Friday, December 20, 2019

Game 125: Deadline

Download the manual here:

Infocom’s first non-Zork game is also their first to include the feelies that the company is now famous for.

Even the packaging, distributed as a crime lab evidence sleeve is thematic, ruined a bit by the “12 Hours to solve the murder” tagline printed on the rim. Within is a collection of evidence, meant to be examined even before loading up the game.

A letter from Marshall Robner’s lawyer, Mr. Coates, to the Edindale police, requests an investigation on his client’s sudden drug overdose death. A photo shows his chalk outline on the floor of his library, fallen from his chair, and a cup of tea, saucer and a bottle of pills are spilled on the ground by his chair. A coroner’s report details the autopsy – dead at 1 a.m. from a massive overdose of “Ebullion,” with no external injuries except a bruise consistent with his fall. Multiple witness statements, a lab report on the teacup, and fingerprints collected from the scene all fail to indicate any foul play. The sleeve even contains a packet of the Ebullion tablets collected from the scene. But we already know there is a murderer – the game told us so on the packaging!

The things I knew about Mr. Robner were:
  • A wealthy industrialist and philanthropist
  • Recently prescribed Ebullion, an anti-depressant
  • Robner Corporation was struggling
  • Talked of suicide in recent weeks
  • Had no personal friends, was not close with his wife
  • Had frequent fights with his son George, and threatened to disinherit him

The interviewed witnesses/suspects are:
  • Mrs. Robner
    • Called the police in the morning when she noticed Mr. Robner was locked in the library and didn’t answer her knocks
    • Unhappily married, resented his devotion to business and charity
    • Did not react strongly when the body was discovered
  • Mrs. Dunbar, secretary
    • Claims to have been out with a friend until 10:30pm
    • Last person to see Mr. Robner alive, when she brought him tea at 11pm, two hours before death
    • Discovered the body along with Mrs. Robner
    • Lived in mansion for six years, since it was built
  • Mr. Baxter, business partner of 25 years
    • Claims to have been at a concert until 10pm, and then at his home until Mrs. Dunbar notified him of Mr. Robner’s death
    • Last saw Mr. Robner at the office in the afternoon
    • Claims Mr. Robner never discussed personal life
    • Also claims to have witnessed his fights with George, and that Mr. Robner spoke of threatening to disinherit him
  • George Robner, only child of Mr. and Mrs. Robner
    • 25 years old, never employed
    • Had threatened Mr. Robner with violence
    • Was uncooperative with detectives
  • Mrs. Rourke, housekeeper
    • Was housekeeper for six years, since the mansion was built
    • Had been up late past Mr. Robner’s time of death, did not hear anyone enter the library during this time

Mr. Baxter seemed the most suspicious, thanks to his inconsistent testimony, but I had no material evidence implicating him, or any clues suggesting how he or anyone else might have killed Mr. Robner.

The manual described some of the gameplay functions peculiar to Deadline. Things can be examined, and sometimes they can be examined CAREFULLY for more thorough results at the cost of time. The game operates on a clock, and events may happen at specific places at certain times, but you must solve the case in 12 hours, or fail. You can pass time by WAITING, and can specify to wait for a certain number of minutes, or until a certain time, to wait until a certain person shows up. Evidence may be sent to the lab for analysis, or shown to witnesses to a useful effect. Suspects may also be questioned, accused or even arrested, but it isn’t enough to arrest the correct suspect – you must also find evidence proving means, motive, and opportunity.

I loaded the storyfile into Frotz and began my investigation the same way I always began these games – by Trizborting. Mr. McNabb the gardener was making his rounds, and got pissy when I walked on his roses. Mrs. Robner was waiting in the foyer, demanded that I leave by 8pm, and advised me to attend the will reading at 12:00. The library on the second floor where Mr. Robner died had pieces of evidence spilled all over the floor, but I put that aside in favor of mapping.

