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ParserComp 2023: The Purple Pearl, July 8, 2023
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.