A few months ago, I examined the first two of the “Sergeant Duffy” mysteries from Infocom: Deadline and The Witness. Both of these games were in service to the Infocom marathon that I have been working my way through over on The Adventure Gamer. Since those games already had reviews there, I discussed my experiences here. It’s time to do the same with the third and final game in that series: Suspect.
With the first game in the series being designed by Marc Blank, and the second by Stu Galley, I was surprised to find that this one was the brainchild of Dave Lebling. Lebling had been Blank’s collaborator on the original Zork series (starting with the mainframe version) and was one of the most well-regarded of the implementers at Infocom. I do not know whether he wanted to take a crack at the interactive mystery genre or whether he was pushed into it by market pressures, but he was a great choice for the role especially given his past history with Marc Blank. Immediately, it seems that Lebling shifted his game closer to Blank’s original: he moved the setting back to modern day (after a brief stint in the 1930s, film noir style) and brought the crime into a situation where there could be many possible suspects. He moved away from the previous games in one major respect: this time, we do not play as the detective but rather a reporter who is being framed for murder. So did he succeed? Let’s take a look.
All Infocom games of this era had “feelies”, extras included in the package that get you into the spirit of the game. Some of these contained clues to the game itself, while others just get you into the mood. In the latter category is a tongue-in-cheek guide to murder in high society entitled “Murder and Manners”. This is a very cute little text, if Miss Manners provided advice on homicide. It features illustrations by Alan E. Cober who is probably quite a famous illustrator if you are the type of person that knows about illustrators. He drew for magazines and newspapers such as Time and The New York Times. He also illustrated for his own children’s books. I know very little about art, but I can tell immediately that I am not a huge fan of his style which was also used for the game box. I suspect that Infocom’s need to hire a “famous” illustrator spoke more to their champagne wishes in the months prior to their 1985 disaster.
As part of my research for this post, I checked out Cober’s Choice, an illustrated book from 1979. I’ve read it and I still have no idea if it is some sort of macabre children’s book featuring illustrations of dead (mostly taxidermied) animals or something else. Certainly the captions are done in a children’s book-like style, but with some of the illustrations talking about their dead, glass eyes and things like that. I can’t say that it made me think more highly of his artistic style, but I appreciate that I am exactly the wrong person to ask about art. Although the book was done in black and white, you can see Cober’s line-work clearly in both this book and the Infocom manual and box cover. He has a very distinctive style.
Continuing our look-through of the “feelies” and manual, we discover (as I indicated above) that we are a reporter for the fictional Washington Representative newspaper. We have recently received an invitation to a high-society costume party being held at the Ashcroft Farm. Our editor encourages us to go, although he doesn’t know whether we’ll be there to write something serious or just a fluff piece for the “Living” section. Our character rents a cowboy costume (the receipt is one of our “feelies”) and is off. Before we go, our editor gave us one more piece of information: an extract from the (also fictional) Maryland Rambler newspaper. That snippet includes an article about how the slow spread of suburbia is pushing away the upper-crust, leading to tensions with the middle class. It sets the stage nicely, especially as my memories of 1984 primarily include kindergarten. I’m positive that there are clues hidden in there someplace.
With the documentation reviewed, there is only one thing left to do: play the game!
The game begins in the ballroom, a little while after we arrived at Veronica Ashcroft’s party dressed in our cowboy costume. I’ve waved over to a conversation between Michael Wellman, dressed as a Sheik, and Veronica, dressed as a fairy queen. Despite the difference in last names, Michael and Veronica are married. Veronica is very drunk and managed to spill her wine all over her dress. She drops and shatters her wineglass as she runs off to clean her dress. They’ll be finding shards forever now… As we wait for her return, I mingle to look for my story. Bill Cochrane, dressed as an astronaut, confides in me that he thinks Michael was involved in some real estate scam. Samuel Ostmann, dressed as a vampire, wants to buy the farm but Veronica won’t sell. As we go, I am also writing down what costume everyone is wearing because it is difficult keeping track. Alicia, dressed as a harem girl, arrives and dances a bit too closely with Michael. Are they having an affair? Even if there hasn’t been a murder yet, they are clearly giving everyone a possible motive. At 10:45, we learn the awful truth: Veronica Ashcroft was murdered! The police arrive, including my partner-in-a-different-game, Sergeant Duffy, and they start to investigate.
While they are investigating, I’ll look around too. First things first: I need to map out the house. I find 54 locations to explore between the house and the grounds. It’s so big it takes multiple restores to see it all. I’ll try to summarize:
- We are starting out in the east wing of the house, where the ballroom stretches across nine separate rooms. It’s all open, so you can see everyone in the room, but you have to move around to talk to them directly. The band is in the north, the fireplace to the south, and a locked access to the patio is to the east. The dance floor is smack in the middle. There’s an adjacent kitchen in the north.
