Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Game 224: The Witness

Read the manual here:

It's been almost a year since I played Deadline, Infocom's previous mystery game. This was the first non-Zork game by the company, and though I found its concept surprisingly well realized - this was no mere Adventure-style treasure hunt dressed as a detective novel, but a game about gathering evidence, observing suspects, and deducing the meaning of clues - I also found its design unfair, with a single critical path solution, and the clues that nudge the player into discovering it were scarce and obscure.

The Witness, not to be confused with the 2016 puzzle adventure of the same name, is self-rated "standard" difficulty, as opposed to Deadline's "expert," so I started feeling optimistic.

An instruction manual styled like a 1930's detective magazine serves as both period flavor and guidance on the rules of this mystery, which are mostly the same as Deadline's. There's an ingame clock, beginning at 8pm and ending at 8am, and story events will occur at specific times with or without your involvement, though time only advances when you perform actions, including waiting. You can examine evidence, take fingerprints, and analyze samples. Suspects can be followed, talked to, searched, questioned on particular subjects, accused, and arrested should you have evidence proving motive, method, and opportunity. Sergeant Duffy - apparently a time traveler - returns as your assistant, and this time he can be asked for hints.

Deadline's original packaging resembled an evidence sleeve, and contained several feelies representing evidence gathered during the case's preliminary investigation. Witness statements and alibis, background checks on each suspect, fingerprints, lab analyses and toxicity reports, etc. The Witness doesn't quite measure up here - there isn't any case to speak of just yet, only a telegram from a client "Freeman Linder" vaguely alluding to a threat on his life and requesting police protection. Two other feelies, a matchbook from a "Brass Lantern" restaurant, and a not suspicious at all looking suicide note by "Virginia Clayton Linder," represent clues found at the start of the game.

Lastly, there's a two-page newspaper dated February 1st 1938 with about 50 articles printed in narrow columns. Two of them concern the Linders, so I read them for background information.

The first and more prominent article concerns a charity ball honoring Freeman Linder, which he did not attend due to the death of his wife. He is established as a trade company mogul and a philanthropist with a military background who has spent the majority of his career living in Asia, nearly estranged from his family. A timeline of his career is as follows:

  • 1900 - Marine Corps, stationed in China. Fought in the Boxer Rebellion.
  • 1904 - Discharged, returned to LA.
  • 1907 - Returned to Hong Hong, rumored to have worked as a mercenary.
  • 1910 - Returned to LA, married, soon after traveled to Tokyo to join the Imperial Japanese Navy as an engineer.
  • 1922 - Returned to LA. Founded Pacific Trade Associates import/export company. Left for Asia again soon after.
  • 1925 - During a return to LA, founded Asian-American School and Cultural Center in Los Angeles, which his wife directed during his absences.


The second article concerns his wife's death by gunshot, and makes no mention of the suicide note. This article contradicts the former one, which says she was found dead, by stating she died at the hospital, but I can't think of any explanation for this except oversight by the writers. The article notes her involvement in charity work, both in her husband's Asian America-centered projects and national charity under the FDR administration. Her surviving relatives include her husband, their daughter Monica, and two sisters who live on opposite coasts.

Starting the game proper, we arrive by taxi on the Linders' driveway, possessing the telegram, a revolver, handcuffs, and the Brass Lantern matchbook, which was found on the curb. The game notes that we've read Mrs. Linder's suicide note and the newspaper article on the family - was that really all the police file contained? No doubt it's all connected to this mysterious threat on Linder's life, but for now, that's not what we're here for.

I approached the front gate and rang the doorbell, which summoned a man named Phong who brought me to the living room with Freeman and Monica. Freeman, after gulping down a whiskey and soda, took me to his office, where he explained that his wife's lover, Ralph Stiles, sent him a threatening note. 

I questioned him on some subjects - Ralph, Phong, Monica, his wife, the note, and the matchbook, which prompted an involuntary flinch as he told me that Phong sometimes goes there but he never has. Monica came in at around 8:30 to tell us she was going to the movies with "Terry."

I couldn't think of what else to talk about, but Linder objected when I tried to leave his office. Shortly after 9:00pm, he shouted "Stiles!" at a figure outside. I was shot dead, and the game chided me for not staying seated.

Restarting, I did a bit of exploring before entering the house, to form a better Trizbort map. Here, only cardinal "NESW" directions are recognized, so there's no need to bother with NE, up, down, or that nonsense, and mapping is all the easier for it. To the east of the driveway entrance is a side yard leading to a path outside Linder's office, and a backyard outside Monica's bedroom, with a Japanese rock garden to the north.

