Deadline [1982]

(Content warning: Suicide, racial stereotyping. Spoilers for Deadline.)

I’ve realized in the process of my research that, even though I tried to sell its importance pretty hard, if anything I undersold the importance of Colossal Cave Adventure [1975/77]. It’s not just the championed ur-text of the adventure-game niche — it’s probably the most influential video game of all time. Many, many game developers cited CCA as direct inspiration for a couple years after, and many of those would found whole, massive genres. Anything that takes as part of its fabric a notion that the world of the game can be bigger than a single screen — the grandchildren of Spacewar [1962], CCA’s most serious competition for the title — can probably trace a chain of confirmed influence direct to CCA. (RPGs mostly excepted, having gotten the same idea from the same place, Dungeons And Dragons [1974], along a parallel track. Though the two genres, twins, cross-pollinate throughout the coming years.)

Still, the most loyal followers of CCA are text adventures… and they weren’t even done pushing the medium yet. Now technologically, the Z-Machine that Zork [1980] introduced and which Deadline [1982] is also in would remain the state-of-the-art standard-bearer for like, the next 30 years. Even after being lost to Infocom’s collapse, it was reverse-engineered back into existence by fans. But technology is not the only benchmark of change in art, even in a medium whats history is seemingly so dominated by technological development as video games! In fact, it’s pretty trivially arguable that grand technological leaps to the future in gaming technology were actually a hindrance in other ways: take the rocky transition of platformers from 2D to 3D as a paradigmatic example of having to relearn principles of game design. How I usually think about it is that the enduring plain stability, their comparative ease of implementation, the jam culture, and the conscious building upon the past makes text-based games sorta the vital research laboratory of the medium of video games, whether or not the fruits of its experiments are heeded or ignored by the industry at large. At least, that’s my hypothesis going forward. I may have to expand that notion, like to include all adventure games, or rid myself of it.

3-D Family — David Murray Octet [1982]. Much more noirish than the game but look, it’s good.

Deadline is more obscure and less directly influential than CCA — there’s one extremely important direct influencee, more on which later — but it represents a major breakthrough. First, and most locally, Infocom is arguably still the biggest name in interactive fiction, and this is when they became Infocom and not Zork. But more globally, before now, we haven’t seen games make such a run at proper, traditional storytelling. We’ve seen excuse premises and cast lists, like in Robotron 2084 [1982], and we’ve seen The Prisoner [1980], which I would say does do storytelling, but in a very loose sense, with its strange, fragmentary, exploratory, even postmodern style that doesn’t resolve to the tried and true this-because-that-so-that narrative structure. Deadline, though, advertises itself as “Interactive Fiction,” going so far as to take a potshot at its ancestors in the manual by starting a sentence with “unlike other ‘adventure games’ you may have played.” Important to understand, it’s not really the first time adventure games have made this exact kind of turn: Infocom’s (and more specifically shared writer Mark Blank’s) progression from Zork, an inferior CCA clone, to the story-focused Deadline, is mighty similar to the development of Scott Adams games from Adventureland [1979] to The Count [1980], and we’ve already seen Mystery House [1980] attempting to pick up that baton, even if it dropped it. They’re not even the first to use the term “Interactive Fiction:” that goes to Local Call For Death [1979], which like Deadline and Mystery House is yet another experimental detective game, but which draws more on the conversational natural language processing tradition of Eliza [1966], and which isn’t a narrative with plot beats so much as a one-scene riddle. In short, the whole genre has steadily moved away from narratively-vacuous treasure hunts and mazes while this blog hasn’t been looking. Hence my use of the word “represents” in the first sentence of this paragraph: It is standing here in the blog chronology for the culmination of the efforts of many independent designers in its vein.

Deadline is still a milestone in its own right, though. It’s larger, more well-known, and more connected to tradition in both games and storytelling than Local Call For Death, it’s more robustly designed than a 16K Scott Adams lark, and it’s more structured, considered, and competent than Mystery House. Deadline is experimental, but it’s seemingly the experiment that stuck and became conventional, even if it’s not cited very often as direct inspiration. The way it tells its story is, basically, the way video game stories are still mostly told: At its bones, this is the basic template for, say Final Fantasy 4 [1991] or Grand Theft Auto: Vice City [2002] or The Outer Wilds [2019] or anything else you could care to name that has a plot that’s definitely more than a premise, but doesn’t try much particularly structurally adventurous or gameplay-involved in terms of delivering its story. You just wander around the environment, looking at things and talking to people using a pretty restricted dialog system, sometimes cueing the story into its next motion at your divined prompting or watching it move on itself at the appointed time, with a couple big scripted sequences you’re passive for.

