Written by Joe Pranevich
Let’s state the obvious: Infocom wasn’t doing well. To offset declining sales, their new parent demanded twice as many games. This was working, in a way. The previous two games, Stationfall and Lurking Horror, taken together would just about made for decent sales… of a single game. Infocom needed to innovate, to open new markets, and to bring their brand of sophisticated (even literary) gaming to new audiences. They just weren’t very good at that kind of innovation.
That brings us to Nord and Bert Couldn’t Make Head or Tail of It, their 27th adventure. After failing at business products (Cornerstone) and graphical games (Fooblitzky), Infocom reached a period where they embraced diversity through genre. We have already seen The Lurking Horror, their first “horror” game, and we will shortly be looking at their first romance (Plundered Hearts) and RPG (Beyond Zork). Nord and Bert went in a different direction: a comedy game of wordplay and idioms, designed by Jeff O’Neill. Instead of a single narrative adventure, Nord and Bert would also be broken up into connected “Interactive Short Stories”. With a low barrier to entry and a completely new take on what an “adventure” game could be, Infocom hoped that they could “hit it out of the park”.
Who doesn’t enjoy cliches, right?
|Pretty vanilla manual.|
We’ve seen O’Neill already with Ballyhoo, but to recap: originally from California, Jeff O’Neill was a journalist by training who became a play tester for Infocom. He showed his stuff doing QA on Hitchhiker’s Guide and Wishbringer (among others), before being accepted as an “Implementor” and crafting his first game, Ballyhoo. Since then, he took a swing at the mess that was Bureaucracy, before being given the helm of his next solo game project. He was respected enough that Steve Meretzky included him in the “committee” to help him select his next game, although he preferred Zork Zero over Stationfall. From the Stationfall notes, we know that Infocom was toying with ideas for shorter fiction, to lower the barrier of entry to their games. Perhaps in light of that, he presented an idea for “Wordplay”, a game based on puns and humor very unlike anything else in the catalog. Infocom accepted his game idea: Nord and Bert was born.
O’Neill crafted the game “puzzles-first”, researching with dictionaries and Games magazine to build each of the different types of word games that he would present. In the end, he settled on seven of these, presented as seven different short stories. The framing story was nearly an afterthought, just a way to draw all of these otherwise disconnected scenarios into a common narrative. An eighth story would serve as the capstone of the game, incorporating wordplay from all of the previous seven sections. It’s a bit of a stretch, but I cannot help but compare Nord and Bert to the original mainframe Zork. We know that many of the Zork puzzles were designed discrete, developed by the implementors first before finding a place on the map to put them. The original Zork also permitted many of the treasures (and puzzles) to be completed in any order. Most of the games that came after Zork stressed the narrative and brought the puzzles into that; Nord and Bert swung the pendulum the other way and built narrative around the puzzles.
Our first built-in hint system!
Another first for Nord and Bert: no hint book. Instead, O’Neill created Infocom’s first ever in-game hint system (patterned off of their “Invisiclues” books). Was this a design choice? Funding? Or lack of time? I have been unable to determine conclusively and the answer was likely a combination. Sales of hint books during this period occasionally exceeded sales of actual games, so the omission seems odd. On the other hand, Infocom had just started combining multiple games into single books (Stationfall and Lurking Horror, most recently) and would give up on hint books entirely before the end. The “Solid Gold” re-releases starting in December 1987 would also feature built-in hints; we’ll take a look at those in a few months. It seems as if Infocom was considering built-in hints for their “gateway” games, to allow a player’s first Infocom experience to be as positive as possible.
This inclusion was possible because of a technical innovation: a new game interpreter. Infocom at this point had two gaming engines/formats:
- ZIP - The old standard since Zork I, it ran on just about anything and largely unchanged since 1980. Bugs had been fixed, features had been added, and sound would shortly be incorporated into the Amiga interpreter, but the core design and limitations remained the same.
- EZIP - Developed in 1985 for A Mind Forever Voyaging, it opened the door to double-sized games, but required “high end” consumer equipment such as the Commodore 128. Only a handful of games had been produced for EZIP.
