Nord and Bert

16 Oct

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 Scrolls’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 reference 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 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, who, the game tells 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]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. LZIP was just one of a plethora of new technological variations 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 disappointments 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.)


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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41 Responses to Nord and Bert

  1. David Boddie

    October 16, 2015 at 11:33 am

    Some wordplay for you:

    nonreciperal -> non-reciprocal
    lesson -> lessen

    Or were those intentional? ;-)

    • Jimmy Maher

      October 16, 2015 at 11:38 am

      :) Thanks!

  2. David Simon

    October 16, 2015 at 11:53 am

    Seconding the props for Counterfeit Monkey; it has wordplay out the wazoo, and what’s more, even manages to build a compete culture and history around it, taking place in a nation that built all its military and economic power on “linguistic manipulation technology”, e.g. the fearsome depluralization cannon.

    • Duncan Stevens

      October 16, 2015 at 1:03 pm

      Agreed on Counterfeit Monkey, though I feel compelled to note that it had a lot more resources at its disposal than Nord and Bert. But it made very, very good use of those resources, and introduced new forms of wordplay, in the context of a single overarching game, much more deftly.

      • Michael Davis

        November 18, 2015 at 3:38 pm

        “though I feel compelled to note that it had a lot more resources at its disposal than Nord and Bert”

        “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”

  3. Duncan Stevens

    October 16, 2015 at 12:54 pm

    I always figured that I didn’t appreciate “Act the Part” because I hadn’t spent as much time as everyone else watching sitcoms. It didn’t occur to me at the time to view that as a failing in the game. I also struggled to some extent with “Eat Your Words” because I hadn’t encountered some of the idioms before (e.g., “gore the ox” and “read the riot act”). Ditto “Meet the Mayor” (“possession is nine tenths of the law”). I think it’s probably fair to say that parts of Nord and Bert assume an adult player (with knowledge of old sitcoms and old songs), and parts are more kid-friendly, and there’s really no way to tell which is which. (And, as you say, some parts assume that the player is American.)

    “Shake a Tower” was one of my favorite segments because I was very fond of spoonerisms (I was 12 at the time), and I don’t recall finding it unfairly hard. I don’t remember whether I used the hints, but if so it was pretty minimal use. Also enjoyed “Shopping Bizarre” (and I seem to recall finding it very easy); was less fond of “Play Jacks.”

    Agree that “Manor of Speaking” was a misfire, particularly the part (I think it was the “Doldrums”–Phantom Tollbooth shout-out?) where, if memory serves, you could simply bog down entirely and have the game respond to your every command “I’ve heard that before.” There wasn’t, as you say, a distinct wordplay aspect to “Manor of Speaking” at all, and the segment is made harder by the expectation that one will emerge.

    In retrospect, though I was fond of it at the time (and blamed any lack of appreciation on myself rather than the game), I agree that Nord and Bert could have been much better. Getting rid of the half-baked segments like “Act the Part” and “Manor of Speaking,” which aren’t really about wordplay at all, and replacing them with real wordplay would have vastly improved things, especially when there were so many other forms of wordplay to try. Later games like the ones you mention, along with Roger Firth’s Letters from Home and…well, I guess naming it would be a spoiler, but there’s a very clever 2004 competition entry that turns out to be about wordplay, show what could have been done had Nord and Bert been given some more care.

    • Jason Dyer

      October 16, 2015 at 8:26 pm

      Shake a Tower was by far my favorite. I found it quite fair.

      Agreed on Manor of Speaking and Act the Part being rubbish, though.

      • Jimmy Maher

        October 17, 2015 at 9:38 am

        Based on some of your comments here, it’s possible I didn’t give “Shake a Tower” an entirely fair shake (wordplay intended). By the time I got there this time I was so irritated and frustrated by the two previous sections, “Act the Part” and “Manor of Speaking,” that I was perhaps all too ready to believe that “Shake a Tower” would go the same way. My memories of Nord and Bert really were *so* better than the actual game I just played, leaving me feeling kind of like a jilted lover. It also didn’t help that I ran into a nasty and unnecessary dead end by climbing up to the giant without the hat.

