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Ad Verbum by Nick Montfort [Comp00]

IFDB page: Ad Verbum
Final placement: 4th place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

Among Infocom enthusiasts, the game Nord and Bert Couldn’t Make Head Or Tail Of It doesn’t tend to get singled out for a lot of praise. It has its fans, sure, but rarely receives the hosannas granted to such works as Trinity, A Mind Forever Voyaging, or even Planetfall. Its detractors, on the other hand, can be extremely vocal and emphatic. Ironically, though, the thing its critics decry is in fact the game’s greatest strength: it is a near-total break from IF convention, setting aside adventuring and role-playing to focus instead on wordplay, puns, and cliches. A typical Nord and Bert puzzle asks you to type a spoonerism, cliche, or bad old joke into the command line, which the game will then recognize and advance the story for you.

Naturally, if you despise puns, or if you don’t know a lot of cliches, or if you don’t enjoy wordplay, Nord and Bert isn’t the game for you. Because I love language and have a pretty firm command of English idioms, I loved Nord and Bert, though I certainly found myself relying on the hints at a few points. Still, it’s not surprising that fans of Trinity-style IF find themselves caught short when playing the game — it’s nothing like any other Infocom game, or really any other piece of IF. Until now. Ad Verbum is very much in the spirit of Nord and Bert, but instead of focusing on English idioms, it focuses on the words themselves, having a ball with all manner of challenging restrictions on expression.

For example, there’s a room where every single word starts with “S”. I’m not kidding — every single word. Don’t believe me? Here’s the room description:

Sloppy Salon
Simple social space, sadly spoiled. Some skewed situation's sequel,
surely. Seemingly, slovenly students sojourned -- scraping,
scratching, scuffing surfaces.

Stuff: ... stainless steel stapler... sizable sofa.

Now, I’ve seen some amazing room descriptions in my years of playing IF, but this one just blows my mind. I can’t believe the sheer linguistic bravado of it. Not only that, the author performs a similar feat in four other rooms, one for the letter “E”, one for “N”, one for “W”, and another for “S”. Not only that, each room has customized library responses consisting of only words beginning with the appropriate letter. In these rooms, as you might gather, the game will only accept input beginning with the appropriate words — the challenge is to come up with words that tell the parser what you want to do while staying within the linguistic restriction. Keep a thesaurus handy while playing this game.

Just for these rooms alone, the game is a towering achievement. To come up with not just a room description, but actual library responses that make sense for all commands, in such a restricted form, is incredible. Beyond this, though, is the achievement in parsing — I shudder to think what this game’s code must look like. And those four rooms are just one part of the whole thing. Ad Verbum overflows with linguistic challenges of this nature, and I had a hell of a lot of fun playing it.

At least, I had fun until the time I typed in an answer that should have worked under the game’s rules, but which the game didn’t recognize. And there we have the danger of this kind of game. Its wordplay challenges are so mind-wrenching that when I do come up with an answer that works, the game had better accept that answer, or I’ll get frustrated very quickly. Up until about halfway through Ad Verbum, I found that it was very well prepared to handle anything I threw at it. However, as I moved to other puzzles, it started to reject perfectly valid commands, which caused me to lose faith in the game with distressing speed, despite how impressed I had been with it up until then. After that frustrating period, I turned to the help and didn’t try very hard to solve the rest of the puzzles, which is a shame because some of them were really excellent puzzles.

The problem is that because Ad Verbum requires such specific input, when it isn’t prepared to handle what little input is valid under its rules, it seems much more broken than does a typical IF puzzle when it rejects alternate solutions. I can’t say I blame it — frankly, I’m astonished by how well coded it is already, even despite what it still lacks — but that didn’t make my experience any more fun when the game was rejecting correct answers. Ad Verbum sets itself a highly bizarre challenge, bravely taking up the mantle of Nord and Bert. When it succeeds, it provides immense intellectual pleasure. When it fails, it generates great frustration, and helps me understand just a little bit more of what those Nord and Bert bashers are on about.

Rating: 8.6

[Postscript from 2020: Ad Verbum won the XYZZY Award for Best Puzzles, in a ceremony held on ifMUD. In accepting the award, Montfort gave the most astounding acceptance speech I’ve ever seen. I reproduce it here in full, from its archive on Montfort’s site:

Ahem, awesome! Author accepts an appealing award affably.

As author’s actions affirm, alphabetical arrangements always amused author. Assembling assorted arbitrary ASCII, ad absurdo, as adventure and acquisition, appeared attractive.

And accordingly, author attacked adventure, abandoning ars amatoria, abandoning athletic activity, appearing agonizingly antisocial. After arduous attempts and assays, author actualized adventure.

Accolade and adventurer appreciation authentically affects author.

Acknowledgement appears appropriate: author appreciates all assistance and aid, awfully. An acolyte (“alone,” as acolyte’s appellation asserts) accoutered abundant authentication aid, assuredly above average.

Author asserts again: acclaim’s absolutely appreciated. Adieu!]

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