The concept, a soldier reading as many of his comrades’ letters home as possible in order to perfect the style of his own aestheticized letter, is extraordinarily literarily generative, a perfect seed for a psychological novella in the Russian tradition, somewhere between Gogol and Platonov. You could go cosmological, a dizzying sense of unimportance in the face of the mass replication of one’s predicament in the unfathomable scale of slaughter of war; you could go postmodern, with a selfconscious reflexivity on the text only as a set of tropes which generate the letter in reverse, with the soldier trying to get the battle to compose the conditions for his letter’s authentic sentimentality; you could go Borges mystical, posing the idea of the perfected soldier’s letter as a literary koan; you could go Celine sardonic, a brittle lambast of the way war reveals us wretched; sadly, it seems, Between the lines of fire elects no path, perfunctorily printing the sequencing.
The game being simplistic in its execution, with telegraphed sequences of go north or talk to x and y, troubled only at the end by a single puzzle, isn’t what I mean by perfunctory. The prose’s limited valences are only partially what I mean by perfunctory, forgiving as I am always of a language barrier. Rather, the perfunctory smothering of the work occurs in its most critical scenes, when, pressed to the psychological richness of its conceit, it elides it entirely abashed, ushering the action offstage like a Greek: “I wake up just before dawn. I get up and I can’t believe my eyes. Pavel and Nikolai are on the ground in pools of blood. The bayonet next to me, soaked in red. It was me who did this. / The pen is in my hand and there are sheets everywhere, crumpled or torn by anger. I realize that in my delirium I had tried to write my letter with the letters I had already, plus those of Pavel and Nikolai. / A leaf next to me is the only one left intact. I take it carefully and begin to read. The letter is beautiful! The alchemy of all these sensitivities had taken place. I am in tears, but at the same time I understand that the letter is not perfect. Something is missing that I cannot identify.” What’s the point in writing the setup and denouement of a story but leaving its heart hollow? The soldier’s desperation for the letters, the way it obsesses him into delirium, seems interesting, certainly, but we only hear about it secondhand, quelling the I interiority that sieves colors through the predicament.
Yet even at this level of the photograph rather than the painting, there could still be a certain verve to the performance, a playful stitching together of the letters’ tropes as personified in the soldiers whose letters we steal. From one soldier the melancholy reflection on having marched hundreds of miles from home to die, when his forefathers all had the luxury of a single cemetery; from another soldier the romanticist yearning to see his beloved one last time before the end; yet another recalls their childhood, realizes now the true pleasures of innocence; you could go collecting reflections on death to inflect your death. Alas, even this is stolen from us, with the various letters receiving at most indifferent descriptions, and our final synthesis being handwaved away: “This is the end of Sidorof’s story. He joined another nearby battalion and a few days later was killed in action. His family received the most exciting and moving letter ever written from the front lines.” Your sigh echoes in the hollowness.
Between the lines of fire is a sketched outline of a captivating story. One hopes the writer one day writes it.
Athletic success requires sacrifices: time, friends, the manifold diversity of life, choosing instead to hone your body to a razorsharp blade, shaving off everything that doesn’t attenuate you to some point, the medal must be the point, a delineated absolute efficiency of existential framing in which all this is validated, an excellence you pursue and pursue until you one day wake up as, victoriously sculpted into an ideal several seconds more ideal than any other body screaming and panting up the steps. Years sweating into the dark dreaming of the podium, and it comes, and for the first time realized you stand there and realize you’re alone, suddenly being the only one at the end literalizes: “You always dreamt of this - standing on the little wooden step, the applause, being awarded a trophy to take home with you - but it’s bittersweet, as Susan isn’t here to see your achievement, and you still don’t know where she is or how she’s doing. / You sit for hours by the finish arch, your limbs stiffening up in the cold, as the dawn breaks and the sun comes up over the final peak of the Merrithorne route. You wait. / And wait.” And you remember what your old mentor said, the one who first paired you with your running partner, “‘It’s not the result, but rather the adventure along the way.’”
Which is fine to believe when you still await the result, while the journey still leads somewhere, but then you end up either way alone: “Sitting together in the sunshine, Susan finally explains why she’s been so tired during the race. She’s not well, she says, and she’s not going to get better. She didn’t - couldn’t - tell you before, but this was her last mountain race. She just wanted to finish one last time. With you.” You can choose whether or not to leave Susan behind, but you can’t bring Susan with you.
