Friday 2 March 2018

Missed Classic: Cutthroats - Lost!?

Written by Joe Pranevich

Our target: the Leviathan.

Welcome back! Last week in Cutthroats, the game began with my friend handing me a map to sunken treasure just moments before he was murdered. The following day, wholesome undersea explorers with names like “The Weasel” and “Pete the Rat” approached me to help them search for a treasure that “they” knew about, coincidentally one of the treasures that only I know the location for thanks to my new map. Even better, I have to pay not only a share of the boat, but also buy all of the provisions for the journey. I feel used! As I ended last time, I sat in the outfitters looking glumly at the cashier. I have a price list and some cash, but absolutely no idea what I will need to make my adventure a success. I suspect that picking incorrectly will mean a dead end and potentially hours of backtracking.

Thus far, I am surprised by how “normal” this game seems. Other than the suggestion in the manual that there are multiple shipwrecks, it has played very vanilla. We have neither the “asshole protagonist” of Infidel, nor the interface-bending antics of Suspended. This seems like a pretty normal game, albeit one set in the real world rather than a science-fiction or fantasy setting. The game is slow to get started, but we’ll see if that impression holds this week.

The price list: because the best stores don’t advertise what they have for sale or for how much.

As I ponder what to buy, I should mention that this whole shopping trip is yet another round of copy-protection. We already had to use the manual to determine which ship was sunk as well as its depth, but now we have to shop with no indication in the store itself exactly what is sold. That seems vaguely unrealistic! Since I have no idea what I will need, I try to be thorough. By trying to buy one of everything, over multiple restores, I learn that they are out of spear guns, compasses, and winches, plus I cannot afford (even if I empty my bank account) the location box and diving cage. I expect that the location box was just a reference to Infidel anyway, but you never know. I pop my available cash and all of the prices in a spreadsheet to help me in my decisions.

I found a reason to use a spreadsheet!

I do not have enough money to buy everything so I have to rank what I think I will need. I’d be willing to bet that I will need the flashlight and batteries; this is an Infocom game, after all! I also grab the air compressor and putty. I bet that I’ll need the compressor to fill my oxygen tanks, plus the putty has great puzzle-solving potential. I grab the net, magnet, and shark repellent for a similar reason. I have a little money left, so I buy the diving book too. That means that I do not have enough money for the anchor or the nautical charts. I can see how both could be necessary, but they seem on first glance much less useful than the other things. Thankfully, I do not need to carry everything because they will deliver it all to our selected boat this afternoon.

The delivery boy won’t arrive for a few hours so I head back to the Shanty to grab lunch (since I need to eat and drink still) and grab the rest of my diving stuff. After that, I just “wait” on the wharf until he appears and follow him until he puts the goods in a storage area at the northern end of the boat. You didn’t know the boat had a storage area? That’s because I forgot to mention that I mapped it while I was waiting.

Ahoy! An 11-room adventure ship! (It’s a rental.)

A bit after the goods are delivered, Johnny Red approaches me and asks for the final (?) bit of copy protection: the latitude and longitude of our destination. As soon as I give this to him, he could kill me and grab the treasure for himself, but I trust him and tell him the location. He tells me to get some rest before we arrive. Not too much after that, I am forced to go to sleep in my bunk and we arrive at the destination. I wind my watch and head for the supply room.The first thing I check is the oxygen in my tank. It is empty so I use the compressor to fill it. It takes me a few too many tries to realize that the command is “fill tank with air”, but I work it out eventually. The shark repellent is hazardous to humans so I elect not to open it until I need it. Unexpectedly, there is also a drill in the room. It was either on the ship from a previous passenger or one of the other crew members brought it. It doesn’t work, but once I replace its battery, all is fine. I put on my diving gear and head up to the main deck.

Up on deck, the Weasel is there with a line that I am supposed to tie to the treasure, but I cannot actually see any line. The game just tells me that I’ll use it when I need it, so I’ll just ignore that for now and dive in… and immediately get killed by sharks. I restore and this time immediately open the shark repellent when we hit the water. That saves me from the sharks. Swimming down, I quickly get to an area that is too dark to see, but my flashlight works just fine in this situation. A little further and we have arrived at the ship!

The Leviathan has four levels of decks?
Maybe just three...

Exploring the shipwreck doesn’t take too long so I won’t walk you through it room-by-room. My oxygen tank is surprisingly small and I couldn’t do do more than a bit of exploring without running out of air. I solved this by reloading frequently. I’m not even sure what happens if you come up to fill your tank again, but I didn’t want to chance a second dive without shark repellent.

The top deck is empty and the middle deck is blocked off so I swim to the bottom to progress. Moving just south from there, I have a choice: further south is the mine room or I can head up to an air pocket. The air pocket is interesting, but a dead end for now: there’s a tight squeeze just beyond it that I don’t have a path through yet. Also, moving through causes the bubble to fill with water, so I’m going to hold off until I have a better idea what I am supposed to do. The mine room is a surprise because this was supposed to be a passenger ship, but it is filled to the brim with mines. I guess the Germans were right! The key challenge of the mine room is that it is filled with many mines properly strapped to the floor, but one floating mine has dislodged and is blocking a hole to the deck above. Attempting to swim by it causes the ship to explode. While I cannot say if this depiction of shipboard mines is very realistic, at least these did exist and were extensively used in World War I. Score one for Mr. Berlyn’s knowledge of history!

