Infocom’s The Witness (1983)

Not too long ago, I took a look at Deadline, Infocom’s first adventure game mystery as a side-story to the marathon that I’m currently writing for The Adventure Gamer. It was a genre-buster, proving once and for all that great adventures could be found in many genres. I am still slowly winding my way through early Infocom classics and I have finally reached Deadline’s pseudo-sequel: 1983’s The Witness. Tucked away in the middle of a run of science fiction adventures (after Starcross and Suspended but before Planetfall), it abandoned the contemporary setting of its predecessor for the hard-boiled detectives of the 1930s. Even though my colleague Ilmari already reviewed this game, I could not resist poking my head in to get the full Infocom experience.

While Deadline has been designed by Mark Blanc, one of the Infocom founders and co-writer on the Zork series, he did not have time to work on the sequel. Instead, he provided some aspects of the basic scenario to design-newcomer Stu Galley. Stu had been an Infocom founder, but he worked on the business side rather than the creative one. Nonetheless, Marc had too much on his plate and Stu was convinced to headline the game. Even from the start it is different than what came before: this time, the crime has not been committed yet. We’re going to witness the crime (hence, the title) and have twelve hours to figure out what really happened. Let’s play!

Like most Infocom games of the era, the manual and included extras as a big part of the fun. This time at least there is not significant new vocabulary to learn; Infocom had created a game with the same idioms as Deadline despite the change in scenery. Our story takes place outside of Los Angeles in 1938. I’m the chief police detective in a small town, aided as before with my assistant, Sergeant Duffy. I have been summoned to the home of Freeman Linder, a “soldier of fortune” who is being threatened by a local writer. Mr. Linder’s wife, Virginia, has recently committed suicide. Very soon, the manual says, there will be a murder and I will need to piece it together.

Other than the manual, we are also given a newspaper (dated February 1, 1938), the telegram that summoned us to the house, Virginia’s suicide note, a “Detective’s Gazette” with sleuthing tips, and a book of matches from the “Brass Lantern” tavern with a phone number inside. Of those, the newspaper has the most juicy details but after jotting down notes on a few of the articles I realize that they cannot possibly all relate to the case at hand. A local boy was selected for a part in a film! A laborer realized after twelve years of holding his head funny that he had a broken neck! Even one about how Democrats and Republicans are failing to help the unemployed and it could lead to a popular uprising and fascism. (Pure fantasy… right?) The only immediately relevant article is one about how Mr. Linder missed a ceremony in his honor after his wife’s passing. There may be more hidden in there or other things I will need to search for that may come up while I’m playing the game. That was how the newspaper in Consulting Detective worked; could they have gotten the inspiration here?

There’s nothing to do but to play, right?

How very “noir”

We start the game at the end of the Linder family driveway. Even though I’m the chief detective, I took a taxi here. Does that seem strange to you? It’s 8:00 PM and the telegram in my inventory (and included with the game) says that I have an appointment with Mr. Linder right about now. I should just walk up and ring the doorbell. I know that is the right role-playing decision, but I decide to start exploring around the outside of the house instead. There’s no way in and after a half-hour of mucking around, I hear someone get into a car and speed away. Did I miss the murderer already? When I finally ring the doorbell, Phong, the Linders’ butler, informs me that Mr. Linder has other business now and that I have to leave. I get insistent but he calls the cops on me. (I am the police!) The game ends with the note that someone named “Stiles” is found dead on a beach a few days later with a gunshot wound to the heart. I guess I’ll never know if it’s connected…

I restart and this time play for real: when I ring the bell, Phong leads me inside to have a pleasant chat with Mr. Linder in the living room while he finishes his drink.The game at this point feels like it’s on rails since I can’t break off the conversation. I use the time to ask him about his wife and daughter, about his business, and about Phong. After a bit, he leads me into his office and prompts me to take a seat so we can continue our chat in private. He tells me that “Stiles” was his deceased wife’s lover who now is heartsick and stalking her husband.  He has threatened Mr. Linder, perhaps because he blames him for her suicide, and I am to keep him safe. This whole scenario seems suspicious to me. Could Mr. Linder have killed his wife because of her affair and just made it look like a suicide? Is that where this is going? Stiles is both a writer and actor. Could he be a master of disguise? I’ll be on the lookout for strange looking potted plants.

After a half-hour, Mr. Linder’s daughter Monica comes by and tells us that she is off to the movies with her boyfriend. That gives me a few moments where I can interrogate her, but she obviously does not want to talk in front of her father. She bitterly says that her mother was forced into the affair because of Mr. Linder’s obsession with his business and his lack of attention to his family. She leaves and we hear her car speeding away.

Before I can ask too many more questions, the doorbell rings. Phong doesn’t get it immediately, but before I can do anything the window explodes inward. Remember when Mr. Linder told me to take a seat? Well, I forgot to and now I’m dead of a gunshot wound. I was standing in the way of a bullet intended for someone else! What can I learn from this meaningless death? Phong could be the killer because he didn’t answer the doorbell but if so we’re going to have to find a motive. Could Monica have left and come back? She did seem mad at her father. I replay the sequence again, this time remembering to sit. Mr. Linder is shot dead in his chair with me as the only witness. Of course, I didn’t see who shot him or this game would be quite short. Now what?