For this game, Infocom introduced “LZIP”, a middle ground between the two extremes. Games using LZIP could be 38% larger than ZIP games, could use some of the EZIP features, while still working on low-end hardware such as the Commodore 64. I may be mistaken, but Nord and Bert may be the only game to use LZIP. Infocom would soon go through an explosion of new interpreters, starting with Beyond Zork only a few months away.
|Puns are all the rage.|
The Manual & Feelies
Since Deadline, “feelies” had been an essential part of what made an “Infocom game”. Every game contained at least two of these extras, ranging from specialized manuals or “in-universe” texts, to wastes of space like rocks and plastic centipedes. These extras built backstory and provided hints about puzzles, if not used for explicit copy protection. Nord and Bert would be the only game to come with a single “feelie”, a book of (mostly) one-panel comics by Kevin Pope. Unlike with the hint book, it’s difficult to see this as anything but for cost control. This book, entitled "Home on the Range”, consisted of eight comics. Each image was inspired by or provides a clue for the “short story” that it pertains to. For example, the first of these (“All Alone on a Desserted Isle”) clues us in that homophones and food will play a part in one of the stories. Our challenge is to connect each image with the matching episode, using the picture clue to help understand the kinds of puzzles we’ll be dealing with. We’ll see how this works in practice as we play.
Pope’s work is intimately connected to the game. Let’s pause for a moment to look at what brought him to create cartoons for a text adventure.
The book that inspired Jeff O’Neill.
In 1987, Pope was 29 and was making his mark as an illustrator. Originally from Indiana, Pope studied painting at Indiana University. After graduation, he worked by day as a groundskeeper on a golf course while taking the occasional jobs as a freelance illustrator for advertising. In 1983, he and his wife moved to Chicago where his success grew thanks to work in Playboy, Chicago Magazine, Outdoor Magazine, and others. In 1985, the Chicago Tribune hired him to write a daily comic, Inside Out. Before long, his work was syndicated nationally to 50 newspapers and led to the publication of his first book, The Day Gravity Was Turned Off in Topeka.
It was this book that brought Pope to Infocom’s attention, and ultimately what sold them on his unique art style for Nord and Bert. Pope agreed to do the artwork in exchange for a fixed fee as well as a plug for his book and column. Unfortunately, I have been unable to locate any collected editions of Inside Out (although the Disney film of the same name complicates searching), but the sample strips that I have located online show Pope to have a delightful style, a world that is off-balance, often anthropomorphic, and perhaps may be even more cynical than Gary Larson’s The Far Side. Pope wearied of the comparisons to Larson’s work. In a 1991 interview, he remarked that “The Larson knock-off comments are a joke because I was drawing before he was."
|A Pop-Tarts ad that Pope created for Kelloggs.|
Pope has been involved in a million projects since his time with Infocom. He voluntarily stepped away from Inside Out in 1988 to transition to advertising and other efforts full time. The work required to pen and illustrate six jokes a week was all-consuming and he needed a break. He has since done advertising work for Pepsi, Dunkin' Donuts, Kelloggs, Juniper Networks, Coca-Cola, and many others, plus continued his work on novelty greeting cards. In 1991, Pope published his second collection of comics, The Dance of the Seven Veals. From 1997 to 2018, Pope illustrated various features for MAD Magazine, and is best known for creating “Melvin and Jenkins”. In 2000, Pope was the Art Director for the animated TV series Sammy, starring David Spade, which ran for one season. With work on video games, TV series, advertisements, and just about everything else, Kevin Pope’s work has touched on just about every medium there is. I look forward to seeing how his comics connect to Nord and Bert.
In 1993, Pope leaped into a new medium: farming. He and his wife purchased Lucas Lane Farms in southern Indiana, restoring an 1899 farmhouse and eventually building seven greenhouses on the property. Pope has continued to split his time between his farm and his illustration work, transforming the near-abandoned farmstead into 23 acres (9.3 hectares) of heirloom produce.
Despite all of Infocom’s efforts, Nord and Bert did not catch fire with audiences. The game sold just over 17,000 copies over the next two years, becoming the worst-selling game (other than Fooblitzky) up to that point. But don’t worry: there are plenty more games coming up that will sell even fewer copies.
