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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 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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‘Tis true my form is something odd,
But blaming me is blaming God;
Could I create myself anew
I would not fail in pleasing you.

— poem by Joseph Merrick, “The Elephant Man”


This article does contain some spoilers for Ballyhoo!

Ballyhoo, a low-key mystery written by a new Implementor, was the last game ever released by an independent Infocom. When it appeared in February of 1986, Al Vezza and Joel Berez were desperately trying to reel in their lifeline of last resort, a competitor interested in acquiring this imploding company that had fallen from such a precipitous height in just a year’s time. Having come in like a lion with Zork, Infocom, Inc., would go out like a lamb with Ballyhoo; it would go on to become one of their least remembered and least remarked games. We’ll eventually get to some very good reasons for Ballyhoo to be regarded as one of the lesser entries in the Infocom canon. Still, it’s also deserving of more critical consideration than it’s generally received for its unique tone and texture and, most importantly, for a very significant formal innovation. In fact, discounting as relative trivialities some small-scale tinkering with abbreviations and the like and as evolutionary dead ends a blizzard of largely unsuccessful experiments that would mark Infocom’s final years, said innovation would be the last such to significantly impact the art of the text adventure as it would evolve after the commercial glory years of the 1980s.

If Ballyhoo is one of Infocom’s more forgotten games, its creator, Jeff O’Neill, is certainly the Forgotten Implementor. His perspective is conspicuously absent from virtually every history written of the company in the last quarter century. Most notably, he was the one Imp who declined to be interviewed for Jason Scott’s Get Lamp project. For reasons that we won’t dwell on here, O’Neill remains deeply embittered by his time with Infocom. Incredible as this may sound to those of us today who persist in viewing the company’s brief life as a sort of Camelot, that time in his own life is one that O’Neill would rather forget, as I learned to my disappointment when I reached out to him before writing this article. He has a right to his silence and his privacy, so we’ll leave it at that and confine ourselves to the public details.

O’Neill, at the time a frustrated young journalist looking for a career change, was hired by Infocom in the spring of 1984, just one of what would prove to be a major second wave of talent — including among their ranks Jon Palace and Brian Moriarty — who arrived at about the same time. Like Moriarty, O’Neill’s original role was a practical one: he became one of Infocom’s in-house testers. Having proved himself by dint of talent and hard work and the great ideas for new games he kept proposing, within about a year he became the first of a few who would eventually advance out of the testing department to become late-period Imps after Infocom’s hopes for hiring outside writers to craft their games proved largely fruitless.

Whether we attribute it to his degree in Journalism or innate talent, O’Neill had one of the most delicate writerly touches to be found amongst the Imps. Ballyhoo adds a color to Infocom’s emotional palette that we haven’t seen before: world-weary melancholy. The setting is a spectacularly original one for any adventurer tired of dragons and spaceships: an anachronistic, down-at-the-heels circus called “The Traveling Circus That Time Forgot, Inc.” The tears behind a clown’s greasepaint facade, as well as the tawdry desperation that is the flip side of “the show must go on” for performers and performances past their time, have been amply explored in other art forms. Yet such subtle shades of feeling have been only rarely evoked by games before or after Ballyhoo. Ballyhoo, in the words of one of its own more memorable descriptive passages, “exposes the underside of circus life — grungy costumes strung about, crooked and cracked mirrors, the musty odor of fresh makeup mingled with clown sweat infusing the air.” Given what was going on around O’Neill as he wrote the game, it feels hard not to draw parallels with Infocom’s own brief ascendency and abrupt fall from grace: “Your experience of the circus, with its ballyhooed promises of wonderment and its ultimate disappointment, has been to sink your teeth into a candy apple whose fruit is rotten.”

The nihilistic emptiness at the heart of the circus sideshow, the tragedy of these grotesques who parade themselves before the public because there’s no other alternative available to them, has likewise been expressed in art stretching at least as far back as Freaks, a 1932 film directed by Tod Browning that’s still as shocking and transgressive as it is moving today. Another obvious cultural touchstone, which would have been particularly fresh in the mid-1980s thanks to Bernard Pomerance’s 1979 play and David Lynch’s 1980 film, is the story of the so-called “Elephant Man”: Joseph Merrick, a gentle soul afflicted with horrendous deformities who was driven out into the street by his father at age 17 and forced to sell himself to various exploiters as a traveling “human curiosity.” Some say that Merrick died at age 27 in 1890 because he insisted on trying to lie down to sleep — something his enormous, misshapen head would not allow — as part of his fruitless lifelong quest just to “be like other people.”

