[1/3] Hell Is Other Divers: Cutthroats

L’enfer, c’est les autres plongeurs.

Cutthroats (1984)

Implemented by Mike Berlyn and Jerry Wolper

Packaging, Extras, and Documentation

Cutthroats grey box documentation (MoCAGH)
Cutthroats grey box documentation (IDP)
Cutthroats Invisiclues (IDP with Parchment)
(For best results, open MoCAGH images in a new tab)
The Obsessively Complete Infocom Catalog: Cutthroats
Nathan Simpson’s List of Infocom Bugs: Cutthroats
Transcript #1: Stamps
Transcript #2: Coins

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: 68 (110)
Vocabulary: 790 (697)
Takeable Objects: 21 (60)
Size: 112.5KB (76KB)
Total Word Count (outputted text): 16,540 (14,214)

Opening Crawl

Nights on Hardscrabble Island are lonely and cold when the lighthouse barely pierces the gloom. You sit on your bed, thinking of better times and far-off places. A knock on your door stirs you, and Hevlin, a shipmate you haven't seen for years, staggers in.

"I'm in trouble," he says. "I had a few too many at The Shanty. I was looking for Red, but he wasn't around, and I started talking about ... here," he says, handing you a slim volume that you recognize as a shipwreck book written years ago by the Historical Society.

You smile. Every diver on the island has looked for those wrecks, without even an old boot to show for it. You open the door, hoping the drunken fool will leave. "I know what you're thinkin'," Hevlin scowls, "but look!" He points to the familiar map, and you see new locations marked for two of the wrecks.

"Keep it for me," he says. "Just for tonight. It'll be safe here with you. Don't let -- " He stops and broods for a moment. "I've got to go find Red!" And with that, Hevlin leaves.

You put the book in your dresser and think about following Hevlin. Then you hear a scuffle outside. You look through your window and see two men struggling. One falls to the ground in a heap. The other man bends down beside him, then turns as if startled and runs away. Another man then approaches the wounded figure. He kneels beside him for a long moment, then takes off after the other man.

It isn't long before the police arrive to tell you that Hevlin's been murdered. You don't mention the book, and hours later, as you lie awake in your bed, you wonder if the book could really be what it seems.

CUTTHROATS
Copyright (c) 1984 by Infocom, Inc. All rights reserved.
CUTTHROATS is a trademark of Infocom, Inc.
Release 23 / Serial number 840809

Your Room, on the bed
You're in your room in the Red Boar Inn. It's sparsely furnished, but comfortable enough. To the north is the door, and there's a closet without a door to the west.
On the floor is a note that must have been slipped under the door while you slept.
In a corner of the room is a lopsided wooden dresser.

Dear Gold Microphone:

I mentioned Cutthroats on an episode of Gold Microphone recently, and not in a flattering light. We received the following email soon thereafter:

hullo…first, it’s awesome that yer doing this series. in 1981, Zork I was my introduction to IF and PCs in general. been needing an IF podcast fix, with Eaten by a Grue slowing down to close…

am listening to the most recent Gold Microphone cast and when you threw the Cutthroats comment into the stream, it made me smile.

i am a Cutthroats fan..

i am a Cutthroats fan because it is desolate.
i am a Cutthroats fan because it is sketchy.
i am a Cutthrotas fan because it is a horrible day.
i am a Cutthroats fan because i lived in Olympia, WA, right off the Sound, and it feels like home.
i am a Cutthroats fan because it is the Goondocks of INFOCOM.

Kevin and Carrington nailed it in their episode. i am eagerly looking forward to your review. the more dislike that is poured on Cutthroats, the more it actually becomes, well, Cutthroats.

best wishes,

brian

Cutthroats and the Legacy of Zork

While they are few, Mike Berlyn’s Cutthroats has its adherents because it is entirely unique in the Infocom catalog in terms of both setting and mood. The rather too-on-the-nose “Hardscrabble Island,” the setting of Cutthroats, is likely inspired by Florida’s Treasure Coast, though its minimalist lousiness might place it anywhere rough customers and diveable shipwrecks could be found.

