Friday, 9 March 2018

Missed Classic: Cutthroats - Won! Twice! And Final Rating

Written by Joe Pranevich

And it was such a nice dream, too...

Last week on Cutthroats, I lost. I successfully teamed up with my fellow treasure hunters, identified the location of the sunken cruise liner, solved a few underwater puzzles, and made it back to the surface with a priceless (and surprisingly dry) stamp collection. That sounds like the end, but then I was murdered in my sleep. Someone in our crew is a traitor, but who could it be? The Weasel? Pete the Rat? Johnny Red? This isn’t the most trustworthy crew and just about anyone could have done it.

At the beginning of last week’s session, I felt that the game was pedestrian. Now that I’ve found Berlyn’s “unexpected” twist, I am not so sure. I’ll have more thoughts about this once I unravel the mystery, but for now I am more annoyed than anything else. Let’s jump back in the game and discover the killer. Who could it be?

Starting back from the beginning.

My strategy this week is to start the game over. I may end up getting a different shipwreck, but that’s okay because I can still restore back into my other set of saved games once I know what to do. This time around, I plan to play the game like The Witness or Deadline: I will follow everyone and figure out what they do. This is made slightly more challenging because I have to keep the plot moving forward, but with copious saved games it all works out.

Just like when I started the first time, I discover that the Weasel tries to enter and search my hotel room twice: once at 8:20 when he thinks I will be at The Shanty and again at 10:30 when he thinks I am meeting with Johnny Red. In the same time period, the rest of the crew just alternate between the lighthouse and the Shanty, although Johnny also spends some time at the outfitters. My suspicions about Weasel are proven true at noon when I catch him and Mr. McGinty meeting at the ferry. I can’t seem to overhear what they are saying, but he hands something to McGinty before boarding a ferry for a trip to the mainland.

I made a schedule!

This is where the unlocked window that I found in my first post comes into play. I follow McGinty back and he heads into his office; I can even see that he has a new envelope on his desk. If I loop around the back and wait for him to leave, I can sneak in and grab the envelope without being seen. This is the proof we need that Weasel has been working with McGinty the whole time! I take the proof to Johnny in the pub and… the game ends because we no longer have enough people to crew the boat. Is Weasel really the only person on the island that is available for an expedition? How about if we just wait and do it tomorrow? Doesn’t Johnny have other friends to help us? Is this tremendously stupid? The answer to at least one of those questions is “yes”.

Revised strategy: I’ll hang onto the envelope until we leave and spring it on Johnny only after we use Weasel’s navigation services. This opens up a new set of problems because now any time Weasel sees me, he immediately detects that I am carrying a well-concealed envelope and knifes me. What is it with people in this game being able to detect inventory items that they cannot possibly know about? Even if I manage to avoid being spotted by Weasel, the envelope mysteriously disappears from my inventory when we wake up for the dive. What am I missing?

This absolutely destroys me and I cannot figure out what to do. I am embarrassed to admit that I take yet another hint (sorry!) and find that I can hide the envelope under my mattress in the ship. The game doesn’t even clue you in that you can interact with the mattress, even though it’s actually a good idea. .After that, we can retrieve it even after we arrive at the dive and show it to Johnny. He then ties up Weasel below decks and takes his spot coordinating the dive. How will we sail home now? I have no idea. Maybe we’ll call the Coast Guard. I repeat the entirety of the dive as before and this time, I win!

This time I really win!

I have a ton to say about how I essentially had to go back and re-solve the middle of the game in order to get to the end, but we’ll cover that in the final rating. Before I get to that, I know that this game has two possible paths which are randomly chosen at the beginning of the game. To make sure I am providing as accurate a score as possible, I need to go back and play for that ending as well.

Time played: 1 hr 05 min
Total time: 7 hr 45 min

A much older shipwreck!

Alternate: Exploring the São Vera

I do some Googling and it turns out that the key moment when the game decides which of the two paths to take is the meeting at the lighthouse. If you save just before Johnny shows you the artifact that he recovered, you can restore and replay until you get the one that you want. In my case, instead of the plate, Johnny has discovered a gold coin which we deduce came from the Portuguese cargo ship, the São Vera. I proceed as before until the conversation at Point Lookout. Now I tell Johnny Red that we have a deep dive coming and he elects to rent the Mary Margaret instead.

