Nord and Bert Couldn't Make Head or Tail of It (IF)

Jeff O'Neill. 1987 Infocom Title. Release 19. Serial Number 870722.


This is a strange one, that's a given. It is described as eight short stories involving word plays and puns and spoonerisms. It's not really eight short stories, since that implies "eight units of narrative coheshion". It's more like eight little sandbox vignettes. Each of the section has a theme, though some make less sense than others, and a general type of word play involved. One possible exception is the "Manor of Speaking" section, whose main theme of puns is somewhat overshadowed by it's more straightforward approach. The other is the "Act the Part", which uses catch phrases and well used comedic gags, but only slightly taps into word play for its puzzles. Most of the sections, though, are all about figuring out the type of word play (suggested by the section name) and then making use of it over and over until the section comes to end (rarely with a lot of justification as to why that was it).

Game play is mostly of two types. There is more traditional interactive fiction, where you mention a destination or say "get this" or "look at that". Some of the word play involves decoding the joke inside of the command. For instance, in the "Play Jacks" section, your actions take advantage of the various wordplays, but you do not cite the wordplays directly. In other scenes, though, you directly cite the word plays. Maybe you want to turn the "dandy bear's car" into your "dear's candy bar" so you can give it to her as a gift. In the game, you would just type out "dear's candy bar" and the pun would be played out in game and the car would change. This might stop the bear from attacking you or maybe it just gets you the candy bar.

The problem with the game is that it can be kind of unclear with what type of response it wants. Do you just type out a wordplay? Do you try using the wordplay in a command? Is there some other wordplay you should be aiming for? If you look at the item in question, it often gives a hint, but there are some unclear portions of the game.

The biggest problem is the sheer amount of obscure and somewhat archaic phrases or synonyms you have to muster in order to solve it. One section is all about old adages and the like, and it can take a long time trying to figure out which old adage, and in some cases which wording of an old adage, you have to muster to move forward. A few of the man phrases you have to type in must be typed precisely, while some puzzles can be solved with near guesses. This can lead to nearly correct choices seeming to be wrong ones.

These two complaints aside, the game is a lot of fun. By breaking the game up into distinct sections, it helps to cut back on the annoyance. As you beat the first seven sections in any order you choose, you get a "password" of sorts that enables you to skip it later. You can tinker around in whatever order you need, with the sections being essentially self-contained (except for the password) and not worry about the other sections. Also, the sections often contain a few tasks that are for the fun of it that you don't need to beat them, so that gives a little more replay value.

More than other Infocom games, this one is suited for multiplayer fun. You can split up and take different sections, or just read the parts aloud together. I played with my wife in a couple of places, and it was interesting to see what little wordplays she noticed that I missed, and vice versa. If two or more people play together, they can share hints and suggestions, and then when one beats a section he or she can share the password. These two aspects, the general sharability of the experience and the passwords to stop forced replaying, will help to overcome the frustration of trying to find every old phrase involving a rake, a duck, and a potato sack (like the dandy car, I made that up).

It also has an extensive hint system with lots of hints ranging from subtle to "the answer". Since a few of the phrases and word plays are confusing and rarely used, it was nice to have it on hand. It definitely can make the difference between being really frustrated and being able to continue playing once you have tried all you know. If the hints are a little too close to cheating, then you can search online for some of the adages and use some resources on homonyms.

It is interesting and worth a look, even if you don't feel like beating it. With it's lack of map (each section only has a couple of subsections) and password abilities, it makes for a fairly portable title (the flipside being the verbosity of the inputs required, making a cell phone version potentially aggravating). Sometimes the sections feel like they are repeating themselves when they take the same style of puzzle and make you enter it again and again. Something like a real narrative strewn into the works might have worked well. Still, this is a definite stand out title from Infocom's library.

Final Scores

(my ratings)

Interactive: Good

Fiction: Eh

Reviewer's Tilt: Good

Final Average: Good


How I Did

Beat everything, using a handful of clues here or there, with the exception of one point in "Shake a Tower". Don't know what I missed there, at all.

Hints, Suggestions and Mild Spoilers (for what they are worth)

Section names give clues to the sort of wordplay or puzzles in front of you. Sometimes they are not obvious. If you find yourself stumped at the beginning of a stage, go back and read the stage's name and see if you can figure out what sort of word play it contains. That will give you a clue.

Death is rare and an unwinnable state is also rare. However, the "you go back to the beginning" bit seems to be a lie so there are a few places where you can mess up. "Shopping Bizarre" can be lost by handing the vampire the wrong thing or putting the wrong thing on sale (and buying it). "Shake a Tower" has some tad too subtle clues that you can overlook and then get stuck later. Most annoyingly is the room in "Manor" where you can't repeat a word. Once you find it (without saving, say), you will know my pain.

If you think you are really stumped, just use the hints (or get a friend to play). Some of the phrases are quite possibly outside of things you have heard and read. Trying to guess some random phrase for hours is not a way to have a good time.

Written by W Doug Bolden

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