Monday, December 23, 2019

Deadline: Won!

When I last played, I made these observations and inferences concerning the suspects:
  • Mrs. Robner had been having an affair with a man named "Steven."
  • Their son George Marshall was an idler whom Mr. Robner had threatened to disinherit.
  • Mr. Robner had told his lawyer to expect a new will, but did not follow through, and the will reading split the estate between his wife and son.
  • Mr. Robner's most recent memo had been written to his business partner Mr. Baxter, who denied receiving it, but it wasn't in the trash.

I had learned nothing new about his secretary Mrs. Dunbar or housekeeper Mrs. Rourke.

At the scene of the murder, I saw that there was mud on the floor of the library's balcony, and that the rose garden below it had been trampled. Somebody had entered the library from below, killed Mr. Robner, and presumably left the same way he or she entered.

But I was out of leads and had to follow a walkthrough to continue. The first thing I missed was that the newspaper, in which I read Mr. Robner's obituary, has a second section which can be read by typing “READ SECOND SECTION.” An article there described a merger between Robner Corp and Omnidyne, with a picture of Mr. Baxter and Omnidyne’s president smiling. Baxter was quoted as saying Mr. Robner was in full agreement with the merger.

But this didn’t gel with the memo fragments I revealed on the paper pad, which I imagine read something like this:


        For the last time, I
insist that you stop the merger
with Omnidyne corporation. Otherwise
I will be forced
        document in my possession
implicates you      Focus s
          reconsider before it is too

Next, the walkthrough said I had to show the calendar to George. He got flustered and wandered off. I followed him to his bedroom, against his protests, where he put on music and asked me to leave so he could attend to personal business. I did, and he closed the door. I tried to listen at the door, but could hear nothing. I tried sticking around, and he periodically emerged from his room, looked around, and darted back in.

When I went to the library balcony and waited, he emerged, snuck into the library, and reached behind a bookshelf, causing the east wall to rotate and reveal a secret passageway.

I tried following, and saw him trying to open a safe. He panicked, knocked me out, and darted. I found him downstairs and questioned him, and he acknowledged the safe, but claimed he forgot the combination. I reloaded and tried a different approach – letting him retrieve the contents, and then questioning him. He became indignant, and refused to answer questions or submit to a search.

I turned to the walkthrough again. You must catch him at a very precise time – it takes him exactly 15 minutes to enter the closet, open the safe, and leave, and you must use this information to enter the closet after he retrieves the will, but before he leaves with it. Wait fewer than eight minutes, and you’re too fast. Longer than 15, and you’re too late. Enter within this window, and you catch him in possession of the new will.

I did this, and confiscated and read the new will, which, as expected, disinherited George and left everything to Marshall’s wife. This certainly looked bad for George. Not only did this establish a motive, but also partly an opportunity, as the murderer would have had to know about the secret passageway, and that Mr. Robner would be in it at night. But I had no evidence linking him to this, or any evidence of means.

The safe also contained a stack of papers implicating Mr. Baxter in the “Focus scandal.” I don’t remember reading anything about that in the game’s literature, but it proves him guilty of a crime, and that Mr. Robner was blackmailing him, providing a motive and suggesting Baxter lied when I showed him the pad of paper. I showed these to Baxter, who admitted to “irresponsible” past dealings. But it still didn’t prove means or opportunity – there isn’t even evidence that Mr. Baxter had the opportunity of entering the library at night.

The walkthrough said that to find the means, I had to talk to McNabb, furious about his trampled roses, listen to him, and then ask him about them. I did, and he said there were two deep holes in his garden that morning (perhaps from a ladder?), and the roses were crushed. Examining the holes in the garden produced the message “there is no hole here,” but typing “mcnabb, show me holes” got results. He led me to the holes, and I found that his ladder fit perfectly in them, and led up to the library balcony.

This still didn’t give me proof of means. The walkthrough said I had to also SEARCH GROUND. Oh, come on.

This produced small, unobtainable fragments of a hard substance. I searched the ground carefully (an action the manual states is possible), and found a muddy piece of porcelain. Lab analysis revealed it to be a piece of a teacup with traces of an unidentified chemical.

Finally, evidence of murder! Somebody poisoned Mr. Robner’s tea, waited for him to die, swapped his cup for a clean one, escaped from the library by way of ladder, smashed the poisoned one, buried the pieces, and returned the ladder.

Still, no evidence linked anyone to this hypothesis. George was a candidate, as only he was confirmed to know about the secret room, but that didn’t rule out the possibility of everyone else knowing too.

The manual said that objects can also be analyzed for specific compounds, so I had it re-analyzed for each medicine that I had found in the various bathrooms, and one test for “LoBlo” found in Mrs. Dunbar’s bathroom turned up positive. A further pathology report found the drug in Mr. Robner’s bloodstream, and stated that the drug, a blood pressure lowering agent has known interactions with other medications such as Mr. Robner’s antidepressants.

Means and opportunity were established, but what about the motive? Mrs. Dunbar certainly was in a position to poison Mr. Robner’s tea, and wouldn’t even need to know about his secret passageway to do it, but why? She was one of the few people on the estate who didn’t have a clear reason to kill him.

I checked the LoBlo for fingerprints, and oddly found none at all. I showed the evidence to Dunbar, who denied wrongdoing and accused George. She nervously glanced at Baxter. As I left, she walked outside for a smoke break, and dropped a ticket stub to a concert. This in itself wasn’t suspicious, except that for something unimportant, I clearly had to go to a lot of trouble to get it, so I showed it to her to see what would happen. She confessed that Mr. Baxter took her to the concert and drove her home – not sure why she didn’t just say “yeah, I told you I was out with a friend” – which contradicted Mr. Baxter’s alibi, and proved he was on the property the night of the murder.

