[2/3] What’s in the Box: Cutthroats

While Cutthroats promises deep-sea treasure hunts, its central conflict revolves around the far less interesting challenge of hiding pieces of paper.

Note: a screen-reader transcription of all Cutthroats documentation is available online.

Note #2: This essay is chock full of spoilers. Be warned!

True Tales of Adventure

As I’ve previously mentioned here, Cutthroats was the first game to be packaged in Infocom’s famed “gray box” format. As such, its box opened to a so-called “browsie” that shoppers could view in-store: a September 1984 issue of True Tales of Adventure. Devoted players (or readers of Gold Machine) will recognize the title from the mimetic, in-universe manual for the folio edition of Infidel. As would become Infocom’s custom, the magazine is mostly humorous, and its humor is not necessarily well-aligned with the tone of the game itself.

Some of the material is perhaps too caught up in the spirit of its time, and its treatment of native peoples does not come across well:

Thirty years ago, Ray had heard Pagu’s Pug Pap tribesmen talk of rare gems that were trapped in ancient sunken wrecks off Pagu.

“Luckily, I believed every word of it,” Ray said, “and I knew that the only way to get a crack at that treasure would be to ‘go native.”‘

Lilly recalls: ”After life in America, it was tough becoming a native again. But we learned to adjust to the Pug Pap ways-the hammocks, the Yik Fish Stew, the roast grubs and the ‘dress.’ Of course, Bill and I weren’t trying to be Margaret Mead-type anthropologists; we were strictly in it for the money.

“After about eight
months of acculturation, we were able to recruit two Pug Pap guides who would take us out on the reefs to some of their sacred fishing grounds. ‘Magic Lim’ and ‘B.C.,as we called our two companions, proved to be able, if somewhat superstitious, partners.

The story is graced by a photo of two American treasure hunters with septum piercings that must be intended to resemble the tradition of bone piercings in some cultures.

The magazine also contains gentle nudges for players, such as those contained in articles like “Danger at Fifty Fathoms!” that identify pitfalls and best practices for successful divers. True Tales of Adventure also invites readers to enter a contest by submitting their own brief (200 words or less) story to Infocom. Fan engagement–best typified by the Status Line newsletter–was a strength in those days, and there were many such opportunities for players to extend their Infocom experiences beyond the confines of diskettes and packaging.

Four Shipwrecks Off Hardscrabble Island

The first of two feelies bundled with Cutthroats is a booklet discussing four potential sites for treasure hunting near the player’s starting place of “Hardscrabble Island.” This book is the best thing in the box. It is attractively illustrated, and Four Shipwrecks Off Hardscrabble Island is tonally consistent, reading like something a historical society might write:

THE FIANNA WAS ORIGINALLY KNOWN as the Gloria Dieu, a British tea clipper built for speed to race across the great distances of the China Trade routes. She was designed by Phineas Hayes, then commissioner of Chatham Yard, and was laid down in Woolrich in 1869. The vessel was composite-built; that is, while she was an ironclad, her keel, stem and sternpost were of wood.

Cutthroats might be, in terms of textual bulk, the most doggedly and expansively copy-protected game in the Infocom catalog. The player must use the shipwreck descriptions to determine which dive point to use. The map included with the booklet provides not only dive coordinates but depth, which dictates what equipment the player needs to procure.

The Outfitter’s Price List

The copy protection doesn’t stop there. A small pamphlet called “Outfitters International Fall/Winter Supplemental Price List” featuring black-on-green text includes two–TWO–forms of copy protection. Since the game does not tell the player what equipment is available for sale, they must instead select items from the printed list (more on this practice below). Additionally, the back of the pamphlet features a tide table that identifies the time that the player must meet up with the ship’s crew.

A photo of the tide table included with Cutthroats. It is a very busy chart with sixteen columns and sixty rows!
Oh Boy.

The Narrative

It will be hard to discuss the “story” of Cutthroats without stealing thunder from next week’s post, so I hope readers will give these issues a chance to play out in the future.

At the beginning of Cutthroats, an acquaintance named Hevlin interrupts the protagonist’s brown study. He is drunk and distraught, stating that he may have revealed the location of a rumored-yet-undiscovered treasure near Hardscrabble Island, where the game begins. Hevlin gives his copy of Four Shipwrecks Off the Coast of Hardscrabble Island to the protagonist before stumbling into the night one last time. He is promptly murdered outside your window.

Hevlin’s death serves as little more than background noise: there is no apparent law enforcement presence on Hardscrabble Island, and his “friend” Red only mentions him to ask where the treasure is located. Besides Johnny Red, your travel companions include the auspiciously named “Pete the Rat” and “The Weasel.”

