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Daily Archives: October 16, 2015

Nord and Bert

Nord and Bert

Fair Warning: a handful of puzzle spoilers are sprinkled through this article.

For the most part, Infocom weathered Activision’s demand that they suddenly double their output of games almost unbelievably well. While I fancy I can see evidence of their sudden prolificacy in a parser that could have been a little bit smarter here or a puzzle that could have used just a little more thought there, I certainly can’t say that any of the games I’ve written about so far were spoiled by the new pressure. The one glaring exception to that rule, the only title that truly does seem like a tragic victim of its circumstances, is the one I’m writing about today, Jeff O’Neill’s Nord and Berd Couldn’t Make Head or Tail of It. Its failure to become the game it might have been is only made more disheartening by the fact that it was the most boldly experimental game concept Infocom had dared since Steve Meretzky’s A Mind Forever Voyaging, the perfect antidote to the sense of been-there/done-that ennui that was beginning to afflict some of Infocom’s other designs along with the Imps themselves. What could have represented a badly needed new direction would prove, like A Mind Forever Voyaging, a detour to nowhere.

We can see the seed of Nord and Bert in another Meretzky game, Leather Goddesses of Phobos. That game’s most brilliant puzzle of all from a crowded field of contenders, still justly remembered and loved today, is a “T-removing machine” that can turn rabbits into rabbis and trays into “little Ray whatsisname from second grade.” This sort of interaction, all about the words themselves that carried all the freight in an all-text Infocom game, could never be entirely replicated in one of ICOM’s point-and-click adventures, in a Sierra animated adventure game, nor even in one of Magnetic Scroll’s text adventures with pretty pictures. For an Infocom that was feeling increasingly embattled by all of the above and more, that had a definite appeal: “Let’s see you try to do this with your fancy graphics!”

After writing Ballyhoo and duly putting in some time as Sisyphus pushing the rock that was the Bureaucracy project up that hill, Jeff O’Neill decided to take Meretzky’s idea to the next level, to make an entire game that was all about the words out of which it was formed. He approached his game of wordplay in what he calls a “backwards” fashion, beginning with the puzzles rather than any set fictional genre or concept, spending days with his nose buried in references books of clichés and homonym pairs and poring over a wide variety of word puzzles from the likes of Games Magazine. To keep things somewhat manageable for the player, he decided to make his new game a series of “short stories” rather than a single extended experience, a first for Infocom. This way each of the segments could focus on one type of wordplay. The fictions for each segment became whatever was most convenient for the type of puzzles O’Neill wanted to present there. Only quite late in the process did he come up with an overarching story to bind the segments together, of the “mixed-up Town of Punster” that’s beset with a confusion of wordplay. You must “cleanse the land of every wrongful, wordful deed” by completing the seven mini-games and a master game combining all of the types of puzzles from the earlier parts. This finale you can naturally only access after completing everything else.

While the master game’s existence does give a nod toward the traditional idea of the holistic, completeable adventure game, most of Nord and Bert departs radically from what people had long since come to expect of a text adventure. In addition to the unusual segmented structure, which led Infocom to dub the game “Interactive Short Stories” rather than “Interactive Fiction” on the box, many other tried-and-true attributes are missing in action. Mapping, for instance, is gone entirely. Infocom in general had been growing steadily less interested in this part of the text-adventure paradigm for years before Nord and Bert, first having excised the mazes and confusing nonreciprocal room connections that mark Zork, and of late having taken to including maps of one sort or another showing their games’ geographies right in the packages as often as not. Nord and Bert, however, takes it yet one step further, eliminating compass directions entirely in favor of a list of accessible rooms in the status line. Thanks to the segmented structure that holds each section to no more than a handful of rooms, you can simply “go to” the room of your choice. Actually, you usually don’t even have to do that much: just typing the name of a room, all by itself, is usually sufficient to send you there.

