IFComp 2019: Sugarlawn

Sugarlawn, by Mike Spivey, is built on essentially the same conceit as Ryan Veeder’s 2013 game Captain Verdeterre’s Plunder: the whole thing is one big optimization puzzle, giving you an environment rich in treasures to collect, and not enough time to collect them all. Some of the treasures are just lying out in the open, others require puzzle-solving. The cash value of each treasure is unknown until your evaluation at the end, so it takes multiple playthroughs to learn which items are worth spending the time to do whatever you need to do to collect them. (This is extremely distinctly characteristic of Verdeterre, and eliminates any possibility that the game wasn’t made in conscious imitation of it.)

That said, Sugarlawn does innovate on the formula. For one thing, it’s a lot bigger. Verdeterre was set on a sinking pirate ship, Sugarlawn in a sprawling southern plantation house turned tourist attraction. This alone has an enormous effect on how one approaches the game; the chief thing that consumes your limited time is simply walking around.

Now, a sinking pirate ship imposes a time limit fairly naturally. To get one in Sugarlawn, the author adds the premise that the whole thing is a game show. This also excuses a variety of other unnatural rules. In addition to simply retrieving treasures for money, you can return them to the locations where they belong: books to the library, for example, or a toy steamboat to a river-themed bedroom. This earns you a bonus which, in many cases, is larger than the value of the treasure itself, but it makes for a lot more running around. You can double this bonus by refusing to use the sack provided for you, which imposes an inventory limit. Such things make the question of optimizing your earnings a lot more complicated.

Another complication: You’re only allowed to carry one key at a time. There’s a box in the foyer where you can exchange a key for another one, but again, this means going back to the foyer, which uses valuable time. Apparently there’s a shortcut: each locked door also has a voice code, a magic word that opens it. I still haven’t figured any of them out. 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.

That’s a lot said about the game’s structure and gameplay. The rest of the content — the descriptions and the like — is pleasant and, I suppose, faintly educational. In addition to the historic displays (explicitly somewhat altered for the game show), there’s an announcer who provides additional information whenever you enter a room for the first time, describing its relevance to the history of the house and to the history of Louisiana. Slavery is mentioned, but not really addressed beyond acknowledging that it happened, which, I’m told, is somewhat daring for a historical plantation house. I strongly suspect that all this additional data works into the game’s riddles, the passwords for the doors and certain display cases, but can’t say for sure.

The thing is, even without solving any of the game’s real puzzles, there’s a lot to do here. You can spend a lot of time just running around picking up loose treasures for the pleasure of easy reward. I certainly did.

4 Comments so far

  1. Doug Orleans on 18 Oct 2019

    Did I just fall asleep for 1000 years??

  2. Carl Muckenhoupt on 18 Oct 2019

    I’m not sure how to answer that.

  3. Doug Orleans on 20 Oct 2019

    Sorry, just a joke about the 3019 typo (now fixed).

  4. Sam Ashwell on 22 Oct 2019

    You can, in fact, have more than one key at once! There’s at least one key you can find other than the back-door key, which makes key exchange a lot more efficient. (I mention this not so much out of quibbling, but out of prideful astonishment that I discovered a puzzle-part that you didn’t.)

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