The strangest “sequel”.
There is one other– very strange– coda to the story of Nord and Bert. In 2017, Kyle J. Acosta wrote a “sequel” of sorts to the game, also titled Nord and Bert. As best I can tell, this is self-published, one of several books that Acosta published through “North Abyss Books”. I also suspect it is not licensed, for reasons that will be clear shortly.
The book positions itself as a direct sequel and Acosta demonstrates familiarity with many of Infocom’s games. Here is a passage from the first chapter:
"You forget what we were. There was no beauty in us, no grace—the two of us a mismatched pair in an empty world—a little distraction in their little lives. Some cheap puns, some laughs, a grin and a groan, a two-pence and a tumble. I don't even like puns. We were never true, Nord, and that is the truth—maybe some of us were, the wizard and the thief, the silver chalice, the 'Feel Free' carved above the crypt, the enormous lines of green power, the lower elevator access card—they were something."
The premise of the book is simply that Nord and Bert have died and gone to Hell. While I have not read the whole thing yet (perhaps I will if we ever get to 2017!), the opening chapter has them meeting and interacting with Keats, Milton, and many others in the “Inn of Poets”. The author enjoys the wordplay that Nord and Bert can bring to their hellish situation. There’s some introspection here, but I’ll need to read it more deeply to fully develop an opinion. I have flipped through to later chapters and there is some explicit sex– including a scene where Nord and Bert are tricked into having sex with each other. I doubt very much that Activision would have been a fan, but it’s remarkable the way that Infocom games influenced creators even many years later.
Enough preliminaries, let’s play!
|In the Beginning, God created the pun. But was it good?|
Playing the Game
As the game begins, we are given a basic framing device: we have been selected to help the town of Punster deal with its assorted problems, all of which seem to revolve around language. We are told that it involves “time-worn phrases” and “ceaseless random coinage of words”.
Unlike a typical Infocom game, we are presented with a menu of eight scenarios. I know from the manual that the final scenario is a culmination of the previous, but I don’t know how that will work yet. I notice that it involves the Mayor who is “paralyzed and corrupted by the plague”, so perhaps we'll learn more about what is causing this “plague” and how to stop it. Our options are:
- Go to the Shopping Bizarre
- Play Jacks
- Buy the Farm
- Eat Your Words
- Act the Part
- Visit the Manor of Speaking
- Shake a Tower
- Meet the Mayor
Since we have no clue, I’m just going to take them all in order. I pick the first one.
On a recent Friday night at the Supermarket, the usual shopping frenzy turned into shopping panic. Crazed bargain-hunters, recklessly pushing shopping carts before them, were observed to stream from the aisles and out the market, many of whom not even stopping to pause in the parking lot. Whatever it was that caused the panic, one thing’s for sure – business has never been the same. By restoring some semblance of order to this bizarre situation, and perhaps purchasing some item or another, you can begin to rebuild customer confidence.
Our interface is not the typical Infocom adventure. We have the top-bar that we only saw in the EZIP games (like Trinity), but that includes a list of places that we can explore. We can see that we are in the “Dessert Aisle” and can travel to “Manicotti”, “British”, “Write”, “Meets”, and “Misc”. There are no cardinal directions and we get no sense at all of how the store is laid out. We can guess that “Meets” is the meat section, but the others don’t appear to be homophones.
Flipping through the included Kevin Pope cartoons, the first seems most applicable to our predicament: “All Alone on a Desserted Isle”.
A three-hour meal?
The dessert aisle includes a long freezer with a lathe brown moose blocking the way. I am not sure what the game wants me to do, so I just try “get mousse” even though there is no mousse in the room. It’s a good guess because that does the trick:
> get mousse
There’s a sudden, belching “poof” of smoke, and the odor of burnt chocolate.
This is confusing, but I can act directly on the puns? I get a point for the mousse and so I must be on the right trick. Inside the freezer is a “22/7”, so I “get pie”. It's understandable, but not really an adventure game.