A garage off the driveway houses an MG sports car and a Bentley, and a locked workshop is attached. At 8:40, the MG left the garage, which we know at this point is Monica going to the movies. At 9:00, someone entered the property. I saw him knock on the office door, where a tall man - Linder I assume, handed him some money. Sergeant Duffy appeared soon after, ready to assist.

Having explored the outside as much as I could, I tried to enter the house, but Phong told me that Linder no longer needed my services and denied me entrance.

The game was probably lost, but I waited out the time limit to see what would happen. At 11:00, Monica returned, briefly entered the workshop, and then went into the house through the garage door, locking the door behind her. After midnight, a bell rang. Nothing further occurred until 8:00 in the morning, when the chief pulled me off the case. In the epilogue, Stiles was found dead on the beach, holding a cheap handgun.

A timeline of the ingame events so far:

  • ~2037 - Monica leaves in the MG.
  • 2052 - Lights go on in Linder's office.
  • 2100 - Stiles enters through back gate.
  • 2101 - Stiles knocks on Linder's office door and receives money.
  • 2102 - Stiles exits through back gate.
  • 2106 - Sgt. Duffy appears.
  • ~2258 - Monica pulls into the garage, leaves a ticket stub on the ground, and enters the workshop, locking the door behind her.
  • 2314 - Monica exits the workshop.
  • 2315 - Monica enters the house.
  • ~0004 - A bell rings in the distance.
  • 0120 - Lights out.
  • 0622 - Dawn breaks.
  • 0647 - Sunrise.
  • 0800 - Deadline.


I restarted, and replayed the prologue. After entering the living room, I rudely explored and Trizborted out the house while Linder had his drink. A hallway connects the rooms of the one-story house. On the north-east side are Freeman and Monica's bedrooms, which share a master bathroom. On the northwest is a dining room, kitchen, and Phong's bedroom, with a small private bathroom attached. The south end has the office, garage, and a small storage closet.

Soon, Linder summoned me to the office, and this time I sat down and stayed seated until 9:03, when Stiles approached. This time Linder was the one who got shot. When Duffy appeared, he told me he apprehended Stiles and brought him to the living room for questioning.

Free to explore the house and investigate, I noted these clues:

  • Phong carries house keys which open the various doors in and out of the house, and the door to the workshop.
  • There's a grandfather clock inside the office. It can't be opened with Phong's keys, but examining the keyhole reveals gunpowder residue.
  • The cracked window, examined, reveals some putty and an exposed wire. Lab analysis found traces of cordite, suggesting some kind of plastic explosive.
  • Footprints outside the office match Stiles' muddy wing-tip shoes.
  • Stiles when questioned claims he was offered money to leave town. He denies writing the note, and when shown the matchbook, says that the phone number scrawled on the inside was his own, and that Linder must have written it down there when they met at the restaurant.
  • Nothing of interest is found on Stiles' person.
  • Analysis of the matchbook and note reveals both were written in the same kind of ink, but I couldn't find a way to ask the lab to compare their handwriting.
  • When Monica returns home, after entering the workshop, she goes to the bathroom, dry heaves, and sobs in her bedroom. She resists being searched or questioned on most topics, though admits to feeling relieved by her father's death.
  • The coroner's report comes at about 12:42pm, concluding death from a bullet through the heart, but couldn't find any rifling marks.
  • Analysis of the movie ticket showed it had been purchased that night. When asked about the movie, Monica said it was "Dead End," but I couldn't find a way to confirm that this was the movie played that night.
  • Looking at the books in Monica's room reveals that an "important" one is missing. I couldn't find a way to follow this thread further.
  • Absolutely nothing has any fingerprints on it. Not even things I saw people touch.


I decided to snoop on Monica a bit using save states as time travel, knowing where she'd be throughout the night. I waited for her in the workshop, where she played with some wires, and turned ashen-white when she realized I was watching her. When I hid in the office out of sight, she entered shortly before midnight, pressed the butler's button, and then removed something from the clock. I emerged, startling her, and though she still would not submit to a search, she did confess to setting up a gun mechanism in the clock when accused of foul play, and urged me to read a medical report that showed he was dying of stomach cancer.

At this point, it's possible to arrest Monica, but despite her confession, the jury will acquit due to a lack of motive. Genre-awareness tells me that Linder killed his wife and is setting up Stiles to take the fall for his own death, and all the clues I've seen so far are consistent with this, but I'd need stronger evidence to close the case.

Another experiment revealed something interesting, but not surprising. I restarted and tried pressing the butler's button in Linder's office, and he, almost in a panic, grabbed my wrist to stop him from doing this. During his death, I noticed that he reached for the button himself, then shouted to distract me so I couldn't see him press it himself. And when I pressed it afterward, a "click" sound came from the clock. After Monica adjusts the wires, this button summons Phong (as she had tested herself).