        • matt w

          October 17, 2015 at 1:43 pm

          For me, the dead-end you get by climbing up to the giant without the hat is exactly the sort of thing I expect from Infocom. And it seemed a lot more fair than many of the dead ends I’ve encountered in acclaimed 20th-century IF, if only because it doesn’t take long to replay the beginning of that sequence. The main issue was (as I said below) that after doing all that stuff and being pretty proud of myself, I realized that it hadn’t actually helped me in the main quest.

          It may have helped that I was liberally hitting the walkthrough for the previous sections.

    • matt w

      October 17, 2015 at 3:10 am

      I was never able to get anywhere in Letters from Home. Or rather, I was able to get somewhere with some of the wordplay bits, but I had no idea what my goals were, and when I eventually hit the walkthrough I found that I needed to do a push-this-thing-here-and-stand-on-it puzzle that had nothing to do with wordplay. I think by then I’d locked myself out of it.

      …I think I know the 2004 entry you mean. The wordplay was great but again, I had to hit the walkthrough early on and I was like, “How was I supposed to know to do all that adventure game stuff?” As I said below, I think the reason that Nord and Bert was the only Infocom I didn’t bounce right off is that it starts you right off with lots of wordplay for its own sake and doesn’t lock it off behind inventory and map puzzles, though it can’t sustain that the whole time (looking at you again, Manor of Speaking).

      Speaking of Manor of Speaking there’s a nice little game of that name by Hulk Handsome from a few IFComps back. It’s pun-based, as I remember. Puddles on the Path is another nice cliche-based game, definitely influenced by Nord and Bert I think.

  4. Jayle Enn

    October 16, 2015 at 2:03 pm

    I was a very young word nerd when I tried Nord and Bert, and beyond the first two or three areas I couldn’t make head or tails of it either.
    It did teach me a lot about turns of phrase, the existence of lox, and really neat words like ‘umbrage’, and years later I was delighted to learn there was a connection between buying a pig in a poke, and letting the cat out of the bag, but… yeah. The beginning of the spoonerisms sequence, where the game has to come out and tell you that the girl ‘continues to “shine on the door”‘ still sticks in my mind as one of the most baffling things I’ve ever encountered in a game.

  5. Bob Reeves

    October 16, 2015 at 3:03 pm

    I seem to recall that if one recognizes the joke about the bottle in “Act the Part” and types the word “lobotomy,” the game says “Bob isn’t here!” or something that tips you off that you’re supposed to give him one. As for “Manor,” the solution to that part does involve a pun, though most of it is annoyingly destitute of wordplay. The expression in “Farm” that I’d never run across was “make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear,” and in general, some of the proverbs and cliches seem more appropriate for a pre-industrial age than for a game released toward the end of the 20th century.

  6. Sam Kabo Ashwell

    October 16, 2015 at 4:01 pm

    As a non-Yanqui Anglo… yes, Nord & Bert contains some definite show-stoppers. It was the first Infocom game I played to completion, but I only managed it because I was playing it together with my American girlfriend. (And, yes, I’ve had other reports from conversationally-fluent ESL speakers for whom it represents an immediate and total brick wall.)

    The ‘full bottle in front of me / full frontal lobotomy’ spoonerism was actually one that I knew and recognised – but I still couldn’t solve it, because N&B’s exact wording was a little bit different from the one that I knew.

    “like a chocolate mouse and chocolate mousse”

    A moose, not a mouse.

    • Stephen Norris

      October 16, 2015 at 4:46 pm

      On mouse = mousse, thanks for pointing that out. I was trying to work out what dialect of English they were homophones in!

    • Jimmy Maher

      October 16, 2015 at 6:45 pm

      Hmm… I’d always thought you were American, living in Alaska and all (if you’re still there, that is). Anyway, thanks for the correction!

      • Sam Kabo Ashwell

        October 16, 2015 at 7:11 pm

        British. Though I’ve lived just over a third of my life there. (I’m in Seattle now. Except that I’m about to move to Hawaii.)

  7. Johannes Paulsen

    October 16, 2015 at 4:18 pm

    Really, though, the complaints about the ‘guess what I meant here’ school of word puzzle design here could also be leveled at many puzzle designers today. (I’m looking at you, THE NATION.) Perhaps it’s more of a matter of puzzle design + being in the wrong medium for most word puzzlers at the time.

