Infocom's Cutthroats (1984) Complete May 16

Infocom coverage at Gold Machine resumes today, with a four-part discussion of Cutthroats, Mike Berlyn’s last interactive fiction game at Infocom. Despite mixed reactions to Infidel, he found himself returning to the “Tales of Adventure” genre–perhaps unwillingly.

Selling 52.7k copies in its first year, Cutthroats was a bona fide hit, though reactions through the years have grown progressively less enthusiastic. Perhaps the most historically significant element of Cutthroats had nothing to do with Mike Berlyn or the game’s code. It marked the debut of the famed “gray box” format, which engenders fan nostalgia and affection to this day. It only makes sense to start there.

As always, I welcome impressions, comments, or complaints about Cutthroats, the gray box, or even Cornerstone.

Preface: Material Histories: Infocom’s Gray Box
[1/3] Hell is Other Divers: Cutthroats
[2/3] What’s In the Box: Cutthroats
[3/3] This Ain’t Jumpman: Cutthroats


Heh, all this time I’ve been saying that HHGG debuted the grey box format. I will try to correct that in the future…

  • “Material Histories: Infocom’s Gray Box”


Perhaps Drew is from Hellspark.

If only I were so interesting! I picked up “grey” as an affectation in undergrad lit studies–British authors were a primary focus. I attempted–and failed–to overcome it here. Ah, well.

I did not go so far as to pick up “must do” and its relatives


I’ve not played Cutthroats. (Now I’ve got Geena Davis, dressed as a pirate, stuck in my head.)
I think Infidel was my least-favourite Infocom game, and has a particularly lame ending. (It didn’t even ask if I wanted to restart; just exited to the OS (CP/M)!)

Cutthroats is probably the very worst Infocom game. I think I can say it’s not as buggy as Infidel, but it’s a lot more boring. One of the central puzzles is deciding which supplies to buy with your limited money–not my idea of fun.

This game is very much a victim of space constraints. Originally envisioned with as many as 7 shipwrecks, the layout of each apparently to be procedurally generated à la Beyond Zork, it had to be scaled way back to fit in version 3 of the Z-machine. If only they hadn’t been so desperate to make it run on small computers like the Commodore 64. The end result is so lacking not just in story and flavor, but even in gameplay.

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Not so long ago, I argued that the ending and the jerky protagonist were the best things about Infidel because they were groundbreaking and moved the medium forward–even if they don’t make for an enjoyable experience.

Absolutely. Do you think that this is the first Infocom game to fall so short for this reason? Space was a constant source of pressure early on, but Cutthroats does feel very empty and aimless by comparison. Maybe Seastalker has this problem, too, but there it feels eclipsed by its many other serious problems.


I enjoyed the initial part on the island. But the box art had promised me an exciting diving adventure, and that part felt lacking. Particularly since, as you say, you probably have to do it a couple of times before finding the correct supplies for the dive.

At the very least, the game recycles objects to a much greater degree than any other Infocom game I can think of. E.g. several minor NPCs are a single SPEAR-CARRIER object. (I like to imagine it as one person running around behind the scenes, changing clothes and putting on different fake beards.)

There are also some signs in the code that there was supposed to be more to do on the journey to the wreck. Instead of just going to sleep and waking up when you’re there, you were apparently supposed to take shifts and look out for obstacles?

For me, the weakest Infocom game is probably Seastalker or Moonmist. But they were probably also hampered by space restrictions. Other Infocom games I have mixed feelings about are Nord and Bert, and Shogun.

But overall, I think their games have aged remarkably gracefully.

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So many Infocoms I haven’t played!
An old friend published an adventure game magazine, Red Herring. She reviewed Nord and Bert, concluding that, unless you’re steeped in American idioms, you probably wouldn’t do well.

See, this is a good case for a modernized-and-improved remake.

Originally envisioned with as many as 7 shipwrecks, the layout of each apparently to be procedurally generated à la Beyond Zork ,

Procedurally generate the layouts and the puzzles.

You’d have to set up each puzzle with multiple solutions, using different resources. Allow for partial success on some paths. Really you’d want lots of treasure in each wreck. You’re trying to maximize the take and return alive, not find the single victory condition. (Although I guess you’d want a “boss treasure” in each wreck just because that’s more satisfying.)

In modern terms, it’d be “Captain Verdeterre’s Roguelike”.

With this setup, the supply-buying phase becomes a strategic challenge rather than a pick-the-right-choice puzzle. The shop offerings would be randomly generated too – with slightly randomized prices. (Otherwise there’d be an optimal strategy for that phase, which is boring.)

You could also randomize the date so that the tide table is interesting. :) (But skip the “what day is it” puzzle.) Tide level can be a meaningful variable for your dive time – some areas are accessible only at high tide, or low tide, or with the tide moving a certain way.

There are also some signs in the code that there was supposed to be more to do on the journey to the wreck. Instead of just going to sleep and waking up when you’re there, you were apparently supposed to take shifts and look out for obstacles?

Expand this or leave it out. Honestly I’d say leave it out.

Returning to port to buy more supplies is a viable strategy. Your final score is profit divided by how many days you spent, or something like that. So going back for that harpoon gun is a big penalty, but maybe it’s worth it if the shark is blocking a really important area. However, sailing back and forth isn’t the fun part of the game – compress that into a simple “what time to launch?” decision.

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That’s fair to say. I think I have a pretty good handle on the American English, and I wasn’t always sure what the game wanted. In terms of sheer quantity, it has a steeper “American” requirement than Zork II. It’s rare to see positive commentary about it; I think Jimmy Maher has been the kindest among contemporary authors.

It sure is! I’ve been down on modifications to classic games, but remakes (and fan fiction too) are another matter.

I’d also love to see a better realization of the island. In terms of atmosphere and characterization, the game relies more on what a player assumes it might be rather than what is actually shown. There aren’t a lot of Infocom games in such a gritty setting (just Ballyhoo, I think)–it could be a kind of “marine noir.”

The next post is up. As always, I enjoy hearing about the game or Infocom in general.


New post up regarding packaging and narrative.

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Greetings all. I’ve just posted my last essay on Cutthroats, and I’m surprised where I landed with the game. It’s no secret that I don’t like it. In fact, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is the only 1984 Infocom game that I like without reservation.

However, unlike the disappointments of the fine-to-bad games of that year, Cutthroats feels less like an artistic or technical failure and more of a systemic problem at Infocom which was, by mid 1984, hurtling toward a cliff. What Cutthroats needed was visionary leadership at the top of a game company, and Cutthroats certainly did not get it.

Next week is Hitchhiker’s, a game that genuinely excites me. It’ll be good to get that feeling back. 1984 is a tough year for me, both in terms of the games as well as overall company performance.

I’m also happy to announce that Gold Machine will feature a guest post by Aaron Reed; he’ll be sharing exclusive content from his upcoming book, 50 Years of Text Games! More news on that soon.