Infocom’s Deadline (1982)

Most of my blogging time these days is over on The Adventure Gamer where I am currently working on a marathon of Zork-related games by Infocom. I’ve recently completed and reviewed mainframe Zork (also known as Dungeon), Zork I, and Zork II and am about to start playing 1982’s Zork III. (You can find a complete index of my TAG contributions here.) Between the second and third Zork title, Infocom completed a monumental chapter in the history of computer games: Deadline, one of the first mystery games and one of the first games that could rightfully use the label “interactive fiction”. Previous “mystery” games such as Sierra’s Mystery House (another game I reviewed for TAG) were treasure hunts with mystery elements; finally we had a game that could stand beside the works of Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

As my colleague on TAG, Ilmari, already reviewed Deadline (see his review here), I did not want to step on his toes by doing another official review there. And yet, I wanted the experience of playing the game and documenting my thoughts as I did. That leads us to this special bonus post: my play and review of Deadline here while I work on Zork III over there. I haven’t read Ilmari’s review so I am coming into this game completely unspoiled, except that I played a bit of it (and didn’t understand it very well) when I was a kid. Let’s play!

A very cool way to bring you into the game

Unfortunately, this isn’t a game that you can jump into. My younger self didn’t have the patience to read documentation, but it is absolutely essential here both because the game uses non-standard text adventure commands as well as a folder full of evidence that we have to review to understand the case. This likely served as a form of copy-protection, but it was impossible for systems of the day to render the photographs and other evidence that was necessary to give a sense of realism to the story.

The commands that I believe were unique to this game include:

  • “Accuse” and “arrest” which sound like they do what you expect
    “Analyze” and “fingerprint” which send an object over to the crime lab for further review. We can also “analyze for ” to get more specific.
  • We can “ask” the other characters questions and “show” things to them.
  • Time seems to have a large role as we can get the current time with the “time” commands, plus “wait for” and “wait until” specific events happen.
  • We can also ask special questions such as “what’s wrong” and “where is ” to the people in the story.

That part seems simple enough, but the evidence file isn’t so straightforward. That contains an investigator’s report, transcripts of interviews with the key suspects, crime scene photos, and more. They believe that Mr. Marshall Robner died of an overdose of Ebullion while alone in a locked room on July 8, 1982. It seems like an open-and-shut case, but I suspect that would not make for a very entertaining mystery!

I might be going overboard, but I take detailed notes on the key players and what I learn:

  • Mr. Marshall Robner is the victim. He died of an overdose in his library around 1:00 AM. He suffered from depression because of the poor performance of his company and had talked of suicide. The Ebullion was prescribed to him as an antidepressant.
  • Mrs. Leslie Robner is his wife. Their relationship had been strained lately because Marshall was too devoted to his company.
    George Robner is their young-adult son. He was a spoiled kid and regularly fought with his parents. His father threatened to disinherit him, but had not done so yet.
  • Mrs. Dunbar is Marshall’s live-in secretary. She was the last person to see him alive when she delivered tea around 11:00 PM. She spent the evening prior to that out with a friend. Her fingerprints were discovered on the teacup near Marshall’s body.
  • Mr. Baxter is Marshall’s business partner. He had last seen Mr. Robner at the office the day before his death. He was at the symphony until 10:00 PM.
  • Mrs. Rourke is the Robner family housekeeper. Her rooms are at the bottom of the stairs and she knows that no one climbed up them after Mrs. Dunbar delivered the tea, at least until 4 AM.
  • Warren Coates is the Robner family lawyer. He will be reading the will at noon and is the one that asked us to investigate this case.

I think I know who the main characters are. I am ready to start the game!

No mystery why “Interlogic” failed as a gaming brand

We start the game on the “South Lawn” of the house at 8:00 AM. I walk right up to the front door to knock and am greeted by Mrs. Robner at the door. She lets me in and goes to the kitchen to prepare her breakfast. Every move I make advances the clock by one minute; since I know I only have twelve hours to solve the mystery that will be something that I need to pay close attention to. Another difference from Zork immediately stands out: you can “see” into adjacent rooms, at least to some extent. As Mrs. Robner walks up the hallway to the kitchen, I am still told she she is in relation to me. It makes perfect sense that she is still within eyesight and I applaud the designers for thinking outside the “text adventure” design pattern started back in Colossal Cave. I explore fairly randomly to get a feel for what is around: I find a gardener outside (he wasn’t on the suspects list), find the game’s credits on the cornerstone of the house, and hear a phone ringing at 9:08 AM. I also trampled on a patch of roses and really made the gardener upset with me. I’m going to need a plan so I start the game over.

