Silicon Castles by David Given as Jack Maet [Comp01]

IFDB page: Silicon Castles
Final placement: 32nd place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

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.

Rating: 7.2

Informatory by William J. Shlaer [Comp98]

IFDB page: Informatory
Final placement: 11th place (of 27) in the 1998 Interactive Fiction Competition

Every year I’ve been writing reviews for the IF competition, I’ve seen several games which are their authors’ first attempt at learning Inform. These usually aren’t the better games — I find that most of the really good Inform games in the competition are not the first pieces of code ever hacked together by their authors. Informatory, however, gives a twist to this tendency — it is the author’s first attempt to teach Inform. Rather than replicating its author’s apartment or dorm room, Informatory instead replicates a number of familiar scenes and objects from various canonical IF games, and allows its player to peek at their source code in order to give some insight as to how Inform could be used to create them. It does this through a handy device known as the “Codex Helmet” — whenever the player character wears this helmet, source code for all objects becomes visible. Of course, a couple of elementary puzzles must be overcome in order to gain access to this miracle of technology, but hints are provided for those puzzles. Once the Helmet is acquired, Informatory presents a new kind of puzzle: to progress in the game, you must decipher the Inform source code of its objects so that you may use their special properties to your advantage.

For me, this kind of puzzle worked well, because it relied on information I had already acquired through working on my own Inform creations. However, for someone who did not know Inform and wasn’t particularly interested in investing much time to learn it, I think those puzzles would be a major nuisance. In fact, if you’re not interested in learning Inform, my advice would be to give this game a pass. Its interests are much more in helping novices to learn Inform in a fairly fun and ingenious way than to provide a fun gaming experience for everyone. This is a perfectly acceptable goal, but it makes Informatory more educational software than entertainment software. The game invokes the genie from Andrew Plotkin’s Lists and Lists, and the reference is quite apt — that game also didn’t much care about entertaining, instead giving the focus to its own (remarkable) z-machine implementation of Scheme. Informatory didn’t feel quite as oppressive as Lists to me, probably because I’m already familiar with Inform, an advantage I sadly lacked when it came to Scheme. However, the two share a common theme: they are not so much games as teaching tools, and if you’re not interested in learning, the tool isn’t for you.

Having thus limited its audience, Informatory does its task rather well, I think. The author bills it a “not-very-interactive tutorial,” and I think he’s only half-right on both counts. Depending on how you define the term “interactive”, I think Informatory is quite interactive indeed. It’s probably the only game I’ve ever seen that actually assigns outside reading to its players so that they have a better chance at the puzzles. This obviously doesn’t work in the competition context, but someone might find it a little useful when used as a tool in its own right, especially if that person is already in the process of learning Inform. Furthermore, Informatory‘s source-code-oriented puzzles are much more interactive than the typical tutorial style of “announce the concept, show the concept, now you try it.” Now, this is a double-edged sword too: sometimes the lack of guidance can really be rather frustrating. I sometimes found myself wishing for the genie from Lists to keep hanging around, giving me clues when I needed them. Consequently, I didn’t find Informatory to be “not-very-interactive”, but I didn’t really find it to be a “tutorial” either. Instead of teaching Inform piece-by-piece, it assigns reading in the Designer’s Manual, and in fact those assignments are only reachable after solving a number of source code puzzles. Informatory therefore isn’t much of a teacher, but it’s a good quiz for those who are already learning. As a competition game, it’s no great shakes: at its best, it’s about as much fun as taking a really interesting test. However, I can see it becoming one useful tool for people who are beginning to get their feet wet in the sea of Inform.

Rating: 6.8

Lists And Lists by Andrew Plotkin [Comp96]

IFDB page: Lists and Lists
Final placement: 11th place (of 26) in the 1996 Interactive Fiction Competition

Well, Andrew Plotkin is nothing if not inventive. The implementor of Z-Machine Tetris brings us another novelty — a programming language and interpreter set up entirely within the z-machine run-time. Andrew’s Scheme implementation is interesting and even, to a point, fun. I definitely look forward to sitting down with it for a longer period of time and working at learning what it has to teach. (I never thought a text adventure could help me build my resume!) However, after a certain point the problems stopped being fun and started being work — I’m already working at learning two languages; learning a third is definitely worthwhile, but not my idea of leisure time. And thus I discover a criteria I didn’t even know I had for the competition entries — I want them to be an escape from work, rather than (pun intended) “Return to Work”

Prose: Very little of it, but of course it conforms to the high Plotkin standard of quality.

Difficulty: I found Lists to be quite difficult going, but then I’m just working on learning C++ and Inform now, so Scheme was a bit of a leap in abstraction for me. The feeling was reminiscent of just beginning to learn UNIX after years of working on DOS (and, to a lesser extent, Macs and Windows).

Technical (coding): Andrew is the god of Inform coding. All hail Andrew.

Technical (writing): Well, of course the main place this came up was in the online manual for the language, which naturally had no errors in spelling or grammar, and in fact was written in a fun jocular style.

Plot: No. No, not really at all.

Puzzles: Well the problems were definitely puzzling, and certainly not your standard Interactive Fiction type of puzzle, either. Lists certainly gives a mental workout, but then again so does Calculus I.