The significant change is that new ship is more expensive than the old one, leaving me only $172 for equipment. I will have a more difficult choice than before. Fortunately, a close read of the ship description in the manual reveals that the Mary Margaret comes with a compressor and deep-sea diving equipment already, so that saves me a hundred dollars. In the end, I leave with the flashlight, dry cell, putty, battery, net, and shark repellent. I do not have enough funds for the diving book, charts, anchor, or magnet. While I wait for the goods to be delivered, I explore the ship and find the compressor up on deck. Instead of a drill waiting for me in the storage area, it is a “small machine”. I don’t know what the machine is, but I put in a dry cell battery (when it arrives) and turn it on. It makes clicking noises at different speeds around the ship so my guess is a metal detector… but I fail to understand why the game doesn’t just tell you that. Your character obviously knows what it is, so why avoid telling the player? I follow all the other steps the same way to start the dive, including reporting Weasel’s treachery to Johnny.

A completely different puzzle!

This time around, the dive is different. It is a deep-sea dive and none of my equipment from the hotel is necessary. Instead, I wear a deep-sea diving suit which is attached to the boat at all times through an air hose. I will not have any way to tell when I am about to run out of air, which is unfortunate, but it also means that I will have to retrace my steps when I get back. If I get the hose tangled or snagged, I die.

Getting to the ship involves fighting off a shark and typing “down” a surprising number of times. The top deck is three rooms with paths down in the northern and southernmost rooms. The middle deck is much more complicated:
  • The northernmost room is also where the northern hole in the deck leads. Descending there gets me trapped because the ladder breaks, but there is a broken mast and some rope just out of reach. Sounds like a puzzle to get back up.
  • The next room to the south is filled with iron bars. I snag one.
  • Past that is a room with an empty cask in it. I can push it a bit but it seems to be empty and there is nothing under it.
  • The next room is where the southern hole on the top deck leads. It has some bunks that have fallen to block a door. 
I set about solving these puzzles. I am able to move the bunks out of the way of the door if I use the iron bar, but they quickly fall again. If I am on the other side of the door, they fall and block my air hose and I die. I realize that I can push the cask around, but not what to do with it. Pushing it to the far north doesn’t give me enough height to get to the partly-fallen mast or rope, so I can’t use it to get out. I can’t seem to use it to block off the falling bunks either. It takes a bit of time, but I work out that I can use the iron bar to prop up the bunks so that they don’t fall, letting me into the room beyond safely. (This is nearly identical to an Infidel puzzle!)

Don’t screw with giant squid!

The floor below is the next set of puzzles. At the bottom of the boat is a sleeping squid. If you touch it or try to capture it with the net, it wakes up and kills you. I can get past it if I do so quickly, but I have a feeling he’ll block my escape later. Beyond him is a room with a chest as well as a hole in the boat. I can exit the boat to find that our orange recovery line is floating around, drifting in and out of the screen every few turns. I head in and push the heavy chest out then attach the line to it. I “pull” the line to signal to Johnny to reel it up and now I just need to find a way out. Unfortunately, the lower ladder is broken and I have no way up! Why the heck can’t I just swim up the ladder?

Unfortunately, this is partly just me not paying attention. There’s a room further north that contains some skeletons (one of which is armed with a sword, which I grab) and further than that is a second chest! How can I tell them apart? I use the metal detector! The one to the south clicks while the one to the north does not. But which do I need? Do gold coins cause the thing to click and so I take that one? Or does the clicking mean iron and one of the chests just contain cannonshot?

Now that I realize I have two chests, I push the northern one out and tie the line to it, then use the southern one as a stepping stool to get up the broken ladder. Unfortunately, we still have a one-way trip because there is no way up either the southern or the northern hole onto the top deck. I happened to come down the southern one to avoid breaking the ladder, but that was a mistake because I have to retrace my steps. I restore and do it all again while going down the northern route. This time, I find that if I push the cask all the way to there and stand on it, I can use my sword to cut the rope! I can climb it if I drop nearly everything, reeling me up to the surface… Only to lose again because I picked the wrong chest. This one contains soggy Portuguese newspapers.

I restore and do it all over again, except this time with the southern chest. Now I win! This was a fun little puzzle, much less timing-oriented. And we never did do anything with the squid… Oh well!

I win again!

Additional Time: 1 hr 40 min
Total time: 9 hr 25 min

With two victories under my belt, it is time for the difficult part: the final rating. Much like Berlyn’s other games, this one challenges you to think about games in a subtly different way. While Suspended played with viewpoints, and Infidel played with your perception of a player-protagonist, this one challenged your linear sense of game progression. The game, at least how I played it, plays out in a different order than you expect. You solve the basic stuff fairly easily, completing the appointments and planning your expedition. The “ending” of the game, the actual treasure hunt, is actually the middle; the “surprise” bad ending causes you to re-evaluate the game that came before. The final puzzle then is actually discovering Weasel’s treachery and somehow pulling off the dive anyway. It’s a neat progression and while I was frustrated with it at first, I have come to think of it as a brave narrative choice. Berlyn deserves credit for having three games that challenge you to think about gaming. That is high praise.