In this final refusal to finality, we’re left “trying your absolute hardest not to appear unhappy or worried or (god forbid) impatient” as you slow through a series of choices interrupting the “relentless forward motion” of marathoners, dallying in specific spaces just long enough to convince Susan forward, trying to remain useful in the gaps by gathering water, opening a pack of supplies, reading instructions. Because of this emphasis on the moments when you’re not running, The Last Mountain lacks the intensive rush of a race. Besides creating a bit of emotive dissonance, this nonintensity prevents the central dynamic of a running partner who can’t keep up from pressuring the player into confrontation. The writing reminds you that Susan is slowing you down, yet she’s right there with you as you U and D, with the only major moment of reprioritization being during a precarious descent when the game specifically instructs you to take time to watch Susan, but you could choose not to: “Suddenly, Susan loses her footing and falls. You should have been watching! / For a sickening moment, you are sure Susan is gone… but thankfully, she manages to cling to a ledge on the side of the cliff. She is badly injured and appears dazed, and it takes you a long time to climb down and pull her back onto the path, with help from other runners. It’s now clear you need to call the emergency services; it takes a while to get signal, but once you get through, an air ambulance quickly arrives and you are both whisked off to hospital. / Susan’s recovery process is long and only ever partial.” A disastrous ending, but not one earned by imbalancing priorities, rather merely out of curiosity for what happens if you deliberately defy the hint.
Replacing the emphasis on competitive speed is the bittersweet tenderness of caring for a running partner who is now more the noun than the adjective. The Last Mountain offers over ten endings, each one based upon the cumulative effect of small choices you make in each room, which filter into three basic categories: finishing with Susan, finishing without Susan, or failing along the way. The first category allows you to get the best possible marathon result but is typified pretty unambiguously as negative, while the third category is obviously not good. Instead, the game nudges you towards the second category, guiding Susan through steps along the path, so that you can finish this one last mountain as you always have, together. If you do the best job possible escorting her, putting as little strain on her as possible while guiding her carefully and refusing to let her fall behind, you receive what I believe is the best ending: “But somehow, in the end, Susan picks up the pace - to your great surprise. She puts everything she has into it, and you become so invested in getting her to the finish line that you stop caring about your own result. Susan beats you by two seconds - and incredibly, you finish bang on the cutoff time for the race. If you’d been one second slower, you’d have been disqualified, as rules are rules. You stare at your medal, feeling like you’ve witnessed a miracle. The unexpected medal is a sweet reward, but Susan’s sheer delight is sweeter.” This tenderness, in which your nurturing of her ability to excel exceeds your own desire to perform, delivers the true tonal intention, loving sweetness suffused with loss and loneliness.
Because you can care for someone through the gauntlet, overcome all the obstacles with them, struggle their excellence for both of you to awe, but the journey doesn’t last forever, some day you arrive where we’re all headed. Left alone on the path, how do you keep going, The Last Mountain muses: “For many years afterwards, you believe that Merrithorne was your last mountain, too. That the mountains were something you shared with Susan, and now that part of your life is over. / But eventually, you find yourself returning. New friends accompany you on your adventures now - but old friends’ voices forever linger in your ears, spurring you on along the mountain trail.” The how, the why, it doesn’t have an answer, but you do keep going, and in that, at least, you’re not alone. Maybe one day you will medal; standing on that podium, you’ll have so many memories to share it with.
A journey into the far reaches of the galactic hinterlands teases you with the mysterious exoticism of interstellar adventure, but Hinterlands: Delivered! chugs instead into parallel mundanity. You’re operating a Parcel Express cargo craft into an “inconveniently located” planetary system, turning into the culdesac to drop off your last delivery before the weekend. The diffident fiction of the craft molds easily into the delivery van vibes, with an air conditioner that doesn’t work, an adjustable visor for the sun(s), and, we’re annoyed to notice, a fuel gauge running low.