I take the rooms in sequence and go to “Aisle of Manicotti” next. This is where the cereals and grains are stored. Am I missing a pun or a homophone with manicotti? I just think of it as a type of pasta and not likely to be where the cereal is sold. This aisle is dominated by a “pallid-looking gentleman in a dark tuxedo” who is destroying boxes of cereal with his long fangs. He’s obviously a vampire (or a “serial/cereal killer?”), but I do not find any way to turn him into an item that I can collect. Along one wall is an infinite variety of cereal, but that doesn’t lead to any immediate puns/homonyms, either.
One odd usage: when the game says “cereal”, it appears to mean pasta as well. Several of the “cereals” that are killed by the vampire-thing are pastas. Is that a British usage? In my world, “cereal” either means oats and grains or “breakfast cereal” which had been once made from that but now involves cute characters and sugary marshmallows. I would never call tortellini (to use one of the game’s examples) as a “cereal”. I find nothing to do there and move on to “British”.
Anything more British than a cuppa?
The British Aisle (obvious pun on “British Isles”) is decked out with a giant Union Jack, but is mostly occupied by a “box boy” filling and over-filling shelves with boxes. In fact, the boy himself is made of boxes. Up to this moment, I was also unaware of the term “boxboy” of someone that restocks shelves; the OED doesn’t list it, but other dictionaries call it an American usage. Maybe I don’t hang out with the right people.
A nearby sign calls this the “putting section”. I feel like I am complaining about the language in language puzzles too much, but “putting” is not a homophone for “pudding”. I take the pudding anyway. This somehow causes the box boy to disappear and be replaced by a trail of ants. I try “look aunts” and they are now aunts! They are searching for a girl named Emily and I will be sure to keep an eye out.
I go to the “Write” section next. Instead of food, it’s selling stationery. There are a ton of items here, including a wall of quartz (“quarts?”), flour on the floor (“flower?”), and two extra strange things: a “stationary” and a “bear clause”. Picking up the quart, flower, and bear claw is easy enough. A “bear claw”, for our international friends, is a type of pastry that looks a bit like what it describes. In contrast, a “bear clause” is described as a legal document, but internet searching does not suggest that it is a real thing. The “stationary” is confusing because the game doesn’t describe what it is, only that it is there and sitting still. I try to pick it up as “stationery”, but while it transforms, I still cannot pick it up. What is the point? This section feels like O’Neill found a bunch of words he wanted to use and didn’t quite work out how.
A yummy bear claw.
After picking up the “quart”, the wall of quartz turns into a shelf of milk and a door appears at the end. It’s covered in locks, so naturally I “get lox”. The door remains jammed by a door jamb, so I “get jam”. That results in jam that is sticky and everywhere rather in a jar, but at least the door opens. This adds a new location to the top-of-screen list: a cellar!
Descending into the cellar, I instead look around for the “seller”. This conjures a woman wearing a store uniform at a cash register. This is another case where O’Neill is abusing the language somewhat: while I obviously know what a “seller” is from context, I don’t know any variety of English where the “cashier” is called a “seller”. Neither Merriam-Webster nor the OED know of it either. Am I being too pushy on the use of language? If we’re going to be playing word games, I’d prefer if they were real words… As I do not have any money, I am unable to interact with her any further.
“Meets” is the next section on the list and I am not surprised to see a “mince” and a steak on the shelf. Since the steak is already foodstuff, I grab a “stake” instead. That looks useful for defeating a vampire! A little girl also appears, rolling off the shelf. Could that be Emily? She hits me in the leg repeatedly. A naughty child? Yes! She’s wearing a ribbon calling her the “worst brat”. I grab the “bratwurst”, observing that it’s not even a homophone. The “mince” claims to be like every other mince I’ve ever seen, which is unhelpful because I have no idea what a mince is. Some quick Googling suggests that this is a British usage for “mincemeat”, which itself confusingly can refer to either minced (finely chopped) meats or a similar-looking sweet concoction of chopped apples, raisins, and similar. which would be baked into a pie. It’s not a homophone, but I experiment by trying to grab the “mint” and that works! A moment later, the aunts walk in and I give them back their “brat”. They are relieved to find Emily and I no longer need to be haunted by turning a misbehaving girl into a sausage.
