Thursday 22 February 2018

Missed Classic 53: Cutthroats - Introduction (1984)

Written by Joe Pranevich

In 1984, Infocom had a fantastic idea: let’s make two nautical-themed adventures in a row! More to the point, Infocom was working hard to keep each of their key developers working on a game to release this year: Steve Meretzky on Sorcerer and Hitchhiker’s Guide, Stu Galley on Seastalker, Mike Berlyn on Cutthroats, and Dave Lebling on Suspect. (Marc Blank even produced one: the Tutorial Game that I looked at in my last bonus post.) The nautical comparison isn’t quite fair: while Mr. Galley had produced a rolicking sci-fi adventure in a submarine, Mr. Berlyn was aiming for a modern-day tale of treasure hunting and piracy on the high seas. Still, it seems odd to have two superficially similar games in a row.

For this game, Mike Berlyn picked up an accomplice: Jerry Wolper. Mr. Wolper was an Infocom programmer who would work on the technical aspects of the production while Mr. Berlyn worked on the story. Berlyn had already proven himself more than capable of handling the technical side, but this freed him up to be more of a creative presence than before and was well-aligned with other creator/programmer pairings the company was experimenting with. Seastalker had been built the same way, and Hitchhiker’s Guide will follow the same model in just a few months. Will this change help Berlyn to write the best possible game? Possibly, although it could also suffer from having a less experienced programmer at the helm. I guess I’ll have to play to find out.
This looks familiar!

At this point, I’ve developed something of a mixed feeling around Mike Berlyn’s work. Thus far on our blog, Voltgloss has covered his first two pre-Infocom games, Oo-topos and Cyborg, and I have looked his first two game with Infocom, Suspended and Infidel. He is a guy that understands his genre and wants to push the envelope beyond it. Suspended completely upended the way interactive fiction had been written with multiple viewpoints and a main character that never technically left the first room. Infidel was a dark mirror of the Zork franchise, placing it in the real world with an unlikable protagonist. No one so far has pushed the envelope about what a game means more than Mr. Berlyn, and yet I’m not convinced that he always made the best games because of it. That said, Berlyn’s games stick with you. They make you think. They can be appreciated as art in ways that the other developers’ couldn’t. I expect to be challenged by a Berlyn game and I am looking forward to seeing whether he holds to form this time or will do something more traditional.

Speaking of non-traditional, I finally found the time to read his first novel, Crystal Phoenix, and you can find the full-length review on my personal blog. I really should have read it before Suspended, but time got away from me. Like his games, it is challenging and genre-breaking, a well-written but extremely dark vision of the future. In it, rich psychopaths buy people to rape and murder, all done legally since they are brought back to life afterwards with some pocket change and no recollection of the event. I am simplifying a great deal, but it involves a lot of rape and murder, not always in that order. It is an uncomfortable book to read and I did not “like” it and never hope to read it again. Tying it back to his games, you can see shades both of Suspended, in its treatment of futuristic cloning and memory transfers, and Infidel’s protagonist with a broken moral compass. After this, he wrote two more before starting with Infocom, The Integrated Man (1980) and Blight (1981). Depending on what happens with his final (non-adventure) game, Fooblitzky, I could end up finding the time to read one more.

I’d love to tell you the inside story on Mr. Wolper, but unfortunately he’s been quite elusive to track down. He is publicly credited for only two games, this one and a smaller testing role on Spellcasting 101. From everything that I can find, he was just a talented MIT-trained software engineer that got tagged by Mr. Berlyn to do his implementation. If, as the manual states, that Mr. Wolper is considered “Pittsburgh's greatest contribution to interactive fiction”, could someone at least claim that I am Pittsburgh’s greatest contribution to retro-reviewing interactive fiction. Please? There’s a pierogi and a smile-cookie in it for yinz.

At least someone remembered me...

