Words Matter:
Nick Montfort's
Ad Verbum

A Very Close Reading

Edmond Y. Chang

Written for
ENGL 668k: Digital Studies
with Matthew G. Kirschenbaum,
Department of English,
University of Maryland,
Spring 2004.*

*Rediscovered, recovered from the annals of my graduate school days at the University of Maryland. Now rehosted, republished with minor changes: a slightly larger font, updated links, but otherwise preserved in digital amber. Rejoice, reread!
--Edmond Y. Chang, Ph.D.
September 25, 2019

Words matter. Words are material, complicated. On the other hand, words can be immaterial, senseless. Nick Montfort's Ad Verbum (2000), self-proclaimed "Oulipo-inspired interactive fiction," imagines and executes a world, an adventure game, a story built by words, populated by word puzzles, and inhabited by word adventurers. After all, ad verbum means to the word, word for word, verbatim. As the preface reveals, the text is "lolological in nature, from the realm of recreational linguistics, or wordplay" and builds strongly on the theme that "how one types a particular command is as important as is the meaning of that command." Though the plot, setting, and characters of Ad Verbum are limited in scope, the text's conservativeness in expanse, number of rooms and choices, is made up for by its cleverness, its pointing up of the way words are constructed, have many meanings and dimensions, live in contradiction, can help or hinder, and in the end, matter.

The adventure begins, "With the cantankerous Wizard of Wordplay evicted from his mansion, the worthless plot can now be redeveloped. The city regulations declare, however, that the rip-down job can't proceed until all the items within have been removed." You: adventurer's day laborer with a "penchant for puzzle-solving" and "kleptomaniacal tendencies." What: hired to explore, close read, and clear out the mansion of a lolologician. How: recognize words for what they are, for what they create, and for what they can change. In the first two screens (paragraphs?) of the introduction the text puns ("worthless plot") and demonstrates its self-reflexive nature as story, cybertext, and computer game ("You hop into the bed of his truck, type a few Zs, and arrive at the site, eager...").

Playing Ad Verbum, moving through the house, and interacting with objects and people follows the conventions of most interactive fiction. Commands are generally common sense verbs or verb-direct object strings such as east, down, go east, open door, push button, get the evil effigy, feed the pig, put all in dumpster. Each room or area of the house is fully described, as are objects and other characters, often with embedded hints or clues. The overall story and goal is to gather and dispose of the items left behind by the Wizard of Wordplay. However, the Wizard has left behind a number of puzzles and parting tricks. The text adventure encourages the player and the character, who are one and the same in the space of the story, to think linguistically, to treat words as both objects and concepts, and to realize that words are simultaneously problem and solution. The text and player work to navigate and manipulate the multi-dimensionality of Ad Verbum's words.

(Spoilers ahead.)

First, words have rules. The mansion of the Word Wizard has many rules. The game of Ad Verbum also has rules. Much of the problem-solving and puzzle-unpuzzling of the text is in recognizing the rules in play and using them to get out of sticky situations. In fact, the player (via text) and adventurer (via sound) are warned by a mysterious and booming, sonorous voice before entering a room, "You may be very, very frustrated if you walk in there without reading the WARNING." Alas, the Warning seems heavy handed and coddling as it explicates perhaps overly so, "While interacting with Ad Verbum, it is possible to enter areas that seem impossible to leave by normal means...The challenge of Ad Verbum lies, in part, in figuring out how to exit from these areas."

Warning heeded, the player and adventurer enter at their own risk to skill and patience. Much of the house's rules are predicated on alliteration. For example, entering the Study from the Antepenultimate Lobby (the second floor), the sonorous voice booms out, "LISTEN WELL! Know ye that passage back through here is difficult for some, impossible for others!" The room is described: "Small, shadowy, stifling study. Softwood slats (stain: sandy) surround." In the room: "Stuff: ... stylus." Tapping the keyboard to get past a pause in the adventure represented by a bracketed ellipsis [...], a window of text appears like a block quote offering the reader a sibilant short story starring Sally. Navigating the room, examining the room and its contents, and ultimately leaving the room requires S-word commands. Here the game world, the narrative, the descriptions, the parser, and even the error messages are in symphony. Snag stylus wins the item, +3 points, and the cheerful message, "Snagging satisfaction!" And after many tries, split or scram are successful synonyms to leave the room and go north. It is no accident then that to get to the Study from the Penultimate Lobby is to go south.

Another wordly dimension and an extension of the word mansion's rules is that words have shape, words have weight, words have materiality. Ad Verbum recognizes that the player is reading and typing, that words describe places, spaces, things, and actions, that the player is the adventurer, that the adventurer is seeing, taking, touching, doing, and moving, and that through all of it, the words occupy literal, figurative, and cyber dimensions.

One of the very first puzzles to solve is in the first room, the Foyer on the first floor. A stuck door to the north leads out behind the house. Attempting to go north yields the result, "The difficult difficult difficult door seems to be stuck." A first attempt to open difficult door results, "You move the difficult difficult difficult door slightly. But, as you might have guessed, it's stuck." A second attempt is only a little more promising causing the door to "wiggle." A third attempt finally opens the door. Three attempts open the stuck door. Three iterations of "difficult" describe the door. In this case, the adjective not only describes how hard it is to open the door, evokes the material "stuckness" of the door, but also controls the commands, the code of the program to open the door. Actually, the problem can be solved more expediently. The command parser counts the number of difficults used. The door can be opened in two moves: open difficult door and open difficult difficult door. Or, for those on a low-moves diet, only one attempt, one command line is required: open difficult difficult difficult door instantly wins passage.