To me, there’s a perceptible division here between “game” and “story”, even as detective stories are already half-game, making them the natural site for so many early stabs at storifying games, and the two strains mostly fit together and support one another. The game parts are the Colossal Cave Adventure leftovers, namely, a mildly daft insistence on consistent spatial geometry here. Yes, I’m being impossible to please. I’m singling out the genre crawling out of the aspiration to create CCA clones as the one that needs most to jettison its most prominent and influential aspect, which I full well know isn’t going to happen for quite a while. Now, there’s not like, mazes or anything, and if you’re unlike me and you can consistently tell the difference between west and east (or less relevantly, left and right,) you really don’t need to map this game. The house is not the sprawling nightmare excess of Mystery House or House Of Usher [1980], it’s a very legible 2-story affair (and far more convincingly “Victorian” than the Mystery House.) But in any other medium in which you would tell a story, it’s just bad, awkward form not to omit the protagonist’s every step through the hallway that serves no story utility except to take them to the location where something actually happens. It doesn’t really knee-cap the game’s cohesion, though. Deadline instead leverages what could be a flaw into a strength by making it part and parcel of its aesthetic mission, its clear ambitious goal is to build a reactive simulation world of characters with emotional states and details you are directly incentivized to ponder.

Initially, I didn’t find the game’s capacity for observation terribly impressive. The space seemed barren, under-decorated and over-clean, lacking the languid sensation-filled tactility writing can have. It wasn’t true-to-life, aside from the prescription drug details drawn from Mark Blank’s medical school degree. I didn’t get the same sense that I frequently do when I am invited to wander through a real stranger’s house in my capacity as an electrician, quietly piecing together a picture of how someone lives through their bookshelves and furniture and clutter and fridge magnets, as compulsively as reading a stop sign. The manual specifically indicates that if something isn’t implemented, it’s irrelevant. You can and will hit the edges of the simulation, but it’s trying to be a pulp story, not a real world in a box: that would be in itself unrealistic to expect. This isn’t SCRAM [1981], and I wouldn’t hold it against a racing game that it simulates a car as a Go Box instead of working from an internal combustion engine on up. The pitfall of creating a pretty wide range of possible interactions for a recognizable world with a grounded scenario and instead of a farcical fantasy is that everyone is virtually guaranteed to get snagged up probably multiple times on something one, realistically, should certainly be able to do, but can’t, or perhaps just can’t wrangle the parser into listening, disrupting the smooth simulation it’s aiming for, silently asking the player to accept and reconcile it. But as I played, and paid closer attention to all that was there, that sense of sparseness melted away completely, reversing even. Deadline came to feel downright generous, the skeleton of the house stuffed with details that do nothing but evoke and suggest and intrigue, with no instrumental plot bearing.

As an expansion of the exhilaration of mapping, that impression of the game exploding out of the boundaries of the computer, spilling into your mind and out of your pencil onto paper… come the “feelies”, those extra pack-ins and doo-dads that go with the manual that help to connotate classic Infocom products as luxury goods, making their debut here. Devouring the game manual had already become a romantic ritual of computer gaming by 1982, but this took it to the level of a fetish. Most exotically, your copy of Deadline comes with a bag of real fake anti-depressants! Most pedestrianly but, for me, most excitingly, was the inclusion of transcripts of police interviews with the 6 principal characters as prologue — text that literally could not fit inside of the computer game. This part is literally not a new idea, either: the Dunjonquest RPG series had struck upon encoding the room descriptions and such text as numbers to be referenced in the manual as though quoting Biblical verses. But after sucking Robotron 2084’s 151 sole words of prologue dry, it was absolutely exhilarating to be provided with such excessive, unrestrained bounty of words serving mainly to characterize. Unlike mapping, though, these feelies do not invite the same illusion of creative participation. Rather, they are an assertion. The included bureaucratic forms, such as coroner’s reports, are already filled out for you. It’s a barrage of details that declares the plausibility, the firmness, of its authored world. This is its actual use, since none of the information included is in any way actually essential for solving the case — though it does explain the door on the floor as a matter of fact — as if hedging bets for later, non-feelie editions. This is in contrast to the direct inspiration of Deadline’s feelies, and thus all else to come: not video game manuals, but home detective games that took the epistolary novel form one step further and delivered all vital information in the form of loose documentation, as outlined by Jimmy Maher, whose research is much, much better than I know how to even attempt.