The first thing that I notice as I read through the manual is that this game is, explicitly, a sequel to Infidel. While it is technically the third game to go out with the “Tales of Adventure” series title (Seastalker had it as well), this game has the same adventure magazine framing device as Infidel as well as directly references that game in its pages. It seems that Ms. Ellingsworth found out about our disaster somehow and gave my character the ending that he didn’t quite deserve. Thankfully, Craige, his old partner, is less forgiving of his former friend who ran off into the desert without him. This is likely nothing more than a throwaway gesture, but it is nice to see Infidel referenced again. I’m going to secretly call this game Infidel II from now on. I’m curious to see how (or if) Berlyn plays off of the expectations that he set with his previous game.

From a logistical point of view, this is the first of the “grey box” games by Infocom. All of the games up to this point had “folio” releases with inconsistent (often beautiful) packaging such as Starcross’s flying saucer. From this point until nearly the end of Infocom, games would be distributed in standardized packaging. The “feelies” and manuals for the previous games would be updated to the versions that most of us remember today. I do not have a record of when each re-release went out, but I will be taking a deeper look at the new manuals (especially for the Zork games) at the end of the 1984 Infocom games.

There are three main pieces of documentation for this game:
  • True Tales of Adventure - The magazine makes up the bulk of the manual. Most of the articles this time relate to treasure diving in various locations, one describes a couple that struck it rich finding a lost treasure ship, while another describes a man nearly dying of oxygen deprivation when he failed to recover a pearl from a giant oyster. A few articles refer to a Pacific Ocean tentacled sea monster and that may be intended to refer to the events of Seastalker, but they don’t quite make sense. (There is a fantastic “brick joke” in there where a treasure hunter defeats the monster in exchange for 1673 bushels of clams. You have to read the rest carefully to discover that there are 598 cherry stone clams in a bushel. You do the math.) This all feels more like flavor text, but something in here might be valuable later.

  • The Four Shipwrecks of Hardscrabble Island - A tourist book describing four shipwrecks, like hundreds of similar books that you can find in seaside town bookstores. (As a native New Englander and a person that travels to the Treasure Coast in Florida, I assure you it is equally true in both locations.) Most importantly, it looks like someone wrote adjustments in the book’s map for two of the wrecks. I assume I will need some of this for copy protection during the game. 
  • Outfitters International Price List - A small brochure for Outfitters International that contains exactly what it says, a list of prices for sixteen items that they sell ranging from batteries ($1) to a location box ($1000). There are also descriptions of two ships that you can rent as well as a tide table for the local harbor. 
I review it all, take a deep breath, and start the game. Let’s get into this!

That is a lot of introduction text!

We start the game in our room, in bed. I should do a census of how many games had the player start in bed. Is that an Infocom trend? Thus far, we’ve seen it in Starcross, Infidel, and Sorcerer. Are there others? The previous night, our friend Helvin had come by and told us that he had tracked down the location of several shipwrecks. He had spoken a bit too openly about it at the bar and got himself killed by someone else wanting the information. Before his murder, he just happened to drop off the book containing the location of the treasures with me, a hand-notated copy of an old tourist book for the area. There’s a lot to take in there, but we know he was off to find “Red” when he was killed. Was “Red” the killer? Or the competition?

I start to look around. We’re in a hotel room in the Red Boar Inn and someone has put a note under our door: “If you’re interested in a big deal, be at The Shanty at 8:30 this morning.” Well, I have no idea what that is, but I explore around a bit. I am carrying a watch which is apparently waterproof to 350 fathoms (640 meters). The closet in our room contains a wetsuit, air tank, diving mask, and flippers. I also find my room key and a “passbook” in the dresser. The watch says it’s 8:15 already so I’d better hurry. No sooner do I get outside my room than I get hunger pangs. Oh, no! We have yet another game with a hunger mechanic. I thought we had put those behind us with Seastalker, but Mike Berlyn didn’t get the memo.

As I leave my room. “The Weasel” just passes by me in the lobby. Is he one of the people that I’m supposed to be meeting with? I follow him back to my room… and find him searching for my stuff. Is he trying to find the book? Before I can even respond, he attacks and cuts my throat. The end. Already.

So, this is going to be THAT kind of game.

Most weasels online are cute. I had to work to find a mean one.