I know that time is going to play an important role in the game and I’ll be taking careful notes when things happen, in addition to where. I’ve already seen the phone ring just a bit after nine and I know the will reading is at noon. But before I can get to that, I need to spend some time understanding the space of the game. I take out my trusty mapping program (Omnigraffle: overpriced but oh so good) and work my way through every room I can find inside and outside of the house. It takes me two play-throughs to explore everything. The game that I can access so far is around 50 rooms, half the size of Zork I, but there aren’t clearly any sections of the house or grounds that I cannot get to yet. There’s no troll standing guard over a cave entrance, for instance.

My initial map of the game

What I find immediately:

  • The grounds around the house contain a small shed (in the southeast), a rose garden (northwest), and an orchard (northeast)– as well as a cranky gardener that doesn’t seem to like me trampling his flowers. Several of the first-floor windows can be looked into and we may be able to spy on the occupants later. Outside the shed is a ladder.
  • The first floor has the dining room, living room, kitchen, and the maid’s quarters including a bedroom and bathroom. The stairs squeak as much as Mrs. Rourke claimed and you can hear someone going up or down them several rooms away. Each location is filled with objects: the pantry has food, the kitchen has glassware, etc. and it’s difficult to know what matters and what is just scenery. This is not a “pick up everything” style of adventure game!
  • The second floor has a master bedroom and bath for Marshall and Leslie, plus rooms for George and– surprisingly– Mrs. Dunbar. Is it normal to have a live-in secretary with a bedroom right down the hall from your own? The library is at the end of the hallway with its door broken-in by police. Both the library and the master bedroom have balconies overlooking the rose garden and orchard respectively. There are lots of medications in the various bathrooms.
Crime scene as depicted in the manual

As the library is the scene of the crime, I spend a considerable amount of time there examining and touching everything. I keep the crime lab busy! The attached balcony is suspicious, but there is no way to reach a tree to climb up or down. Marshall’s desk contained a pencil, a blank notepad, and a calendar. The teacup and saucer are still on the floor. The sugar bowl only contains sugar. Not much comes out of any of our analysis but the notepad and pencil have me thinking. Following in the footsteps of TV detective dramas everywhere, I do a rubbing on the blank pad with the pencil to reveal a partial message underneath. It’s a note about the upcoming merger but beyond that I can’t make much out. I may need to find the original later. We can also turn the page in the calendar to find a July 7 appointment with Baxter at the office and a July 8 note to call Coates to tell him that the new will was done. But does that mean he wrote a new will? Or just planned to finish it before driving in? I have no idea.

Since I used the “analyze” command so much, I should explain more what it does: every time we use it, Sergeant Duffy comes to pick up whatever object we want to have looked at. He takes it back to the lab and we then have to wait some number of minutes before he pops up again and gives us whatever they have managed to learn. It only works on objects we can carry. We can abuse the save system to analyze things without taking the time (by restoring if we don’t learn anything), but I have avoided doing that so far.

A rose by any other name would still get trampled.

After making my map, I do one last circuit of the grounds to see if there is anything that I missed. I stumble onto a very angry Mr. McNabb. He was angry at me for trampling his roses so I ignore him at first, but then I realize: I did that in a previous game. I’ve restarted several times since then. I ask him what is wrong and he tells me that someone else must have stepped in his roses as well. He also says that he found some holes. I ask him to show me the way and I follow him all the way into a part of the garden that I couldn’t get to before with two holes in the ground. I look up and see the balcony. Is this the way the killer got into the house? I run back to the shed to see if the ladder matches the holes, but it’s gone. I check all of the closets in the house for muddy boots, but that turns up empty as well. Since I know where the ladder was in the beginning of the game, I restart again and pick it up– but then Mr. NcNabb isn’t angry and has no idea what I’m talking about. Is this a timing thing? While I wait for him to notice his damaged flowers, I re-search the balcony and library for any clues that might prove that was the entrance point. Some of the paint is scraped off of the balcony railing and I find traces of mud on the carpet. Now I just need to confirm they used the ladder and I will be onto something!

