The Purple Pearl

by Amanda Walker profile


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Dual escape, September 22, 2023
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: ParserComp 2023

The past couple of years have seen a mini-trend of multiplayer IF, kicked off I think by Milo van Mesdag’s 2021 IFComp entry Last Night of Alexisgrad. That was a narrative-driven, choice-based game where the players assumed oppositional roles – one protagonist was an invading general, the other was the leader of the city’s defenders – and the half-dozen or so choices each selected over the course of the game had a direct impact on the course of the story. Subsequent games have riffed on this same basic framework: van Mesdag’s 2022 follow-up, A Chinese Room, separated its player characters and obfuscated the effect each’s decision had on the other, while Travis Moy’s Ma Tiger’s Terrible Trip collapsed the distance between decision-points, unlike its more sedately-paced predecessors, which required it to be played in real time. The Purple Pearl is the latest extrapolation of this multiplayer Nouvelle Vague, and perhaps the greatest departure yet, because here it’s a puzzle game rather than one that’s heavily story-driven, and parser-based rather than a choice game.

The plot here is intentionally disposable: two fantasy kingdoms are at war over a MacGuffin, and your home’s been getting the short end of the stick, so the king comes up with a test to find the best, cleverest team of two to send on the mission to recover the thingy. The game is the test – maybe there’ll eventually be a sequel to cover the actual quest for the eponymous purple pearl? – so there’s a built in rationale for the various puzzles and built-in contrivances that require the players to work together, which is a canny choice allowing author and player alike to concentrate on the mechanics rather than a fictional layer that could easily feel quite strained and secondary.

In fact, the setup resembles nothing so much as an escape room or old Cube Escape style Flash games; each player wakes up alone in an empty chamber with a series of odd devices and clues on each wall, and needs to work through them all in turn. The rub is the need for collaboration – the specific devices and clues are different for each player, because each is playing a separate game file, and at regular intervals, one player’s progress will be stymied, at which point the other player needs to send them an object to get them unstuck (this is accomplished via a keyword system – when the donating player manages to hand off an object, they’re given a three letter code, which when entered in by the other player creates the object in their version of the game). Clues and hints can also apply to the other player, requiring a near-constant thread of conversation to make sure everybody knows what’s happening.

None of the puzzles are especially novel, but they’re well-designed, largely hitting that sweet spot of difficulty between too hard and too easy; it doesn’t take too long to solve them, but you’ll feel satisfied when you do. They’re also relatively straightforward, which makes the burden of keeping the other player in the loop feel quite manageable (imagine having to narrate to another player how you solved a puzzle in Hadean Lands!) Its hour-long playtime is also just right, giving the game enough time to show off a few variations of its mechanics without overstaying its welcome, while the writing is as engaging and polished as you’d expect from an Amanda Walker game (which is to say, very much so on both fronts).

So this is a good proof-of-concept for this new kind of game – it works, it’s fun! I did have a few small niggles, but nothing really worth bringing up except in a parenthetical (here goes: I found one place where an object’s description didn’t update after the game’s state changes, and I found the introductory note saying of my partner that my “job is to figure out how to communicate with them to escape” confusing, since I thought it meant that I had to find some in-game way to talk to my partner before I was allowed to do so, which isn’t the case).

There was an interesting feature of how I experienced the game that I think is worth sharing, since it could point to some fundamental tensions in this kind of design that might need to be addressed by other games that follow this path without as much benefit of novelty. And that is that often as I was playing, I wound up being more engaged by what my partner was up to than what was going on in my version of the game. Partially as a result, several times I thought I was stuck and had to wait for them to solve a puzzle to make more progress, when actually if I’d just spent two more minutes considering the clues on my side, I would have figured out a solution to something I’d assumed required assistance from my partner.

This isn’t too surprising, I suppose – since one’s partner is an actual person, engaging with them is fun and interactive in a way that just playing a parser game can’t really compete with (it also typically feels way easier to solve other people’s problems than one’s own, of course). Plus, while I could poke around in my version of the game at my leisure, without access to my partner’s version, I was hanging on their every word to try to get a sense of what they could see and how to solve their puzzles, which of course required more active engagement and imagining on my part. And I think I had some FOMO, too – for a puzzle game, the puzzles are the game, so not being able to see or participate in half the puzzles would have felt like missing a big chunk of the game. As a result, I couldn’t help but wonder whether I would have enjoyed the game as much if it’d been a single-player game I was playing along with a friend – wouldn’t that have all the same advantages of collaboration and social engagement, while avoiding some of the challenges that two-player model requires?

I don’t think that’s exactly right, and even if it were, I haven’t actually played any IF with a friend in this way, so “two players required” tag does accomplish something. Still, I do think that future games in this vein – and I hope there are more – might benefit from thinking about ways to introduce asymmetries, or incomplete information, or other mechanics that might keep the player primarily engaged in their half of the game, rather than seeing themselves as part of a collaborative Voltron working on everything simultaneously (escape rooms of course do this through the imposition of draconian time limits, but that’s probably not the way to go here!) But again, this is pretty advanced speculation that’s not responding to any weakness in the Purple Pearl; it’s a pioneering work and has proved its concept so thoroughly that I can’t help thinking about what comes next.

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