I restart and this time lock the room door behind me. Apparently in the 1980s, hotel room doors didn’t lock automatically? It’s like a whole different world. Or, perhaps this hotel is just cheap. We cannot explore the hotel any farther and there’s only a desk clerk in the lobby with nothing interesting to say. Leaving the building, we find ourselves on “Wharf Road” at the end of the street. I have no idea where “The Shanty” is and it’s not listed in the map included with the game. In fact, the map to the game is fairly useless as it doesn’t show streets. I know I have an appointment to make, but I save the game and head off to map the place so at least I learn how to get where I need to go.

Not my prettiest map…

But more useful than the one in the manual.

In my exploration of the island, I discover:
  • A lighthouse off to the west, currently locked. 
  • “Wharf Road” runs east to west along the northern coast of the island. It has the inn, a vacant lot, a closed salvage shop, a closed outfitters, and “The Shanty”, a pub. I do not stop in yet, except to see that there’s Johnny Red there, as well as “Pete the Rat”, a bartender, and a parrot. 
  • The wharf juts north off the road and there are two ships parked there, the Night Wind and the Mary Margaret. No one seems to mind that I poke around in them, but I do not find much. Each ship is its own area in its own right, around ten rooms each. I create individual maps for them.
  • Cutting through the vacant lot, I arrive at an alley behind the street. Doors into the inn, salvage shop, outfitters, and pub are all locked but the outfitters has a window that I can look through. I find that I can open the window (just like Zork I!) and climb in, except someone inside shoots me dead immediately.
  • “Ocean Road” follows the east coast of the island. Its major feature is Point Lookout, another empty room, but one where I can dive off the cliffs to my death. That’s useful, right?
  • The southern edge of the island is “Shore Road” and that leads to the ferry back to the mainland, although there’s no ferry there right now. I also find a bank.
While exploring, I notice that my watch stopped at 8:20. What happened? I examine it and it’s one of those old-fashioned watches that you need to wind. I restore to the beginning of the game and wind my watch when I get up. That seems stupid. Don’t give me too much credit here because I have heard of this “puzzle” by reputation, although I didn’t realize it was in this game.

Squak! Polly want a treasure?

Restoring back to the beginning, I head to the Shanty and sit down. Johnny tells me that we’ll talk just as soon as “The Weasel” gets back. I have something to eat and drink since I’m still hungry and had a few bucks on me. Since I know Weasel is off trying to ransack my room, I play it cool. Eventually, he arrives and Johnny tells us all why we’re here: “he” has come across some sunken treasure. But, unfortunately, they are not well-funded enough for an expedition. He knows that I am a great diver and also have some money put away to help fund their expedition. What do I say?

Well… I say “yes” because this is a game and that’s what we’d do to advance the plot, but this whole thing seems like a setup. It was Helvin that found the shipwrecks. Is Johnny just getting me involved because Weasel couldn’t steal the information from my room? He’s going to use me to get at Helvin’s information and then what? He says that for right now, we need to ensure that McGinty does not find out what we are up to. The restaurant is too dangerous of a place to talk so let’s meet at the lighthouse at 9:30.

I head to the lighthouse and wait. I have nearly an hour so there could be something else that I’m supposed to be doing while I wait, but for now we’ll just advance the plot. Eventually, Johnny, Weasel, and Pete all arrive separately so as to not arouse suspicion. Johnny pulls out a gold plate that he claims to have found on a “shark hunt”. I look at the plate and it has markings for Hollywood Cruise Lines. He tells me that I’ll be responsible for identifying the wreck and telling them where it is, then I’ll do the dive, plus I have to bring $500. That hardly seems fair. He wants to meet with me alone at Point Lookout at 10:45, with the money. (Gulp!)

So how did Helvin find the correct location?

This seems to be part of the copy protection so I look up the wreck in my shipwrecks book. That one appears to be the S. S. Leviathan, a Hollywood Cruise Lines vessel that was sunk in 1916 by a German warship who accused the Americans of using the civilian ship to smuggle weapons to Europe. It is known that an expensive stamp collection, encased in glass, was aboard when the ship sunk. I check on the map and Helvin had found the correct location of the ship at 25’ 25’, so I’ll know what to tell Johnny.