Mapping out the mansion didn’t take especially long – it’s not all that big with only about 50 rooms – but some shenanigans with the lawn going off in multiple directions and multiple interior rooms described as “hallway” inflated this phase a bit. It would have been nice, and also thematically appropriate, if Infocom had bundled an estate grounds and floor plan in the package. The mansion is two stories, with a kitchen, dining room, and living room on the first floor, the library and master bedroom with attached bathroom on the second floor, with balconies accessible from both, and private bedrooms and bathrooms for George, Mrs. Dunbar, and Mrs. Rourke.

What’s more interesting than the mapping is the fact that the characters walk around and do things on their own – an engine feature present since MDL Zork, but not used nearly to the extent that Deadline does. A number of important events occurred while I was mapping, independent of my actions, though exact times sometimes differed on replays:

At 9:06, a phone inside the house rang.

At 10:04, a mailman handed me a letter, which I read like the snoop I am:

"Dear Leslie,
   I am sorry to learn that Marshall has been despondent again. His obsessive interest in business must be causing you terrible anguish. It doesn't surprise me that he talks of suicide when he's in this state, but the thought of the business going to Baxter after he's gone will keep him alive.
   So George has finally gone too far? It's hard to believe, after all those empty threats, that Marshall actually followed through. It serves that little leech right, if you ask me. This means that, should the unthinkable happen, you will be provided for as you deserve.
   I'll see you Friday as usual.


Interesting, but not all that incriminating. It provides a motive for Mrs. Robner or this Steven, but it could also simply be a lucky coincidence for them.

At 11:10, the newspaper was delivered. Reading it produced an obituary for Mr. Robner, but no new information.

At a few minutes after noon, everyone except Mr. McNabb was gathered in the living room, where Mr. Coates announced that Mr. Robner had failed to complete a new will despite recently stating his intent to, and George smiled suspiciously. The current will left the estate to him and his mother in equal parts.

I restarted and shadowed everyone individually, and came up with these rough schedules (exact times vary).

Mr. McNabb, gardener
  • 8:00 – 10:05 – mows north lawn
  • 10:07 – 11:01 – mows east lawn
  • 11:04 – 12:03 – cuts flowers in garden path, notices roses have been crushed
  • 12:04 – gets ladder from shed
  • 12:05 – 13:04 – prunes trees in orchard path
  • 13:09 – 15:13 – mows south lawn
  • 15:21 – 20:00 – mows west lawn

At 12:04, he somehow teleported from the orchard path to the non-adjacent shed and back to grab the ladder that he needed to do his pruning. I attribute this to a scripting error rather than any in-universe explanation.

The fact that he notices his roses have been crushed interested me. Someone had been walking there, and most likely at night.

Mr. McNabb was not considered a witness or suspect by the police, and was not interviewed by them.

Mrs. Robner:
  • 8:00 – 8:39 – makes meal in kitchen
  • 8:41 – 9:07 – eats breakfast in dining room, is interrupted by ringing phone
  • 9:09 – answers phone, but won’t talk in the living room
  • 9:16 – 9:30 – makes private phonecall in bedroom
  • 9:37 – 10:18 – knits in living room
  • 10:21 – 11:17 – eats breakfast in dining room
  • 11:20 – 12:57 – knits in living room
  • 13:03 – 13:36 – rests in bedroom
  • 13:43 – 20:00 – knits in living room

The only interesting part of her routine is the phonecall. I eavesdropped by the living room extension, but I only caught a few words, fragments of a conversation between Mrs. Robner and an unknown man discussing their plans in the immediate future (“But we couldn’t have planned it better. You’re free.”). I tried presenting Robner with her letter from Steven, and she admitted to the affair but huffily denied any involvement in Mr. Robner’s death and chided me for opening her mail.

Nothing here aroused my suspicions. I was satisfied that the murder was simply good fortune for Mrs. Robner and Steven – no evidence pointed to a more complicated explanation.