Another instantiation of the materiality of words is revealed while navigating the mansion, while moving from room to room. On several floors of the Word Wizard's mighty house, there are hallways that take you from lobby areas to specialized rooms. The second floor, for example, boasts three passages. The lobby desc says, "Two of them (to the n and e) are normal passages, but one, to the s, is oddly constrained." Northward is a Bedroom with a toga-wearing pig. To the east is the Library. If, perchance, the text adventurer heads to the Library first and manages to clear it of its contents, he or she will return to the lobby carrying four texts: a copybook, a abecedarian book, a dust casing, and a wee writ. Heading north through the normal hall is done without difficulty (though the pig in the room at the end does not seem interested in the books.) However, attempting to go south, down the oddly constrained passage, yields the admonition, "You'll never get through that constrained passage carrying that copybook." The player naturally drops copybook. Then types go south. Again, another message says, "You'll never get through that constrained passage carrying that abecedarian book." The adventurer drops the book. Eventually, both the dust casing and the wee writ must be dropped as well as any other collected items; the character cannot be carrying anything in order to fit down the passage. Even a "wee piece of paper" is too bulky, too encumbering to allow passage. Generally, game items do not seem to have any weight or any realistic size for the adventurer seems to be able to carry any number of items without being overburdened. The items are flattened to the size, shape, and mass of their words, the immateriality of glowing pixels. However, here in the constrained passage, there is a sense that words themselves are too big, too physical, too material for the quixotic physics of the hallway, a physics tested and described by Ad Verbum's code. The tension between the material and immaterial word is part of the joy and comment of the text adventure.

It is in the joy that a final dimension of words is explored, explained, inculcated. Words may have rules, but in the deepest sense the words and rules are arbitrary, flexible, and mutable. Words are play. Ad Verbum is play. Lolologia is the endgame. Both player and character have a job to do, but part of that job is to delight in the puzzles and peculiarities left behind by the Wizard of Wordplay (and the programmer Montfort), who appears now and then at random like a ghost. The Wizard is described entering the scene, screen: "A bearded figure wanders in, oblivious to you and, it seems, somewhat uncertain of where he is going. His loose clothing billows as he steps about...By the time you've recovered from the shock, you realize that he has completely disappeared." He materializes, mutters things at random, and then vanishes leaving the text adventurer to continue working, playing.

The arbitrary fun and protean play of words is best demonstrated in the Wordplayground, which is outside behind the house (through the difficult difficult difficult door). The Wordplayground is described as "a sort of small, enclosed backyard, closed in with a high wooden fence and completely covered in asphalt." Then a block quote appears:

Los Angeles's playground rules were different ... "Your momma so old she farts dust." It was no longer my bodysurfer pals and I having contests to see who knew the most dinosaur names.

-- Paul Beatty
"What Set You From, Fool?"

A little boy named Georgie stands smugly in the yard; a talking robotic puppy is nearby. The adventurer's "object-sensitive" eyes notice a toy dinosaur to be removed to the dumpster. Attempting to take the toy dino, a plastic triceratops, earns a screech from Georgie, who screams "Miiiiiiiiine!" and whisks the item away. He challenges the player and adventurer to a duel of words saying, "You can't have that. Not unless you know more dinosaur names than me, and nobody knows more dinosaur names than me. So there!" The battlefield is set. The gauntlet is thrown.

The player, playing it safe, types say brontosaurus to boy. Georgie reddens, his fists clench, he whines, and he says, "I was gonna say that one next!" Not one to be defeated so easily, Georgie dips into the database: "'Oh yeah? Diplodochus!" Georgie says, with pride." The player draws from his or her own memory. Tyrannosaurus is countered with Plesiosaur. Stegosaurus is countered with Prosauropod. Allosaurus elicits Velociraptor. Clearly, both Georgie and the code mean business and both have eidetic memories. Using a dinosaur already named yields a high pitched laugh: "'That one's already been sa-aid!' he sings, taunting you. 'You don't know any mo-ore dinosaur names!'" How many names does Georgie know? How many dinosaurs are stored in the depths of the game?

Suddenly, the player has a halogen bulb moment: Maybe I don't need to know more names? Maybe I only have to pretend? Maybe I just need to anticipate the rules of the names? The trick to winning the game is to figure out the words. After all, it is just a little boy or rather a little program that thinks like a little boy. The next name named would only have to sound like, to parse like a real dinosaur name. The player types say stupidosaurus to boy. It works: "Georgie looks puzzled, as if he hasn't heard that name before. He sputters for a moment, perhaps confused by the novel name, apparently finding it difficult to think." Georgie replies, "Oh yeah? Ankylosaur!" The solution is in the arbitrariness, the predictability of the word. Montfortosaurus yields Deinonychus. Givemeyourdinosaurus yields Cotylosaurus. Eventually, after ten rounds, Georgie gives up. He surrenders the toy dinosaur, runs through the difficult difficult difficult door, and leaves the house forever. All the while, the little robotic puppy quips "Your Momma" insults.

Command of the language, in the end, wins out. It is through language, through words, that the player and the text adventurer finally finish the job. Mapping the multi-dimensionality of words is the key to unlocking Ad Verbum. Fifteen rooms, thirteen items, a handful of curious characters, and a hundred or so moves later, the dumpster is full and the mansion is clear. The last descriptive paragraph reads, "You place the last loose object into the Dumpster and feel a rush of triumph. In a while, no doubt, the contractor will show up and pay for your labor. In the meantime, you'll stand around and wonder how you could have gotten that last point." The last screen shows emphatically:

*** You have won ***

In that game, you scored 99 out of a possible 100 points, in 119 turns.

Perhaps the final point is realizing that Ad Verbum is a short but satisfying romp through the "twisty little passages" of language.


Montfort, Nick. Ad Verbum. March 2004. April 2004. http://nickm.com/if/adverbum.html.

(c) 2004 Edmond Y. Chang