And yet, let’s be honest: there are dozens of games in the 1980s that have dead ends that you don’t discover until nearly the end. Those games aren’t “artistic” because they had walking-dead situations. And yet, I think Berlyn had his heart in the right place here. I trust his instincts, but it didn’t work for me from a game or a narrative perspective. It’s better than Infidel, at least I think it is. Let’s see how the points play out.

Actual 1980s diving watch

Puzzles and Solvability - I’ve said my piece with the final set of “traitor” puzzles, but there are a number of other things to like about the puzzles in this game. The two ships offered very different types of challenges and they were both fun to puzzle through. The timing-related puzzles were somewhat annoying, but at least they were well-done. The air hose and retracing-your-steps aspect of the second ship was also very fun. Unfortunately, there are hardly any fair puzzles prior to going out on the dive. It took me forever to figure out what was attracting McGinty’s interest and I needed to go back at least once to buy different stuff at the outfitters. All in all, I’d like to go higher, but I really cannot. My score: 4.

Interface and Inventory - This is another typical Infocom game, although this is the first one where the status bar has a puzzle-related purpose: to display the watch time and show when you watch has stopped. Other, this was the usual. My score: 4.

Story and Setting - Hardscrabble Island is an interesting location and diving in the ocean was more fun than you might expect. But for all that this game was supposed to be Berlyn’s chance to be more literary in his approach (because he wasn’t trying to write and program at the same time), I do not see much of a difference. The several crewmates were not particularly well-written or deep, nor was there much at all of a story past the opening sequence. I enjoyed the adventure aspect for what it was, especially the allusions to modern piracy, but there could have been much more plot. I know he is capable of it. My score: 4.

Sound and Graphics - Infidel got the pity point for the ASCII art graphics, but we cannot do the same here. My score: 0.

Environment and Atmosphere - This is really a game in two parts. The ocean segments have fantastic atmosphere: they are tense, claustrophobic, and just fun to play. I am glad I played them both because the two shipwrecks felt so different while still being well-designed. The opening segment of the game however left much to be desired with many unnecessary rooms, characters that weren’t particularly realistic, and room descriptions that were simply boring. Most of the rooms in the game didn’t even bother with unique names or flavor text. If we were judging just the diving, we’d have a nice high score here. My score: 4.

Dialog and Acting - This was supposed to be a game where Berlyn could focus on the writing, but that isn’t in evidence by the text of the game. As I already mentioned, room descriptions and names were poor and sometimes barely existent. That is bad enough, but the NPCs in this game are universally flat and uninteresting, despite at least in theory being very interesting characters. One is named Weasel! Sure, he picks his teeth with a knife every now and then, but that isn’t a character trait and certainly not enough to make me care about the people I am adventuring with. My score: 3.

On top of that, I am going to add +1 for replayability, a rare trait in Infocom games. Sure, you can only play again once to get a separate set of puzzles, but it makes the game just that much more worthwhile.

What do we get when we add up the score? (4+4+4+0+4+3)/.6 + 1 = 33.

With that, I place this game as equal to Infidel and in the lower third of all Infocom games so far. Does that seem fair? I think so. The game simply isn’t consistent and at times feels unfinished. There is not nearly enough to do in the first half, the shopping sequence is blatantly unfair, and the characters are uninteresting.

With an average score of 32, you readers were right on the money with this one. Reiko wins the bonus caps with a score guess of 34. Congratulations!

Up next for me will be a few weeks off: Ilmari has the next Missed Classic. Depending on the schedule, you’ll either see Inspector Gadget or Hitchhiker’s Guide next from me. I am particularly looking forward to the latter as one of the all-time great games of Infocom. Can it live up to the hype and my very dim recollections?


  1. I am not sure what your feeling are, but in my opinion, Berlyn seems to be the biggest disappointment among the Infocom implementors. He had interesting ideas, but when it comes to execution, the actual games just failed to live up to the expectations.

    1. I think I'd like to more fully answer this question once we reach the end of the line for some of the other Imps. That said, Mike Berlyn's work was visionary and had interesting ideas. He played with the tropes of the genre at a time when it was still figuring itself out. I just wish that they also played better as games.