At this point, I have an hour and a quarter to get my diving stuff from my hotel room and some money from the bank, neither of which is particularly difficult since I already found both in my initial explorations. Getting the money is somewhat more confusing than intended: if this were the 1980s, I might know what a “passbook” is and what it has to do with a bank. As it is, I had to Google it and find that it’s like an ancient ATM card in book format which you could take to the bank and use it to get money out. I take it to the bank and withdraw all my money and take it to Point Lookout. That isn’t dangerous at all. I have to wait a while again, but eventually Johnny shows up and I show him the money. He seems pleased and he asks me which boat we’re doing to need based on whether the treasure will be found above or below 200 feet deep. I consult my map and it is less than 200 feet, so that means that we’ll be renting the Night Wind. Copy protection!

If you squint, you can almost see the Night Wind there.

I head to the Shanty which is where I think I need to go next, but nothing happens there and I end up restoring. Instead, I follow Johnny and he takes me to the Outfitters which is now open. McGinty is there and after a few turns Johnny says that we need to wait for him to leave so he doesn’t know what we’re up to. Unfortunately, he seems to know that something is up because he never leaves. Worse, if I leave, he follows me. I try to go around and sneak in the back, but the door is locked. I try to lose him and come in that way, but by the time he stops following me, Johnny is no longer at the Outfitters and the game seems to stop advancing. I restore again, this time back to the lookout.

On this pass, I search for McGinty myself and he immediately latches onto me again because he thinks something that I am carrying is suspicious. What? I restore and drop all my diving gear at the lookout, but that doesn’t help. Worse, if he follows me to the Lookout while Johnny is there, the latter assumes that I double-crossed him and he kills me. Life is cheap in this game. I try a few other things like tell Johnny that I don’t have the money, but that causes him to kill me as well. This leaves me stuck. I can get Johnny to to to the Outfitters with me, but when we’re there McGinty won’t leave us alone so we can shop. What the heck? I try to trick McGinty by renting the wrong boat, but that just confirms we are up to something and Johnny storms off. I try to rent the boat myself, but I don’t have the funds. I try to use the fact that I know that he’s at the Outfitters to sneak into his salvage office by the window, but he catches up enough to shoot me.

This is apparently what a passbook looks like.
The trick, which I figure out at the end of this session is stupid: he doesn’t follow me if I drop everything before going to the Outfitters. Trial and error reveals that somehow McGinty is noticing that I am carrying my bank passbook, a seemingly normal thing for a person to carry around, and THAT is what is making him suspicious enough to follow me. Never mind that I’m running around carrying a full set of diving gear, it’s the passbook that he cares about. Not my favorite puzzle so far.

Once he leaves the Outfitters, I have to chip in my first $90 for the team’s shared supplies and then am left to buy whatever else I want. Even better: it will all be delivered to the boat. Johnny tells me to meet the crew there at thirty minutes before high tide, another little bit of copy protection, but I have my tide table so I’ll be all set.

Although I’m standing here, shopping list in hand, I’m going to end this session for today. We’ll see if I can actually get into the water next week.

Time played: 2 hr 45 min
Inventory: $423, wrist watch, room key (diving stuff and passbook is left back at Point Lookout for me to pick up later)

Where in the world is Hardscrabble Island?

The Search for Hardscrabble Island

Hardscrabble Island isn’t a real place, but nonetheless the game offers just enough tidbits of information that you can guess at where it might be located. I am not sure if Mike Berlyn was really thinking about this as closely as I am, but you cannot fault a guy for trying. The otherwise amazing site The Digital Antiquarian speculated that the island was off the Treasure Coast of Florida, but I regret to say that he is absolutely wrong. Why? Let’s look at the evidence.

