Sugarlawn (Mike Spivey, Inform) is a puzzle game set in a Louisiana plantation mansion. It’s a timed optimisation puzzle – basically Captain Verdeterre’s Plunder, but bigger and without the good funny rat, plus it’s a gameshow.
It’s pitched as an escape room. It doesn’t precisely function as an escape room, though – either the meatspace team activity, or the single-room Flash adventure that preceded it. Both of those involve very confined, densely-stocked environments as opposed to the more spread-out space of this game, and they’ve got very different pacing. Sugarlawn has a sense of hustle that’s not unlike a meatspace escape room, but it doesn’t have the sense of teamwork, and its deep reliance on iterative play – rather than being designed to be challenging but fair to solve in a single attempt – is pure IF.
After my first playthrough of Captain Verdeterre’s Plunder I had lots of things that I had wanted to try, but hadn’t had the time for. After my first playthrough of Sugarlawn I felt I had grabbed all the really obvious things, and I had found a bunch of combination locks, but I didn’t have any directions for things I wanted to work on further; I had wasted my last few minutes because I didn’t have any ideas about next steps. I didn’t feel as though I had any puzzle-pieces – or, rather, I felt as though I had a lot of locks and no keys. My score was a pitiful 3892. The game suggests that almost everyone gets at least 5000, and everyone in the intfiction thread seemed to be posting scores at least ten times that. What was going on here?
OK. I’d played it first thing in the morning, when not all of my brain circuits had fully come online. I’d missed a couple of exits, probably some clues. I went back in.
By my fourth try, I was up to $5127, mostly from placing treasures in the right rooms. I hadn’t solved a puzzle yet, unless unlocking the back door counts. I had some clues that were obviously part of puzzles – marks in books, a sequence of letters carved on the schoolroom desk – but I had no idea about what to do with them. I had a storage room key, exchanged for the back door key, but hadn’t found a lock that it worked for. I felt that I should be taking more comprehensive notes, but I didn’t see how that’d help, and also I really didn’t want to. I had found one hidden item, but it hadn’t led to any progress. I did a couple more exploratory runs that got me nothing.
I am way, way more likely to stay engaged with a puzzlefest if it has writing or story that is rewarding in its own right. A puzzle isn’t any fun, for me, until I start getting results – or at least a solid sense of how the puzzle works and how I can make progress on it. That can take a substantial (and unpredictable) amount of time, and until then I really need other reasons to feel good about the game. This does not do that: there is no plot worth speaking of, the character is an AFGNCAAP, and the writing is serviceable but bland. This, for instance, is a nice image that could have been really lifted up by just slightly stronger setting writing:
Graceful magnolia trees have been painted on all four walls of this room, their branches entertwining on the ceiling. A large, cream-colored bed occupies much of the room. One doorway leads north to the second floor hallway, while another leads east.
OK, I get why the setting writing is kind of muted: this is a puzzlebox and it needs to avoid distractions. But the writing seems to be aiming at bland even when it has more freedom to go in other directions. Terri’s running commentary, for instance, could have been a great place to put fun stuff in a place where it wouldn’t interfere with any crucial room information or bulk up re-traversals. Instead, you get a lot of stuff like this:
“The flowers here are Louisiana irises. They’re the official state wildflower,” says Terri. “As you can see, though, they don’t just grow wild; they can also be cultivated in gardens like this one.”
I’m sure it’d be possible to make a good joke about the Louisiana state wildflower, or spin a rousing yarn about US senator and fortieth governor of Louisiana Huey Long (1893-1935). It would definitely have been possible to make Terri a compelling character. But the delivery goes for this blandly neutral, list-of-educational-local-facts register that makes whatever it’s talking about seem deeply boring. It’s flavour text, but that flavour is gruel.
That tone of neutral blandness becomes a much more serious problem when it comes to a subject about which political neutrality is totally impossible. For all that the narration dispenses lots of historical titbits, slavery – absolutely central to the historical functioning of an antebellum Southern sugar plantation – is barely mentioned, and then only in very general terms that don’t relate it to this specific place. Now, maybe part of this is just because I haven’t reached everywhere on the map. Maybe that building off beyond the garden gate is the slave quarters, and maybe this will be more adequately addressed there. Maybe. Sure, this is a difficult subject to address within the scope of a light-hearted, fun puzzle romp – but if you don’t want to deal with that, don’t set your light-hearted, fun puzzle romp on an antebellum plantation!
Last chance. I started mapping out the puzzles. If this run didn’t give me something good, I was done. OK: mapping made me figure out that I’d missed a door while trying out keys, so I got one door open. I dumped unused keys into the key-exchange box. I made $6006, but clearly this was my problem: I needed to be exploiting that box harder. I did one last run, cycling keys into the box, which got me a terrible score but opened up a lot more of the map. That gave me a way to get out of that fucking chicken suit and thus promised ways to open up yet more map anon. I was finally getting a glimpse of how this could be a fun game – but by that point I was pretty much out of time.
So, I dunno. I was about primed to give this a 4 until the last couple of runs, and it’s not getting over a 5. It is clearly a tightly-designed and carefully thought-out puzzlebox, but most of the time I spent playing this was not fun, and I really wish it had handled its history better. It’s one of those games which is obviously not well-suited for the comp, but which in 2019 needs the comp in order to generate a critical mass of audience for the high-score-chasing community Event it’s after.