Deadline, like all games yet covered, leans on referent to the trappings of a well-known genre to make itself legible. It’s a classic locked-room murder mystery set-up, same as Local Call For Death. The cover art hints at a tough-nosed street-wise noir detective, but inside there’s no trace: it makes itself quickly clear as a dues-paying homage to the historical tradition of the late 19th and early 20th century “Golden Age” detective novels. Certainly not a nose-tweaking parody, despite two clumsy fourth-wall leans that upset me for their faltering conviction. (Deadline exists as a book within itself, and George eats literal red herrings for a breakfast snack.)

The surprisingly recurring Edgar Allen Poe is often credited with inventing the detective story with Murders In The Rue Morgue [1841], which begins with a preamble that might as well serve as a thesis statement for the genre, and excitingly for us, immediately drawing a direct and lengthy comparison between logic and the playing of the games of chess and poker, despite the mystery at its heart not being one fair-play soluble by the reader. Ultimately, though, the genre has less to do tonally with Poe’s signature fascination for macabre spectacle screaming clear past melodrama into poetic unreal horror — to Poe, murder is a day at the circus — than it does Jane Austen spinning much more restrained tales about discovering who Mr. Darcy really is, in terms of the tenor of it all. I’ve seen mysteries called the quintessential modernist genre, on the grounds of its thematic preoccupations and dance with the audience, but the classic style strikes as more Victorian, quintessentially pre-modernist, in love with reason and with a keen eye on the comings and goings of the bourgeoisie — an artificial form for lives of artifice. The form of the detective story, much like Andre Malraux’s famous slight against the form of the biography, reduces a man to a miserable little pile of secrets. It’s a doubling-down in the face of the long-running epistemological crisis of the 20th century, a philosophical assurance that you can master true knowledge from a large enough assemblage of facts, which is in reality not always true. The purpose of the intriguing locked door is, counterintuitively, to make things easier to solve. Possibility is narrowed from the messy outside world of hundreds of footsteps on the street through an entrance only accessible to the highly motivated, which is how Local Call For Death can get away with just one tableau. A locked room is a clean room.

Murder in this breed of murder mystery is less a horrendous, traumatic scar of damnation on bodies and society than it is an airless vacuum of dispassionate inventory. In Deadline, the act of murder is a quiet, bloodless poisoning, and the corpse is rendered only in disturbed furniture, a toppled chair and teacup, an oak door lying before the Library, torn off of its hinges in the violence of discovery, lying on the ground where everyone ignores it. This is Marshall Robner, the victim and the void.

A photo included in manual.

In all our investigation, we don’t really find out much about Marshall’s life and who he was. He was an introverted workaholic. He was the type to build a house with a secret room behind a bookshelf he could disappear into and not tell even his wife, so bereft was he of trust. He was suicidally depressed, and everyone he knew knew it, but nobody he knew ever cared for him in any meaning of the word. His emotional life is thus a cold case with no surviving leads. Only Mrs. Rourke, the maid, speaks of him beyond his utility, on how he was a charitable and kind person. He was getting his final affairs in order, probably as preparation, and the only reaction of anyone around him to stop this behavior was to kill him early. Probably before that, they were all killing him slowly, bleeding him dry. His wife has portraits on the walls in the living room of her colonial ancestors (hey just like CCA is to Deadline,) indicating that she came from some wealth and social standing in her own right. She may have given her husband the initial capital to start Robner Corp decades ago, though the dependency definitely now flows the other direction. New England Old Money or no, we are to regard Marshall as a kind of self-made man, a soft-hearted business-genius figure… not that it did him any good. He attracted a cast of parasites who directly relied on his finances to uplift them all, and the day after he’s dead from no longer being useful, nobody sincerely mourns him, they still just want his money.

