Deadline: There is a Bear in the Rosebush

Four people who are just glad to have the depressed guy out of the way: privilege, gender, and indifference in Marc Blank’s Deadline.

Deadline (1982)
Implemented by Marc Blank

Packaging and Documentation

Deadline folio packaging (MoCAGH)
Deadline grey box packaging (MoCAGH)
Deadline Invisiclues map (MoCAGH)
For best results, open MoCAGH images in new tab
Deadline Invisiclues (z-code format, open with an interpreter)
The Obsessively Complete Infocom Catalog: Deadline

Deadline: Specifications

(Courtesy of the Infocom Fact Sheet and this forum post). For comparison’s sake, Zork I‘s specifications follow in parentheses (this idea comes from the excellent Eaten by a Grue podcast).

Rooms: 51 (110)
Vocabulary: 656 (697)
Takeable Objects: 37 (60)
Size: 108KB (76KB)
Total Word Count (outputted text): 19382 (14360)

Opening Crawl

Copyright 1982 by Infocom, Inc. All rights reserved.
DEADLINE and INTERLOGIC are trademarks of Infocom, Inc.
Release 27 / Serial number 831005

South Lawn
You are on a wide lawn just north of the entrance to the Robner estate. Directly north at the end of a pebbled path is the Robner house, flanked to the northeast and northwest by a vast expanse of well-kept lawn. Beyond the house can be seen the lakefront.

Deadline: A Critical Introduction

An official memo from the "Lakevill, CT Police Department." It states that Marshall Robner took his own life and is signed by a Detective G.K. Anderson. From the folio package of Deadline.
The investigating Detective’s findings re: the death of Marshall Robner. Courtesy of me (my folio edition!).

With Zork beginning to garner meaningful critical and financial success, original Implementers Marc Blank and Dave Lebling each had projects they wished to undertake beyond its fantasy constraints. Lebling wanted to make a hard science fiction game, while Blank was interested in making an interactive mystery. Whether via coin flip, rock-paper-scissors, or some other, more rational method, Blank got to make his game first while Lebling took responsibility for Zork II: The Wizard of Frobozz.

Deadline is a game that continuously asserts itself as a reflection of the real, and the so-called “status line” is only the first in-game indicator of its aspirations (the status line is a fixed bar at the top of the screen that, in Zork, indicated the name of the room, number of moves played, and score). In Deadline, as in life, there are neither points nor turns–there is only the insistent forward motion of the clock. The title itself invites players to think about time, about the titular Deadline. As the packaging proclaims in large letters, the player has only “12 hours to solve the murder.”

The temporal specificity of Deadline doesn’t end with its clock. Not only does this clock inexorably stop after twelve hours, but these hours occur on a specific day: July 10, 1982. The case documentation and witness accounts give Robner’s death a feeling of historical certainty, even if they do not imply that their narratives are accurate. No matter what the truth of the case can be, it seems certain that a man died alone in a way that clinically depressed people too often do. The story itself is “realistic.” It occurs in a plausible–if not real–place: Lakeville, Connecticut. People have real-sounding jobs and labor within real-sounding bureaucratic frameworks: police departments and industrial corporations, for instance.

The suspects all have realistically banal motivations. Even the innocent are unabashedly self-interested and apparently untroubled by self-reflection. This realism extends to gameplay. The investigator, a “chief of detectives,” can only see and hear what they are present to see. This detective is no protagonist. World events do not wait for them to arrive in a specific place. As in real life, sometimes “you just had to be there.” This, jarring as it may be to one-time Adventurers and lovers of detective fiction, is Deadline‘s most realistic quality: this detective is never the center of events and instead must orchestrate a series of intrusions into the lives of the main characters.

A photo of downtown Hartford, CT, featuring hotels and skyscrapers.
Hartford, CT: “Insurance capital of the world.” Retrieved from The New York Times for non-commercial purposes.

And yet, for all of its seeming realism, it is, as I write above, a “reflection of the real.” The town of Lakeville, CT is not close to any of Connecticut’s centers of industry (or more accurately former centers of industry). It is not clear where a large industrial concern like Robner Corporation would be located–Robner is referred to by Deadline as an “industrialist”-so it seems possible that Blank has situated this murder in a Lakeville of the mind, presumably a suburb of Hartford. The real Lakeville, with its population of 928, is merely a neighborhood of Salisbury, CT (population 3,471)–neither of which could afford or justify a Chief of Detectives or a crime lab. So far as I can tell, Lakeville doesn’t even have its own police department.

The apparently fixed date of the murder, July 8, 1982, was, at the time of Deadline‘s release, in the future. Deadline as a product occurs in its story’s recent past: March 11, 1982. The death of Robner was not a historic fact after all, but a possibility. This may seem a minor detail, but the time that Deadline occupies is indeterminate for an additional number of reasons. Ms. Dunbar, an anxiety-inducing “new woman” who is by all appearances independent and professionally competent, has a bedroom at the Robner house and brings him tea at 11pm nightly. Mrs. Robner had apparently asked Mr. Robner for a divorce, only to be refused. Robner is president of a large industrial concern in Hartford, whose industrial activity peaked in the 19th century. In other words: this Lakeville that isn’t Lakeville is situated in a 1982 that isn’t 1982.

A drawing from the Zork Users Group Invisiclues booklet. It shows a paper delivery boy riding a bike toward a large house. In the yard to his left, someone mows the lawn with an old-fashioned blade mower.
The Robner’s front yard. Courtesy of MoCAGH.

As would be thematically meaningful in the once-new era of Reagan conservatism, the world of Deadline is shot through with a sort of nostalgia for outmoded values and sources of economic wealth. Its treatment of household laborers is also nostalgic–in a negative sense. Much has been written about Deadline‘s structure and the way it harkens back to a golden age of detective fiction, but I would argue that it is more significantly reminiscing, in a very 1980s fashion, over an idea of America.

I get ahead of myself, frontloading my treatment of Deadline with cultural critique. It’s hard to help!

Deadline is mechanically novel. Just like Zork, its technology was unlike anything the world had seen. Debates over its fairness are ongoing, but it is probably safe to say that it is harder than anything in Zork. It is filled with opportunities to do–pardon my use of technical jargon–cool detective stuff. As such, there will be an essay dedicated to how it operates as a game–a move this project will seldom make.

There is much more to say about Deadline in addition to the subject of reality, about its geographical and temporal ambiguity. While it is not highly rated by the IFDB’s aggregator among Infocom games–surpassed even by the bloated Zork Zero–it is the sort of agentic reading experience that a critic might love: thematically complex in terms of both text and interaction. For the first time in an Infocom game, even Deadline‘s packaging is essential to the experience. That packaging will be at the center of the second Gold Machine essay on Deadline–please join me, play along if you like, and let me know what you think.

5 thoughts on “Deadline: There is a Bear in the Rosebush

  1. “Mrs. Rourke had apparently asked Mr. Robner for a divorce”

    I assume you meant Mrs. Robner?

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