    Regardless , I did get a good many hours out of Nord and Bert when it came out…. It’s a shame it’s not available for iOS. This sort of game would been perfect for mobile. (If it could be polished, that is.)

  8. Lisa H.

    October 16, 2015 at 8:42 pm

    I seem to remember trying to play this game in junior high school, so age 11 or 12, and being almost totally hopeless at it. I did make some headway in “Shopping Bizarre” because I understood the homonym thing, but “Buy the Farm” and especially “Eat Your Words” were beyond me because I didn’t have the necessary background knowledge of idioms, ditto “Act the Part” because of not knowing slapstick tropes. I still don’t understand what is actually going on, thematically, in “Manor of Speaking”.

    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.

    If I were to play the game fresh now, I might – but only because I know the song “I’d Rather Have A Bottle In Front Of Me (Than A Frontal Labotomy)” from the 30th Anniversary Dr. Demento collection. (Apparently the phrase “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a pre-frontal lobotomy” is sometimes attributed to Dorothy Parker, which might go along with the whole clever-words tone of this game.)

    • Lisa H.

      October 16, 2015 at 8:47 pm

      Oh, and on the subject of Dr. Demento, the phrase also appears in the song “Existential Blues” that’s on the 20th anniversary collection, as “I’d rather have this bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy”.

      • Monty

        October 16, 2015 at 9:20 pm

        Existential Blues is the song where I learned the pun, which is how I got it right in the game.

        However, I can never remember how you’re supposed to finish The Manor of Speaking. Go to the attic and type “Revolve House,” maybe, but I have a vague recollection of that not being the right verb.

        • Lisa H.

          December 26, 2020 at 11:08 pm

          Revolve is the right verb. You need to “revolve the attic” (using the “revolution” object you get from the safe).

  9. GeoX

    October 16, 2015 at 10:35 pm

    I solved the “frontal lobotomy” puzzle all by my lonesome, having previously heard the phrase from, I believe, Tom Waits. To be honest, I didn’t find the “Act the Part” section that bad, although obviously it didn’t even pretend to follow the game’s putative theme. There’s no defending the “Manor of Speaking,” though, and for whatever reason, I always found the “Jacks” section kind of inscrutable, even knowing the basic concept. The one that REALLY annoyed me was in the last part, though, where you have to “deep six the skeleton in the closet”–what, all of a sudden, with no warning, I have to mash together two unrelated idioms in a completely unintuitive way? Bah.

  10. matt w

    October 17, 2015 at 2:59 am

    Nord and Bert is the only Infocom game I’ve finished, or even played much of. Part of it is that I love wordplay (you may have noticed that when I see a weird-looking name I compulsively spell it backwards), but also it didn’t have the conspicuous cruelty of so many other Infocom games where you could obviously lock yourself out of a winning ending by doing something wrong at the beginning, or by not executing the first moves fast enough, or something like that. (You can do that in Shake a Tower, and in Manor of Speaking, oy… but by then I’d already played through a few segments.) And also, unlike a lot of games which force you to wander around a map for a while before you can solve any puzzles–either because you can’t find them, or because it’s impossible to know whether you have the resources to solve them till you’ve looked everywhere–the first sections just present you with puzzles, and even sometimes let you work on another puzzle before you go back to one.

    That isn’t to say that I didn’t have to look at the Club Floyd transcript for a lot of this, especially pretty much the whole of Manor of Speaking. Act the Part didn’t give me too much trouble IIRC, having heard the “bottle in front of me” joke before, and the unclarity of the goals in Shake a Tower didn’t bother me that much. I get that feel from a lot of other classic games that I try (late 20th-century as well as Infocom era), that there’s a point where they dump me into an open map and expect me to figure out what to do by blundering into stuff. In this case there aren’t that many spoonerisms so I could just try whatever’s available to see how to go forward–though after I worked out a satisfying elaborate tricky sequence, I discovered that it had been a sidequest and I wound up hitting the hints to make progress toward the end of the chapter. So maybe the problem is that the sidequest and main quest are switched.

    Still, I’d rather hint my way through this than get anywhere near some of the elaborate timing puzzles I’ve seen.