While I am standing around thinking what else I should do while I wait, the phone rings. I forgot about that! I check my map and find that there are three phones in the house: one in the living room, one in the master bedroom, and one in the library. Can you imagine having to be in a specific room to use the phone? It seems positively stone-age. I restore and wait in the library. When the phone rings, no one comes in to answer it so I pick it up. I hear Mrs. Robner on the line with an unknown man. She hears me pick up and tells him that she can’t talk and will call him back. I try to time it differently– pick it up after one or two rings for example– but always the same message. Who is Mrs. Robner talking to and why is she being so secretive?

From a time when phones were used to “call” people

Am I going about this the wrong way? I try instead to find where she is picking up the call from. I restore back and wait in the master bedroom, but that’s not it. On the third try I find that she’s taking it in the living room. I look for someplace in there that I can hide or try listening through the window, but neither seem to work. If I wait outside the window, the phone never rings. I guess the developers weren’t prepared for my creativity! While I’m experimenting, I discover that after she hangs up the phone in the living room, she heads upstairs to the master bedroom to call the man back. I try to find a place to hide there instead but she always sees me and forces me to leave. The solution is obvious in retrospect: I wait until I know she’s making the call back and then listen in from the library. I only catch a few moments of their conversation, but the man tells her that she is free. She replies that it is too early to consider whatever they are considering, but the overall tone of the conversation is such that it seems unlikely they killed Marshall Robner. When I hear all that I can hear, I approach Leslie about the call. She tells me that she was only making plans with a friend and that it has nothing to do with her husband’s suicide. I’m not completely convinced, but they didn’t say anything incriminating. Was Mrs Robner having an affair?

I few minutes later, while I’m walking down from this little escapade, I discover a handwritten note left in the foyer. It wasn’t there before. Was it triggered by the phone call? It’s a love note from “Stephen” (whomever that is) to Leslie Robner. I confront her with it and she finally admits that she was cheating on her husband and even going to leave him… but that she didn’t kill him. She has motive! If she killed him before she left him, she would get his fortune. But the phone call wasn’t incriminating enough. Just to check, I ask around the household if anyone knows of Stephen: both George and Mrs. Rourke know him; George thinks he is just his mother’s friend while Mrs. Rourke admits that she is aware of the affair. The plot thickens.

A few minutes later, Mr. Baxter arrives at the house and I take the opportunity to show him the pencil-rubbed note that I found in the library. He reads it over but claims to not have received it. Is the original still hidden somewhere in the house?

“Reading the Will” Anonymous French painter, c1800s

At noon, the whole family gathers in the living room to listen to the will reading. Although I have played this game for hours now, I somehow never bothered to be around for the reading. Mr. Coates arrives at the house and starts as soon as everyone is in the room. He announces that Mr. Robner told him that there would be a new will, but it has not been found. As such, the will they have on file is the one that will be in force, unless the new one turns up very soon. The distribution is unsurprising and George seems relieved that he’s still on it. Coates leaves immediately after he’s done. There’s not much to it.

Is finding the new will important to the plot? I search the whole house for it, asking explicitly in every room “search for the new will”, but do not turn it up that way. The game explicitly prompts me for the “new” will if I do not specify which more or less confirms that it exists someplace. But where? I ask George about it and catch him looking up to the ceiling. Is that a clue? I search all of the ceilings throughout the house expecting to find an attic, but no luck. George is the most likely suspect when it comes to the inheritance, but the interactions I’ve had with him so far do not suggest that I’m talking with a murderer.
At this point, it’s late in the game day and I restart again. This time, I focus on Mr. McNabb and wait until he’s discovered the holes in his garden. He does around 11:30 and I am able to get back. This time, I confirm that the holes exactly match the ladder. Even better, searching reveals a piece of a broken teacup in the dirt! Could the cup that we discovered in the library be a plant? But how could the killer get in and out and swap the cups later? Duffy confirms my suspicion: there is something other than tea in the cup. Mr. Robner was poisoned! Unfortunately, they cannot identify the mystery substance. Can I help with that? I scout around the house for a medication that might match, starting in Mrs. Dunbar’s bathroom upstairs. I am embarrassed to say that I got it on my first try: I tell Duffy to “analyze fragment for loblo” (an allergy medication in Dunbar’s bathroom) and he comes back with a match as well as a complete lab write up. Mr. Robner was now officially murdered!