I needed a way to open the clock. Monica wouldn't let me take her key, but after I handcuffed her to the lounge, searching her person was easy. This only revealed a pendulum, relays, and "things," and I found no way to interact with any of it. I asked Sergeant Duffy for advice but he wasn't much help at all, only muttering that the clock looked funny and that he found a green spool in the workshop, and there was, but I couldn't find a way to interact with it either.

Stuck, I turned to a walkthrough. There were a few bits of evidence I had missed:

  • A receipt for two handguns found in Phong's book. Phong says that Monica bought them under a pseudonym. Monica admits to this, but says they are for self defense.
  • A handgun in the mud outside found after Linder dies. Analysis shows it had been fired recently. Monica claims Phong planted it to frame Stiles. Neither Phong nor Stiles recognizes it.
  • Another handgun found on Monica's person with a sawed-off barrel, found by searching her a second time. Analysis shows it, too, had been fired recently.


As it turns out, though, the crucial bit of information was one I already had found in an earlier playthrough. When you question Monica about Mr. Linder before catching her in the office opening the clock, she admits being relieved that her father is dead. Turns out that's all you need to establish a convicting motive.

In fact, after Linder's death, you don't even need to leave his office to win the game. This is all you have to do:

  • Press the butler's button before Monica returns and rewires the mechanism. The clock will click.
  • Examine the clock.
  • Analyze the powder once Duffy enters. When this finishes, you have established means.
  • Wait for Monica to return. When she enters the office and sees the body, and ask about her father before she leaves. Now you have motive.
  • After she leaves, hide behind the lounge. Wait for her to enter and incriminate herself, and then stand up. Now you have opportunity.
  • Arrest her once Duffy returns from the morgue.

That's it. Those actions are all required, only those actions are required, and every other bit of evidence you might find is irrelevant. Monica is convicted of murdering her father as revenge for the death of her mother.

But could that really be it? There was so much evidence suggesting more to it than this. Why was the window wired to explode when Linder pushed the button? Why was he so eager to stop me from pushing the button? Why did the threatening note from Stiles seem to be written by Linder himself? Why would he push the button that triggered his death at the exact moment that Stiles approached? If Monica was culpable alone, then we could write off the medical report as a forgery since it couldn't be verified, but there were so many things pointing to Linder's involvement in a scheme to frame Stiles.

The game assured me, though, that I had reached the proper conclusion. Monica did it, and that's it.


However, there is an epilogue that explains the true outcome, as told by the omniscient author himself.

Linder knew about his wife's affair, and she in fact did commit suicide. Linder intended to get revenge by framing Stiles for attempted murder, and Phong and Monica were both in on it. Monica would rig the butler's button to fire a shot at him from a gun hidden in the clock and blow up the window to make it seem like a shot was fired through it. Linder would summon Stiles to his office at night, and just as he approached, hit the button to pin it on him. You, the detective, were to witness the attempt on his life. Phong would plant an identical handgun in the mud to further implicate Stiles. Monica, however, who blamed her father for pushing her mother to suicide, aimed the gun at where his heart would be, and left everything else according to the original plan, causing Stiles to be framed for an actual murder instead of an attempted one.

This plan, frankly, is really dumb, and as my partner puts it, has more holes than a colander. How could Linder be sure the bullet from the clock wouldn't kill him? How could Monica be sure the bullet from the clock would kill him? The heart's a small target and people move. An autopsy should have also revealed that the entrance wound was in his back, and therefore could not have been fired through the window. Ballistics would find that the bullet didn't match the gun planted on Stiles, and find the lack of rifling marks altogether suspicious. And the evidence of this scheme - the gunpowder on the keyhole, and the wires and plastique debris found in the window, are pretty obvious and indiscreet.

GAB rating: Above Average. The Witness obviously follows the template of Deadline, and inherits its good qualities - its full realization of the interactive detective novel with evidence and snooping around, the independent actors in the story who walk around and do things both of their own accord and in response to your actions, and Infocom's best in class parser and decent writing and worldbuilding, which isn't quite up to par with the best the team had offered, but still beats out anything by any other developer seen yet. And Deadline's biggest problem - the obscurity of its solution - is alleviated. The solution here may be narrow, but no part of it is as unreasonable as Deadline's. Only establishing motive - achieved by questioning Monica about her father at just the right time - feels arbitrary.

But in being reasonable to solve, The Witness goes a little too far in the other direction and feels kind of trivial. When I solved the case, it felt like I had played an interactive Two Minute Mystery. Deadline wasn't exactly a doorstopper, but The Witness makes it look like The Big Sleep. The clock is a gun, his daughter somewhat resents him, and she has the key. Case closed, zero pipe problem.