    For wordplay-based games, I’ve really enjoyed Andrew Schultz’s Shuffling Around–Andrew is very much in the Nord and Bert tradition, of throwing a bunch of virtuosic wordplay together without regard for whether it makes that much sense as worldbuilding or prose. Some day I’d like to put together a wordplay game myself–I have the puzzles designed. I had this really clever one about a gritty pearl! So yeah, I got beaten to the punch on that one.

  11. Jason Scott

    October 18, 2015 at 12:42 pm

    When I was first working on GET LAMP, I was told on several occasions that some people wouldn’t be sitting for an interview, that they never sat for interviews. Some of those suggested folks, like Mark Blank, were more than happy to sit for my camera (although Mark took pains to point out how distant the whole thing was to him). Others were, without names being given, difficult to find or to arrange interviews for – one took a year to make happen, mostly because the subject was transient and prone to taking long consulting jobs out of my reach. And in the case of Al Vezza, I was able to talk with him on the phone and he was more than happy to be told the thing was going on, but he had no interest in sitting for an interview at all – it’s quite obvious he had had enough of that Infocom thing years before and assumed he would just be painted as a bad guy (which he often is, sometimes just benevolently at sea regarding leadership).

    Two people I was told I would never, ever get were Jeff O’Neill and Tim Anderson. And that was true. I wrote Tim Anderson but got no response – O’Neill was just simply impossible for me to find. So it goes!

    • Jimmy Maher

      October 18, 2015 at 12:59 pm

      I actually did get Jeff O’Neill’s email address from another Imp, and he did write me back. He even considered talking with me about Infocom for a day or two, but then decided against it. Fair enough. Brian Moriarty mentioned shortly afterward that O’Neill had decided to talk for some project or other, but was quite vague about exactly *what* project. Maybe the book that Rick Thornquist has been working on? Regardless, I hope an interview with him will see the light of day at some point.

      Oddly enough, I did also hear from Tim Anderson years ago, and via an unsolicited email at that. It’s been a long time, though.

  12. LoneCleric

    October 19, 2015 at 10:53 pm

    Glad to see you mention Ad Verbum. Back then, Nick asked me to beta-test because he was eager for some “non-English native” feedback, but I had so much fun trying to solve it (and break it) that I ended up acting as his main beta-tester.

  13. Nate

    November 8, 2015 at 9:54 am

    Nord and Bert has a special place in my heart because it was the first Infocom game I actually owned – a birthday gift, I think. It was a bit of a disappointment discovering that it wasn’t a traditional walk-around adventure, but since I absolutely LOVED wordplay I ended up enjoying it immensely. Also, the built in hints made it possible for me to complete it – every other Infocom game except Trinity I got stuck somewhere.

    Agreed, ‘Act the Part’ and ‘Manor of Speaking’ were just weird and not fun. ‘Shake a Tower’ though, I think was my favourite. ‘Riddle while foam burns’ -> hilarity.

    I was a very strange child I guess.

  14. G Grobbelaar

    November 10, 2015 at 1:05 pm

    This N&B game, IIRC, was one my wife stumbled upon when I started my ‘InfoCom’ phase and decided to play it with her, like we did HHGttG, which was more of doing to try to get her into the text game thing. So as she have ‘n short fuse when it comes to these games, like HHGttG, I printed a walkthrough, but after about 2 min she started to figure it out! Including the bottle- lobotomy! Think I but assist in 2 or 3 places AND those were ALL basically to get spelling and phrases correctly! She is a language nut (saying that in the nicest way)! So this game has that weirdness for me as well as being the only game that my wife played straight through in a couple of hours! With me still wondering how the heck it all fit together! Word wise because still today I can’t play it beyond the first few turns! But those few hours made me love her even more! If I can just get her away from sims, and into text games, but as they say, you win some you loose some!

  15. Michael Davis

    November 18, 2015 at 2:48 pm

    Oh, c’mon, EVERYbody knows Karl Marx was TERRIFIED of insurgencies.

  16. Peter Ferrie

    February 15, 2016 at 9:14 pm

    I came to it expecting something along the lines of Jabbertalky (1980 title on the Apple II featuring anagrams and other wordplay), but obviously got something quite other. As a non-American English speaker, I couldn’t finish it. Hints be damned.

  17. Leo Vellés

    November 2, 2019 at 12:30 pm

    “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”.
    A double that at the end of the sentence?

