knocked off its hinges and is lying by the doorway.
A pencil is lying on the floor near the desk.
Beside the desk is a large collapsible tray.
Sitting on the tray is a bowl containing a white powdery substance.
Alongside the desk is a wicker wastepaper basket.
The wastepaper basket contains:
A bunch of crumpled papers
Lying on the floor, overturned, is a beautiful saucer.
Turned onto its side, lying on the floor, is a beautiful teacup.
Lying atop the desk is a pad of white note paper.
A desk calendar is here, open to July 7.
There is a bottle of Ebullion here.

The desk calendar has a July 7 appointment listed with Baxter at 2 pm, and on July 8, after he died, he has listed a 9 AM appointment to “Call Coates: Will completed”.

The wastebasket has a shopping list, stock prices, and start of a letter to the Board of Directors of the Robner Corp which has no details at all.

The carpet has no visible stains but has mud leading from the balcony to the desk (remember the ladder holes, also).

The bowl with a “white powdery substance” is sugar (and as far as Duffy has found, nothing else).

What’s quite interesting is the cup and saucer. They both have brown substances but I haven’t found (from testing, again) anything other than tea. The fingerprints, on the other hand, were very interesting: the saucer and fingerprints from Ms. Dunbar (who delivered the tea, according to her testimony) and the deceased. The tea cup, which should also have fingerprints from both had … absolutely no fingerprints at all.

This was the first negative space clue. It suggested to me that this was a different tea cup than the one Ms. Dunbar delivered upstairs. Maybe the Ebullion overdose was delivered in the tea where the capsules were essentially dissolved in beforehand, and the tea cup was swapped to hide this fact from analysis?

Where this gets to be more of a homerun is the second clue, from the kitchen back downstairs.

Kitchen
This is the Robner kitchen, quite large and with a full complement of appliances and labor-saving devices. On one wall, a beautifully-crafted shelf unit contains rare china, a unique hand-painted family heirloom depicting scenes from Greek mythology. The china consists of many place settings of plates, teacups, and saucers. There are several cabinets which likely contain silverware, glasses, and the like. To the east is a pantry.

Not much here to prod at, still, and searching the china was no use, but I remembered back from my Zork I days that COUNT was a word Infocom knew about.

>count china
There are eight large and small plates, seven saucers, and six cups.

We should expect the same number of saucers and cups, but there’s a cup missing!

I think the substance at the bottom of the ladder may have been slight shards of cup, but I’m not so certain. Even without that, this was my most promising clue. Alas, I haven’t found much else yet of deep value. There’s a newspaper delivery at some point — it just mentions philanthropy work of Mr. Dunbar. I feel certain I’m missing things but most of the rooms in the game are genuinely minimalist, so it’s hard to find things to pick at. There are a couple medicine cabinets with potentially hazardous substances…

Mrs. M. Robner
Take 2 tablets every 4 hours as needed for allergy symptoms. Do not exceed recommended dosage.

Rash Labs / Allergone Tablets

May cause extreme drowsiness. Do not use machinery or drive while taking this medication. Combination of Allergone with alcohol is dangerous. In case of overdose consult a physician promptly. Keep out of the reach of children!

…but I haven’t detected any of them in what I’ve looked at so far. Maybe the missing cup is still on the property somewhere and I can test that? I thought perhaps the saucer residue might have a clue (since that wasn’t replaced like the cup) but none of the tests I ran came up positive.

I still have to rigorously track everyone’s schedules and see if any more items like the letter pop up, so I’m not ready for hints or the like, but I’m still somewhat skeptical I’ll be able to beat this one without at least a few nudges.

Posted April 7, 2022 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction, Video Games

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Deadline: Just One More Thing   15 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:

Baxter,
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!
Marshall

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.

Sincerely,

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:

>s
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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