Deadline’s Connecticut of the Mind: Nostalgia, Privilege, and Mental Illness

Deadline occurs in an indeterminate time and place: a Connecticut of the Mind. It is nostalgic in a way that is appropriate to the spirit of the times and reflects the revitalized conservatism of the Reagan years.

Open spoilers for Deadline lie ahead. Turn back if you want to experience these things for yourself! Seriously!

A black and white line drawing of a magnifying glass beside a pencil and memo pad. On the pad is the word "clues" in cursive letters.
Crop from the folio edition’s Deadline‘s manual. Retrieved from MoCAGH.

Lonely at the Top

Marshall Robner died alone.

This is true in a literal sense. He died, alone, in a room locked from the inside. Locked rooms, though, did not make up the outer edge of his loneliness. Robner’s estrangement was multileveled. The people who knew him did not seem to know him well, nor did they appear to wish him well. While not everyone wished him dead, they presumably were glad to have him out of the way. He was the wounded patriarch of a toxic family and a deteriorating business, but no Percival came to set things right. His relationships were primarily defined in monetary terms. Only the servants have anything genuinely sympathetic to say about him.

His wife found him stifling, and resented his inattention.

“I loved my husband, no matter what you may think. I am very sorry to have lost him.” The speech is almost a set piece, and not too convincing. [Mrs. Robner]

Now she’s a strange sort. Real lively when she moved here, but I don’t think she ever liked the life here. Her people are from Boston, one of those old families, and she never got used to Mr. Robner’s ways. [Mrs. Rourke]

Warren Coates, Robner’s attorney, does not contact Deadline’s protagonist (the Supervisor) because he wants justice. Rather, he is worried that the validity of the will might be called into question.

Given the size of the Robner estate, I feel that a more complete investigation should be undertaken, if for no other reason than to quash the suspicions that are inevitable in these circumstances.

Robner’s son, George, who apparently afforded him decades of estranged disappointment, is surprisingly open in his contempt for his father.

“Like I told your detective friend yesterday, we didn’t get along too well. He was always riding me, giving me a hard time.” George gets worked up talking about it.” Look, man. I’m not going to lie and say I loved him, right? He got what…” He stops in mid-sentence.

Naturally, the two suspects most overtly sympathetic or respectful are his murderers:

“He was also a great philanthropist and got the corporation involved in many charitable works. I am not given to shows of emotion, Inspector, but I will miss him greatly.” [Mr. Baxter]

Ms. Dunbar looks down at the ground and sniffles softly. “I’ve known him for years. He’s been tremendously nervous and depressed lately about business. I don’t think all was well in his personal life either. George has always been a problem for him. He even mentioned suicide once, although I never took it seriously. It shows you can never tell.” She wipes her eyes with her hands.

Being hemmed round by indifference, as sad as it must have been, does not encompass the extent of Marshall Robner’s loneliness, either. He was clinically depressed and taking medicine for it, and mental illness can present itself as an inviolate and seemingly interminable sort of alterity. Whatever his relationships and circumstances might have been like, he was surrounded by people who could not know how he felt. Worse still, they weren’t willing to try.

The Deadline logo and line drawing of a body over a blue background.
Manual detail from Mastertronic release of Deadline. Retrieved from MoCAGH.

How can these characters’ attitudes toward mental illness be explained? The first reasonable answer is sanism/ablism, in which medical symptoms can be mistakenly viewed as character traits or the consequence of a patient’s actions. Rather than talk about the illness, the suspects (all except Dunbar, a murderer trying to fabricate a motive for suicide) talk about Robner’s personality and drives. The general consensus is that Robner was worried about his business, and a comment by Mrs. Rourke sums up the prevailing narrative: “I guess the pressure was too much.” He was unwilling to show his wife a good time, not because he was depressed but because he just wasn’t any fun. And so forth.

While stigma surrounding mental illness persists today, it was more severe in the 1980s–the time of Deadline‘s release. However, as I have previously argued, the Reagan years were themselves a nostalgic time that championed a return to the conservative values of an earlier time. Deadline is a reflection of this idealization of America’s past. The clearest indicator of this is the use of “industrialist” to describe Robner, a word whose usage peaked between 1940 and 1960. What of attitudes in the 1950s toward mental illness?

Nunnally (1961), for example, found that people were more likely to apply a broad range of negative adjectives such as “dangerous,” “dirty,” “cold,” “worthless,” “bad,” “weak,” and “ignorant” to a person labeled as “insane” or “neurotic” than to an “average” person (p. 46) … Not surprisingly, Yarrow, Clausen, and Robbins (1955) found that fear of stigma was a serious concern for wives of psychiatric patients. (Phelan, Link, Stueve, and Pescosolido 189) [Locked behing Jstor access. Apologies!]

In other words: the characters in Deadline uphold regressive cultural beliefs about mental illness by ignoring the medical implications of a mood disorder, instead focusing on Robner’s character and life circumstances. The one person who does talk about mental health does so in order to promote a false narrative regarding his death.