I showed the ticket stub to Mr. Baxter, who corroborated Dunbar’s confession (and further contradicted his own alibi). I arrested both of them, which ended the game successfully.

Overall, this was an interesting, unusually designed adventure game, which never felt experimental, but some unfair design tainted the experience. The usual adventure game paradigm, even late into the graphical era, consisted of mostly static, self-contained puzzle rooms, with rigidly defined links between them, to be solved in sequence in order to win the game. Deadline had almost no artificial barriers, no puzzles unrelated to the plot, and its multiple characters acted as free agents, roaming around the place, reacting to events caused by you and also to events caused by other characters.

I had fun initially exploring the mansion, snooping around, charting the suspect’s schedules and gathering evidence, but eventually hit a wall. The suspect’s schedules turn out to be not all that important or relevant, and taking fingerprints, though mentioned explicitly as an action in the manual, never seemed to turn up any except Robner's and Dunbar's on the teacup. On that note, why would her fingerprints be on the teacup that Mr. Baxter swapped for the one she handled? Did she deliberately smudge Baxter’s decoy cup ahead of time, knowing the police would dust it for fingerprints?

There are a few chains of action you must take to win the game, and the longest, most involved of them is kicked off by asking a distressed McNabb to show us the “holes,” and then searching the ground near the holes once he leads them to you. It seems unreasonable to expect the player to presume that “mcnabb, show me the holes” is a valid parser statement – the manual only makes the vaguest allusion to this syntax, and the action of searching the ground is motivated only by the knowledge that Mr. Robner’s killer had been there. After obtaining a toxicity report on the teacup fragment found there, you must present it to the guilty Mrs. Dunbar, which causes her to take a smoke break (from the stress, I assume) and drop another clue, but only if you do this while she is in the living room.

The final bit of arbitrariness is that you must present this clue, a ticket stub, to Mrs. Dunbar, at which point she confesses that she went with Mr. Baxter. Why would she do that?

It’s also not completely proven, beyond reasonable doubt, that Dunbar and Baxter are guilty. Maybe it wouldn’t be hard to convince a jury that they were a couple, therefore giving Dunbar a motive, but simply knowing that Baxter was on the property and lied about it makes the difference between an acquittal and a conviction. Why? Even if Dunbar had come home alone, that wouldn’t rule out the possibility that Baxter came by later to aid in the murder. And even though Baxter had taken Dunbar home, that doesn’t rule out the possibility that someone else – everyone’s scapegoat George for instance – might have been the one who swapped the teacups or even poisoned Marshall himself. George, after all, knew about the secret passageway, and could have snuck into the library by the rose garden at night while his father was in the secret room. The game somewhat accounts for this – if you do arrest Baxter and Dunbar without first showing Dunbar the ticket, the game outright tells you that you were on the right track, but the jury acquitted due to lack of evidence that Baxter was on the premises, but from a narrative perspective I find it unconvincing.

The setting also feels all wrong for the time period. The game is allegedly set in 1982, but it feels like the 30’s, with mansions and secret passageways, class divides reminiscent of the great depression, the archaic formality of addressing everyone as Mr. and Mrs., a reference in the manual to “stenographic services,” and antiquated gender roles – Mrs. Dunbar as a live-in secretary whose duties include making tea for her boss is a particularly hard anachronism to stomach. Couldn’t they have just set it in the 30’s? Would a crime lab that could find traces of chemicals on a piece of a broken teacup have been implausible?

I shouldn’t be too harsh on Deadline for its narrative shortcomings, though. It is leaps and bounds ahead of anything else of the era that I’ve seen. Few detective novels stand up when given enough scrutiny, and they never had to account for the non-linear, interactive nature of computer games as Deadline did. But the undermotivated actions required to finish the game properly are troubling. The number of relevant clues is fairly small, and most of them are absolutely required. I think the biggest problems with the game would have been greatly alleviated if there had simply been more clues. More small ones to nudge the player in the right direction, or more big ones to provide multiple routes to the solution, either or both would have been fine.

GAB rating: Above Average. Interesting and at times enjoyable, but flawed enough that I can’t unequivocally recommend it.

There’s an alternate solution I found that wasn’t mentioned in the walkthrough. There are a number of bad endings, most involving a failure to indict or convict, but there’s one which could be considered a success depending on your perspective. If you present the ticket to Dunbar and Baxter, then sometime soon, you’ll hear a gunshot, and Dunbar will be found dead in her bedroom, next to a gun and a suicide note written in blue ink, but no pen. Baxter will come running and break down sobbing. Ask him for a pen, and he’ll search through his pockets and hand you a blue one (why???). Then you can arrest him, and have him convicted of two counts of murder.

My completed Trizbort map (times may vary game to game):


  1. One point for George's innocence: If he had murdered Marshall, surely he would have removed the new will from the safe then and not left it there to be possibly found by the police. So, he clearly didn't know that the new will had already been drafted until you show him the calendar.

  2. One thing I thought was pretty neat was how the game clues you about the missing cup. You can count the china in the kitchen to see that a cup is missing (there could of course be other reasons for this). Also, analyzing the saucer finds both tea and sugar while analyzing the cup only finds tea.

  3. A lot of the difficulty is being in the "right place at the right time." This was brought up in the timing of George accessing the safe. Also, it's not clearly evident that you must hide behind the shed to catch Baxter and Dunbar have a heated exchange inside. Along with being able to count the cups and the holes that fit the ladder, you can observe a scrape in the paint on the outside of the balcony railing.

    1. Also, you can knock on the wall of the upstairs closet to get a hint to the hidden room.


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