The only non-tertiary character arguably less actual than the gone and absent Marshall is our player-character, the nameless police detective. They are intended as a cypher, a conduit for the player to tentatively extend a poking tendril into the computer, a cursor-pawn as much as the @ in Rogue [1980]. The second-person perspective forfeits the interiority of giving this character a perspective expressed through narrative voice like a first-person perspective could, or the distance of a third-person perspective, an encouragement for appraising them by their deeds and words as though Dr. John Watson. Instead, the narration is in the direct authorial voice of Mark Blank, all the better for dry chiding. This reaches its apex at the end, where the traditional climactic parlor-room-assembly j’accuse monologue where all the evidence is assembled into a narrative is fully taken away from the detective (leaving the actual moment of arrest a sudden and empty stop) and instead it’s proffered directly from the author’s mouth as an optional post-script. The player is explicitly encouraged to work out the logical series of events for themselves first. If it were put in the detective’s mouth, the implied player would balk at the last-minute imposition of specific dialogue and logic into their cypher: “That thought is not my own.” The player has been encouraged to feel they are active and coequal participants in authoring the story, not so much from video games’ vaunted interactivity but from the medium-universal act of audience interpretation.

Deadline might not really be very “interactive” outside of that interpretive capacity. The story is fairly fixed around you: it’s as though you’re an actor who wandered on stage in costume during a play, and everyone knows the script except you. There’s a pretty strong emphasis on being in the right place at the right time. Failed runs are understood as not really mattering, except as iterative educational excursions towards figuring out what you are supposed to be doing. There are only a couple unsignalled moral choices that you can use to role-play in the margins of what you can do but need not, like killing Joe The Gravedigger in Mystery House but more subtle: You don’t have to open someone else’s mail, and you can quietly assent to a conspiracy to hide Marshall’s newest revision of his will.

Ultimately, though, the mandatory facts, actions, and even forbidden actions do speak obliquely to a character who definitely isn’t you. For one thing, I am not a cop! And this is not a police procedural, either, so the detective is a cop who plays loose with the rules, and doesn’t proceed through investigation with a uniform, routine method. Instead, we and they both have to think and plan in the same fashion as a murderer. Multiple times, they share evidence with the suspects in what might be a honeypot scheme, which only arguably doesn’t cross the ethical line into entrapment because the detective couldn’t be sure they were encouraging further attempted crimes. Besides, they let a suspect off without even so much as a slap on the wrist when they do attempt to destroy evidence after such a prodding. Their scruples also won’t allow them to eat from the pantry, or anything else, for the up-to-12 hour shift they’re pulling at the crime scene. In the final accounting of what’s really been accomplished, they’ve wandered in to a situation everyone was happy with, conducted a deeply-probing investigation on what everyone, including their superiors, figured was a perfunctory suicide case, and dispassionately completely ruined 2 or 3 lives, same count as Mystery House, in the name of truth and justice, avenging Marshall. They’re considerate to the gardener, though — trample on the rosebed before being invited to literally dig in, or simply not listen to the gardener, and you’ll never find the smoking gun. This is the detective’s character.

Next year, Infocom’s Planetfall [1983], written by Steve Meretzky, would famously cultivate a relationship to a non-player character so fond and convincing as to load their tragic death with pathos worth weeping over, but here, such a thing would be unbecoming. All is cold, aloof, calculated appraisal of a cast of untrustworthy stereotypes. That’s not meant as a negative, by the way: This is the type of story where you actually want stereotypes-as-function. For example, take Mrs. Leslie Phillips Robner, the wealthy and hollow widow who can’t put together a convincing performance of grief deeper than mourning clothes. She’s gregarious enough a host to you, and is reportedly as outgoing as Marshall was withdrawn. It’s little surprise to find out she was cheating.

Or take her son George, an abrasive, underachieving, snotty 25-year-old failson who all the characters hate, a hatred the game wishes to induct you into as well. He’s the only main character in the game referred to with their first name. This could be of friendliness or honor, in that most characters do not have any, but in context it’s a mark of disrespect and low regard. Everyone else is entitled to some title in the name of professionalism, except George. His sole redemptive, enlivening feature is the extremely relatable absurdly diverse music collection in his room, ranging from The Pretenders to marching band music to tribal music to Wagner.