What really bothers me, though, is how so much evidence indicates a conspiracy bigger than the patricide we see in the official resolution, and the game's true conclusion doesn't acknowledge any of it except in a tacked-on epilogue that explains What Really Happened. Your detective character never truly solves the mystery, and none of the evidence you find except for the few pieces that convict Monica serve any purpose except as a mental exercise for you, the player. Linder's suspicious behavior, the traces of the bomb in the window, the guns, the receipt for the guns, all pointless as far as the game is concerned. Even the matchbook, suicide note, and newspaper that come with the game are completely irrelevant! It lends the impression of an unfinished game, where you were supposed to be able to solve the real mystery, but they just didn't have time or perhaps space to implement this. Deadline gave you a different ending depending on whether you merely nailed your suspect on circumstantial evidence or truly busted the case wide open, so why not this one too?


I discovered on a replay that it is possible to reveal the conspiracy. And you're punished for it. As I mentioned before, if you show the muddy gun to Monica after accusing her, she'll finger Phong. But then I discovered that If you ask Phong about the gunpowder, he'll reveal the plot and confess his role in it.

If you've met the conditions necessary to convict Monica, and you are also possessing the gun receipt (it must be removed from the book for this to work), then you may arrest both Monica and Phong. Phong confesses to the frame-up scheme, insists that the intent was never deadly, and Monica somehow gets a slap on the wrist from a plea deal and avoids a murder charge. Their in-game confessions are immaterial to the ultimate outcome. Your supervisor laments that we failed to uncover the full truth, even though this is the only ending where we absolutely did. Arghhh!

In spite of my reservations concerning The Witness' storyline and brevity, I could see myself rating it Good if only it were a little more complete, and the hierarchy of endings reworked a bit. Convicting Monica as a lone actor should have given you congratulations but prompted you to did a little bit deeper, because the moment I did that and realized this shallow outcome was the "true" solution annoyed me to the point of dissatisfaction. The criteria for convicting both Phong and Monica could have been a little better thought out, but more importantly, should have included one where Monica's full culpability in the plot is proven, and this should have been the true ending.

My Trizbort map:


  1. My major memory of this game was feeling stuck shortly after hiding behind the I figured I would arrest Monica and in the you-have-lost text maybe I'd get a clue about what I needed to do next. I was very surprised when I suddenly won the game.

  2. I do think it's nice that The Witness (and, at least to some extent, Deadline) lets you solve the case without finding every single piece of evidence. Their third murder mystery, Suspect, seemed a lot less forgiving in that respect.

    But it also means that the game can sometimes make some pretty big assumptions about what you've actually figured out. You can walk around the house, looking for clues, interrogating people, making plaster casts of footprints, etc... or you could solve it without ever leaving Mr. Linder's office after the murder. Here's my attempt at a minimal walkthrough. You'll win, but it probably won't make much sense if you haven't played the game before:

    SIT ON WOODEN CHAIR. WAIT UNTIL 9:04. [answer YES until Mr Linder is dead]
    WAIT. [answer YES until Phong leaves] HIDE BEHIND LOUNGE. WAIT UNTIL 1:00.
    [answer YES until Duffy returns] ARREST MONICA.

    You could shave off a few moves by not sitting down when Linder asks you to, and hope you don't get shot. But this was the shortest reliable solution I could come up with.

    1. Yeah, that solution doesn't make a lot of sense. It proves that this was a poorly conceived scheme gone wrong, but it doesn't prove that Monica made it fatal on purpose. And come to think of it, the only convincing piece of evidence of that is the fake medical report, which the game doesn't even care whether you found or not!

    2. There are a couple of different ways to get the pieces you need for a successful arrest. I do think the game gives you a bit too much credit for just pushing the button while it's still wired to the clock.

      There are a couple of additional things the game tracks, e.g. if you saw Monica at the junction box or if you figured out that Phong went outside before the murder, but they're mainly to tell you why if your arrest wasn't successful.

      I think this is Infocom's easiest game, once you get into the mindset of it. (You can even ask Duffy for hints, if you get stuck.) I quite like it, but... Clearly a lot of work went into getting the setting and atmosphere right. (You can read about in in the Summer 1984 edition of The New Zork Times.) I just wish the actual mystery was a bit better. As it is, it seems simultaneously both too simple and too contrived to me.

    3. It does seem very inconsistent about what evidence helps and what doesn't. Especially regarding the suspect's statements. Monica and Phong finger eachother and reveal the entire plot? Immaterial. Phong tells you that Monica's been depressed lately? To the chair!


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