Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 43 / DECEMBER 1983 / PAGE 182

The Witness

Dan Gutman

Monica could have shot her father, Freeman Linder. She had every reason to — her mother had said in her suicide note that she just couldn't take Freeman anymore. Coincidentally, Monica is now the heiress to his fortune, and besides, she left the house only a few minutes before the gunshots shattered the window and Linder died.

Then again, it could have been Phong, the poker-faced butler, who was promised a fortune by Linder — and never got a thin dime. And what about Stiles, Mrs. Linder's secret lover? The poor guy's been in a state since her suicide — or was it murder? He knows Linder ignored his wife, and Stiles was rumored to be a "hired mercenary" in 1907. The case is yours to solve.

The Witness is the latest in Infocom's masterful series of all-text adventures, and it may be their best one yet. The game, available in versions for most microcomputers, takes us back to the Thirties. The writing is colorful, like a pulp detective novel, and reflects the period. At one point Monica tells you this new actor (Bogart) she saw in a movie is not going to make it big. With games like this, the distinction between reading a novel on disk and playing a game has become blurred. The Witness is a novel, except that you are one of the characters, and every move you make affects the outcome.

Talking To The Computer

Other adventure games restrict you to simple commands like "go north" and "shoot gun." With Infocom's "Interlogic" programming system, the computer can understand complete sentences. Communicating this way gives you a much stronger sense that you are participating in the story. However, as the game freely admits, "English is my second language." The program will only answer two specific types of questions: ones asking for information and ones asking for the whereabouts of someone or something. You've got to be very careful with your phrasing. If you borrow a note from Monica and type "give back note," the computer will tell you, "You can't see any back note here." You should have typed "give the note back." Nevertheless, with a little cooperation on your part, the computer does a superb job of catching your drift.

If you get hooked on this game (and there's a good chance) you'll find yourself drawing intricate floor plans of the Linder house and jotting down notes to yourself. You will ruthlessly interrogate every suspect and shadow their every move. You will pick up every knick-knack on the mantlepiece and dust them for fingerprints or send them to the lab for examination. You will become frustrated, disgusted, and type rude suggestions into the keyboard. You could start arresting furniture just to see how the computer will respond. You will be possessed.

The Witness is somewhat like Deadline, Infocom's first mystery thriller, but Deadline tended to bog down as you ran out of leads to follow. Here you are provided with a loyal assistant, Duffy, who is more than happy to make plaster of Paris footprint casts for you, bring objects to the lab for analysis, and uncover little clues you might have over­looked. All you've got to do is "ask Duffy for help."

Infocom does not crank out games and hope that one will click with the public. Each game is so clever and so intricate that you know somebody put thousands of hours of work into it. The game is a piece of art right down to the packaging, for which Infocom has become famous. Out of The Witness package tumbles a suicide note, an urgent telegram, a newspaper page containing an article about Mr. Linder, a matchbook with some numbers scrawled on it, and a 12-page Detective Gazette with instructions for the game along with 1930s ads for hand­cuffs and fingerprint kits. And a floppy disk — can't forget that. With this game, you get your money's worth.

For Dedicated Players Only

However, as good as The Witness is, it's not a game for everyone. You have 12 hours to solve the crime, but do you have 12 hours to play a computer game? Fortunately, you can save your game on a blank disk and pick it up later. Even so, to investigate every room in the house, question every suspect, and follow up every lead may be equivalent to reading The Complete Works of Shakespeare. You can't just stroll around the house by typing "go to Monica's bedroom" or "enter the garage." It may take half an hour of directional search just to find Monica's bedroom, and she may have gone to the movies while you were bumping into the walls. To get in the room, you must first find the key, unlock the door, and open the door — all separate commands. To make matters more difficult, you have no way of knowing if a suspect is telling the truth or lying to you — that suicide note from Mrs. Linder could have easily been faked by Monica, Stiles, Phong, or even Mr. Linder. Infocom supplies no key to solve the mystery, and you may never solve it on your own.

The Witness requires a dedication that few other games require. There are no pretty graphics here. It's you, your imagination, and the words on the screen. My guess is that people who enjoy challenging puzzles —jigsaw, crossword, anagrams — will enjoy The Wit­ness, while those who favor television game shows may not. People who like to curl up with a good book — especially a mystery novel — will love it, while those who lean toward Garfield Goes Condo should pass it up.

For those of you who choose not to solve the crime, I feel it is only fair to share my findings with you. I have devoted the last three months of my life to this case and just moments ago solved the crime, arrested my suspect, and sent that person to jail. The murderer of Freeman Linder was...

Ed. note: Unfortunately, Mr. Gutman was unable to complete this review for reasons which are still under investigation.

The Witness
55 Wheeler St.
Cambridge, MA 02138
$49.95 to $59.95
depending on version