by Mark S. Murley
11:37 p.m. Thirty-fourth Street and Steeler Avenue. The heat hangs low and close over the alleyways of the hopeless. A tortured cat mewls in the distance. The street lamps throw stark pools of light onto the curb and gutter.
The trail ends here at a flop-house on Steeler. Biscuit City it ain't, but let me tell you something, Bud: After two months of scratching for clues in every armpit and hovel in the city, Mecca couldn't look any better to a Moslem. I draw a smoke from a pack, fire it and survey the scene.
Leaning against a metal lamppost, I feel its cool sting knifing through my jacket. Tepid sweat runs down my temples. The view from here is good, but as I stare up towards a darkened, two-story window, I figure that works both ways. I move off toward the shadows.
The smell of the flophouse assaults me from the doorway like a kick from a wino's foot. The door handle, worn smooth from years of use, opens onto Squalor with a capital "S." That's the way Stiles might've said it.
Inside, the stairwell conforms to the rest of this oversized, "handyman's special" (as those well-oiled realtors put it). The steps sway and groan loudly with each footfall.
On the second floor a half-dozen doors open onto a pea-green hallway. Muffled voices seep through the thin walls. Somewhere a radio is playing. Leaning against the wall, I can hear the paint curl.
The third door on the left: Room 207. No voices, no music come from within. No light leaks from under the doorjamb. The lock submits quickly to the pick, and with a single quick motion, I step inside, revolver leveled and sweeping for action.
The room is sparely furnished: a small icebox, an unmade bed beside a nightstand, some clothes draped over a chair, an ashtray overflowing with a month's worth of butts. Not much of a housekeeper. On the kitchen table rests the payoff: an Atari 800, its CRT peering into the half-light. I lower the gun, holster it, and pull up a chair to the table.
A manilla police file is propped against the Atari. Opening it I shake the contents onto the table. Everything's here, everything but the sweat that is. The next 12 hours will tell the tale...
Straight from the pages of the 10-cent pulps of the '30s and '40s comes Infocom's The Witness, an interactive whodunit adventure that echoes the format and flavor of the Cambridge-based company's phenomenally successful Deadline. And like its predecessor, the motif is once again murder most foul.
Here's the lowdown. It's February, 1938. Virginia Clayton Linder, a "gilt-edged society dame" has turned up face down. As the chief police detective for a small California town, it's up to the player to ferret out enough evidence for an arrest. And there's no shortage of suspects in a rogue's gallery of colorful, supporting characters that would cause even Hercule Poirot to cringe.
The challenge is intensified by a rigid time limitation: You have 12 game-time hours and not a minute more to crack the case. And, as you might suspect, you'll need every precious second.
You enter commands in simple English, for example, "Arrest The Suspect," "Fire The Gun," and so on. Unlike many adventure games, The Witness accepts complex sentences entered on a single input line, provided that the conjunction "then" is used or a period is added. Thus, to save time, a player may enter "Arrest The Suspect Then Fire The Gun."
But why save time, you might ask? Ah, there's the rub. Each time you enter a response, the game time advances. Some investigative actions take about a minute, while others, such as the command Wait, can cause 15 minutes of game time to roll by.
Once sufficient evidence is accumulated for a bust, the venerable Sergeant Duffy will assist you in putting the accused into the slammer. But bear in mind that "sufficient" evidence requires that you establish three major elements: motive, method, and a reasonable opportunity for the accused to have committed the crime.
Following the arrest, you will receive, via your Atari, a letter from your superiors regarding the outcome of the grand-jury investigation. If the D.A. follows through with an indictment, you win the game. If not, your superiors will probably fill you in on where you went wrong, and you try again.
Here's the letter received after the lover of Virginia Linder, Stiles, was accused of the murder and placed under arrest.
Text of a letter from Police Chief Klutz dated February 28:
According to your report and deposition, the only question in this case is who shot Mr. Linder through the window of his office. However, I believe that the real story is not so simple.
But, despite my reservations, the trial jury did convict Mr. Stiles of the murder. Through plea-bargaining, his sentence was reduced from execution to twenty years.
Post script: A few months later, after you are transferred to another department, you get a memo from your former boss. It says that new evidence was discovered in the Linder case, causing the court to reverse Stiles' conviction and set him free. Let's hope he doesn't come around bent on revenge!