This is a WW2 mine, but seems to be what Berlyn is describing.

With two puzzles to pick from, I focus first on the mine room and the mine blocking the hole to the deck above. I try a bunch of things, but I am not sure I have all of the right tools. Using the putty on the mine doesn’t prevent it from discharging. I can pull it towards myself with the electromagnet and that seems like a good lead, but whenever I do it is attracted too quickly and sets itself off. I search for access panels or other ways to disarm it, even just try “disarm mine” directly, but there is nothing I can find. My guess is that I might need the anchor for this, tying it to the mine to bring it down and keep it there. Unfortunately, I didn’t but that and don’t want to restore back yet. But can I even swim carrying an anchor? How big is it, anyway?

I have more success in the narrow passage. After some trial and error, I find that I can pass through if I take off the oxygen tank and hold it in front of me. That leads to the main office of the ship and a long-hidden safe. I cannot take the safe with me and I do not know the combination, but I have seen more than my fair share of heist movies and try using the drill instead. That works! The safe pops open.Inside is a glass case containing stamps, untouched by the passage of time! Unfortunately, the case has a crack in it and is starting to fill with water. I race to the surface but there is no way to make it. With the case gradually filling with water, the stamps are always ruined before I can swim back to the ship. Fortunately, I have a solution to this problem: the putty. By putting the putty on the crack, no more water gets in. I take it to the surface… and still fail because the water that is in there is sloshing around and gets the stamps wet. No amount of choosing a different route or trying to be careful seems to prevent the stamps from being ruined. What am I missing?

I can name at least two adventure games with stamp puzzles. How many can you name?

I think I am beginning to see the shape of this puzzle. If we can find a way past the mine blocking the hole, there is a path to the safe that doesn’t pop the air bubble. I do not know what that is important, but perhaps that will unlock the solution to something else. There will be barely enough oxygen in the tank to do this in one journey but I’ve dealt with move-limits before and can optimize once I have a final path. Since I am stuck trying to solve the mine puzzle, I restore back to the beginning of the game to buy the anchor. That takes far too much time, but when I play out that sequence, I quickly realize that the anchor cannot be a part of the solution: it is so heavy that I cannot carry it and other items that I already know I need at the same time. In the end, I waste 45 minutes and accomplish nothing. This game is so fun!

Everything else that I try with the mine fails. I try with the magnet in it and under it. I try pushing it lightly away with the flippers, pull it with the net, turn it, push it, pull it, and a hundred other things.Everything I try either does absolutely nothing or causes it to explode. I give up and take a clue, telling me that I was on the right track with the magnet. So, what can I do with the magnet? The solution is stupid, but here it is: you have to put the magnet against the mine before you turn it on. This causes it to not jerk to your position and explode. I think I was let down, in part, by how many Infocom games i have played: not once have you ever put an object “against” another. I was so close! Once you have the mine caught with the magnet, you can drop them and they will drift (surprisingly safely) to the bottom. Problem solved, although I don’t much like the solution.

From here, it’s just a matter of finding and optimizing a path. Rather than fixing the crack on the tank immediately, I leave it cracked until I get to the air pocket room. From there, I can drill a hole in the case to empty out the water and then patch the hole and the crack together with the putty. Problem solved! I won’t tell you how many times I tried that to find a path that worked. This also only works if I remembered to turn off the drill immediately after opening the safe; I had to restore back to do that faster, but that wasn’t difficult, only annoying. With that, I can make it to the surface and…

An unexpected twist! Unless you played Infidel!

I die. After recovering the stamps, someone on the crew slits my throat on the way back to shore to prevent me from getting my part of the treasure. Once again, Berlyn has ended a game with a loss… or has he? No. I do not have the maximum points. Unlike in Infidel, there is a way to prevent yourself from dying. Next time, I’ll have to play the game over again and this time figure out who the traitor(s) are before I dive.

Time played: 3 hr 55 min
Total time: 6 hr 40 min
Inventory: Disappointment and frustration.


  1. I can name no games with stamp puzzles, if it's fun maybe Ill include one in my new adventure game =D

  2. Well, there's at least one in my Infocom marathon already. :)

  3. The one game I can think of with a stamp puzzle is Qnlbsgurgragnpyr

    1. Right, not really a puzzle of sorting stamps according to some clues, but more like to "use item with item".

      Good one

  4. Putting a stamp on an envelope and mailing something surely doesn't count as a puzzle, does it? Maniac Mansion puts that mundane activity to use...

  5. Only a perfect score gets the best ending?

    1. My next post will say a bit more about this, but if I were to be generous I might call it "nonlinear storytelling". I won't tell you what I'd say if I were less generous.

      The idea is that there seems to be no way to know until you get to the end of the game that you missed something earlier. It's only when you die at the end that you realize that you have to start over just about from scratch. Then, you have a new challenge of doing all the things that you did before, making all the appointments, while trying to solve this new mystery and figure out what to do when you solved it.

      I'll go into a lot more detail next week, but I cannot decide if this is an inspired genre-defying stroke of brilliance, or just about as dumb as every Sierra game with a walking dead situation because you missed an out-of-sight object.

    2. Another generous way of putting it: a proto-accretive player character. But in more "modern" interactive fiction, it's usually obvious ahead of time when you're in that kind of scenario (e.g. Varicella), and it's a major part of the game, not just a gotcha.


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