So we swoop by the nearest rest stop and find ourselves either on a strange desert planet or in Utah: “The south side of the trail is blocked by an impassable overgrowth of brush, cacti, and weird spindly trees. Towering buttes are barely visible in the far distance.” This demonstrates the tension that low lore scifi exhibits, which is the need for compressing the expressive range to remain within a communicable shorthand. Otherwise, you end up with the dense flights of fancy that Hinterlands: Delivered! does make one go at: “To the other side of the farm is a closed pen containing a blurghon, a g'laar, an ooloo, a wyrgnacht, and a yiggim.” Gosh, guess we’ll need to destim the doshes! Because of that jabberwocky rattle, I rather enjoyed this sequence, which sizzled flair beyond western with rayguns. It’s exciting to explore when your examinations can yield “The g'laar is a large amphibious beast that resembles a bright yellow flea with pink fins where its legs should be. It has large compound eyes on either side of what must be the creature's head, which is otherwise featureless.”
This, being the highlighted exception, can lead you to intuit the rusted backroads detritus which instead makes up most of the world: “Slunk's room is not so much messy as impossibly over-crowded. Every inch of every surface is cluttered with something or other: shelves bowing under the weight of hundreds of old magazines, several rows of household cleaners on the dining table, the television perched atop an massive stack of old stereo equipment, accompanying remote controls lined up on the coffee table, multiple laundry baskets full of clothes on the bed, ashtrays and coasters scattered about everywhere, and so on and so on from floor to ceiling. There's barely space to stand.” These televisions, magazines, and stereos assure us that our spacefaring hasn’t dragged the text adventure out of the 80s. Classic puzzles like climbing a cliff with a rope and grapnel or using a cane to hook a key adhere to the orthodoxy. Our PC even has a classically heavy dose of the Adventurer’s Sociopathy, getting NPCs to look the other way by wreaking havoc with waspish disregard, stealing the sacred orb after which the planet is named by desecrating their only other sacred object as a diversion.
This all works, of course, to the extent that you’re here to play along. Weird details that don’t add up like a recreational drug that “any basic fusion reactor based engine can run on just a tiny pinch of the stuff” become humorous specifically because of their wild grasping. Dissonance becomes silliness, as when I had a tense chase with an assassin which led to a dramatic gunslinging confrontation, only to discover they’d had time to write up the entire sequence in their diary in meticulous detail. Look, I know I’m not the fastest gun in the west, but you don’t have to livetweet it!
In that vein, there is enough stuff around to make your jaunt feel complete by the time you’ve scrabbled together a liftoff. Plenty of twists keep up the momentum, and every noticed detail proves useful in a satisfying way. On display is a clear intentionality and ambition, even if it usually boils down to locks and keys. Which will surely prove a crowdpleaser in a ParserComp!
One trend in IF over the past several years has been a resurgent interest in two player games, starting with The Last Night in Alexisgrad, then Ma Tiger’s Terrible Trip, now The Purple Pearl. Whereas the first two games were Twine, with context fractured decision sets advancing a mutually determined sequence, this is a parser game, where the multiplayer elements are rendered as a more granular interaction with a shared puzzlebox.
Literally a puzzlebox, as you are stuck in a cell chockful of random machines and the bricabrac implausibly associated with them; semiliterally shared, as you’re in an adjacent cell from which you can influence the other player but which still locks you in your own puzzles. Your interactions with the other player consist of sending items over to them or making environmental modifications that affect the situation in the other cell. As you set about solving, you’re in constant dialogue with the other player (thanks Josh for playing with me!), considering in what ways your playstate might require their intervention and in what ways you can intervene upon theirs.
The Purple Pearl tries several ways to encourage this communication and be clever about underlining the multiplayer component of the puzzling. First, your cell is just similar enough to theirs that the solutions you encounter can be conveyed to them as potentially useful information. This led to the only real moments of collaborative puzzlesolving, where a dial puzzle we had brainstormed earlier suddenly showed up on my side, and a brick with a weird message was easier to interpret when I found a similar message. Second, there is a clever solution to the “you’ve gotten stuck in a two player game” problem that invites your partner to participate in helping you through: “There is a hint system, but it contains hints only for your partner.” This helps to soothe any tedium that might build up if you’re sitting around waiting. Third, the gaps in your puzzles that are filled by the items or events that your partner sends over are pretty obviously clued, meaning that whenever something shoots your way, you can quickly set about using it to reveal what’s next, creating a seamless pacing that allows for the back and forth to flow.