- The ballroom is separated from the rest of the house by the “Long Hall”. In the early stages of the game, if you try to follow Veronica to the bathroom, we get tangled with the butler and another guest at the coat closet. That costs us enough time that Veronica disappears into the distance. We can come back to the coat closet later to find soggy coats. The northern end of the hall is a door out to the garden. A nervous dog blocks our way in that direction; it takes him a few turns to trust you enough for us to get by him.
- The central area of the house is boring with the front door, an entry hall, and a large living room with a sofa and a telephone. There’s also a library in the southeast.
- The western part of house is where the action is. In addition to a “sitting room”, a “morning room”, and a “media room”– seriously, did they have enough rooms?– we find the office including the dead body of one Veronica Ashcroft. More on that on a bit.
- There is also a covered walkway leading out from the west of the house to a garage containing two fancy cars. The garage is locked and we cannot get outside that way, but we can explore the cars and a tool bench.
- If we go out any of the doors in the front, east, or back of the house, we can navigate all the way around. All of the doors back in are locked (unless we unlocked one on the way) and if we ring the doorbell to get back in, the butler gives us the evil eye. There’s a pond in the far east of the house and a locked horse barn to the west.
In my explorations, I stumble completely by accident on an event: just after eleven o’clock, Colonel Marston, dressed as an African explorer, is warming his hands by the fireplace. Because I happen to be standing there, I notice him dropping something in the fire. I rush over and retrieve a burnt piece of paper from the fire revealing that Marston and Wellman (Veronica’s husband) were 50/50 investors in a real estate planning corporation. The plot thickens! Is this the beginning of a motive?
I don’t get to explore much more after that because at ten to midnight, I am arrested by Sergeant Duffy and charged with Veronica’s murder. She was killed by my lariat and a bullet from my cowboy costume was found near the body. The epilogue states that I am eventually acquitted, but either way it is game over. I need to figure this out before midnight.
Before resuming, I take stock of my notes. At this point, I have identified a handful of potential suspects at the party. There may be others:
- Michael Wellman, dressed as a Sheik. He’s Veronica’s husband.
- Alan Asher, dressed as a Harlequin. He’s a senator.
- Richard Ashcroft, dressed as a Werewolf. He’s Veronica’s sister and doesn’t get along with Michael.
- Colonel Marston, dressed as an Adventurer. He’s the family accountant.
- Alicia Barron, dressed as a Harem girl. She’s a businesswoman and friend of Veronica’s. She also boards horses at the farm.
- Linda Meade, dressed as a Ballerina. She’s richard’s wife (or girlfriend?) and Michael has a very low impression of her intelligence.
- Samuel Ostmann, dressed as a Vampire. He’s a real estate developer that wants to buy the farm and turn it into townhouses. Suspicious!
- Bill Cochrane, dressed as an Astronaut. A competing real estate developer that Michael hates.
- Smythe, dressed as a Gorilla. He’s the butler, an inherently suspicious profession.
- Jack Johnson, dressed only in a domino mask. He’s the bartender they hired for the night and probably didn’t kill anyone.
That is a lot of suspects and there are a few tangles of possible intrigue here already. Replaying the opening of the game, we can see Michael and Samuel Ostmann in the ballroom at the time she was murdered. We also know that the butler and bartender are accounted for. That still leaves six suspects that might have had time to do the terrible deed. But which one did?
In my next round of explorations, I spent time in the Office where Veronica’s body was found. Inside is my lariat, just as the police told me, as well as a bullet hidden beneath the body. Someone really wanted to frame me for this, but why? Is it about me? Or they just needed anyone that could take the blame? There are papers scattered everywhere, including a manilla folder containing a purchase agreement to sell the farm to Sam Ostmann. Given how constructed the crime scene is, I have to assume that is a false lead intended to throw someone off the scent rather than on it. Carefully searching Veronica’s fairy mask, we find a brown hair which is not her natural hair color. How could that have gotten there? By luck, I stumble on Michael in the garage at 10:30 PM, after finishing up in the office. He accuses me of killing his wife and throws me out. Later that night, I am arrested again and this time convicted. The fact that I was seen heading towards the office is a critical piece of evidence that assures my conviction for murder. The more I explore, the worse off I get!