A low resolution of a bride and groom--dressed traditionally, facing a priest.
Still from Ronald Reagan’s “It’s Morning Again in America” ad.

Deadline‘s New Man and New Woman: It’s Morning Again in America

Mental health is not the only indicator of Lakeville’s sentimental conservatism. It can be seen in the distinction between Mr. Robner and Ms. Dunbar, portrayed quite differently as New Man and New Woman types. In both cases they are persons who have managed to propel themselves upward and forward in terms of class and wealth. At this late point in our discussion of Deadline, it should not surprise that gender plays a role in their different treatments as characters.

Robner is the New Man, the genius inventor behind Robner Corporation. He, like Zork‘s adventurer, has pulled himself up by his proverbial bootstraps, rising in his world by virtue of hard work and personal gifts. In doing so, he is able to marry–above his station–a daughter of “one of those old families” in Boston. Robner’s hard work is additionally rewarded with considerable wealth. Baxter, his treacherous foil is, by contrast, not so much an earner as he is a manipulator of money–he is no philanthropist. The rise of Robner’s fortune–repeatedly associated with charitable giving–is the heroic story of a great man brought low by medical problems and the vultures seeking to exploit them.

Ms. Dunbar, on the other hand, seems to embody a thesis regarding the dangers of career-oriented women. In the estimation of the blue-blooded Mrs. Robner, “I’ve always thought she was a bit too smug in her relationships around here. A bit above herself, if you see my meaning. After all, she’s really just a glorified secretary. She acts as though she’s part of the family.” While Marshall Robner’s social climbing earns him respect, Ms. Dunbar is guilty of not only murder but brazenly acting above her station. The realities of her position, informed by nostalgia for the 50s, vary widely, from Baxter’s characterization (“an efficient and tireless worker. She has been of tremendous help to Marshall… She has a keen mind and is an exceptional strategic planner for the corporation”) to… bringing him tea nightly at 11 PM. Dunbar, somehow, is a strategic planner who delivers beverages long after the business day is over.

She is also, apparently, a conniver who rewards the kindness and goodwill of her betters with murder. By the end, it is clear that, despite her apparent professionalism, she has–being a woman, after all–fallen prey to her emotional nature, killing for the love and approval of slimy, embezzling Mr. Baxter. This is Deadline‘s New Woman: dishonest, presumptuous, dangerously ambitious, and incapable of mastering her own feelings. As Art Maybury writes in their own Deadline piece: “In spirit, she was a patsy, manipulated by that bastard Baxter. Did she do it for love, or did she do it to climb the corporate ladder? Luckily for her, the two were the same.”

Crop from the DEC Rainbow packaging of Deadline. At the top, the word "Rainbow" appears in white cursive letters. At bottom right is a silver seal reading "certified Digital software." To the left is a small photo of the folio release packaging.
Detail from the DEC release of Deadline. Retrieved from MoCAGH.

Caricature and the Working Class

Speaking of one’s station: Deadline has a peculiar attitude toward the working class that bears discussion. There are two household laborers who work daily at the Robner household. They both, in different ways, fall into caricature. McNabb, the groundskeeper, is less a person than he is a cartoon about Scots. I am not arguing that the character’s portrayal is intended to oppress Scottish people. Rather, it is implying something about the working class:

All of a sudden, Mr. McNabb starts talking to himself quite loudly about his poor roses being ruined. He walks up to you and says “You canna believe the holes someone’s made. Crushed my roses. It’ll take me plenty a time to set it right. I just canna believe it!” He shakes his head dejectedly.

McNabb’s language is used to characterize him as uneducated. Meanwhile, all of the suspects use “proper” grammar which also denotes their standing. Mrs. Rourke, the housekeeper, has fewer apparent lapses (I believe only one of her implemented responses has a subject-verb disagreement, but here generic non-response is really… something: “I don’t know nothing about no [NOUN].” I suppose mileage will vary but the line immediately reminded me of actress Butterfly McQueen’s line from Gone With the Wind (1939): “I don’t know nothing about birthing babies.” It’s hard not to see this line as racially coded, even though Mrs. Rourke’s race is never specified. In any case, she and McNabb are characterized by their speech, backgrounds, and professions as lower class (in a negative sense) and uneducated, and these characterizations are hard to defend.

Deadline: A Triumph of Middle Management (Conclusion)

As previously argued, Deadline‘s protagonist is a supervisor or member of the middle management class. He is in charge of an unknown number of police detectives and presumably spends most of his days behind a desk approving requests and completing forms. His daily routine is disrupted when an attorney contacts him via letter. Mr. Coates–the lawyer–is concerned that the investigation into his client’s suicide was not sufficiently thorough.

That investigation, conducted by “Detective 1st Class” G.K. Anderson, determined that wealthy industrialist and philanthropist Marshall Robner committed suicide by overdosing on his antidepressant medication. Coates’s sole reason for questioning the finding is circumstantial: Robner had an appointment to change his will. Ultimately, Coates is worried that the current will might be contested or otherwise draw suspicion.