I confront Mrs. Dunbar with the new cause of death and she is visibly shaken. She runs off outside to have a cigarette and I follow her. While she is out there, a ticket stub falls out of her pocket. I pick it up and discover that it’s for the symphony. Wait… wasn’t Mr. Baxter at the symphony alone that night? Are they seeing each other in secret? I show her the stub and she admits that they were together, but what does that have to do with Mr. Robner’s death?

Like this but dirtier

The next bit takes a couple of attempts to get right, but I manage to follow Mrs. Dunbar after her smoke to the shed in the southeast corner of the lawn. A few moments later, Mr. Baxter shows up and heads inside. I work out that I have to be hiding behind the shed for this to work, but even then I can’t hear what they are saying. The best I can do is to sneak back around the front and look in the little window (after cleaning it first). I can tell that the two of them are having an argument, but while Mrs. Dunbar is frantic, Mr. Baxter is mostly calm. At one point he nearly hits her, but then he stops himself. After some time, they leave and go their separate ways and I resume exploring.

A short time later, I hear a gunshot. I rush to the house and discover that Mrs. Dunbar has been shot. Mr. Baxter was in her room when I found her, but he claims he didn’t do it. Instead, there is a suicide note next to the smoking gun. I immediately arrest Baxter but the courts cannot convict because his prints weren’t on either the note or the gun. Dunbar’s death is ruled a suspicious suicide and nothing more.

I’m pretty stuck now. It’s clear that Baxter and Dunbar are behind the murder plot or perhaps it was Mr. Baxter’s idea and Mrs. Dunbar’s execution with the poisoned tea. And yet, I don’t have a good motive except a hint that it could be about the merger of their company. There are elements missing. I decide I need to start over from scratch, but this time map out where everyone is all day to see if there are any other suspicious events that I will be able to find. It takes me about a dozen trips through the game, but I get a pretty good temporal map of the day:

A “time map” of the first few hours of the game.

Following everyone all day couldn’t have been creepy…
  • 8:00 AM – I arrive.
  • 9:08 AM – The phone rings and Mrs. Robner answers it in the living room, then goes up to have a private call with Stephen in her bedroom. I was able to listen in on this already.
  • 9:35 AM – The postman arrives and delivers Stephen’s letter. If I don’t grab it, Mrs. Rourke will find it around 10:30 AM to deliver to Mrs. Robner.
  • 9:55 AM – Mr. Baxter arrives early for the will reading.
  • 11:20 AM – Mr. McNabb notices the crushed roses in his garden. I also learn that he picks up and moves the ladder several times throughout the day if I do not get it first.
  • 12:00 AM – Mr. Coates arrives, has the will reading, and leaves immediately.
  • After that, very little happens if I do not accuse Mrs. Dunbar and set her down that path. It doesn’t end well for her.
  • 4:00 PM – Mr. Baxter leaves.
    Absolutely nothing happens after that. Every character stays in the room that they are in until the end of the game.

By taking this approach, the seams of the game show through a bit. No one eats dinner, for example. Mr. McNabb never gets off work and keeps on pruning and gardening until after dark. Other than Mr. Baxter leaving, no one even gets up to move from 3:00 PM to 8:00 PM, nearly half the allotted hours of the game. At least that narrows down our explorations a bit.

Since I didn’t find anything new, is the goal to save Mrs. Dunbar and catch Baxter in the act? I try that, but in the end I cannot do it. If I stand on the stairs, somehow Baxter still gets inside to shoot her. I’m not permitted to take the ladder indoors so perhaps he gets in that way? If I wait by the library, he doesn’t come in that way. I eventually realize the game is cheating: If I stand at the west end of the hall where I can still see the stairs and duck one room north, I hear the gunshot. There is no way for someone to be at the top of the stairs, walk down to Mrs. Dunbar’s room, enter it, and shoot her all in one turn. If I wait in her room, her death never comes, but she dies immediately after I leave– in specific, as soon as I can’t see her bedroom door. I restore.

I am stuck. I search and re-search the house, interview everyone, and poke everything but I am unable to find any new evidence that leads to a motive. I’ve also searched the whole house for the will three times over. I try a bunch of different ways to arrest them, but they are never convicted. So… I give up and take a hint. Sorry!

