Hard Evidence: Realizing the Story of Deadline

Deadline‘s story and atmosphere are enhanced by extradigital elements both physical and conceptual, including packaging, text, formats, and fonts.

Three releases of Deadline: the classic folio “dossier” package, the Commodore 64 release, and the standardized grey box format.

Note: due to formatting limitations it is not possible to hide all story spoilers in this essay. If you want to discover such things for yourself, leave now.

A Folder Stuffed With Papers: Deadline’s Bureaucratic Ambiance

The folio edition of Deadline is packaged in a brown file folder held closed by a tan, die-cut sleeve. Across its top reads: “A LOCKED DOOR. A DEAD MAN. And 12 hours to solve the murder.” Underneath, at left, is a detective. We recognize him because of his uniform. He wears a trench coat and a serious expression, and his eyes are hidden by the brim of his fedora. Like so much of Deadline, this detective hails from an indeterminate, bygone era. He is more Dragnet than Miami Vice, and it’s worth noting that this is one of the only times that Infocom has published a visual representation of a protagonist.

To the right of the detective’s face is a die-cut window that reveals the folder underneath. This folder is sealed by a severe-looking white-and-red label that reads, in large stencil-like red letters: “DOCUMENTARY EVIDENCE.” Underneath is the sort of stuff one might expect to see on a police file:

Folder #: H657/SJ43.1
Name:  Robner, Marshall
File opened: 7/8/82
Cause of death: Overdose of Ebullion

The case number is the ingenious part of the label. It is as if the game speaks to us in the secret language of police. It invites us to an esoteric order where unspeakable acts are spoken of in code. Beneath window and detective is the iconic logo: “DEADLINE” in large, capital letters, with a thick, bold underline. From the “L” to the end, the underline is redirected to for half of a body’s chalk outline.

After removing the die-cut sleeve, a prospective detective must cut the label sealing the folder. Not only does this act further enhance the sense that the player is entering a realm reserved only for an elect (employees of a police bureaucracy), it further implies that the player is, in a literal sense, reopening a settled matter. The case has been closed, but the protagonist must pry it open.

The folder, sealed and unsealed. Photos courtesy of me.

At the top of the papers is a letter addressed to the protagonist, a “Chief of Detectives” at the Lakeville Police Department (perhaps it would be ungenerous to ask why the letter was sealed in the folder). The letter is from Warren Coates, the attorney of Marshall Robner (the deceased). He apparently has a relationship with the detective: “I must once again ask for your assistance on a case.” Whatever Coates’s relationship with Robner might have been, he is primarily concerned with the integrity of the will: “it is disturbing that Mr. Robner had called me only three days earlier for the purpose of informing me that his will was to be altered.” This is only the first of many signs that Robner’s death is largely a financial matter. The letter is also an example of what can be lost in the transition from physical (then) to digital (now) documentation. In addition to the letter’s stationary, it is printed on a very high-quality of the sort a prestigious law office might use. This paper is discernable by look and feel. Click the below photo to zoom in on the detail.

Letter from Robner’s attorney (left) and coroner’s report (right). Careful consideration was given not only to the text itself but also to paper stock and format. Click and zoom for detail.

Next follows the coroner’s report, which convincingly supports the prevailing theory of suicide by overdose of Ebullion. The information is important context for the investigation, but I find the format equally so. It is a prepared form with many fields to complete, and features depersonalized line drawings of a human shape with perspectives from front and rear. The text, combined with the official-seeming format, reduces Robner to the fact of his death: he is no longer possibility but history. In fact, the coroner’s findings seem so logical and agreeable that the only immediate indication that they are wrong is the fact that Deadline wouldn’t be much of a game otherwise.

Next follows a photo of the scene of Robner’s desk. A presumably expensive table stands atop a presumably expensive rug. Nearby lie a toppled chair, cup, and saucer. A chalk outline reveals the location of Robner’s body where it fell. The photo doesn’t achieve much in mechanical game terms. The position of these items are not important to the mystery, nor is the décor. Deadline is such a generous package that it incorporates material that serves only to create and sustain an atmosphere appropriate to a murder mystery. Thematically, it is as useful as the coroner’s report. The chalk outline is the site of Robner’s disappearance. The morgue is where he, transformed, later appeared.