  • 8:00 – 9:21 – rests in bedroom
  • 9:30 – 9:59 – prepares snack in kitchen
  • 10:01 – 10:49 – eats red herrings in dining room
  • 10:58 – 11:53 – listens to music in bedroom
  • 12:00 – 12:43 – paces around living room
  • 12:49 – 14:18 – east lawn
  • 14:24 – 15:05 – paces around living room
  • 15:09 – 20:00 – listens to music in bedroom

Red herrings. Real cute, guys.

Two things were suspicious and/or unusual. First, during the will reading at noon, when Mr. Coates announced that Mr. Robner had promised a new will days ago and failed to deliver, George nodded his head and smiled, as if he expected that. In George’s witness testimony, he said that he expected his father didn’t have the nerve to carry out his threat to disinherit him. Was his judgement correct, or did he tamper with the new will? I had no evidence, but it was something to keep in mind.

The other thing was George’s hour and a half spent on the east lawn, apparently doing nothing. The game just says “George is here” until he leaves. Why? Does he just like the view? Again, no evidence, so I did not speculate.

Mrs. Dunbar:
  • 8:00 – 9:01 – sits in living room
  • 9:07 – 9:29 – brushes hair in bathroom
  • 9:33 – 11:37 – rests in bedroom
  • 11:43 – 14:13 – sits in living room
  • 14:19 – 20:00 – rests in bedroom

Mrs. Rourke
  • 8:00 – 9:58 – cleans kitchen
  • 10:00 – 10:55 – cleans dining room
  • 10:57 – 11:04 – cleans kitchen
  • 11:17 – 14:28 – cleans living room
  • 14:32 – 20:00 – rests in bedroom

Nothing suspicious about their routines. They both attend the will reading, but as they both live on the estate, perhaps this isn’t unusual.

Mr. Baxter
  • 9:55 – 10:02 – arrives in limousine
  • 10:06 – 15:55 – reads a book in living room
  • 15:58 – leaves in limousine

A simple routine, but why is he even here? He claimed he wasn’t a personal acquaintance with Mr. Robner – a claim already incongruous with his own testimony. I expect he would only have interest in Mr. Robner’s stakes in the corporation, a matter that would be settled by the board of directors, not his will. There’s not much in this routine to work with (the book he reads is a novelization of Deadline, but that’s just typical Infocom meta-humor), so I couldn’t speculate.

Mr. Coates, the family lawyer
  • 11:55 – arrives in car
  • 12:00 – reads will
  • 12:03 – leaves in car

Mr. Coates must be a very busy man. He wastes no time by arriving early, appears nervously impatient when waiting for guests to arrive in the living room, and calls for a cab immediately after finishing. But there’s nothing unusual or suspicious here. Notably, he was not interviewed by the police, or considered to be a suspect or witness.

Clearly, I’d need to find some material clues, so I went to the library to see if I could pick up anything that the previous inspectors missed. Items in the library included:
  • The oak door, broken in from the outside by the police
  • A pencil
  • A collapsible tray
  • A bowl of sugar
  • A wastepaper basket with a crumpled receipt, list of stock prices, and an abandoned letter addressed to the board of directors
  • A teacup and saucer
  • A pad of paper
  • A desk calendar, open to July 7th (the day right before the night of his death), showing a 2pm meeting with Mr. Baxter.
  • A bottle of Ebullion

Three things were interesting here. First, the library balcony was directly over the rose garden that somebody had trampled. Examining it showed mud on the floor and a scrape on the railing. That showed how the murderer got in and out. Second, the pad of paper revealed some word fragments when I rubbed the pencil on it, a common detective trope.


                  st time
 nsist             op       merg
       mnidy               Oth
         ocumen     y poss
  plica     y      Focus s

I showed this to Mr. Baxter, but he claimed he never got the memo and couldn’t guess what Mr. Robner was asking him to do.

Third, the calendar’s next page showed something interesting:
9am – Call Coates: Will completed.

I tried showing this to Coates, but he was unresponsive.

I searched the rest of the house, but couldn’t find anything else of interest, and so I took a break.

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

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