Infocom's fascination with film noir-flavored detective stories (also see Suspect and Witness) reached its peak with Deadline, a tough and punishing "expert level" text adventure game giving players just twelve hours to solve a murder. Worse yet, the player is locked into the crime scene, along with six suspects, all of whom have their own motives -- as well as their own bones to pick with one another. There's plenty of evidence, but narrowing down the field of suspects within twelve hours is the trick. Stylish and dark, Deadline is hard to beat -- and its built-in time limit makes it that much more nerve-wracking.
You have 12 hours to solve the murder of Mr. Marshall Robner. If it was a murder... Mr Robner was found locked in his library, dead -- from a lethal dosage of anti-depressants. Friends and family are calling this a suicide of depressed wealthy industrialist. As Chief of Detectives, you find something just doesn't smell right about this case. You go out on a quest to find a suspect, his motive, method, and opportunity.
Difficulty Level: Expert
Deadline was the first murder mystery game from Infocom and their third game overall (after Zork I and Zork II). Despite the limitations of an early parser and very difficult puzzles that require multiple restores, Deadline in my opinion is the best mystery game of all the ones Infocom released.
Deadline was not only the first non-fantasy release for Infocom; it was was also the first Infocom game to ship with feelies: the original game was sold in an eye-catching "police folio" folder. In it, you find materials that resemble contents of a real case folder: interviews with the suspects, 3 pills in a plastic bag (found at the crime scene), a photograph of the murder scene, a letter from the attorney, and a coroner's autopsy report. These feelies are remarkable in their authenticity, and help set the atmosphere for the game even before you start it. Deadline marks the beginning of what make Infocom games special and worth collecting in original boxes: Infocom went on to include feelies with every one of their games in addition to boosting the games' collectible value.
The story: you are a police detective asked to investigate the death of Marshall Robner, a wealthy industrialist found dead in his own library from an apparent drug overdose. You have twelve hours to expose the foul play and catch the killer. But before you arrest someone, you'd better have evidence for all three ingredients of a successful prosecution: the murderer's motive, the method, and the opportunity. There are many possible endings the game, but only one "optimal ending" that explains all the loose ends and sees the suspect in jail.
One of the most memorable things about Deadline is the excellent NPCs who behave much more realistically than in most of today's games. All of the game's six main characters are fleshed out with well-written scripts: each character acts in a way that is consistent with his or her motive. Since the game proceeds in "real time" in a sense that NPCs carry out their own agenda no matter what you do, and there are dozens of events you can witness and questions you can ask, you are guaranteed to see something new whenever you replay the game. True to the detective genre, a successful resolution of the case requires detailed interrogations and careful observations of NPCs' reactions to your questions and objects you show them. You can follow them around, or even accuse them outright and see what they have to say.
The puzzles are very difficult in a sense that many of them suffer from either the "guess the exact syntax the designer wants" syndrome, or the "you need to either be prescient or restore a lot to see all the right things" problem that also burden other mystery games. You can miss crucial plot points simply because you are not in the right place at the right time, and there is sometimes insufficient hints about when or where that event may take place. This is aggravated by limitations inherent in Infocom's early parser: it doesn't understand many synonyms or sentence variations. The game is also buggy, but that is forgivable given the game's complexity and scope vis-a-vis hardware limitations in 1982.
Even with a very high difficulty level and a buggy and limited parser, Deadline still ranks as one of the best Infocom - and murder mystery - games ever made. It is very well-written, full of believable and memorable characters, and offers a deep gameplay that will truly make you feel like a real detective. A must-have.
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