[IF Comp 2019] Sugarlawn, by Mike Spivey

Mike Spivey made a name for himself with his 2017 game A Beauty Cold and Austere and his 2018 game Junior Arithmancer. Both of these were mathematical puzzle games, that is, puzzle games that were about mathematics; and both of them were very well received, placing 7th and 7th in their respective interactive fiction competitions. And now we can add Sugarlawn to the list, a game that did even better, taking 4th place in the competition (and winning the author-awarded Miss Congeniality prize).



Sugarlawn is in many ways precisely what I would expect from Spivey: a polished, competent, and systematic puzzle game. But the mathematics -- while there -- is much more hidden this time around. As Spivey explains in his design notes, he didn't want to become 'that guy who only writes games about mathematics', and so he settled on a different theme: Louisiana. You are a participant in a ridiculous game show that has you go on a treasure hunt in an old Louisiana mansion while dressed up as a chicken. Given the farcical nature of the scenario, the engagement with history and geography is surprisingly serious: as you walk through the house, the game show host provides a voice-over that includes many interesting titbits about this southern state. While you don't actually need to do much with this information -- it sometimes helps you place treasures, but is mostly just colour -- I found it somewhat educational, especially if you use Wikipedia to look up the references you could not place.

Of course, a game that delves into the history of a Louisiana sugar plantation cannot skirt around the topic of slavery, even though that might mesh only uncomfortably with the fundamentally whimsical nature of the piece. Sugarlawn does confront the topic. Not only is it mentioned several times within the mansion, but when you finally manage to open the back gate, you come to a remaining slave cabin. Outside of it, a group of protesters bar your way, because they believe that a game show has no business profiting from such painful parts of history. The game show host attempts to justify the choice by pointing out that they're actually teaching viewers about what happened. I find it hard to judge whether Sugarlawn strikes the right tone here -- especially since this entire scene is also, I think, a joke about US campus politics, which I have no first-hand experience of -- though it's certainly better than not engaging with the topic at all.

What about the puzzles? Sugerlawn is modelled after Ryan Veeder’s 2013 game Captain Verdeterre’s Plunder. The central conceit of that piece is that you have a strict time limit, since you're on a sinking ship, and that you want to get as many valuable treasures from the ship as possible. The values of treasures are only revealed at the end, and some of the treasures can only be retrieved by solving puzzles. It's a great and original idea, but to some extent it is also an annoying set-up. (If memory serves, I think I wrote a somewhat unreasonably grumpy review of the game back in 2013 because of this annoyance. Yep. Not my finest hour as a reviewer.) As Spivey tells us in the design notes:
Verdeterre has a few puzzles beyond the primary one of maximizing your haul; they’re generally about discovering treasures that aren’t immediately apparent.  At least one of Verdeterre’s reviews complained about this, saying that you never know whether you might uncover some new treasure that would completely change your strategy.
Sugarlawn improves on this -- I at least think it is an improvement -- by telling us in advance how many treasures there are to be found. Since all the other puzzles in the game are also clearly solved or clearly not solved, this means that we know exactly whether we are or are not in a maximum information stage, and thus whether we can attempt to solve the optimisation puzzle for real.

In fact, there are three layers of puzzles in Sugarlawn:
  1. The ‘traditional’ puzzles, where you must find out where the fifty treasures are, how extra money can be earned, and how you can move around efficiently.
  2. The ‘placement’ puzzle, which consists of finding out for each object what its target location is.
  3. The ‘optimisation’ puzzle, which consists in using all your knowledge to find the quickest path through the game.
Success in the later layers requires success in the earlier ones: if you haven’t unlocked some regions of the map, you won’t be able to match treasures to locations; if you can’t match treasures to locations, you won’t be able to find a very optimal solution. This means that Sugarlawn is best approached as a sequence of three puzzles. Sure, you can try to optimise before you've solved all the puzzles... but that just means you're missing some of the pieces needed to solve the puzzle.