Ballyhoo‘s own collection of freaks is less extreme but can be almost as heartbreaking. There’s Comrade Thumb, the Russian midget who’s been crammed into a Czarist general’s uniform and sent out to do tricks. Like Merrick, whose deformities made speech almost impossible, Thumb can’t even communicate with his fellow humans; he speaks only Russian (I’ve had just a taste of this sort of linguistic isolation at times since leaving the United States, and know how hard it can be). But saddest of all is the case of Tina, the “827 pounds of feminine charm” who’s become the circus’s token fat woman.

West Half of Fat Lady
Dominating this once spacious room, geographic in her enormity, mountainous in her irreducibility, the fat lady sits (though no chair is visible) breathtakingly to the east. Paths around the attraction lead northeast and southeast. The exit is south.

>examine lady
The fat lady is wearing a big top, and the expression on her face is sad and distant, almost Rushmorean. She appears to be holding a small radio up to her ear.

It's a long haul, the scenery changing little. Eventually you arrive at ...

East Half of Fat Lady
The fat lady sits (though no chair is visible) breathtakingly to the west. Paths around the attraction lead northwest and southwest.

>give granola bar to tina
Tina is quick to confiscate the one-dollar-and-85-cent granola bar from your hand and grinds it up without hesitation. Turning her far-away gaze slowly in your direction, she seems to notice you for the first time this evening.

>tina, hello
She merely sighs wistfully, which creates a gale-force gust, and cranes her wrecking-ball-sized hand over to you.

>take hand
As you take hold, the fat lady's hand becomes relaxed, its full weight now residing in your arms like a sandbag and making your knees buckle.

>shake hand
Though unable to budge the fat lady's hand, your friendly intentions are nevertheless understood. The fat lady appears quite taken by your kindnesses. She clasps both her hands up to her chins, and stares ahead in teary silence.

If these passages, far from politically correct but by no means heartless, make you a bit uncomfortable, well, I like to think that they were meant to. After all, we’re among the sideshow gawkers. I’ve known people like Tina, cut off by their weight or other issues from a normal life, destined always to be noticed but never to be included. I recognize that wistful sigh, that far-off stare, that above-it-all stance that becomes their only defense. As for people like the circus’s manager Mr. Munrab — read the name backward — who we learn elsewhere “orders the roustabout to increase the frequency of her [Tina’s] feeding” every time she tries to go on a diet…. well, I’d like to think there’s a special circle of Hell for him along with Tom Norman, the man who stuck Joseph Merrick in a cage and set it up for the punters on Whitechapel Road.

I don’t want to give the impression that Ballyhoo is all doom and gloom, and certainly not that it’s entirely one-note in its mood. As Tina’s passages show, the game takes place in a vaguely surreal David Lynch-ian realm that’s tethered to but not quite the same as our own reality. This gives ample room for some flights of fancy that don’t always have to make us feel bad. O’Neill’s love of abstract wordplay, the theme around which his second and final work of interactive fiction would be built, also pops up in Ballyhoo from time to time. When you find yourself with an irresistible craving for something sweet, for instance, it takes the form of a literal monkey on your back who drives you to the concession stand. O’Neill also toys with the parser and the player sitting behind it to a degree not seen in an Infocom game since The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Here’s what happens when you come upon a “piece of wood” that turns out to be a mousetrap:

>get wood
You have just encountered that brief instant of time between the realization that you've caused yourself excruciating Pain and the actual onslaught of such Pain, during which time most people speak with exclamation points and ... well, say things like ...

Easy there! You're jeopardizing our "G" rating.

Bravisimo! Once more now, with feeling.

Cut! Cut! Okay, that's a wrap.

There’s even a fake death message, just the sort of faintly cruel player trickery that would have made Adams proud.

Indeed, there’s a little bit of bite, even a faint note of misanthropy, to O’Neill’s writing that’s largely missing from that of the other Imps. Your fellow circus-goers are uniformly boorish and boring. One or two situations, as well as the logical illogic needed to escape from them, smack of Infocom’s later social satire Bureaucracy, to which O’Neill (amongst many others) would make contributions.

