Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Face of Things to Come

Facade is the most important videogame that most gamers have never heard of- if it is in fact a videogame at all. It's the face of things to come; the place videogaming will go when it outgrows it's core demographic (18-35 year old males) and ventures beyond Bioware and Bethesda's combat-driven realms of fantasy.

Meet Trip and Grace, your hosts for the evening

So what is Facade? To put it simply, it's a 'watch a marriage falling apart simulator.' You play as a friend of Grace and Trips, a couple you set up in college. The game begins with Trip inviting you over via answering machine message, and after picking a name and gender, you arrive at their apartment where the harsh tones of an argument are escaping the front door. Trip lets you in, retreats to the kitchen to retrieve Grace (more hushed aggression), and you all exchange pleasantries. Where things go from there is up to you. The two trade passive-aggressive remarks over drinks that grow increasingly less passive, ask for your frank opinion with leading questions to spite each other, and react to whatever else you elect to say or do. In addition to typing out dialogue, you can kiss or hug both characters, sip drinks and pick up the hideous sculptures that adorn the couple's apartment. 

The AI's text recognition is better than you would expect provided you stick to suggested path of topics: drinks, interior-decoration, and careers will almost inevitably pop up, though all roads lead back to Grace and Trip's characters. Trip turns out to be a manipulative, waspy, superficial asshole, while Grace is insecure, frigid and hypercritical; fresh faces in a medium populated by cliches, though neither character is particularly likable. If you sit and speak only when necessary, watching the evening take it's course, you're in for a rather trying exchange; this may not be a typical videogame, but the violence the form is known for is still present. It's just mediated through incrimination and accusations instead of fisticuffs and gunfire. And true to form, said violence is also vastly more enjoyable when you participate in it as opposed to just watching things fall apart. 

Blunt crudeness and belligerence will get you thrown out; on my second play-through I greeted Trip with an insult and he slammed the door in my face before the evening could get underway. But if you play Iago and subtly play off their reactions and assertions the evening is much more fun: a kiss here, a disagreement there, followed by a perfectly innocent inquiry about their sex-life... oh it's a fun night. It offers the domesticated, matured equivalent of the illicit glee one derives from tearing through Liberty City with a machine gun and a Humvee.

Of course, one could also play towards reconciling the arguing couple. As the happy ending available, one might look at it as implied goal of the game. Unsurprisingly, it is also the most difficult outcome to achieve, and I have yet to accomplish it. This is partially because I don't think they deserve a happily ever after, and partially due to shoddy controls. Trip and Grace frequently speak at the same time, so clarifying the recipient of your replies can be frustrating and difficult. Just as hardcore gamers tend to scorn casual titles that trade accessibility for precision, I found myself wishing for a more structured conversation system. Then again, conversations in real life don't adhere to strict frameworks, and trying to impose them may stifle the experience, which is already rather stunted by the limitations of AI. More reliable rule sets and inputs must be determined before Facade can be considered a successful gaming experience.

Blatantly stolen (via google) from The Atlantic's article on the game. Please don't sue me!

Then again, Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern weren't setting out to create a gaming experience, but an Interactive story. The download for Facade is hosted at as opposed to, and on Wikipedia, it is listed as Facade (interactive story) as opposed to Facade (game). Then again, they also entered the game in Slamdance and the Independent Game Festival as a contestant, suggesting that they don't mind their creation be regarded as a videogame. But rather than trotting out the weary old query "What is a game?" and turning down the interesting, but over-emphasized narratology vs. ludology line of inquiry, I'm interested in exploring how Mateas and Stern could have succeeded at telling a better story with Facade.

I believe that Interactive Fiction is unique and significant enough as a medium to stand apart from videogames and drama, but Facade doesn't make that argument. It borrows a problem, perhaps the most serious problem, from videogame narratives: the main character is a looking-glass. You can pick a name and a gender, but these choices have no influence on your presence in the story. Aside from the tidbit that you introduced Grace and Trip, your relationship to them, and your involvement in the narrative is completely incidental. In order for interactive narratives to grow, developers need to escape this idea of the 'window character'. The screen is our window; the avatar must be our vehicle.

One way to do this would be to take a page from Bioware and allow the character to choose from a number of different histories relating to Trip and Grace. Maybe you're Trips boss, or Grace's ex-boyfriend turned platonic friend. Maybe you did introduce the two of them back in college, but if that's the case, let the player decide how that first meeting went down. Could he already see the seeds of dissent that have now blossomed into bitter fruit? These decisions may make the game more linear, but they will also provide the player, or reader/actor, with context to make the experience meaningful.

Another possibility for engaging the player would be to place the operator outside of virtual world altogether, giving them a directorial position like the godlike control one has in The SIMs. Rather than determining the player's actions, you could mediate the character's interactions interactions by planting memories in their heads to control the flow of conversation. Or you could adjust factors like room temperature and the weather outside to affect the general mood of the preceding. Finally, you could flesh out the characters' desires and histories as you go along, making the narrative increasingly cohesive or convoluted as you please.

Facade isn't important for what it is, but for the ideas it represents. It's a jumping off point both in terms of subject matter and form for what will come, or rather, what is now arriving.

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