The Great Infocom Replay: Deadline

Last weekend, I went to Las Vegas for a one-day trip to attend a party in honor of my father’s many years coaching rugby. It was a great event, but the travel was, as usual, not a big bowl of cherries. I decided to make the most of it, though, and play Deadline on the plane.

I loaded the story file into Frotz on my iPad and put the manual into GoodReader. Using my iPad to play was a great plan, once I also started using my wireless keyboard (presumably in violation of some sort of regulation). Using my laptop would’ve been impossible in that cramped seat, but the iPad worked a charm, apart from occasional glitches in Frotz.

I was looking forward to Deadline, because it was the first Infocom game I’d be “replaying” that I hadn’t actually played before. I had probably started it up and poked around for a few minutes, but I hadn’t played the game in earnest. This was my chance to pretend that I was living in 1982, playing a brand new Infocom game … in flight, on a touchscreen tablet. Well, the illusion of novelty wasn’t the important thing.

Spoilers follow.

I enjoy a good murder mystery, and I decided I’d really try to solve this one. The Deadline feelies include a number of witness interviews. From those, I produced a timeline of events, noting what was probably fact and what was only testimony. Arriving at the scene of the crime, I made a survey of the grounds (one again cursing the asymmetry of the map exits) and figured out which windows led to which part of the estate. This would prove useful later.

I intercepted mail, rifled through medicine cabinets, conducted thorough interviews, snooped on phone calls, and tried to figure out where characters were sneaking off to. I felt like a real detective… almost. There were problems. For one, it was clear that I’d have to follow some characters around to see what they were doing, but it wasn’t clear whom to follow. It meant that I had to do that most boring of adventure game chores: start over, over and over and over.

I didn’t mind all that much, actually, because in many ways it reminded me of Suspended, a game I love. As I played, I expanded my timeline of events to include events that would happen during the day. Nine fifteen, a phone call. Ten o’clock, the mail arrives. Eleven thirty, Angus gets angry about holes in his garden. Noon, a reading of the will. As I built up more of this timeline, by playing and failing over and over, I began to find the critical path to being everywhere I needed to me. Every time I played, I could do every required action to learn every important fact. This was satisfying.

Learning these facts, on the other hand, was often very dissatisfying. I was often correct in my assumptions about what was going on. I often knew what I had to do. I just didn’t know how to do it. It was a “guess the verb” puzzle on a very frustrating level.

dig in dirt
Although everything is coming up roses, you haven’t found anything unusual except for a few pieces of a hard substance which fall back to the ground.

look in holes
There are two holes here, each about two inches by four inches. They are at least three inches deep and the soil is compacted around them.

look near holes
Ouch! You cut your finger on a sharp edge as you dig. You search carefully in the dirt, now that you are sure something is there, and pull up a piece of porcelain, covered with dirt and dried mud.

There were a number of drugs around the house, and many of them were labeled with warnings about drug interactions. They also had the names of the dispensing pharmacy. I couldn’t call the pharmacist to ask, “How would Allergone interact with Ebullion?” I couldn’t even ask the coroner to check for these drugs in the victim’s system:

analyze Mr. Robner for loblo

Duffy appears in an instant. “Well, I might be able to analyze the Mr. Robner, but you don’t even have it with you!” With that, he discreetly leaves.

Well, Duffy, ask at the morgue!

Later, I’d find traces of a drug on a piece of ceramic. Even if I’d already had that drug in particular analyzed, the lab would just say “well, it’s not a common medication, anyway.”

Later, I would resort to InvisiClues. This was almost as frustrating as trying to pieces things together myself, at least when it came to figuring out why on earth George would stand around outside doing nothing for an hour. The clue urged me to do something, but I couldn’t guess the verb.

In the end, I played the game until I knew who had killed Mr. Robner, and why, and how. It’s possible I could have solved the game, had I stuck with it for another few hours. I realize that a single five hour flight is not how one might usually expect to play Deadline. Then again, it did get five hours of my time, which seemed like quite a lot. More importantly, giving it more time wasn’t going to lessen my frustration, but only increase it.

I think that an IF game could be a very good way to present a murder mystery, and I hope to find another one that I love. This one, though, is not one I’ll recommend to friends. Maybe Witness…

Written on February 16, 2013
games   infocom-replay   int-fiction