Marshall’s live-in personal assistant, Ms. Dunbar, is also present.

Where it gets dicey is that the character work lapses also into light racial stereotyping, indicative of the caucasity of early gaming. There’s the Scottish groundskeeper McNabb, coincidentally beating The Simpsons [1989-2020] to the punch by 8 years. No, that professional association is not the stereotype, it’s that he’s a very angry fellow, whose written dialogue is thunderously heavily accented, full of alternative spellings. Not exactly hate speech, but certainly pejorative, marking him out as a crude brute by the same sole means by which you can actually tell he is Scottish at all. Also not indicated in visual descriptions in Mrs. Rourke, the maid, who is marked out with syntax instead: the mid-sentence “, lord,” interjections, the “don’t know nothing about no” error messages, a “not that it don’t.” There’s an outside chance, I suppose, that she could just be Southern in Deadline’s Connecticut, but taking long-standing American stereotypes about a caring but gossipy overweight domestic servant for a very rich white family with no life outside of her service under consideration, I feel strongly she’s probably black. Provisionally, the first black woman character in video games, even. Yikes!

Mr. Baxter shows up at about 10 in a limousine and leaves at about 4, unless you give him a good reason to stay a little longer. He’s kinda a limousine of a person, all self-conscious self-confident rich smarm. He was the kinda the co-leader of Robner Corp, and though what Robner Corp actually did is left entirely vague, what is all but said by the game is that Marshall was an exciting genius in some way that actually merits his success, and Baxter was a coat-tail rider like all the rest, whose talent for financial machinations is nowhere near as worthy, in fact somewhere between vaguely sinister and outright criminal, a kind of moral scapegoat for whatever we might think of Robner Corp’s success, though the characters all emphasize that Baxter and Marshall were right and left hands. There’s some kind of merger, and piecing that together from fragmentary evidence and asking him about it, to his surprise, was the most I ever felt like a detective in the game.

There’s an elaborated, concentric class hierarchy in Deadline, as befitting its Victorian roots. From the outside in: there’s the salt-of-the-earth proletariat McNabb, who’s extremely foreign and doesn’t keep residence on the grounds themselves, unless he’s been sleeping in the shed with the rest of the tools. He spends 12 hour days outside in the garden, and polices its boundaries fastidiously. He’s far, far more upset by the property crime of someone trampling on the roses than he is the murder just a floor above it, which he doesn’t even seem aware of. McNabb is very tightly identified with his work. He acts as though he owns the lawn, and in a way, he does. I mean, as far as the rest of the cast is concerned, the lawn is not life and labor, but decoration. It might as well be part of the window, a 2D image hanging next to their paintings. It’s something to be seen by others as a first impression to make them think these rich people are also pretty inside, that they have anything to do with their lawn, like how Mrs. Robner thinks a black dress can fool someone into thinking there’s any grieving going on inside her head. Mr. McNabb is in charge of executing upon that well-justified murder mystery thematic cliche of the fancy exterior covering termite-bit rot.

Mrs. Rourke is the only one of the six principle characters who is entirely superfluous and inessential to the plot, perhaps in a subversion of “the butler did it.” She’s also the only pleasant, likeable character — but the only woman of the three not described as visually attractive or beautiful. Like McNabb, she’s also a servant, but for the interior. Where his job is to put his fingers in the Earth and make apparent things, it is her job to tidy, to disappear the residue of life. It is maintenance, so-called invisible domestic labor where a job well done looks like no job done at all. She’s less foreign than McNabb, but she is still non-white. She’s the only person with a bedroom on the first floor, with the other rooms of utility like the kitchen. Her room is not just clean but barren, down to the exposed wood, with a filthy window. She has either no time or desire for cleaning her window, with all the others to worry about, so she can’t see outside, only inside. She’s positioned as the reader proxy arguably just as much as the player-character: Rourke is an avowed fan of detective stories, and similarly preoccupied with the daily drama of the bourgeoisie, watching the Robners like a soap opera.