Indeed, Nord and Bert displays itself to best advantage when it barely feels like an imperative-driven text adventure at all, but rather an exercise in pure wordplay not quite like anything that had come to a computer before. Simply typing the name of an object will cause you to examine it — no “examine” or even “x” verb required — and many of the textual transformations that form the meat of its puzzles require simply typing the correct word or phrase rather than carrying out an in-world action per se. It all amounted to a very conscious bid to, as O’Neill puts it, “attract new fans as well as making the old ones happy. I tried to fulfill this goal by taking the tedium out of the game (mapping, etc.) and making the game more approachable for people.”

Like all Infocom games, Nord and Bert feels like a game for smart people, but it feels aimed toward a different sort of smart person than had been the norm heretofore, and not just because of the absence of dungeons and dragons or rockets and rayguns. A perfect world, at least by the lights of Infocom and Jeff O’Neill, would have seen it replacing the New York Times crossword puzzle on the breakfast tables of urbane sophisticates looking for something to toy with over their Sunday morning coffee. To keep it from becoming too frustrating for this more casual audience, O’Neill tried to build into the game both an extra layer of forgiveness and a tempting challenge to return to on the next Sunday by making it possible to “solve” most sections without actually figuring out all of the puzzles. Scoring is handled as a simple accounting of puzzles available and puzzles solved, and you can always jump back into a section you’ve completed to try to get those last pesky points. Likewise, you can always get out of one section to try another if you need a change of pace; the game remembers your progress in each section for you when you decide to jump back in. And if you absolutely can’t figure something out, Nord and Bert includes a built-in hint system that doles out clues bit by bit, InvisiClues-style, until finally giving the whole solution. This marks yet another first for Infocom in a game that’s fairly stuffed with them.

O’Neill’s prose feels as arch and playfully sophisticated — if sometimes just a bit too self-consciously so — as a classic New Yorker piece: “In this time when phraseology is practiced with mischief as the sole black art, when the currency is debased with the ceaseless random coinage of words, when verbicide is statistically the common household tragedy — now is the time when such a doer of good words is most welcome.” Looking for a visual counterpart to his style for the box art and the feelies, O’Neill happened upon a book of cartoons called The Day Gravity Was Turned Off in Topeka by one Kevin Pope, a journeyman commercial artist for greeting-card companies and the like who was trying to make it as a newspaper cartoonist via a syndicated panel called Inside Out. His work was perhaps just a little too redolent of Gary Larson’s The Far Side to stand out in its own right, but then The Far Side was also hugely popular among exactly the sorts of people at whom Nord and Bert was aimed — and a Kevin Pope didn’t carry the same price tag as a Gary Larson. A deal was quickly worked out, with Infocom pledging both royalties and a prominent plug for his newspaper cartoon and book in return for a dozen or so original cartoon panels to accompany the game. Each plays with words in one way or another, but otherwise they have little to do with the game they accompany. Nord and Bert is one of the few Infocom games that can be played perfectly happily without ever even glancing at the feelies, yet another nod in the direction of being a more casual sort of experience. Despite this, the best of the cartoons not only appears on the box cover but also gives the game its name — a name which, once again, has nothing to do with the contents of the disk.

Two more of the Kevin Pope cartoons included with Nord and Bert.

Two more of the Kevin Pope cartoons that were included with Nord and Bert.

Nord and Bert must have sounded pretty great in principle, both a bold new gameplay concept for a company that was growing tired of making the same old same old and a game that seemed like it could have the potential to reach a whole new type of player if Infocom could — and this was admittedly the trickiest part — find a way to reach her. Even in practice, when we fire up the actual game, things start out fine. The first section, the “Shopping Bizarre,” is the strongest in the game, a fresh delight to play after lots of adventures revolving around keys, maps, and fiddly in-world interactions. Its puzzles are all about finding homonyms, words that sound alike but are spelled differently, like a chocolate moose and chocolate mousseNord and Bert continues to acquit itself quite well in the next few sections. The second, “Play Jacks,” is themed around words and phrases that include a “jack”: “jack of all trades,” “jackhammer,” “Jacuzzi,” etc. Next comes “Buy the Farm,” another very strong section that deals in folksy clichés. And then we have “Eat Your Words,” which is all about English idioms like its title. But after that, alas, everything starts to go wrong. Having managed despite a few wobbles to keep its balance in a death-defying highwire act worthy of O’Neill’s earlier Ballyhoo for about half its length, when Nord and Bert finally falls it falls hard.