Let me stress that the game is a lot of fun. Enough fun that I came back to it after the competition and solved everything, with some help from the forum, ending up with a very respectable haul (though quite a bit short of the current high score). If you are interested in puzzle games, I absolutely recommend Sugarlawn. That said, I now feel free to criticise its basic design! Here's Spivey:
Sugarlawn features a layered game design that I’ve grown fond of: You have to explore the mansion, then find all the valuables, then find their target locations, then find the door keys, then find the door codes, and then optimize your route through the game.  (These aren’t separate stages; they’ll be intertwined for most players.)
So here's my problem: I don't buy that last sentence. Of course they are separate stages. Now a player working with a time limit, such as a competition judge, will surely try to solve all the three puzzle stages at once. But doing so will not improve one's game experience, because one knows that one is trying to solve a puzzle without having acquired the ability to do so. I'll quote Carl Muckenhoupt:
Finding the passwords seems like it would be a major breakthrough in the game, a point where your experience of the thing is utterly transformed and you can really start thinking about optimizing. Before that, maybe you shouldn’t bother.
I did anyway, of course. My first playthrough, which occupied the majority of my time during the judging period, was spent taking the scenario at face value and trying to do as well as I could within the time limit even though I didn’t know anything yet. I was under two time limits, really, the one in the game and the one imposed by the Comp. And I found this quite stressful. Going back to it afterward was much better.
But when you go back to it afterward, you'll probably be doing what I did: take the stages one by one. Why would you spend time thinking about target locations when you haven't seen all the locations yet? Why would you think about the optimisation puzzle when you don't know about all the treasures yet, or haven't unlocked all the doors? No reason. You need to do things sequentially.

But this makes the game a bit of a disjointed affair. The three layers of puzzles -- and, we could add, the Louisiana theme -- don't have much to do with each other. You could take some of these layers out and the others would remain exactly the same. The overall design of the game lacks a certain coherence and elegance. What would I have liked? I think I would have liked it if the layers had interacted more; if partial success in solving the optimisation puzzle had helped to solve the traditional puzzles, for instance. But it's hard to see a way to fit that into Sugarlawn. ("You must collect $20.000 before this door X will open" would not only be arbitrary, but also go against Spivey's stated design goal of having a very wide open possibility space for the optimisation puzzle.) So perhaps I am merely saying this: it seems to be that the Verdeterre formula, which has already been improved by Sugarlawn, can be improved even more!

Let me end by giving some more useful links: Hints & Walkthrough; High Score list.

Comments

  1. Thanks for the in-depth review!

    Treating the game's layers as separate is a meta optimization strategy - one for players who want to find the best possible solution to the game itself. Such a strategy attempts to minimize the time to the best solution by minimizing the time until one has acquired all the game's secrets. For those players it's certainly a good meta optimization strategy. I'm not fully convinced that it's an optimal meta strategy, though: It may be that poking around with the game prior to finding out all of its secrets may give players some local ideas of strategies to use that would be harder to see when one finally has all the game's information and is trying to make sense of the sheer overwhelming amount of it. I'm also not convinced that all players will approach Sugarlawn with the goal of finding the very best possible solution; some may want a lighter experience than that. But I'd take these comments of mine more as footnotes rather than as disagreement, as you may very well be right with respect to what most players will do.

    Your suggestion of having the optimization puzzles help solve the traditional puzzles is intriguing. A game in which the various layers do interact closely with each other sounds like a better game - and a more fun game! If someone makes another piece of IF in the Verdeterre genre I hope they'll think about incorporating that aspect into the design. (I won't be making anything more than cosmetic changes to Sugarlawn in the future; doing otherwise seems unfair to those players who spent a great deal of time optimizing the current version.)

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    1. I think during the competition, a lot of people will have played it more casually, simply because of the time limit. In fact, I did so myself. But at some point you realise that you'll have to tackle the layers one by one -- at the very least, solve 1 and 2 before attempting 3.

      I'm kind of hoping that Verdeterre and Sugarlawn will spawn a subgenre of interactive fiction with a lot of diversity in it. :-)

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    2. I'd love to see a subgenre of this kind as well, in which a diverse collection of games feature different ways of making this optimization mechanic fun and interesting!

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