The diver later learns that one of them is a plant: The Weasel works for McGinty, a kind of mobbed-up boogeyman who never really gets his comeuppance. McGinty wanders the island like one of the less-than-talkative bots from Suspect (don’t miss our coverage of Suspect is a couple of months!), an underdeveloped game-ender who wants to muscle in on the score. Players may not understand how carrying a bankbook in front of McGinty could lead to an unwinnable game, but it does. Cutthroats is so committed to treating the McGinty bot as a sort of maritime Hunt the Wumpus that the player cannot do the obvious (and obviously possible) thing:

>get passbook
>examine passbook
This is a distinctive Mariners' Trust passbook which shows a balance of $603. The last date stamped in it is April 23.
>put it in pocket
It won't fit.

The early part of the game consists of preparing for the dive while hiding your plans from McGinty. That includes getting money for the trip as well as buying equipment. In the meantime, the protagonist must discover the identity of McGinty’s inside man or else they will be killed during–let me know if I misremember–the game’s final move. It is a long hike, replaying all of the content in between.

Then the player must do the dive. Even though four wrecks are mentioned in Four Shipwrecks Off Hardscrabble Island, only two are possible, and that wreck is chosen randomly early in the game. If the player has bought the right equipment (more on this tomorrow), they are treated to a more conventional (and enjoyable) puzzle-solving experience. Each wreck is a small area with only a few problems to solve. I’ll discuss this in greater detail, but the greatest failure of Cutthroats is that more playtime is committed to the less interesting cat and mouse with McGinty than to the treasure hunt.

To add insult to injury, the player must also hide a note from The Weasel. At times, Cutthroats feels more of a paper-hiding game than it does an undersea adventure.

If the protagonist has done everything right, they can return to the ship, treasure in tow, without having their air hose (or throat) cut by The Weasel. This effort culminates in a third and empty gesture in the direction of already-forgotten murder victim Hevlin:

You get out of the water and reboard your ship...
When your shipmates find that you've recovered these priceless stamps, they congratulate you. Johnny slaps you on the back. "Good job, matey!" As you return to the island over the calm, dazzling blue sea, you contemplate your wealth with a touch of sadness. You think of Hevlin and hope his soul is resting a little easier now.
Your score is 250 out of a possible 250.
This score gives you the rank of a rich diver.

It is customary for such characters to rest easier when their killers are brought to justice, but poor Hevlin must make do with a newly-retrieved stamp collection.

Coming Soon

If it seems like there is little-to-no story in Cutthroats, or if it feels like a promising setting gone to waste, that’s because both characterizations are accurate. Why is this, and how did it happen? Next week, we’ll discuss the boldly ambitious nature of Cutthroats‘s early scoping and design, and the technological issues that prevented Berlyn and Wolper from realizing their ambitions.

Stay tuned for Gold Machine’s third and final essay on Cutthroats!

4 thoughts on “[2/3] What’s in the Box: Cutthroats

  1. Players may not understand how carrying a bankbook in front of McGinty could lead to an unwinnable game, but it does.

    I’ve played this game a bunch of times and never have figured out what the causal relationship really is supposed to be. McGinty suspects you might have some money in a savings account (not even that much money — $603 in mid-1984 is about $1670 today) and therefore the entire jig is up? Like, what? Even the Invisiclues don’t really explain, just warn you to keep it out of his sight. The idea that McGinty seeing you buy or rent something at Outfitters makes him suspicious that you’re going after a wreck I suppose is plausible. Him seeing you carrying the passbook in that specific location is awfully thin. But him just seeing you carrying it around the island is stupid.

    The thing about putting it in your pocket returning the message “It won’t fit” is a little strange. There are other objects of size 4 (the key, the envelope, the note, the price list, and the putty), so it’s not just that they artificially inflated its size to make this impossible. The POCKET object is designated a container (FLAGS CONTBIT OPENBIT) but not given a CAPACITY, which is rather odd. There’s a whole bunch of code around POCKET-CHANGE which keeps track of the player’s money (apparently they had some trouble with this, because there’s also RIDICULOUS-MONEY-KLUDGE…), and the description of POCKET says “You keep your money in it”. The MONEY object actually has no size, so I guess it fits in the pocket that has no capacity. Can you put other things in your pocket?

    1. That McGinty thing is poorly considered. How does he know the player isn’t depositing money? I think there was this idea that exploration wasn’t worthwhile on its own; there had to be a challenge somewhere. Lots of games embrace exploration for its own sake, but Infocom would really only do so once with AMFV. I think space constraints played a role in this poorly-explained scenario. Space seems to be a huge problem for Cutthroats.

      I’m not good enough with ZIL to give a technical answer, but I’ve tried putting everything in the pocket and nothing seems to fit. So far as i can tell, there’s no way to directly handle the money, either (TAKE MONEY, EMPTY POCKET, etc)

  2. Huh. Well, nothing fitting in the pocket tracks with its having no capacity. I wonder if that was an oversight, or intentional.

    1. My take? It was intentional because a working pocket would shortcut the McGinty/Weasel “puzzles”. It’s pretty clunky either way.

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