>enter short line
You are now standing at the tail end of the short line.

Time passes...

The face of the man ahead of you lights up as he spots something. "Hey, guys! It's ME, Jerry," he yells to a sizable group nearby, and they approach.

Time passes...

"Haven't seen you turkeys in years. Howda hell are you guys?" They all reintroduce themselves. "Hey -- you clowns thirsty? Get in here, I'll buy y'all beer."

"You sure it's not a problem?" asks the catcher.

"Heck no, just scoot in right here."

With both your resolve and your heaving bosom firm against the crush of interlopers, you are nevertheless forced to backpedal.

Time passes...

Jerry continues backslapping the second baseman.

Time passes...

Jerry continues jiving with the center fielder.

>exit long line
You hear an inner voice whisper, "Do I really want to forfeit my position in the long line?" To which you answer:

You nonchalantly walk away from the long line.

>enter long line
A lot of other people must not have had the same idea as you, as they virtually hemorrhage over to the short line. Steaming to the front of the line, you get a two-dollar-and-25-cent frozen banana pushed at you and are whisked to the side before you can even count your change.

Ballyhoo was Infocom’s fourth game to be given the “Mystery” genre label. As such, it’s also an earnest attempt to solve a real or perceived problem that had long frustrated players of those previous three mysteries. The first of them, Deadline, had exploded the possibilities for adventure games by simulating a dynamic story with independent actors rather than just setting the player loose in a static world full of puzzles to solve; The Witness and Suspect had then continued along the same course. Instead of exploring a geographical space, the player’s primary task became to explore a story space, to learn how this dynamic system worked and to manipulate it to her own ends by judicious, precisely timed interference. While a huge advance that brought a new dimension to the adventure game, this seemingly much more story-oriented approach also remained paradoxically problematic to fully reconcile to the view of Infocom’s games as interactive fiction, as, as their box copy would have it, stories you “woke up inside” and proceeded to experience like the protagonist of a novel. The experience of playing one of these early mysteries was more like that of an editor, or a film director making an adaptation of the novel. You had to take the stories apart piece by piece through probing and experimentation, then put everything back together in a way that would guide the protagonist, from whom you stood at a decided remove, to the optimal ending. That process might offer pleasures all its own, but it kept the player firmly in the realm of puzzle-solver rather than fiction-enjoyer — or, if you like, guiding the fiction became the overarching puzzle. Even Infocom’s most unabashed attempt to create a “literary” work to date, Steve Meretzky’s A Mind Forever Voyaging, became abruptly, jarringly gamelike again when you got to the final section, where you had to head off a sequence of events that would otherwise be the end of you. In a film or novel based on A Mind Forever Voyaging, this sequence would just chance to play out in just the right way to let Perry Simm escape by the skin of his teeth and save the world in the process. In the game, however, the player was forced to figure out what dramatically satisfying narrative the author wanted to convey, then manipulate events to bring it to fruition, a very artificial process all the way around. Yet the alternative of a static environment given motion only when the player deigned to push on something was even farther from the idea of “interactive fiction” as a layperson might take that phrase. What to do?

Infocom’s answer, to which they first fully committed in Ballyhoo, was to flip the process on its head: to make the story respond to the player rather than always asking the player to respond to the story. Put another way, here the story chases the player rather than the player chasing the story. (Feel free to insert your “in Soviet Russia…” jokes here.) Ballyhoo is another dynamic mystery with its own collection of dramatic beats to work through. Now, though, the story moves forward only when and as the player’s actions make it most dramatically satisfying to do so, rather than ticking along according to its own remorseless timetable. So, for example, Comrade Thumb will struggle to get a drink of water from the public water fountain at the beginning of the game for hundreds of turns if necessary, until the player helps him by giving him a boost. He’ll then toddle off to another location to wait for the player to enter. When and only when she does, he’ll carry off his next dramatic beat. Later, a certain bumbling detective will wander onto the midway and pass out dead drunk just when the needs of the plot, as advanced by the player thus far, demand that he do so. Sometimes these developments are driven directly by the player, but at other times they happen only in the name of dramatic efficiency, of story logic. Rather than asking the player to construct a story from a bunch of component parts, now the author deconstructs the story she wants the player to experience, then figures out how to put it back together on the fly in a satisfying way in response to the player’s own actions — but without always making the fact that the story is responding to the player rather than unspooling on its own clear to the player. Ideally, this should let the player just enjoy the unfolding narrative from her perspective inside the story, which will always just happen to play out in suitably dramatic fashion, full of the close calls and crazy coincidences that are such part and parcel of story logic. Virtually unremarked at the time, this formal shift would eventually go on to become simply the way that adventure games were done, to the extent that the old Deadline approach stands out as a strange, cruel anomaly when it crops up on rare occasions on the modern landscape.