Cutthroats, in its way, has more to do with Zork than any of the later games which bear that name. It is the story of a nameless looter at odds with another looter who ventures into yet another mass grave for material wealth. The primary difference is that this protagonist (we’ll call him the Diver) has no long game. He isn’t collecting these treasures to please some sort of panoptical boogeyman, even though Cutthroats asserts–rather weakly–at game’s end that the Diver hopes that the presumably watchful soul of a deceased friend “is resting a little easier now.”

Cutthroats asks–unintentionally, I think–what Zork without purpose might look like. What is Zork without Demons and Dungeon Masters to satisfy or master? It is a directionless and constrained existence. Even though Johnny Red, the Diver’s sometime friend, asserts that he is a “great diver,” at game’s opening he has been idling–for who knows how long–in a lightly implemented room without a television or any other sort of amusement. He has no apparent source of income, no employment, and his peers are all sources of life-threating peril.

An illustration of a submarine confronting a giant squid. The water is black, suggesting that they are deep under the ocean.
Artistic dramatization of a scene from Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

And yet: there he likely remains, waiting for someone to find a new undersea tomb to pilfer, one hopefully laden with culturally significant objects. Is our Diver in hell? The souls of murdered acquaintences looking over his shoulder? Doomed to oscillate between abject boredom and mortal terror? At the “victorious” conclusion of Cutthroats, the protagonist contemplates his “wealth with a touch of sadness.” It is not clear that he will–or can–leave the island, and may well be doomed to wait in his underfurnished hotel room for another romp through a watery land of the dead.

The Critical Context of Cutthroats

Cutthroats would prove to be Mike Berlyn’s last work of interactive fiction with Infocom, though he would be remembered as a key contributor to the culture of Infocom’s golden age (I’ve argued that this period runs from 1980 to 1983). Fortunately, he would go on to create many more games with his wife and creative collaborator Muffy. It’s hard to keep from seeing his talents as misused. Despite an apparent lack of enthusiasm for Infidel, he remained the sole author of what would become known as the “Tales of Adventure” line of games (Seastalker, which nobody knew what to call, would later be inducted). The promise of the wholly unique and philosophically provocative Suspended would, unfortunately, go unfulfilled. It was a release characteristic of 1984, which featured more than one underwhelming game from a company with scant history of disappointing customers.

It is worth noting that Mike Berlyn did not handle coding for Cutthroats. Its ambition would have initially required architectural work (Marc Blank was this man behind the curtain for Suspended), and Berlyn found ZIL (Zork Implementation Language) fussy and counterintuitive. For Cutthroats, Berlyn had the support of Jerry Wolper, a capable programmer and MIT graduate. This kind of division of labor first occurred with the recent Seastalker and would continue–most visibly with the Adams-Meretzky team up for Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

As I have already said, Cutthroats was the first Infocom release to be packaged in the iconic “Gray Box” format, and it comported itself well in that regard, including an “issue” of Tales of Adventure, a historical booklet of local shipwrecks, and a pamphlet for a diving outfitter. Readers can find links to those materials above. I’ll discuss those items in detail, along with its grim and minimal story, in next week’s essay.

The third and final essay will assess the ambitious nature of Cutthroats and its failure to iterate appropriately when those goals proved unrealistic. For many, Cutthroats would consequently prove to be Infocom’s most disappointing adult game to-date (few dislike The Witness as much as I do), a truth that its initial sales numbers belied.

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4 thoughts on “[1/3] Hell Is Other Divers: Cutthroats

  1. the Adams-Meretzky team up for Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

    Adams-Meretzky is, I’m afraid, a poor example of a writer/programmer team (compared to the more equitable division of labor in the Galley/Lawrence pairing, say). As I understand it, Adams, who was never the best with deadlines, was infamously terrible at writing any sort of material for the game unless someone was literally standing behind him making him write. Most of the text in HHGTTG which was not taken directly from extant Hitchhiker’s-related media was written by Steve Meretzky, who found imitating Adams’s style easier than getting him to write content.

  2. I found the atmosphere of Cutthroats quite engaging. Bleak and grim, with characters that are reminiscent of Treasure Island… pirates for the 20th century. The game play and puzzles weren’t very memorable though. I finished the game back in the day, but recall very little of it other than the setting and characters.

    1. That’s my take, too. When I replayed it for this page, I couldn’t remember anything about it beyond the atmosphere. It feels like a lost opportunity, for sure.

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