Still, the game feels more like a sketch than a fully designed experience. Rather than function as any cohesive set of obstacles, the gauntlet offered here is a series of abstract ideas seemingly devloaded into the space with unfinished textures. Listening to a plaque shaped like lips for a code for the nearby vending machine, after which it puckers for a kiss, which then raises a platform with a safe, which requires a key randomly tied to a frog sent through from your partner, but which requires some disambiguating to work (“>unlock hex lock with hex key / That doesn’t seem to be something you can unlock.”), your progress through nested interactions seem vague and disconnected, which detracts from the multiplayer environment puzzling. Often, I would disappear down a gnarl of dream actions, then five minutes later I’d have a code to send to my partner for their own inexplicable journey. Moreover, this disconnection meant that it was hard to know what to send over to my partner: for some reason I give them a rock, a cube, but I’m supposed to keep the egg, the feather, the potion…
Combined with the handwave plot and the perfunctory tone, The Purple Pearl performs more as a proof of concept than the latest Amanda Walker opus. So the good news is that the concept works! There is quite clearly a rich set of possibilities hinting towards fertile veins of design. The greatest strength evinced is the increased awareness of rhythm in gameplay: rather than disappearing down the parser, your journey keeps throwing you back to the surface to connect with your partner, creating a metronome that enriches your sense of progress. Parser exploration becomes less immersive and more discursive. Because these explorations are presented as interdependences rather than the shared spaces of MUDs, an ambiguous metalayer sheens over the objects that define your interactions, transforming sounds to echoes. With a little Walker emotive magic, one could imagine a setting in which, for example, two people explore the same mansion separated by a century, with the stories of the past bubbling up to the present day and the needs of the present reminiscing in the missingnesses of the past, crafting resonances only recognizable through two vantage points, a new degree of freedom for plotting meaning, alchemy emphasizing the parser as perspective.
The time has come to return the Ark of the Covenant to its caretakers. By which I mean of course “its rightful place on the altar in the local church.” From Josiah’s cave deep in the Temple Mount to Chartres Cathedral flourishing in its Scholastic heyday, millennia of mystery culminate in, naturlich, a jaunty bit of sleuthing for a seminarian.
This sleuthing revels in the simple joys of text adventuring, as par for Garry Francis’ indefatigable output, but Search for the Lost Ark presents perhaps his most vibrantly themed escapade yet, with several thematic puzzles that sizzle like quips. Favorites include Father Matisse taking his secret to the grave, so we dig him up, and having to defeat Father Alucard, replete with sharp canines and a Romanian accent, by showing him a crucifix. By so tightly connecting the colorful exuberance of the puzzles into the overarching scheme, rather than the sterilized laboratory logics of disjointed brainteasers, we get a committed whimsy that makes the church grounds a vivid playspace to explore. Most importantly, the cartoony silliness melds with a lighthearted intentionality that prevents the antics from veering into sacrilegious superciliousness. Jokes stay Sunday safe: “Q: Who was the fastest man in the Bible? / A: Adam, because he was first in the human race.” Moreover, the twist ending sidesteps some of the more charged implications of the Ark, electing instead for a cutesy satisfaction: “Oh, wow! Your eyes are dazzled by the brilliance of the gold-covered object in the chest. It’s the Ark of the Covenant! It’s not the real thing, but a one-fifth size replica. Even so, it’s just as beautiful as you imagine the real Ark to be and you immediately understand why the Church Council wants it to be recovered.” Somehow I found this reveal kind of heartwarming, settling neatly into the provincial devotional vibes and helping to modulate the tonal dissonance to where “That will look good on your resumé when your training is complete” feels like an adequate denouement. And I’m sure it has spared Garry from having to brush up on his Amharic as he navigates a deluged inbox.
What contributes most to keeping the puzzles contiguous is the themed scavenger hunt at the heart of the game about discovering inscriptions of verses from each book of Torah, then using these to solve a five-digit combination lock. The solution, where each verse includes a number that goes into the combination, is satisfactory enough, although I perhaps overthought things and ended up with a much more baroque answer: the verses, Genesis 1:9, Exodus 31:18, Leviticus 16:1, Numbers 35:13, and Deuteronomy 15:1, all contain one number other than 1 or 3, or the three-in-one, yielding a combination of 98655, which is anachronistically Christian sure but certainly within the “blend between Indiana Jones and Father Brown” Garry evokes.
Demonstrating, of course, that despite the increased commitment to setting, the true lifeblood here is neoclassical adventuring: “When you look under the bed, you find a ladder. That’s a strange place to keep a ladder, so you pull it out.” And, as anyone might expect, it’s pleasant, fun, and funny, so what more could you want, the Ark of the Covenant?