To understand why and how that should happen, we first have to acknowledge what a dangerous tightrope Nord and Bert really is walking right from the beginning. If you characterized the entire game as little more than a series of guess the verbs, nouns, and phrases, I might be able to accuse you of being ungenerous but I really couldn’t say that you were wrong. As such, it cuts against almost everything that Infocom had been striving for years now to make their games be. The parser, which Infocom had envisioned becoming eventually so smart and flexible that it would fade into the background entirely, a seamless conduit between player and world, is the entire focus of the play here. And instead of spurning the need for outside knowledge, instead of including everything you need to know to solve it within itself and its feelies as other Infocom games strove to do, Nord and Bert‘s success as a game is completely dependent on its player’s knowledge of clichés, turns of phrase, and quirks of American English. Certainly just about anyone who didn’t grow up with English as her first language will have a horrible time here. I tried to play Nord and Bert recently with my wife, who speaks excellent English but nevertheless has it as her third language. We gave up pretty quickly. Most of it was just baffling to her; it’s not much fun to watch your playing partner grin and giggle with each new intuitive flash as you wonder what the hell he’s on about. I would venture to guess that even some native speakers not from the United States could have some trouble with the folksy Americanisms in sections like “Buy the Farm.” When Nord and Bert does finally fall off that tightrope even for a wordplay-loving native-speaking American like me, it’s almost more surprising that we made it this far together than it is shocking that that the game finally went too far.

Still, the section where the big fall happens, “Act the Part,” is a mess by any standard. It seems that already by this point O’Neill was beginning to run out of workable wordplay ideas. The connection of “Act the Part” to the ostensible premise of the game as a whole is, at best, tenuous. You find yourself on the set of a banal sitcom, needing to determine the best action to advance a script that’s unknown to you. It devolves into a literal guessing game of trying to figure out what arbitrary action the game wants next, and a well-nigh impossible one at that. I’d be surprised if anyone in the history of Nord and Bert has ever actually connected a knife and “a bottle in front of me” to arrive at giving your deadbeat brother-in-law Bob a lobotomy without recourse to the hints. This is just bad, horrifically unfair design no matter how much we strain to make concessions for the sheer originality of the game as a whole. Just to add insult to injury (to use a phrase of which Nord and Bert would be proud), you have to solve every single inscrutable puzzle in this section to receive credit for completing the section as a whole.

The next section, “The Manor of Speaking” is also all but insoluble, and also bound by no identifiable connecting tissue of a consistent type of wordplay to give you some traction in divining its mysteries. A sample howler: you’re expected to spook a portrait of Karl Marx, whom the game tell you in the hints — but, naturally, nowhere else — “fears insurgencies,” by sticking a ticking alarm clock in a box and dropping it in front of him. Adventure games just don’t get any more “guess what the author is thinking” than that. The penultimate section, called “Shake a Tower,” recovers somewhat from those lowlights by at least once again building its interactions around an identifiable wordy theme, in this case Spoonerisms, word pairs with transposed sounds: for example, “gritty pearl” and “pretty girl.” But, with no contextual clues to tell you what you’re aiming to accomplish or what the game might expect, the scope of possibility remains far too wide. In short, all of these latter puzzles are just too hard, and not in a good way — a problem that persists into a master-game finale that throws everything that has come before into one unholy blender.

When playing Nord and Bert, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that at some point Infocom just gave up on it in light of all the other games on their plate, that they just did what they could with it and shoved it out the door as it was. An ironic source of temptation to do just that was likely those built-in hints, always a dangerous two-edged sword from the standpoint of good design. Players could never actually get stuck on the worst puzzles, could never have all that much to complain about, since the solutions were always waiting right there in the game itself, right? Well, no. Players still want to solve games for themselves. It’s not much fun, and kind of emasculating to boot, to play a game from its hint menu.