The manual tells us very little about the location of our little island, but we do get a few nuggets in the Shipwrecks book:
  • Hardscrabble Harbor was founded by Rev. Gladstone in 1692
  • The island on the map is located at 25 minutes latitude and 20 minutes longitude, but we are not given the degrees as presumably the locals would already know them. The island was off-course (but not impossibly so) from the Portugal-to-Brazil shipping of the 17th century. The survivors of that wreck drifted to “Chocteague Neck”
  • The island is implied to be not that far from the West Indies
  • The island must be far enough off the coast that the German navy could sink a ship there in World War I. We’re going to have to ignore this as the German navy did not sink any ships that close to US soil in 1914, especially as the US had not yet entered the war.
Given the unreliability of the final note, we’ll concentrate on the others. The fact that the town was founded in 1692 tells us a great deal. It could not have been in Florida because that was still under Spanish control, but it could have been founded as part of the Carolinas (which included modern Georgia), Virginia, or even further north. New England is particularly known for villages founded by pastors, so that doesn’t seem impossible.

Don’t judge me. I liked it. 

For my money, I think that the second point tells us just about everything. My guess is that “Chocteague”, where the Sao Vera survivors landed, is a misspelled version of “Chincoteague”. This is an island off the coast of Virginia (near the border with Delaware), famous for its horses and would have been well-known by young adults because of a popular series of YA novels set there. I even read them as a kid.

Working from that and trying different latitude and longitude coordinates (with the correct minutes), we quickly find one that more or less is exactly where it would need to be:

36° 20’ N, 75° 25’ W

This places the fictional island right off the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay which both explains why it would have been a good early port but also why it would have been abandoned for better harbors later. It doesn’t exactly fit the map which shows land directly south of the island, but it does have the island in proximity to Chincoteague such that shipwrecked sailors could end up there.

The next candidate that comes closest is near the mouth of the Pamlico River off the coast of North Carolina:

35° 20’ N, 76° 25’ W

This spot has a ferry running nearby, but it is too close to land to the north-- open water in the game. I suspect that there is no answer. Before I end, I should note that there are at least two islands that I found named Hardscrabble Island, but they are both in lakes: Lake Richardson in Maine and Lake Superior in Canada. Not quite where we would find sunken ocean liners and a trade route to Europe.

I suspect that this is all a waste of time, especially considering that Berlyn couldn't get the location of the Nile correct in his previous game. I had fun speculating, but I think I need to get back to playing the game now. Do you have any better theories for where this mysterious island may be?

Don’t forget that this is an introductory post so you can guess a score. Mike’s two Infocom games so far were Suspended (31 points) and Infidel (33 points). Other Mike Berlyn games we have already covered include the 1986 re-release of Oo-Topos (37 points), Cyborg (37 points), Tass Times in Tonetown (47 points) and Altered Destiny (38 points). He also had a small role in Les Manley (30 points). That gives him an average of 36 points across all his games so far.

I also need your advice! I’ll be playing The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy soon. Should I re-read the original book (or radio plays) before I begin? Or better to let the books be rusty in my brain? I have read the series many times in the past, but it’s been at least ten years since the last time that I opened any of them.


  1. I have no idea about this one, I'll just go with 31

  2. 35. And I say let your Hitchhiker memory stay rusty so the jokes in the game can have their greatest impact!

  3. You were lucky you had heard about the watch, that puzzle took me ages to figure out what was going on in this game. All in all, I wasn't that impressed with this game, so I'll go with relatively low 30.

    1. What happens if you don't wind the watch? I'm not sure I see any place where you NEED it. It helps to get to appointments on time, but there is plenty of time between events. I ended up "wait"-ing quite a bit for things to happen.

    2. I am not sure, since I didn't try to play the game very far after seeing the time stop. I guess it might be possible to finish the game without winding the watch, but I just found it too difficult, when I didn't know whether I was early or late for the appointments.

  4. One vote for read it first, one for not. Anyone want to be the tie-breaker?

  5. I'll guess 34. It seems a bit more involved than what I remember of Infidel. Also I think you should keep a running tally of ways to die. ;)

    I'd also be in favor of rereading Hitchhiker's Guide, because it's just that awesome.