Depending on how you see these things, you might view this new approach as a major advance or as a disappointment, even as a capitulation of sorts. Early adventure writers, including those at Infocom, were very invested in the idea of their games as simulations of believable (if simplified) worlds. See, for instance, the article which Dave Lebling published in Byte in December of 1980, which, years before Infocom would dub their games “interactive fiction,” repeatedly refers to Zork and the other games like it that Infocom hopes to make as “computerized fantasy simulations.” Or see the flyer found in Zork I itself, which refers to that game as “a self-contained and self-maintaining universe.” To tinker with such a universe, to introduce a hand of God manipulating the levers in the name of drama and affect, felt and still feels wrong to some people. Most, however, have come to accept that pure, uncompromising simulation does not generally lead to a satisfying adventure game. Adventure games may be better viewed as storytelling and puzzle-solving engines — the relative emphasis placed on the former and the latter varying from work to work — wherein simulation elements are useful as long as they add verisimilitude and possibility without adding boredom and frustration, and stop being useful just as soon as the latter qualities begin to outweigh the former.

Which is not to say that this new approach of the story chasing the player is a magic bullet. Virtually everyone who’s played adventure games since Ballyhoo is familiar with the dilemma of a story engine that’s become stuck in place, of going over and over a game’s world looking for that one trigger you missed that will satisfy the game that all is in proper dramatic order and the next act can commence. My own heavily plotted adventure game is certainly not immune to this syndrome, which at its extreme can feel every bit as artificial and mimesis-destroying, and almost as frustrating, as needing to replay a game over and over with knowledge from past lives. Like so much else in life and game design, this sort of reactive storytelling is an imperfect solution, whose biggest virtue is that most people prefer its brand of occasional frustration to others.

And now we’ve come to the point in this article where I need to tell you why, despite pioneering such a major philosophical shift and despite a wonderful setting brought to life by some fine writing, Ballyhoo does indeed deserve its spot amongst the lower tier of Infocom games. The game has some deep-rooted problems that spoil much of what’s so good about it.

The most fundamental issue, one which badly damages Ballyhoo as both a coherent piece of fiction and a playable game, is that of motivation — or rather lack thereof. When the game begins you’re just another vaguely dissatisfied customer exiting the big top along with the rest of the maddening crowd. Getting the plot proper rolling by learning about the mystery itself — proprietor Munrab’s young daughter Chelsea has been kidnapped, possibly by one of his own discontented performers — requires you to sneak into a storage tent for no reason whatsoever. You then eavesdrop on a fortuitous conversation which occurs, thanks to Ballyhoo‘s new dramatic engine, just at the right moment. And so you decide that you are better equipped to solve the case than the uninterested and besotted detective Munrab has hired. But really, what kind of creepy busybody goes to the circus and then starts crawling around in the dark through forbidden areas just for kicks? Ballyhoo makes only the most minimal of attempts to explain such behavior in its opening passage: “The circus is a reminder of your own secret irrational desire to steal the spotlight, to defy death, and to bask in the thunder of applause.” That’s one of the most interesting and potential-fraught passages in the game, but Ballyhoo unfortunately makes no more real effort to explore this psychological theme, leaving the protagonist otherwise a largely blank slate. Especially given that the mystery at the heart of the game is quite low-stakes — the kidnapping is so clearly amateurish that Chelsea is hardly likely to suffer any real harm, while other dastardly revelations like the presence of an underground poker game aren’t exactly Godfather material — you’re left wondering why you’re here at all, why you’re sticking your nose into all this business that has nothing to do with you. In short, why do you care about any of this? Don’t you have anything better to be doing?