Phong comes in a moment later and looks shocked by the death while I use the phone on Mr. Linder’s desk to call the police before running out the back to catch his killer. The culprit is gone already with footprints that lead into the woods.  He hasn’t gone far, as it turns out, because my trusty assistant Duffy managed to catch Stiles in those woods and arrest him. This is all too easy… nothing says “not guilty” like being the prime suspect during the first few pages of a mystery novel. I have Duffy make a cast of the footprints and I head off to explore the house and grounds. 


A nice house if a bit cramped

Compared to the mansion in Deadline, Mr. Linder lives very modestly: a single-story ranch house with a mix of Japanese and American decor. I find that I can get into 27 rooms immediately (including several “rooms” outside the house) with the only area blocked off to me being the workshop in the garage. As I explore, Monica comes home around 11:00 PM and I find her throwing up in her bathroom after she learns of her father’s death. The coroner picks up his body soon after.

In my explorations, I find:

  • Stiles has been left handcuffed in the living room. I interrogate him and he claims that Mr. Linder called him tonight and asked him to visit the house. Phong admits that phone calls were made so that must be true. Stiles’s shoes match the plaster cast from outside the office window but he claims that he was only there because he was invited and that he ran because he didn’t want to be near a shooting. He’s also quite racist against Phong.
  • In the butler’s room, I search to find a receipt for two guns in a book. That seems suspicious. When pressed, Phong reveals that Monica bought the guns.
  • After Monica’s return, I find a ticket stub in the garage and Duffy confirms that it is a real ticket for a movie tonight; her alibi is secure. When I press her about the guns she reminds me that owning a gun (or two) isn’t a crime.
  • Outside, I locate the murder weapon, a muddy gun, on the path near the office. There are more footprints there so I have Duffy take another cast.  I also learn that if I don’t take the cast immediately, my own footprints will corrupt the scene so I have to restore to get a good set. The gun itself has recently been fired but has no fingerprints. 

I eventually work out that I can ask Phong for the keys to the workshop but there’s not too much there, just lots of wires and electronics that I don’t understand. Unfortunately, at this point my twelve hours are up and the game ends. I restore back to the start and try again.

The clock strikes “doom”

At this point in Deadline, I started to map out the activities of each of the suspects, but here it’s hardly necessary. We only have Monica and Phong to worry about, plus Stiles who is trapped handcuffed to a chair in the living room. Instead, I concentrate my search in Mr. Linder’s office. This time, I really do try to examine everything.  The clock is the most suspicious thing: there’s a green wire underneath it but I cannot open it to peek inside because I don’t have the key. It’s not one of the house keys that Phong gives me so I may have to search for it. Phong in particular is very evasive talking about the clock so there must be something going on. Looking even closer, I realize that there is gunpowder around the keyhole! How could there be gunpowder there? 

While I’m poking around, Monica stops by around midnight. Knowing she wouldn’t do anything around me anyway, I restore and this time hide behind a chair before she comes in. She has the grandfather clock key! She unlocks the clock and removes something but I jump out and startle her. She doesn’t want me searching her but I handcuff her and she has no choice: she pulled a gun from the clock! I accuse her and she admits that she set up the gun to shoot her father but he was dying anyway. She even has the medical reports in her room to prove it! This all seems to be a complex way to frame Stiles for her father’s murder… for some reason. I arrest her and the game is over and I win! But is that the best ending? I restore back and try again.

This time, I ring for Phong after Monica is in handcuffs and arrest both of them. Unfortunately, that doesn’t work because our case falls apart. One more time, I just accuse Phong in front of handcuffed Monica and he implicates her in the murder. He was aware of this as a plot to frame Stiles for attempted murder but not actual murder. The two guns were bought so that there would be no reason to suspect that the murder weapon wasn’t found outside. They even had some sort of explosive putty set on the window to simulate the gunshot breaking the glass. Case closed! 

I get the same ending as before but at least now I feel better about it:

I won! For real this time!

Time played: 3hr 30min

Very short but sweet! I’m disappointed that I won the first time without realizing it, even without getting the whole story. I’m still unclear of the “disease” angle but apparently I could have found that the medical reports were fake. Overall, this is a weaker game than its predecessor and not the sequel I hoped for: it’s smaller, easier, and has far fewer ways to interact with its characters. There was plenty of added flavor such as finding our way into the garage, taking the casts, etc. but none of them compare to chasing a suspect to find a secret passageway as in Deadline

I have to commend the author for his amazing attention to detail however. The historical setting is very well realized down to the slang that is used. Apparently, even the radio programs aligned with that night’s real schedule! It’s clear that Mr. Galley loved this time period and setting, but I wish he had expanded the game a bit. Even the engine seems to have taken a step backwards because classic commands like “all” and “again” are missing.

When Ilmari reviewed this game for “The Adventure Gamer”, he loved it. While he and I have almost always had similar ratings for games, I disagree with him a bit here. I would have given this game a 42. ((4+4+5+0+7+6)/.6 – 1). The strongest aspect was the environment and the character dialog, but the interface was one of the weakest of the Infocom set and the game suffered for its brevity and lack of puzzles.  I dock one more point for solving the game by accident.

Now, I’m off to play Planetfall over at The Adventure Games. Join me there!

Leave a Reply