“Misc” is the last one and this truly seems to be where O’Neill just threw random words: I find a tack, a sail, and mussels. If I “get muscles”, I become a burly person. But what puzzle do I need to be strong for? I just pick up the tacks (“tax?”) and sail (“sale?”) as those might be useful when dealing with the seller.
With all of the rooms explored, I have to solve whatever puzzles are left. I can only think of two: the vampire in “Manicotti” and the seller downstairs. I assume the first is needed for the second, so that’s where I go. I attack the vampire with the stake, but his rancid breath pushes me away! I give the mint to the vampire first and then stake him and that works a lot better. He disappears in a flash of light, but no objects are dropped. I get a point, but nothing to help me with whatever is next.
Back downstairs, I still have no money. Checking all of my objects, I notice that my flowers have a scent, so I pick up the “cent”. I try to buy the lox (at random) from the seller, but it’s obviously a lot more expensive than a single cent! I “put lox on sale” (using the sail) and that gets us farther, but I still cannot afford the tax. I hand her the “tax” (from the tacks) and that works too! I can finally purchase the lox and win this mini-adventure! I am a “Super Saver”!
> buy lox
Okay, you buy the lox, handing the cent and the tax to the seller.
Bravo! Cheer! Kudos! With your feats of homonymic skill, you have shown the way to restoring customer confidence to the puzzled shoppers of Punster. Having broken the tape at the end of your Bizarre shopping spree, you thusly achieve the esteemed rank of Super Saver.
Homonymic? No, I had to use my “homophonic” skills. Homonyms are words with the same spelling but different meaning, but we’ve been working with “homophones”, words with different spelling and meaning but the same sound. I’m disappointed that a game about words could make such a mistake, but there were actually a number of questionable choices here and not-quite-correct usage. I’m probably expecting too much. We’ll end here for today and take our score guesses.
Time played: 1 hr 15 min
Score: 22/22 (Bizarre)
Who are these mysterious individuals?
Before I move on to ask you for your score guesses, I have one obvious question: who are Nord and Bert? The obvious answer is that they are the protagonists of the game, but what we’ve played through so far had no obvious indication that we were playing as a pair. There have been no puzzles that imply more than one viewpoint. If there is a singular protagonist, why did Jeff O’Neill title it with two leads? Is “Nord and Bert” a pun or a reference to something I don’t get? I’ve tried inverting the syllables (“bored and inert?”), looking for homonyms, or seeing if it was a pre-existing phrase, but I am having no luck so far.
While there are two figures on the cover art, none of the other Kevin Pope comics have a pair of figures. The one comic where a character is named, he is “Chet” and not either Nord or Bert. Pope drew similarly oversized pairs of figures in some of his other works. This shouldn’t be my big question, but somehow I am fixated on figuring out why this game has this title.
Finally, this post is indebted to several sources. I would like to thank Kevin Pope for answering questions via email to flesh out his story and you may be hearing more from him soon. I also took advantage of two profiles of Mr. Pope (one from the Northwest Indiana Times in 1991 and another from Bloom Magazine in 2020), as well as author blurbs and profiles on some of his other internet-posted works. I also recommend The Digital Antiquarian’s coverage of this game. I was careful to avoid spoilers as much as I can, but he also has great coverage on the development of this game from his sources. (I tried not to crib too much.)
Enough yammering! Please make your score guesses now. Jeff O’Neill scored 41 on his only other solo game (Ballyhoo), while Infocom games broadly are averaging 40 points. You could guess lower or higher if you feel that our scoring system won’t adapt well to this genre. I’m having fun and frustration in equal measure so far, so you be the judge. Seven more short stories to go. How many of them should I try to cover per post?
Note Regarding Spoilers and Companion Assist Points: There's a set of rules regarding spoilers and companion assist points. The short of it is that no CAPs will be given for hints or spoilers given in advance of me requiring one. As this is an introductory post, it's an opportunity for readers to bet 10 CAPs (only if they already have them) that I won't be able to solve a puzzle without putting in an official Request for Assistance: remember to use ROT13 for betting. If you get it right, you will be rewarded with 50 CAPs in return. It's also your chance to predict what the final rating will be for the game. Voters can predict whatever score they want, regardless of whether someone else has already chosen it. All correct (or nearest) votes will go into a draw.