A similar aimlessness afflicts the puzzle structure. Ballyhoo never does muster that satisfying feeling of really building toward the solution of its central mystery. Instead, it just offers a bunch of situations that are clearly puzzles to be solved, but never gives you a clue why you should be solving them. For instance, you come upon a couple of lions in a locked cage which otherwise contains nothing other than a lion stand used in the lion trainer’s act. You soon find a key to the cage and a bullwhip. You have no use for the lion stand right now, nor for the lions themselves, nor for their cage. There’s obviously a puzzle to be solved here, but why? Well, if you do so and figure out how to deal with the lions, you’ll discover an important clue under the lion stand. But, with no possible way to know it was there, why on earth would any person risk her neck to enter a lion cage for no reason whatsoever? (Presumably the same kind that would creep into a circus’s supply tent…) Elsewhere you come upon an elephant in a tent. Later you have the opportunity to collect a mouse. You can probably imagine what you need to do, but, again, why? Why are you terrorizing this poor animal in its tiny, empty tent? More specifically, how could you anticipate that the elephant will bolt away in the perfect direction to knock down a certain section of fence? This George Mallory approach to design is everywhere in Ballyhoo. While “because it’s there” has been used plenty of times in justifying adventure-game puzzles both before and after Ballyhoo, Infocom by this time was usually much, much better at embedding puzzles within their games’ fictions.

With such an opaque puzzle structure, Ballyhoo becomes a very tough nut to crack; it’s never clear what problems you should be working on at any given time, nor how solving any given puzzle is likely to help you with the rest. It all just feels… random. And many of the individual solutions are really, really obscure, occasionally with a “read Jeff O’Neill’s mind” quality that pushes them past the boundary of fairness. Making things still more difficult are occasional struggles with the parser of the sort we’re just not used to seeing from Infocom by this stage: you can MOVE that moose head on the wall, but don’t try to TURN it. There’s also at least one significant bug that forced me to restore on my recent playthrough (the turnstile inexplicably stopped recognizing my ticket) and a few scattered typos. Again, these sorts of minor fit-and-finish problems are hardly surprising in general, but are surprising to find in an Infocom game of this vintage.

Assuming we give some of Hitchhiker’s dodgier elements a pass in the name of letting Douglas Adams be Douglas Adams, we have to go all the way back to those early days of Zork and Deadline to find an Infocom game with as many basic problems as this one. Ballyhoo isn’t, mind you, a complete reversion to the bad old days of 1982. Even leaving aside its bold new approach to plotting, much in Ballyhoo shows a very progressive sensibility. On at least one occasion when you’re on the verge of locking yourself out of victory, the game steers you to safety, saying that “the image of a burning bridge suddenly pops into your mind.” Yet on others it seems to positively delight in screwing you over. My theory, which is only that, is that Ballyhoo was adversely affected by the chaos inside Infocom as it neared release, that it didn’t get the full benefit of a usually exhaustive testing regime that normally rooted out not only bugs and implementation problems but also exactly the sorts of design issues that I’ve just pointed out. Thankfully, Ballyhoo would prove to be an anomaly; the games that succeeded it would once again evince the level of polish we’ve come to expect. Given that Ballyhoo was also the product of a first-time author, its failings are perhaps the result of a perfect storm of inexperience combined with distraction.

Ballyhoo was not, as you’ve probably guessed, a big seller, failing to break 30,000 copies in lifetime sales. It’s a paradoxical little game that I kind of love on one level but can’t really recommend on another. Certainly there’s much about it to which I really respond. Whether because I’m a melancholy soul at heart or because I just like to play at being one from time to time, I’m a sucker for its sort of ramshackle splendid decay. I’m such a sucker for it, in fact, that I dearly want Ballyhoo to be better than it is, to actually be the sad and beautiful work of interactive fiction that I sense it wants to be. I’ve occasionally overpraised it in the past for just that reason. But we also have to consider how well Ballyhoo works as an adventure game, and in that sense it’s a fairly broken creation. I won’t suggest that you tax yourself too much trying to actually solve it by yourself, but it’s well worth a bit of wandering around just to soak up its delicious melancholy.


Posted by on December 22, 2014 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction


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