While we will never know the thoughts of the Supervisor, he apparently goes to the Robner estate to check his employee’s work. Presumably, he feels a duty to respond to requests from wealthy and influential persons. Despite his management position, he is perhaps of the same rank as Ms. Dunbar. He presumably cannot give tasks to Mr. Coates, and this dispensation of labor is a one-way street. Likewise, the suspects are obligated to answer his questions, but they have no duty to respect him.

Part of a blueprint for the Robner's house (from the ZUG Invisiclues), featuring the Library, Master Bedroom, and Guest Room. A mysterious area "to be completed by another contractor" is pictured as well.
Detail from the Zork Users Group Invisiclues map, retrieved from MoCAGH.

The Supervisor, dressed in his 40s-50s detective costume (like Zork‘s Wizard and Dungeon Master outfits), is immediately recognizable in terms of rank and power. This costume places him in another, indeterminate time. Deadline is both innovative and profoundly nostalgic, concerned with both the inexorable forward motion of time as well as taking a fond look backward to a 50s style American dream. It is a time where women, servants, and even the upwardly mobile “knew their place” in America’s grandly ascendant society. These were years when mental illness was synonymous with poor character and an impolite topic of conversation (a perspective that can still be found today).

The story, ultimately, is not about Marshall Robner. Deadline is fully complicit in the erasure of his illness. The characters are unresponsive when asked about his depression or medication. Only a close reading teases out anything of his character beyond workaholism and social ambivalence (after all it can’t be depression, can it). His creativity went largely uncelebrated, for instance. Talking about these things isn’t possible in the game because, ultimately, they are unimportant to both the Supervisor and Deadline itself.

Deadline is the story of a middle manager dismantling his employee’s work at the request of a privileged elite. The game does not begin at the station with a conversation between the Supervisor and Detective Anderson. Anderson isn’t even at the Robner estate to help–this is left to Sergeant Duffy. In fact, it is not apparent that the Supervisor ever spoke with him. We have Anderson’s reports and transcripts, isn’t that enough? What is a person beyond the things they produce?

The Supervisor’s inquiry ultimately upholds the social order of years gone by. Ms. Dunbar, who is simultaneously a shrewd class pretender and an emotionally subservient weakling, is naturally the murderer. Baxter, a criminal, parasite, and–worst of all–guilty of dating beneath his station, is motivated by greed and a desire to escape prosecution.

It is not clear what will become of Detective Anderson. He is all but forgotten at Deadline‘s rather perfunctory conclusion. There is no chance to testify in court or even to hear the judge’s verdict. Instead, the Supervisor receives a short and blandly congratulatory note from Police Commissioner Klutz:

Dear Inspector,

Congratulations on your superb handling of the Robner case. As you have probably heard, a jury convicted Mr. Baxter and Ms. Dunbar today of the murder of Mr. Robner. Thanks to you, the murderers will be behind bars, possibly for the rest of their lives. Thanks for a job brilliantly done. Which reminds me of another fascinating case I would like to assign you to…

Perhaps the Supervisor and Anderson are not so different after all. Ultimately, their presence is not required by their social betters.

Despite its textual and mechanical richness, Deadline is mainly remembered for being the first of its type: a “real” mystery featuring many of the customary features of a police procedural. It ranks relatively poorly on the IFDB aggregate for Infocom games, and presumably is valued primarily as a foundational work rather than as a piece with merits of its own. Be that as it may, Deadline is a complex cultural artifact that illuminates issues of class, sanism/ablism, and gender. Even though Deadline dramatizes the past, the world has unfortunately not yet changed so much as to render it irrelevant.

Next–Zork III: It All Came Down to This?

2 thoughts on “Deadline’s Connecticut of the Mind: Nostalgia, Privilege, and Mental Illness

  1. This post is fire again, Drew!

    I’ve noticed there’s a wide distaste out there for these kinds of “boo hoo, I’m rich” narratives, like the kind that Michelangelo Antonioni specialized in, but I think they’re valuable. Depression can strike anyone, and “money can’t buy happiness” is an accurate and useful message, one that can even blossom into a sophisticated and incisive critique. Deadline’s “moral” plays foil to the rampant acquisition of the Zorks: money and greed just makes everything and everyone worse for its smell (though given the fallen state of the Zorks this is hardly a photo-negative contrast.) This despite Deadline’s conservative bent.

    1. Thanks Art! One of the reasons I like Deadline so much is its ambivalence. It’s clearly conservative, and yet every privileged person is an awful human being. The protagonist is not of this world, and the view from over his shoulder is not always flattering.

      I also agree that art about “rich people problems” can be valuable. I especially like those pieces that show someone bumping up against the limits of their privilege the way Robner does with his mental illness. It can be a good start to a conversation about intersectionality: start with the best case and work from there.

      Your Deadline piece was great, too. You know, in 40 years of reading and talking about this stuff, I’ve never seen anyone mention Mrs. Rourke’s “don’t know nothing about no” line. Yikes, indeed.

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