The Purple Pearl

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Teamwork in a fishbowl, September 11, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)

Milo van Mesdag opened the Pandora's Box of two-player interactive fiction. It explored themes of oppression and war, pitting two characters against each other, leaving the players to suss things out later. The Purple Pearl feels more in the text adventure tradition. Yes, a purple pearl has been stolen, but the other player in this case is someone you cooperate with. You're both cordoned off into small cells. There's a way to shuttle items between rooms, and useless items are rejected. The game has separate binaries for the player in each cell. You can pass items between cells, and once you do so successfully, a code to give to your cooperator drops it into their game.

The Purple Pearl is a good, successful experiment, but if you think too hard, it does feel a lot more like an experiment more than the author's other works. You know you have stuff to solve, and you know it's not the real puzzle, and your main goal is just to get out and start your main adventure. So it doesn't have the usual emotional depth of one of the author's games. But it's still unique and fun and well-executed, and the puzzles, while not profound (they feel as though they've been done before and some, you can use brute force) require some lateral thinking. Receiving the player code once your partner did something, though was a nice surprise gift, as usually you have to keep hacking away or examining everything until you find a clue. Now you hope your partner has, or that they missed something. There was a good deal of encouragement between me and my partner no matter who went first. We wanted to get out of our cells, but it was nice not to have death hanging over us.

And the gifts? Well, they felt like a white elephant party, except they were useful. In one-player games, discovering such things might've seemed too random. I found, first playing one side than the other, it was still a fun surprise to receive an item I'd given, and vice versa. And I was glad the person I played with didn't reveal too much when they were briefly stuck. Purple Pearl has hints--or, more precisely, you can ask for hints to send to your teammate, so you can't spoil anything on your own--but neither of us needed them. (I did poke through them later. They're cheery and fun and do well to steer you only into what you need, with some rhymes that don't spoil things until you know what item they're talking about!) Generally, the items that you didn't need any more conveniently crumbled, which didn't leave much room for confusion.

The Purple Pearl is definitely replayable to see the other side. It took us about forty minutes the first time, then less than twenty for the other. Of course you can play both sides on your own, but I found it a bit difficult to keep track of, even though many puzzles were similar (three switches with three settings, a dial with three digits.) The main moments were the mystery of what might be coming my way, as if waiting for a holiday gift, or asking my partner what we should be looking for--we were walking a fine line between getting through our half of the game and not spoiling the other half, and it was pretty clear we each wanted to see how the other half worked, especially for the bit when we'd escaped our cells and were in a corridor with just one more thing to do. I think that is the main, lasting draw of The Purple Pearl. And it will be unique, unless a MUD version of Inform 7 becomes active again, with its own puzzles.

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