Pulp Fiction in Pearl’s Peril

Image: Wooga media

I’ll admit that I’m a casual gamer. Kingdom Rush and Plants vs. Zombies on my phone have gotten considerably more play than any game on my PC, and at the moment I don’t even own a gaming console. However, I’ve never been tempted by the Facebook games that bug your friends to join you and send you things. There’s one game that’s overcome that barrier, however, and I’ll argue that it has succeeded due to its exuberantly pulp fiction plotting. Pearl’s Peril is a Facebook hidden object game (that I play on my iPad) that has held my attention for much longer than any comparable game ever has.

Pearl’s Peril has a straightforward structure: in each scene, you find the hidden objects on the list. The faster you do it, the more points you get. It gets a little complicated with game progression: the more points, the faster you progress. But to unlock new scenes you need to build buildings and decorations on your own personal island. There’s a limit to how fast you can advance, and you can speed that up considerably if you spend money. This is the only game I have sunk more than $5 into in the last several years, and I’ve been playing it for over a year now.

Image: Karen Burnham

For one thing, decorating your island is actually fun in and of itself. You unlock new buildings and decorations as you progress, and they often offer seasonal decorations for limited times. I took advantage of a Halloween special to build a mausoleum with a fiery fountain of doom in front. I’ve also got a research quad (with an observatory, aviary, library, and greenhouse) and a forest going.

But really, the thing that keeps me playing is Pearl, the heroine, and her adventures. Pearl Wallace is the daughter of privilege. In 1929 she is living in America, flying her own plane, when she gets news that her estranged father has died. They say he committed suicide after the stock market crash, but while they weren’t on good terms she’s pretty sure he was murdered. She and her journalist friend Iris fly home to her family’s island (the one you’re decorating) to investigate. Thus begin her adventures that take her all over the world and from the depths of the seas to the peaks of the Himalayas.

There’s a lot to love here: for one, Pearl is fully competent and always clothed. That seems like it shouldn’t need stating, but a while ago I was jonesing for a new hidden object game, so I downloaded a highly rated one for the iPad. In the first scene you’ve just survived a plane crash on a creepy deserted island, so of course the first thing you see is a barely clad buxom flight attendant throwing vampy looks your way. Delete. Pearl always wears her flight jacket and is ready for adventures. One scene is from her private room in the zeppelin, and even her intimate space isn’t titillating: it’s got her dressing gown, but also her diary, college graduation picture, pictures of exotic locales she’s visited—no lingerie for her! And while she does have the occasional romantic interest, they never distract her from the plot.

And what a crazy, pulp adventure plot it is! In each scene you start with some dialog between a few characters to advance the plot. Then you can find three clues. After five scenes each chapter ends with an adventure scene where Pearl has to solve some puzzle, enabling the dramatic climax that leads to the next chapter. In over a year of playing she’s been to New York, Paris, Africa, Atlantis, Russia, the Himalayas, Oklahoma, been on a submarine, cruise ships, and a zeppelin, attacked by a kraken, forged an aegis, found a pirate cove, etc, etc. Just like the old pulp serials, it can go on forever! Some clues immediately pan out and others wait in the background to resurface many chapters down the road. And amazingly, it stays true to history: every time I’ve googled some plot element that they mention, it’s turned out to be historically accurate: from the Graf Zeppelin’s record breaking flights in 1929 to the mystery of Kolchak’s gold in Russia after the Soviet Revolution.

And through it all, Pearl is a focused, competent heroine. Usually the dramatic chapter-concluding puzzles involve her doing some engineering to get something to work: smelting gold, fixing the sabotaged control system of a zeppelin, disabling some guards to steal a submarine, that sort of thing. Very MacGyver-y. Although violence happens around her, she rarely resorts to it herself. It’s amazing how much plot you can get through using just the few lines of dialog and notes on the clues she finds. And just like the pulps, each character has a very limited range of facial expressions/emotional states: I think Pearl herself only has four expressions: cheerfully competent, winsomely affectionate, frustrated/disgusted, and surprised. But you can go a long way with that in an adventure story; this is the casual gaming equivalent of a magazine serial page-turner.

There is a social aspect to the game, although I don’t really take advantage of it. The game often urges you to send energy to your friends on Facebook, even those who don’t play. These prompts are pretty easy to ignore. There’s also a “Captain’s Challenge” section where you do a timed scene and compete against friends to get a high score. I enjoy these, competing against my husband who just picked up the game recently. Everyone plays the same scene during the challenge period, so it’s fun to compare. And you can send each other resources, increasing the amount you can play. So if anyone wants to start playing, send me something in the game and I’ll happily reciprocate!