128K could’ve and the z-machine should’ve. Maybe then Cutthroats would’ve.
Watching the Wires Instead of the Actors
In two short years, the novel, innovative, and fascinating simulation elements created for 1982’s Deadline had come to feel either exhausted or misspent. In Cutthroats, various cardboard cutouts of underdescribed character “types” get shuffled around a less-than-vivant tableau vivant of mostly repetitive, empty geography. I hope readers will forgive the length of this quoted passage, which adequately dramatizes the rather bare clockwork of Hardscrabble Island:
>i You are carrying: A Mariners' Trust passbook A room key A wrist watch (being worn) You have $15 in your pocket. >e Wharf Road You are on the Wharf Road, with the McGinty Salvage office to the south. The ocean lies to the north, its brine smell strong and refreshing. >e Wharf Road You are on the Wharf Road where the wharf starts up to the north. The former site of Outfitters International's warehouse fronts the south side of the road. >s Vacant Lot You are standing on the former site of the Outfitters International warehouse, which burned down a few months back. To the north is the Wharf Road and an alley is to the south. >s Back Alley You are in an east/west alley. To the north is a vacant lot, and an overgrown field lies to the south. >e Back Alley You are in an alley behind Outfitters International. An abandoned field lies to the south. >e Back Alley You're at the east end of an east/west alley. The back door of The Shanty is to the north, and an overgrown field is to the south. Narrow paths to the northeast and southeast lead to the Ocean Road. >se Ocean Road You are halfway along the Ocean Road, with the start of an alley off to the northwest. An empty field lies to your west, and the dangerous ocean shore lies off to your east. >s Ocean Road This is the south end of the Ocean Road. To the southeast is a small path leading up to about 100 feet above sea level. The Ocean Road heads north, and the Shore Road starts to the southwest. >sw Shore Road This is the east end of the Shore Road, an east/west road with a ferry landing at its west end. The Mariners' Trust, the island's only bank, is off to the north. The Ocean Road starts up to the northeast. >n Mariners' Trust You are in Mariners' Trust, the Island's bank. In it are a table and a teller's window. You can see the safe beyond, and it looks pretty empty. A teller sits behind the window. >examine passbook This is a distinctive Mariners' Trust passbook which shows a balance of $603. The last date stamped in it is April 23. >withdraw $603 The teller takes your passbook, enters the withdrawal, hands you the money and your passbook, and says "Have a good day." >s Shore Road This is the east end of the Shore Road, an east/west road with a ferry landing at its west end. The Mariners' Trust, the island's only bank, is off to the north. The Ocean Road starts up to the northeast. >ne Ocean Road This is the south end of the Ocean Road. To the southeast is a small path leading up to about 100 feet above sea level. The Ocean Road heads north, and the Shore Road starts to the southwest. >se Point Lookout You are at Point Lookout, a small, high cliff that affords a spectacular view of the sea. The cliff bottom is dangerous, so the only safe path is the northwest footpath back to the Ocean Road. >z Time passes... >z Time passes... >z Time passes... To the northwest McGinty comes into view from the north. >z Time passes... McGinty, off to the northwest, disappears from sight to the southwest. >z Time passes... To the northwest Johnny Red comes into view from the north. >z Time passes... Johnny Red appears, striding like a proud lion. Johnny turns toward you. "Well? Did you bring the money?" >show money (to Johnny Red) He smiles and flashes a wad that represents the contributions of your three partners. "Glad you're with us. Since you're okay, I'll level with you. Before Hevlin died, he told me he gave you the book. He also said you could handle this job. He's the one who gave me the dinner plate. I didn't want to say anything in front of Pete and the Weasel just in case. "We're gonna need a boat, but I don't know which one. If you need deep-sea diving gear, it'll have to be the Mary Margaret. Is the treasure more than 200 feet deep?" To the northwest McGinty comes into view from the southwest. >no "We'll rent the Night Wind. Let's go get what we need." McGinty, off to the northwest, disappears from sight to the north. Johnny Red heads off to the northwest.
Note that, near the end, criminal “mastermind” McGinty appears. Performing certain actions or else carrying certain things when he is in the room will render the game unwinnable. So far as I know, Cutthroats never explains how or why this might happen. It seems we are expected to recognize him as a villain; perhaps his cigar gives him away:
McGinty Salvage You are in the McGinty Salvage office, a concern whose main business is salvaging wrecks. The place is a mess, and the floor is littered with chewed-on cigar stubs. To the north lies the Wharf Road. You can't help feeling uncomfortable here. McGinty, a small, nervous man, is sitting behind a desk. His lips clamp around a cigar too large for his face. >examine McGinty He is wiry, hyper, and devoid of ethics. A fat cigar seems to be his only companion, since he's the type of man who would sell his own mother if given the opportunity.
We are a long way from Deadline‘s luxuriant metatextuality conveyed via interview transcripts and lab reports. Before the player ever meets George, they have a sense of who he is. That certainly is not the case with McGinty, Pete the Rat, The Weasel, or even poor, old Hevelin. Cutthroats‘s greatest achievement is underscoring what a difference Deadline‘s dossier made in terms of reader experience, and additionally emphasizing how empty an IF simulation can be without attention to character development and worldbuilding. The Witness and Suspect fail in similar ways, but no Infocom game based on the Deadline model of simulation fails as explosively as Cutthroats. In the opening half of the game, the player never sees its characters (or setting) take flight because Cutthroats shows little more than the wires holding them aloft.
