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A Spoonful of Scotch
Review by: Emily Short
Game: A Sugared Pill
By: Colin Borland

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"A Sugared Pill" bills itself as the first and probably the last interactive fiction game about Scottish politics. It has an odd, whimsical plot about political skullduggery, with old-fashioned puzzles, social humor, and sometimes-shaky implementation. Some of the humor is a bit alien to an American player, but enough of it comes through to give the story its own considerable charm.

When I say shaky implementation, I don't mean carelessness. Apparently -- I know this only from other reviews -- "A Sugared Pill" runs on some interpreters with a specialized interface handling driving and other tasks unusual in IF. These features didn't appear in Spatterlight on Mac OS X, but the game performed fine without them: I couldn't tell that there was anything particularly missing. Even without the interface extras, there are other signs that the author put in a fair amount of careful work: getting in and out of the car is automated so that the player always remembers to open and close doors when appropriate, and to lock things up; light sources are helpfully extinguished when the player leaves dark areas and no longer needs them. But for every polished, elegant aspect of the interaction, there is another that indicates some oversight: unsupported alternate phrasings for obvious actions, say, or sequences that take three turns when they could sensibly take just one.

The puzzles are similarly mixed. There are essentially two types of puzzle in the game: those that involve complex physical contrivances, and those that involve playing on the needs and wishes of the NPCs. The NPC puzzles mostly work well, with plenty of cluing and reasonable commands for interaction. The physical puzzles, though, often require unexpected inventiveness, or unusual thoroughness about searching pretty much everything the player comes into contact with; some require the player not only to have taken everything in sight two scenes before the items were needed, but to have spent extensive effort searching for items *out* of sight. I think this is a problem with the design of McGuyveresque puzzles in general: it's reasonable to ask the player to combine objects he can see in plain sight in order to do something unusual, or, on the other hand, to search extensively to find tools that have obvious functions. But when you ask the player to look in, around, and behind everything in every room in order to find components for unusual contraptions, then the player usually doesn't have enough information to form a clear idea of what he's trying to achieve. He may know that he wants to get through a particular locked door, for instance, but he doesn't necessariy have any idea where to start, and even if he has two of the three necessary components on hand, he may not be able to guess how to assemble them or what remaining item he needs.

Though the NPC-oriented puzzles are generally better clued and easier to carry out, the NPC interaction could be more consistent as well. There are several points where one has to make progress by giving instructions to an NPC, even though there's not a lot of hinting that this will be productive. It makes sense within the fiction of the game that the NPC would be able to do things the player character can't, but I've gotten out of the habit of expecting NPCs to take instructions, in general, and since much of the rest of the game relies on a TALK TO PERSON conversation system, I didn't expect to be able to give direct commands on occasion.

All in all, these problems made the puzzles feel intractable. I lost faith in their fairness early on, and relied heavily on David Welbourn's walkthrough in order to finish the game, even at some points where I probably could have gotten by on my own.

"A Sugared Pill" also has lots of action for the protagonist that the player never gets to participate in. Entire conversations and action sequences go by between turns, without player control. One can spend five turns painstakingly assembling a make-shift tool out of, say, a golf club, chewing gum, and a paperclip, only to trigger a full page cut-scene about how the resulting device captures a rare butterfly, changes world-wide weather patterns, and moves the action forward to a new location. (This is not a real example from the game.)

This uneven pacing and interactivity can be a little unsatisfying at times, but it does give the game an expansive quality, a sense that much can happen in terms of the plot, if not on the interactive level. I was reminded quite a few times of an Andy Phillips game: the same contrived, slightly-too-complicated puzzles; the same cinematic pacing and action sequences; the same ambitious scenes where the interactivity sometimes breaks down. Some of the physical puzzle solutions would make for cool scenes in a movie; it's just having to come up with them from scratch that's a problem. "A Sugared Pill" isn't quite so viciously hard to play as "Heist" or "Heroine's Mantle"; there are fewer puzzles that rely on utterly impossible courses of action, and less danger of making the game unwinnable. (In fact, I did not find any way to close the game off entirely, but there may be some.) All the same, there were plenty of points where the game felt unreasonable even though it wasn't impossible.

The positive aspect of this kind of design is that the game is fun to play even from a walkthrough, because much of the interest comes from the events and the way they're narrated rather than from the lower- level interaction. The plot is not what you would call realistic. The characters are all stereotypes in the interests of parody. Several puzzle solutions make sense only in the cartoon-politics of this story. But "A Sugared Pill" makes its own internal kind of sense, has its own style and charm, and is not quite like any other piece of IF I've played.

The first scene is a pretty good indicator of the tone, plausibility, and interaction style of the rest of the game, as well -- so if you're wavering on whether to play "A Sugared Pill", give the opening sequence a try. If you enjoy it, you'll probably find the rest of the game worth your time.

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