As if there wasn’t already enough novelty about Nord and Bert, it also represented something new for Infocom from a technical standpoint, a compromise between the venerable original 128 K Z-Machine, which ran on just about every computer under the sun but whose limitations now seemed to bite harder with every successive game, and the 256 K Interactive Fiction Plus Z-Machine, which offered a hell of a lot more breathing room along with more screen-formatting flexibility but could only run on computers with the magic combination of 128 K of memory and an 80-column screen, two requirements that excluded it from the slowly fading but still industry-dominating Commodore 64. Internally, Infocom referred to games for the 128 K Z-Machine as “ZIPs” (for “Z-Machine Interpreter Program,” not to be confused with the compression format) and those for the 256 K as “EZIPs” (“Extended ZIPs”). Nord and Bert debuted a new category, the “LZIP” (presumably “Large ZIP”) that slotted into a sweet spot right in between. While built around the revised Interactive Fiction Plus Z-Machine, the LZIP format could adapt itself to 40-column screens and, as long as its total size was restricted to under 180 K, could be shoehorned into a Commodore 64 on a double-sided disk. That extra 50 K or so of space may not sound like much today, but it was precious for Imps used to a hard limit of 128 K, enabling features like Nord and Bert‘s built-in hints.1 LZIP was just one of a plethora of new technological variations all suddenly all in the pipeline at the same time, from The Lurking Horror‘s sound support on the Amiga to a whole new major revision of the Z-Machine for Beyond Zork. Much as Infocom and Activision judged all this feverish innovation necessary to have any hope of remaining competitive, it certainly wasn’t making their testing process any easier, especially when taken in combination with the brutal release schedule.

All of this confused activity may have had something to do not only with Nord and Bert‘s fundamental design failings but also with some fit-and-finish issues that are very unusual to see in an Infocom game. In one or two places, for instance, correct responses are met first with a “[That sentence isn’t one I recognize.],” followed immediately by some text telling you that you have in fact solved a puzzle. Yes, it’s all made slightly more understandable by the radical overhauling the standard parser had to undergo for this game, but, nevertheless, the absence of exactly these sorts of glitches and parserial non sequiturs was one of the things that usually distinguished Infocom from even worthy competitors like Magnetic Scrolls. It’s hard to imagine these sorts of problems sneaking into a released Infocom game of an earlier, less hectic year. But then again, the very fact that such a strange experiment as Nord and Bert got a release at all is likely down to the simple reality that Infocom suddenly had so many slots to fill. With Activision craving so much pasta, might as well throw some crazy-colored penne at the wall as well as the usual spaghetti to see if it stuck.

Predictably enough, it didn’t, at least not that well. It turned out that plenty of traditional text adventurers just wanted their spaghetti, had no interest in the alternative Nord and Bert offered them. After the game’s release, William Carte, a reviewer for the very traditionalist Questbusters magazine (they had already found the likes of A Mind Forever Voyaging and Alter Ego far too avant garde for their tastes), became one of many to speak for this constituency. He misses mapping, saying “half the fun” is “finding secret doors and locations.” As for the puzzles that are there:

If you have a great vocabulary (or enjoy reading Webster’s Dictionary) and like limericks and wordplay, you may enjoy Nord and Bert. (As someone else phrased it, this game is for “word nerds.”) True adventure gamers will probably be disappointed.

With people who enjoyed Nord and Bert thus duly put in their place as untrue adventure gamers in this review and others like it, the game was going to face even more of an uphill commercial climb than other Infocom games of this late era. And as for the dream of reaching a new sort of brainy yet more casual player… well, you can probably guess about how well that went. Thanks to some fairly gushing articles in places like The New York Times Book Review and The Boston Globe Magazine, Infocom had actually begun to make some modest inroads into the less stereotypically nerdy end of the smart-people demographic during their peak years of 1983 and 1984. Sadly, however, free exposure like that hadn’t been their lot in life for some time now. These days they lacked the resources to mount an outreach effort of the necessary scale to reach such folks — or of any scale at all, really — and Activision, having now pivoted so completely to the traditional videogame market of teenage boys, neither understood nor cared about O’Neill’s broader vision for the game. Pushed out with little fanfare in September of 1987 in tandem with Plundered Hearts — the two already represented Infocom’s fifth and sixth games of the year, with yet three more being prepped for release within the next few months —  Nord and Bert if anything did somewhat better than its esoteric style and all but nonexistent promotion might have prompted one to expect, managing to sell about 17,000 copies, slightly more than its release partner and about 5000 more than the title that still remained Infocom’s worst-selling ever, Hollywood Hijinx. Still, the folks making that New York Times crossword had little cause for concern.

