Rebooting Electronic Literature, Volume 4

Critical Essay about Robert DiChiara's "A Sucker in Spades" by Mariusz Pisarski

"A Sucker in Spades––Hardboiled Text Game of Robert DiChiara"
by Mariusz Pisarski

One dead body, two femme fatales, local mafia, and a lone private eye roaming the labyrinth of L.A. from one click of the mouse to another. A Sucker in Spades by Robert DiChiara, is the second eliterature works published by Eastgate Systems, Inc. in 1988 on a the Hypergate platform. It offers a solid dose of digital, postmodern adventure within the recognisable convention of hard-boiled fiction and film-noir genres. At the same time it prefigures future forms of interactive entertainment.

A Sucker in Spades situates itself at a crossroads of pen and paper detective fiction gamebooks, interactive fiction, and early electronic literature. The work was created in Hypergate software developed by Mark Bernstein as Eastgate Systems, Inc.'s original in-house tool for writing digital fiction. Reminiscent of HyperCard––with two major differences of not having “stacks” as its main building blocks and with support for animated graphics not as robust as the Apple software––Hypergate served as a platform for two more works: The Election of 1912 by Bernstein and Erin Sweeney and the critically acclaimed King of Space by Sarah Smith. A year after A Sucker in Spades was published, Eastgate Systems, Inc. shipped Michael Joyce’s afternoon, a story, licensed Storyspace, and made it its main authoring software.

Originally, A Sucker in Spades appeared in print in 1985, as one of three chose-your-own adventure novellas published in a single book Hard-Boiled: Three Tough cases for the Private Eye with Smarts. [1]  The gameplay required pen and paper for character stats’ notation, and dice rolls for paragraph hopping. Gameplay was coordinated by the voice of an invisible “Game Master”: “go to #75”, “roll the dice”, “subtract D-2 Muscle and D-2 Moxie points”. A map of L.A. was included with the key locations marked. Crossing out previously visited locations and marking newly opened ones was an important element of the gameplay.

The game starts with a setting typical for the detective story: a woman in distress comes to your detective agency to report a missing fiancee. After assigning yourself name, sex, age and––important core attributes of Muscle, Magnetism, and Moxie (M-M-M)––you venture into town to a few locations that are available at the start of the game.

As a tough, yet romantic anti-hero, apparently modelled on the character of Sam Spade from The Maltese Falcon (1931), starring Humphrey Bogart in the film adaptation (1941), readers move between the detective agency, various hotel apartments, a police station, and luxury villas in order to solve the mystery. There are also some chance encounters with the character’s ex-wife, with local criminals, and ex-cons. What is interesting, these encounters, secondary in their importance to the main plot, happen in passages in-between locations, while travelling from one place to another. Players return to these segments repeatedly. Seemingly randomised, they function as a convenient way of introducing some local background about events or historical background about the character.

On a narrative level, in imagery and style A Sucker in Spades is immersed in the hard-boiled genre, although with an added element of irony, humor, pastiche, and parody. On the level of poetics and the mechanics of narrative discourse the work points toward future forms of interactive storytelling. Navigating the world is structurally close or identical to contemporary computer games. In a strikingly similar manner, a character of Grand Theft Auto receives a mission, gets into his car, and travels to various locations across yet another fictitious Los Angeles. The only difference is the technologically determined scale of mimetic representation. The rhythm of returns to the same scenes and a system of conditional access to new ones makes A Sucker in Spades an early example of literary hypertext from almost the same period as the early, so called “Riverrun”, editions of afternoon, a story! [2]


Thanks to Hypergate’s built-in functionality of guard fields, which control access to locations not yet visited, DiChiara’s work brings a disruption to the genre of print based chose-your-own adventure. Although there is no parser typical to computer IF, guard fields have successfully blocked readers from browsing through pages, jumping to restricted paragraphs, or cheating on dice rolls. This way, hypertext comes to authors’ aid and delivers more control over the gameplay design. Additionally, automation of important RPG elements of the genre (dice rolls and character stats) results in a sense of accelerated exploration, in contrast to a slower and more reflective engagement with gamebooks. This strategy will be mostly rejected by future generations of “digital natives” who tend to prefer real dice, pen, and paper.

Strikingly, in comparison with the print version, a further fragmentation is imposed on the lengths of paragraphs. This is, of course, heavily determined by PC hardware constraints in 1988 (small 8-inch screen was a standard). Nevertheless, it makes the hypertext form as represented by A Sucker in Spades responsible for a reversed (micro) linearization of the non-linear original. A single paragraph, which in gamebooks and digital IF often represents a single location, in Hypergate is divided into sub-segments. Joined by a “proceed” button, they force the reader to recreate a paragraph over the course of several segments. Fortunately, strong fragmentation benefits the text. It draws readers closer to the style and character of DiChiara’s prose. Every sentence is indeed a gem! The hard-boiled fiction genre is humorously exaggerated and juxtaposed with postmodern sensibilities of the late 1980.


[1] Robert DiChiara. Hard-Boiled: Three Tough Cases for a Private Eye with Smarts. Boston, MA: D.R. Godine, 1985.
[2] The first of two “Riverrun” editions of afternoon, a story appeared in 1987. For the detailed overview of all recorded versions of afternoon, a story see Dene Grigar's illustrated guide at


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