Ms. Dunbar, the white-collar “skilled labor” servant, gets to have a room on the second floor, right across from the Master Bedroom, and it is for the proximity that she is resented by Mrs. Robner. Mrs. Robner accuses her behind her back of thinking that she’s part of the family, but Dunbar’s behavior that we can observe suggests no such thing, no sisterly repartee with George or whatnot, and she doesn’t even think Marshall was having an affair with the secretary, not that she’d really care. No, what really gets Leslie’s goat is that Ms. Dunbar is quote-unquote “above herself:” a upwardly-mobile well-salaried petit-bourgeoisie. Those two letters, “Ms,” I daresay is most of Dunbar’s character. The other two women here are both “Mrs,” in their matronliness alone, even if neither have husbands. Ms. Dunbar, only in her thirties, is the new, unattached, career-minded, college-educated young woman of the 1970s. But fundamentally, all the cast members were equally financially dependent on Marshall Robner, be it in wages or salary or familial bequeathment. Ms. Dunbar puts the lie to the comfortable station of an aging aristocrat, because the differences grow uncomfortably narrower, and the comparisons not favorable. To Mrs. Robner, her very existence is a kind of veiled threat, and she’s kind of right about that, because Ms. Dunbar actually turns out to be one of the two killers in conspiracy.

It’s only once you accuse her of murder that her bland facade cracks. She goes outside for a smoke, with every trembling, fumbling motion, her hasty stammered excuses and alibis, luxuriously described on separate lines and all too human. It’s very sympathetic. (After all, she might be the most likely to own a personal computer.) I still don’t really believe she did it even as I know for a fact she personally put the poison in the cup. In spirit, she was a patsy, manipulated by that bastard Baxter. Did she do it for love, or did she do climb the corporate ladder? Luckily for her, the two were the same. Unluckily for her, to Mr. Baxter, she’s just as much a tool to him as the ladder he used to get up on the library balcony and dispose of the smoking-gun evidence. And if you let the two of them settle it between themselves, there’ll be another, more literal smoking gun, from him disposing of her.

I like that alternate ending more than just arresting them the first time they contradict each other, because it has a little more drama, more tragedy to it. Like a play with an intermission, Deadline has a 2-act bifurcated structure. In the first act, the detective can only observe and wait. The cast might verbally react to the player’s actions but they won’t in deed, beyond the negative possibility of hanging around in Mrs. Robner’s bedroom until she gives up on making a personal phone call that doesn’t matter towards the case anyway. In the faster second act, the detective prods the pendulum into motion themself. The whole cast assembles for the will-reading at noon, and that is when the detective can and must go from collecting static evidence of the dead past to manipulating emotions and behavior of the living present. Despite any and all efforts at humanizing characterization, playing the computer’s story actually demands you see the gears of the simulation, see these characters as automatons and comport yourself into one to match. Every action is timed out as though a particular bird popping out of the cuckoo clock, with about forty minutes of swing variance depending on how that clock is wound up when you start the game.

These characters want to be frozen in time, to be left alone, but entropy wrenches inexorably forward at the top of the screen, minute by minute by minute. It’s in the very name of the game. Deadline has been criticized for being set in the then-present of 1982 but feeling more like 1892, with no television or even radio in the house, Seurat paintings hanging, and Marshall Robner’s apparent job title being “industrialist,” but this seems to me a deliberate point of the setting. It’s a Sunset Boulevard [1955] kind of scenario, a house standing athwart history, haunted by people who don’t realize they’re ghosts, with a 25 year old man whose development was arrested at half that age. The only detail necessitating a contemporary setting is Mark Blank’s beloved well-labelled medication — the medication that kills, in a twist of irony. As brought to you by the young Ms. Dunbar: the fatal imposition of the present upon the past.

Thanks to Matthew “M. Amylon” Amylon for talking about Deadline with me for a bit over an hour, in particular contributing like all the Victorian stuff. Massive thanks also to Andrew “Zarf” Plotkin, without whom this article simply would not exist for many reasons: Not only was Deadline his personal suggestion, but he also made the interpreter Lectrote I played it in, and he has a webpage serving all the Infocom game files, and he wrote the first work of non-gag-game IF I believe I ever played, Spider And Web [1998]. What a cool dude.

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