Next time around, I decide to just follow Michael all night. We wander into a few events that way as he gradually moves around the house. I get to overhear a heated argument with Marston about horse sales, apparently they disagree over whether or not a horse was sold for $100k or not. Is that related? After the argument, they all go to the office to settle the bet, which is where they discover Veronica’s body. The police are called but the party goes on. I keep following Michael and that’s when he goes to the garage and notices that I am following him. That seems suspicious. I restore back and hide behind one of the cars instead, watching for when he arrives. He does something in one of the car’s trunks that I cannot see and then leaves. I pry open the trunk using a crowbar that I found to reveal hidden documents: the Ashcroft Farm Trust was making very poor decisions, investing in four companies which had been under Marston’s control. Nothing says “action packed” like financial mismanagement! There is a page missing, is that the one that I salvaged from the fireplace? Just to check, I restore even further back and pry open the trunk before Michael gets there. There are no documents then so he must have put them in the trunk when I caught him before. When did he even have time to pick them up?
Now, when the detective shows up, I show him the evidence that I have collected: the papers and the hair on the mask. He doesn’t see how the documents are connected to the case, but he knows the hair wasn’t Veronica’s. That is good! So whose can it be? A quick exploration suggests that it could be Alicia’s. She arrived late, around 9:20. I can restart the game and try to follow her path into the house, but not successfully. She claims to have parked in the back to avoid having her car dented, but I cannot find her car. (Of course, we cannot find any cars except the ones in the garage. Maybe they just didn’t implement them all.) And yet, when I see Marston tell Alicia that Veronica is dead, she acts first surprised… and then elated. That seems to suggest that either she is a good actor or she legitimately didn’t know.
From this point, I follow everyone in the game. One at a time, I start the game, find my suspect, and follow where they go to map out their locations and activities throughout the night.
Tracing everyone in this way, I do not find that many events that unfold. I can arrange to meet Alicia at the front door and watch her and Michael getting a bit too close on the dancefloor. I’m suspicious that this is my big clue that there’s an affair going on. After that, I can watch the argument where Michael, Marston, and Cochrane all fight about horses before retiring to the office where they discover Veronica’s body. From there, Michael stashes some papers in the trunk of his car, Colonel Marston burns what I believe is a page of that, and that’s pretty much it. On the bright side, Duffy no longer arrests me at midnight because I have given him enough information that I am no longer the prime suspect, but I am also no closer to solving the game and discovering the actual murderer.
And this is the point where I give in. I have played the game for six hours and it is fun and all, but I need some help. I look up the clues and discover that I was very close:
- Although I saw the hair on the mask, I completely misread the fundamental point of the scene. Alicia’s hair was on the mask because she was wearing it. It wasn’t actually Veronica in the opening sequence of the game, it was Alicia dressed in Veronica’s costume. Exactly how no one realized this is probably the biggest mystery.
- We can prove this by taking her fingerprints off the broken wine glass. This is also a puzzle because if you pick up the glass, you spoil the prints. You have to wait for the butler to clean the glass and then pick up the trash can that the glass is in, so you can ask the detective to check it without actually touching it.
- We also need to look at Alicia’s coat and notice that it is very wet even though it was only sprinkling when we met her on the porch. Ergo, she was around for longer than she let on.
I had assembled the rest of the clues correctly: Michael conspired with Alicia to kill Veronica prior to the party, stash her body in the office, and then have Alicia dress up as her so that everyone saw she was “alive” at the beginning of the party. This also gave Michael an alibi since everyone saw that he wasn’t with Veronica when she supposedly died. It was an elaborate setup, although whether they planned to frame me or not is unclear. How would they know I would come in a costume that had a convenient strangulation rope and bullets to lose? Or did I just have the most framable costume? It’s all a bit too neat and I didn’t quite enjoy it as much as the previous games.
Not my most successful game ever, but I’m glad it is over.
Time played: 6 hrs 25 min
Of the three mystery games, this is my least favorite. The first one was invented a completely different game mechanic, wholly unlike the Zork games which had come before. There were no monsters and few puzzles, just a clockwork simulation where you needed to “map” the game by time almost as much as by space. The second one tool the first’s engine and made it more literary, setting it as a “noir” story set in 1930s Los Angeles. This one just feels like a retread, adding nothing new to either of the first two formulas. We have more suspects, a bigger house, a time limit, and the challenge of working without a walking lab (at least for a while). And yet, the whole thing feels forced. It could be that I didn’t understand the plot or that the actual murder was so complicated, but I just cannot hold a suspension of disbelief this time around. I really like the idea of these mysteries and would gladly play more of them, but they need to be innovative again. While Infocom will have a few more mysteries (none of which I have ever so much as started), I do not believe any of them connect to this series in any way.
When Ilmari reviewed this for The Adventure Gamer, he gave the game 38 points and called it his least favorite of the three. I would have given it less for the interface, for the story, and for dialog with an ending score of 32. That places it, in my view, very close to the bottom of the Infocom pile with Zork II and Suspended. That feels right to me.
Up next: I’ll be back at the Adventure Gamer working on Wishbringer. The next Infocom game which will be covered here is Leather Goddesses of Phobos. I’ll also have a special Winnie-the-Pooh review (seriously!) in a few days.