    • Jimmy Maher

      November 2, 2019 at 4:23 pm


  18. Chris Lang

    December 25, 2020 at 1:01 am

    Ah, Nord and Bert. Some sections work within the context, some don’t.

    Shopping Bizarre, with the homonyms, and Shake a Tower, with the spoonerisms, are for the most part brilliant, with only a few nitpicks. Buy the Farm and Eat Your Words make good use of cliches and idioms.

    But then there is Play Jacks, where aside from calling the name of Jack Frost, it revolves not so much on wordplay as on finding how many different ‘jack’ items can be contained within the one device you find early on. Act the Part, aside from the ‘rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy’ joke and the recurring ‘knock knock’ joke bits that require you to respond “Who’s There”, doesn’t really revolve around words so much as it revolves around old slapstick cheap gags.

    And then there’s Visit the Manor of Speaking, which seems like it belongs in some other game entirely. It seems like one of those experimental ‘gimmick’ IF you might see submitted to the IF Competition or one of the various mini-comps, and its gimmick (every room has its own personality, literally) isn’t really a wordplay-based gimmick at all. If you’re not careful, you might end up being unable to get the one thing you need from the ‘Doldrums’ location, as its personality won’t let you use the same word twice – I found that to be a case of annoying the player just for the sake of it.

    The Karl Marx portrait puzzle is one likely to be stumbled on by accident. And it’s only the very last command (using the ‘revolution’ item to REVOLVE ATTIC) that has even the slightest bit of wordplay. So while the concept of Visit the Manor of Speaking might be interesting in itself, it doesn’t really work within the premise of Nord and Bert (that of a town plagued by wordplay shenanigans).

    The scenario you unlock through the others, Meet the Mayor, has an awkward moment or two (how were we to guess that we needed to give the skeleton in the closet the deep six? And that we needed to do that before we do the ‘bathwater’ wordplay?), but it serves its purpose as the part where we use what we learned about wordplay before to wrap things up.

    All in all, Nord and Bert is one of those games that I’m glad I’ve played, but it could have been a lot better.

  19. Joe Pranevich

    August 14, 2022 at 6:53 pm

    Greetings from the future!

    The idea of “interactive short stories” seems to have been on Infocom’s mind in mid-1987. Several of Steve Meretzky’s games that could have been Stationfall revolved around loosely connected short stories. (This of course courtesy of the material that he provided Jason Scott from the “Infocom Cabinet”.) The idea seems to have been that consumers wanted shorter punchier adventures, or at least that there was room to sell those kinds of games. It would not surprise me if O’Neill (who was one of the “selection committee” for Stationfall) either got the idea from Meretzky or provided it to him himself.

    In a way, Nord and Bert almost feels like a different take on “Blazing Parsers”, the Meretzky game that would have made fun of the interactive fiction medium… if only he had a complete idea and time to make it.

  20. Joe

    September 24, 2022 at 9:07 pm

    If anyone is interested, I was fortunate enough to do a brief interview with Kevin Pope, the illustrator for the game. He had a few interesting things to say about his involvement, as well as his life before and after this one game that he worked on.

    You can find the interview here:

  21. Howard

    January 15, 2023 at 5:55 pm

    I remember playing this game decades ago, and loving it! I don’t recall too many details at this point, but as a word lover I found it fantastic, some sections more than others.

    I’ve never understood the wordplay in the title, though I’m sure there is some involved. I feel like Nord is such a curious name that it must have some significance, and the fact that Nord, Bert, head (not heads), and tail (not tails) all have 4 letters also may hint at some wordplay. Can anybody explain the joke in the title, please? I would be forever grateful to you for elucidating something that has vexed me for years!

    • Wadd Spoiley

      October 10, 2023 at 8:13 pm

      It has to do with the cover art comic. Look at what Nord and Bert are looking at.

  22. Ben

    February 5, 2023 at 10:22 pm

    Magnetic Scroll’s -> Magnetic Scrolls’s

    references books -> reference books

    whom the game tell -> who the game tells

    all suddenly all -> all suddenly

    disappoints -> disappointments

    • Jimmy Maher

      February 7, 2023 at 11:13 am


      • Michael

        October 16, 2023 at 10:53 pm

        It now reads “who the game tell you,” rather than “tells.”

        • Jimmy Maher

          October 20, 2023 at 12:20 pm



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