Crime scene photo.

Next in the pile are two reports: one from the investigating detective and another from the crime lab. Both are on official-looking stationary, further solidifying the impression that the investigation is in a sense “real,” conducted as it is by a “real” police bureaucracy. The first, a half-size yellow piece of paper featuring the words “Lab Report” in large bock letters, appears to confirm a finding of suicide. There are no traces “Ebullion or other substances” on the teacup, and only Robner’s fingerprints could be found. The second is a half-size sheet of white paper on stationary that declares, at top, that it is an “Official Memo.” In the lower left is the crest of the Lakeville Police Department. Like the other forms, it is filled in with monospace text–presumably by typewriter. The memo’s author, “G.K. Anderson, Detective 1st Class,” asserts:

Although it appears that at least one member of the Robner household had a reason for wishing Mr. Robner dead, the findings of the Medical Examiner and evidence gained from interviews with the family and family associates are only consistent with the conclusion that Mr. Robner died of a self-administered overdose of Ebullion.

Next come Anderson’s interviews with the suspects. These are printed on legal-sized paper in a monospace font. At the bottom of each page is a facsimile of a fingerprint sample, “held” to the paper by the image of a paperclip. In reading the interviews, it is clear that Anderson has asked reasonable, though perhaps surface level, questions. The text is, like all of the documents, a sort of embodied mimesis–a physical form of exposition that is not a narrative, yet shapes the on-disk narrative.

I have seen it said that these materials are not essential to beating Deadline, but I would like to know how many players succeeded without them. The game itself does not explain who the suspects are, nor does it lay out the narrative that the protagonist must dismantle. In any case, such players did not experience Deadline, since there is more to life than winning. I would even venture that we, today, are left with an impoverished version of the experience, intended as it is to incorporate the bureaucratic physicality of a folder of papers placed at the ready beside a keyboard.

The final touch: Ebullion tablets found near Robner’s corpse (a little worse for wear after 39 years).

The Story of Deadline: Everything You’ve Been Told Is Wrong

Deadline begins as the Chief of Detectives (henceforth called the Supervisor) arrives at the Robner estate. It is 8:00 AM, and the crime must be solved within twelve hours. As the accompanying documentation suggests, a rich man’s lawyer has called you, the supervising authority over detectives at the Lakeville Police Department, to check your employee’s work. Even though the case has been declared closed, Warren Coates (the attorney) is concerned that Robner’s death and his plans to change his will may be more than coincidence. Given the size and value of Robner’s estate, he would like the Supervisor to take a second look and confirm Detective Anderson’s findings.

From there, the story (or stories, see the next post) is indeterminate. There are many things this Supervisor might do or fail to do. In the course of multiple playthroughs, should the player persist, Anderson’s work will be completely dismantled. It is unclear, after Deadline‘s “best” ending, what the implications for Anderson will be, either in terms of morale or perceived job performance.

Along the way, it will become clear that, while not everyone wished to kill Robner, practically no one troubled themself over his death. At the center of the story is the vague emptiness of Robner’s life and the miserable truth that no one–not even you, the Supervisor–cares about him or his depression, let alone his happiness.

Players who prevail will uncover the mystery of the locked door, the true cause of death, and a plausible motive (in that order). A conviction will occur, off-stage, followed by Marc Blank’s summary of events. The Supervisor will presumably return to his desk job, ready to field further special requests from wealthy and influential members of the community.

Coming soon: Another INTERLOGIC Mystery from Infocom

You have solved the case! If you would like, you may see the author's summary of the story. We would advise you to come up with your own first! Would you like to see the author's summary? (Y/N)

Next: an in-depth exploration of Deadline‘s gameplay. This project is generally uninterested in gameplay, but Deadline is a special case.

For more historical background on Deadline‘s supplemental documentation (generally referred to as “feelies”), see Jimmy Maher’s essays on crime dossier gamebooks and Deadline‘s novel use of in-universe documents.

The Dennis Wheatley Crime Dossiers July 8, 2012
Deadline July 11, 2012

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