I imagine the “secret passage” chime from Zelda

The hint is that I needed to show the calendar to George. If he sees that his father completed the will, he gets nervous and upset and starts to go search for the will himself. Unlike me, he knows of a secret passageway in the library to his father’s safe. It takes me many tries to get the timing right to spook him then follow him. I eventually discover that I have to hide on the balcony when he opens the passage then follow some time later. If I catch him in the act too soon, he doesn’t open the safe; too late and he’s already closed it. With a few attempts, I can catch him in the secret room with the safe open and the new will in hand. It conclusively shows that George would have been cut out of the will, but that isn’t the interesting part! No, there are other papers in the safe which implicate Mr. Baxter in a scandal at the company. That’s it! I have a motive for why Baxter would kill Marshall Robner.

I head downstairs and follow the same path as before to accuse Mrs. Dunbar, let the pair have their argument at the shed, and then I arrest both of them as soon as they step out. The judge likes my solution to the case and I win! Game over.

A sequel is coming! Should I play it?

Time played: 9hr 10 min

Wow. Look at the date on this game again: 1982. Commercial text adventures (hardly yet “interactive fiction”) were in their infancy. Infocom’s early successes were two standard treasure-hunting dungeon crawls. This game blows the doors off of genre possibilities of text adventures. Far more than Zork, I feel now that Deadline was the first true “Infocom” game. The first game to show the possibilities of the medium more than ever before.

This game is not without its flaws. For one, there’s not much here in the way of interaction and puzzles. Everything fits together well, but most of the events are on rails to some extent. (The fact that they built the rails in their engine is amazing, of course.) We only have three times that we interact with people that cause a change in the direction of play and none of those actually overlap with each other: the spied-on phone calls (which are irrelevant once you find the note), tricking George into revealing the location of the safe, and the final panicked actions of Mrs. Dunbar and Mr. Baxter. When you lay it out that way, that’s not much.

I suspect the designer was being deliberate when he included no “traditional” puzzles. The whole house, except the secret room, can be accessed immediately. There are no fetch quests. Instead, we have several “follow the suspect” puzzles which were new to gaming at the time plus the various analyses that we had to do. Making the leap to search for the poison in the medicine cabinets may be the hardest one, but I’m kicking myself for not following up on George and the will. Once I determined that he wasn’t a suspect, it never occurred to me to push him more. Besides, he seemed like a good enough kid with an eclectic taste in music. (Did I even mention his music collection?) In a way, that proves how immersive this game is: I didn’t want to find the new will because I didn’t think he needed to be cut out of his inheritance.

If this were TAG, I would be making a rating around now, but I’ll just say that I agree with Ilmari’s assessment and rating overall. There were a handful of parser issues that I would have docked a point for that (the manual says to ask “what’s up”, for example, but you have to remove the apostrophe, plus the game confirming that there is a new will long before you know it exists). Overall, I loved this game and I hope to play more like it and see how they adapted the form. But for right now, I still have far too many Zorks to play. As far as goes, I hope to slowly do a series of rewatches of Dragon Ball sagas. I completed the Pilaf Saga a few weeks back and am working on the Tournament Arc now.

4 thoughts on “Infocom’s Deadline (1982)”

  1. Excellent write-up!

    You are correct that, in the “Baxter kills Dunbar” scenario, Baxter is getting to her via ladder. Apparently it’s possible to “catch him in the act” in either the bedroom or its balcony, but the only result is that he kills you too. I’m not clear on the logistics of how to do that.

    There’s another “winning” solution to the game as well, although it’s pretty clearly a second-best ending: if you do let Baxter go through with killing Dunbar, you CAN in fact convict him of that murder. In ROT13, the method to do so is:

    Lbh arrq rivqrapr gung Onkgre jebgr Qhaone’f “fhvpvqr abgr.” Gur gevpx gb guvf vf abgvpvat gung gurer vf ab cra va gur ebbz jurer Qhaone qvrq. Fb jurer vf gur cra? Onkgre unf vg. Ubj qb lbh cebir vg jnf gur cra gung jebgr gur abgr? Nfx Onkgre sbe n cra naq ur’yy tvir vg gb lbh; jevgr fbzrguvat jvgu vg; naq gura unir gur fhvpvqr abgr naq gur jevgvat lbh znqr nanylmrq – gung jvyy fubj gur fnzr cra jebgr obgu.

    1. I tried for a long time to catch Baxter in the act but never succeeded. There’s always a plausible way for him to get in (either the stairs or the balcony) and he only gets in that way when you can’t see him… there’s just not enough time by the rules defined in the game for him to do it.

    1. I am not sure whether or not that is a sly hint to a product they were already working on or just a coincidence. But as you suggest, “Cornerstone” was the project that sunk Infocom as we knew it forever.

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