Clearly, receipt of such a letter at game's end is undesirable, and indicates either slipshod or incomplete investigative work on the part of the player. Waiting for the letter of confirmation is half the fun though, and an exciting climax to what usually amounts to be a very lengthy game.
Through its meticulous attention to detail and thick slabs of prose that advance the plot, The Witness immerses you in its cavernous storyline. The following is an example of these elements from early in the story.
"You are now in the living room. A fieldstone fire place on the south wall holds a blazing fire, filling the living room with warmth and light. Grouped in front of the fire are a glass-topped coffee table and a rattan davenport and club chair, with cushions covered in a print showing bamboo plants in the style of a Japanese brush-painting. A lamp with printed shade and a telephone sit on the table. On the north wall are a console radio and a liquor cabinet made of light-colored wood. A single door in the east wall is closed, and at the west end of the room is a double door."
Considering that most, if not all, of the objects in the preceding paragraph can be individually examined, and that this is but one of many "rooms" in the game, you can readily see that your 12-hour time limit will not be idly whiled away!
The "human" factor is quite important throughout the course of play. Each of the many characters in The Witness has his or her own unique characteristics, and the prudent armchair dick is well advised to take full advantage of this fact. Calling someone by his or her name is important, too. If you wish to ask Mrs. Jones the last time she saw Mr. Stiles, "Mrs. Jones, when did you last see Mr. Stiles?" is much preferred over an interrogative that does not include her name.
Similarly, one would probably not wish to apply a "Mrs. Jones" to the Linder's Oriental housekeeper, Mr. Phong, who "carries his stout body lightly" and whose imposing musculature is apparently evident despite his loose-fitting apparel.
Much of The Witness accepts the typical adventure-game nomenclature. If you wish to move west, for instance, you can type "Walk West" or simply "W." A list of 52 important commands is supplied with the program, although the game's vocabulary is much larger.
As with most products, software or otherwise, the consumer's first impression usually derives from the product's packaging. Infocom is well-known for its truly innovative packaging as anyone who has examined Deadline, Star Cross, or Suspended will attest. The Witness falls a tad short of the complexity of the elaborate Deadline mishmash of physical evidence and printed matter, but it is nonetheless lavish and detailed.
The Witness package resembles an actual police file when it's removed from its slipcase. Inside the file is a plethora of documents and a couple of pieces of physical evidence. The material includes:
The Detective Gazette -- a slick, 8-page replica of a detective magazine, replete with authentic period ads for fingerprint kits, police badges and handcuffs. This cleverly designed booklet is actually the program documentation. The Register -- a full-sized, two-page reproduction of Santa Ana's "official" newspaper.
A page of Virginia Clayton Linder's stationery -- the handwritten suicide note that instructs the late Mrs. Linder's daughter to pass a caustic farewell along to Mrs. Linder's two-timing husband: "Tell your illustrious father how deeply I regret soiling one of his precious revolvers." A Western Union Telegram -- from Freeman Linder to PMS Chief Detective.
A book of matches from The Brass Lantern restaurant.
Several additional features of The Witness include game save, a running account of hours and minutes (game time), and a nearly indispensable script feature that allows a transcript of the game to be printed as the game is played.
The Witness is, by virtue of its complexity, superior to the bulk of adventure fare that has glutted the market for the past three or four years. Don't look for graphics, however. The Witness is an all-text format. This, along with a special data retrieval process allows the program to access over 100K of information. To put it another way, the amount of text in The Witness approaches novella length.
The Witness is the brainchild of Infocom's Stuart Galley. He spent about nine months researching and developing The Witness. He says, "The program was designed not so much as a sequel, but as a complement to Deadline."
The Witness offers documentation that is inventive, apparently error-free and concise. The Register and other accompanying paraphernalia give a solid feel to the package, legitimizing the steepish $49.95 price tag. The game itself, in spite of its complexity is extremely user-friendly, and often quite humorous. Infocom cut no corners in the design or -- if you'll pardon the pun -- execution of The Witness, and it shows. A hearty round of kudos to Stuart Galley and Infocom for an admirable effort. The Witness is a killer.
Mark S. Murley writes documentation and ad copy for Adventure International. Among his credits are the sagas of Wadsworth Overcash in Russ Wetmore's PREPPIE series!