Silicon Castles clearly owes a debt to Andrew Plotkin’s Lists And Lists. Like that game, Castles prominently features a genie, one who boasts voluminous knowledge on one particular topic. Like Lists, Castles is a very impressive technical achievement. And like Lists, Castles isn’t really interested in being interactive fiction. Where Lists and Lists was an ingenious implementation of Scheme in the z-machine, Silicon Castles is an ingenious implementation of Chess in the z-machine.
I suppose it was inevitable — every year, a few more z-machine abuses come out, many of them raising the stakes for complexity and ambitiousness, and Silicon Castles may be the most ambitious yet. When a match is underway, the game neatly expands the status line window to display the board, a key to the ASCII codes in that display, a score, the game status, and what moves the genie is considering. Unlike Zugzwang, the PC is a chess player rather than a chess piece, and can type in moves as “move knight to C3” or just “move b1c3”. The genie has an adjustable setting for how many moves it can look ahead, and the game even has the option of setting up custom board layouts before play begins. It’s all very cleverly done.
Now, here’s something about me: I suck at chess. When it comes to computer chess games, well, I’m a great text adventure player. I can see, in an abstract sense, the beauty and elegance of it all, and in the right mood I can appreciate the intellectual rigor of chess problems, but for whatever reason, my turn of mind doesn’t lend itself to such strategic amusements. Consequently, I really don’t enjoy computer chess that much, and that held true for this game as well.
Moreover, even if I did enjoy computer chess, I don’t think the z-machine is a particularly good environment for it. A drag-and-drop mouse interface is about a thousand times easier and more logical than “move b1c3”, and while the little IF touches like the genie and the object descriptions are fun, they don’t do much to improve the clumsiness of the main experience. In fact, there are some problems with even the minimal IF content of this game — there’s not nearly enough cueing for the transition between IF and chess match, making that transition into a rather pointless puzzle.
Finally, there are some serious flaws to the chess section as well — I don’t think it’s completely functional. One of the command styles described by the game, “move <piece><space>”, as in “move nc3” (move knight to c3) doesn’t appear to work at all. In addition, although the game described how to perform castling, I couldn’t get it to respond to the command it suggested (“move O-O”). So although I was impressed as hell with Silicon Castles‘ technical achievements, I found it a rather unsatisfactory experience. As chess, it’s not bad, but its interface is clunky and it appears to be missing some critical functionality. As interactive fiction… well, it’s pretty much absent.