Nord and Bert, Jeff O’Neill’s second game, would also prove to be his last. He left Infocom shortly after its release, part of a slow exodus that began as relations with Activision continued to worsen and the future looked more and more bleak. His career at Infocom stands as the most disappointing of all of the Imps, the story of a fine writer and boldly innovative if inexperienced designer who began two wonderfully promising games in Ballyhoo and Nord and Bert only to have them fall apart — and both largely due to pressures outside his control. Given O’Neill’s inexperience, both just needed that extra bit of tender loving care that Infocom wasn’t quite in a position to give them. It’s not surprising, then, that he remains by far the most embittered of all the former Imps, the only one who declined to be interviewed for the Get Lamp documentary and, indeed, the only one to have maintained a nearly complete silence since Infocom folded.

Understandable as his bitterness is, at least one thing ought to lessen its sting.  Both of his games, commercial disappoints though they may have been in their day, have like A Mind Forever Voyaging proved hugely influential on the art of interactive fiction in the longer term. Just as Ballyhoo pioneered a new, less frustrating form of plotting that tailors the story to the player’s progress rather than making the player conform to the game’s chronology, Nord and Bert introduced to the world the delicious possibilities for interactive wordplay, for text adventures that revel in the very textuality that sets them apart from their graphical cousins. A persistent sub-genre has been the result, one that includes gems like Nick Montfort’s Ad Verbum and Emily Short’s more recent and even more delightful Counterfeit Monkey. Thanks to more time in the gestation, many more years of collective design wisdom on which to draw, and an audience of players that’s much more accepting of alternate approaches to interactive fiction than were many of Infocom’s fans, these games and a handful of other contenders like them largely avoided Nord and Bert‘s worst pratfalls to become acknowledged classics as well as some of my own all-time favorites. (Much as it may mark me as a less than true adventurer, I do love me some wordplay, so much so that it’s occasionally led me to be way too forgiving of even Nord and Bert‘s shortcomings in the past.) But then, this is much of the reason that Infocom’s catalog as a whole remains so vital and interesting after all these years. Even their failures cast a long shadow over everything that would follow them.

(Sources: As usual with my Infocom articles, much of this one is drawn from the full Get Lamp interview archives which Jason Scott so kindly shared with me, even though those archives sadly don’t include an interview with Jeff O’Neill himself. The one place I’ve found where O’Neill does talk at all about his work on Nord and Bert is some remarks included with Ross Ceccola’s review of the game in the March 1988 Commodore Magazine. William Carte’s review appears in the November 1987 Questbusters.

Nord and Bert sadly isn’t included in the Lost Treasures of Infocom iOS app, so you’ll have to track down a copy elsewhere if you want to play it; I’m sure most of you won’t have any trouble figuring out where to look. While its failings keep it out of my Hall of Fame, its first half is strong enough to be well worth playing for more than historical interest.)


  1. The formats are generally referred to today by the version numbering found in the story files themselves. Versions 1 and 2 were early versions of the 128 K Z-Machine used for the original releases of Zork I and II respectively. Version 3 is the finalized, stable version of the 128 K Z-Machine on which those early games were re-released, and which thereafter ran the bulk of Infocom’s games for most of the company’s existence. Version 4 is the first 256 K Z-Machine, used for the Interactive Fiction Plus (“EZIP”) games A Mind Forever Voyaging, Trinity, and Bureaucracy, and now for the line of “LZIP” games like Nord and Bert. Yes, this is all quite confusing. No, if you’re not deeply interested in Infocom’s technology as opposed to their art, it’s not ultimately all that important. And yes, it’s going to get still more complicated before we’re done with their story. 

 
 

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