Cutthroats: Underwater Caving
What of the shipwrecks, then? I think they are the most interesting part of Cutthroats, and they certainly feel the most polished. The main reason is that each shipwreck is essentially a small, constrained “cave game” like Zork. While there was not a mature model for the Hardscrabble Island experience, there certainly was one for moving between enclosed locations, solving puzzles, and finding treasure. However, they are very short compared the island parts of the game, and there are so few of them. The unfortunate result is that the game emphasizes the failed and/or abandoned formal experimentation of the island over the more familiar gameplay of treasure hunting. Adding insult to injury, the game determines which wreck will be available near the very beginning of the game. Completionists will be seeing a lot of the island, and more than once.
The treasure hunts make use of the underwater settings to create unusual puzzles. A problem dealing with an air pocket stands out in particular. Still, there are only a couple of puzzles per dive. The package, which features a colorful photograph (very unusual for Infocom), dramatically portrays a SCUBA diver with a cut air hose (I’m not sure this can happen in-game. As always, feel free to correct me!). The marketing people (and everyone else, I’m sure) knew that the prospects of underwater treasure hunting would excite shoppers, but the game as shipped must have disappointed many of them.
Cutthroats: Big Ideas, Small Computers
By May 1984, a handful of less powerful (and less popular) microcomputers were falling out of support with Infocom. The TRS-80 line, as well as the TI-99 missed out on Cutthroats altogether. While these decisions served to raise the “floor” for new releases in terms of system requirements, the Commodore 64, which by 1984 was the US market leader in the low-end computer market, was probably too attractive a platform for Infocom to abandon. In fact, with its custom graphics and sound capabilities, many viewed the C64 as a “respectable” alternative to dedicated video game hardware. This was the year after the great video game crash, after all.
What happens, though, if someone has an IBM- or Apple-sized idea for a Commodore 64? One of the things that can happen without scope or requirements management is the skeleton of a large game crammed in a small box. This is what Cutthroats, with its well-made feelie about four shipwrecks (only two made it into the shipped game), sadly turned out to be. Cutthroats declares physically–not just on disk or in code–that it meant to be more than it is.
In fact, as a concept Cutthroats sounds far more ambitious than anything Infocom had ever done: possibly seven wrecks, more activities on the ship, and procedural generation. While such goals would likely be whittled down during the course of the project–isn’t this always the case?–Infocom seemed unwilling to find an intermediate point between a big game and a bad one.
When I recently wrote about the end of Infocom’s golden age, I pointed to Sorcerer as a game that capitalized on past successes while falling short in terms of worldbuilding and craft. Cutthroats, meanwhile, is a game that was well-positioned to excel technically and artistically–perhaps raising the bar for IF at large–were it in different managerial hands. Infocom, though, had become a business software company that made games. There was no advantage, from an executive perspective, in cultivating bleeding-edge Interactive Fiction technologies when Infocom’s glorious destiny lay before it. Why invest in the future when you can sell 50k copies in the first year? After Cornerstone launched, word of mouth and game sales wouldn’t matter, anyway.
This was a game that had divided authorial and technical responsibilities between Mike Berlyn and Jerry Wolper, and, perhaps for the first and last time (It’s best to wait until Moonmist before evaluating Stu Galley and Jim Lawrence), this specialization situated Infocom to attend to matters of craft in new and ambitious ways. While the leader of a game company would have perhaps seen the loss of C64 sales as an investment in the future, Infocom, unfortunately, hadn’t been a game company for a while.
The Commodore 64, meanwhile, would remain a strong platform for games designed for sound and graphics, featuring a library ranging from Jumpman to Pool of Radiance. In the long run, Infocom needed Cutthroats more than Commodore did, and Cutthroats needed to be more than it was. In an unusual moment of (well-deserved) snark, Jimmy Maher quips that “Mediocrity, it seems, does have its rewards.”
Still, as time would tell, Cornerstone would devour those C64 sales and so much more. What could 50K copies do to shore up a multi-million dollar loss? As it would turn out, things were so upside down with Infocom financially that even a mega hit like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy would not pull the company into shallow waters, let alone to the shore.
Did Somebody Mention The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy?
Next week, Gold Machine will kick off a special, four-part series on Infocom’s second biggest seller of all time, and the greatest “bookware” game of the 1980s. Why is it special? For the first time, Gold Machine will feature a guest author: Aaron A. Reed, author of Subcutanean, 50 Years of Text Games, and even more cool stuff! He’ll be giving us an exclusive look at content for the upcoming 50 Years book. I’ll post more as the date gets closer, but this will be one series to watch.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is also the only game out of Infocom’s stacked 1984 lineup that I love, for whatever that’s worth.
Think I’m wrong about Cutthroats or want a Starcross hint? Get in touch! Here, email golmac at golmac.org, or twitter.