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Who’s afraid of Façade?
Virginia Woolf meets Grand Theft Auto

I’m watching an argument between a husband and wife, Grace and Trip, and it’s turning into a real marriage-ender, a knock-down, drag-out, every-harsh-secret-revealed battle. As the vitriol flies, I’m realizing that I should find a way to stop this — and I’m about to, except that it turns out I can’t just shoot them! What kind of video game is this?

The answer, according to its creators, is that Façade is both a video game and a work of art — an interactive experience whose primary influence is Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Andrew Stern and Michael Mateas, self-described "artist-programmers," have made a genre-defining leap forward in artificial intelligence, but they also just wanted to make a game for people who hate gaming — the kind of people who hate the violence, or who would rather watch Sideways again than drill through 40 hours of Grand Theft Auto.

Façade, which shipped as a free download last week, has a simple premise: you’re the best friend of a couple who are celebrating their tenth wedding anniversary. Trip has invited you over for dinner, but as you get to the front door you hear the sounds of an argument, and after a few minutes of small talk and mingling in their living room, you get dragged into an argument that turns into a full-bore "Should we stick this through or call it quits?" fight. You experience this from the vantage point of the third person in the room: the game uses simple but effective 3-D graphics, and you talk with Grace and Trip by typing a question or a statement: "Why are you unhappy?" or "You have bad taste in tchotchkes."

Although the game follows a general story, your actions determine how it unfolds. You might help the couple make peace — or you could neck with Grace, insult Trip, and get thrown out before the drinks are served. The game takes about 15 minutes to play, but its creators expect you to run through it again and again to try new paths, and they don’t give you a "goal." "How I think about it is there’s this big block of dramatic potential, and the player is dynamically carving a specific arc through that block each time they play it," says Mateas.

Stern and Mateas have worked on Façade part-time (and sometimes full-time) since 2000. Stern is a game designer and character architect who presently works for Zoesis Studios in Newton; Mateas comes from an academic background, and he’s the founder and director of the Experimental Game Lab at Georgia Tech.

To build Façade, the two invented an architecture to support stories that were both open-ended and directed — to balance "the autonomous characters with their own emotions, desires, and moment-by-moment decision-making, and the longer-term story and story structure," Mateas explains. In the past, he says, developers have veered to one of two extremes: "Either [they create] worlds where the characters are fully autonomous and just make their own decisions, but there’s no longer-term dramatic arc. It’s not adding up to anything. And then the other extreme is systems that generate high-level story structures, but there’s no kind of characters to enact the story." They found the right balance by structuring the game as a series of "beats": each beat has its own dynamics and lasts as long as it needs to, and you keep moving from one to the next, with Grace and Trip kicking off new content even if you stand there doing nothing. Façade boasts 20,000 lines of dialogue, and "each line of dialogue and each story beat can be performed in multiple ways, in multiple emotional tones, and in multiple tension levels."

The first time you play Façade, it can seem more like a dramatic experience or an improv exercise than a game, and that also makes it harder to "play." The system can feel clumsy and even frustrating as you figure out how to get a good or a bad reaction out of the characters — by flattering or insulting them, or even sneaking a smooch with one when the other’s not around. Without basic game devices like status bars or reward messages, you have to guess how Grace and Trip feel by watching and listening to them. And talking with them isn’t always easy: if you use words or sentence structures that the game doesn’t understand, your hosts may look confused or aghast, or humor you with awkward small talk.

But Façade gives you plenty of room to experiment and misbehave. Players are already swapping transcripts where they stumble into the apartment screaming "I’ve been shot!" or wander around like a zombie saying nothing but "BRAINS. BRAINS." The zombie routine may not save Grace and Trip’s marriage, but Mateas insists that you don’t have to play to "win." "Is there a high-level game goal? In a sense there isn’t, really," he answers. "There is an ending where Grace and Trip realize the roots of some of their problems and decide that they’re going to stay together and try to work it out, and they say, ‘You’ve really helped us.’ You could call that the ‘game goal’ you’d want to achieve. But that’s just one thing that can happen."

They’ve demo'd the product at several conferences and have spoken with "several high-profile game designers," according to Stern, and now that the game is out, they hope to enter more serious talks about integrating their AI work into other games, academic projects, or training exercises. Their goal is to create a full-scale interactive drama of their own.

"There may be some [publishers] that will say, ‘Hey, we’re ready to take a big chance here. Let’s try to actually make something you would truly call interactive drama, that doesn’t fit into an existing game genre,’ " speculates Stern. "It’s probably less likely, but we’re going to try for that." Because Façade doesn’t fit into any of the basic game categories, it sticks out in today’s market, which has grown safer and duller every year. There may be an untapped market of people who would love interactive storytelling. And Stern and Mateas may have to find that market on their own, by persuading the Kendall Square Cinema set to see this as a character study, a dramatic experience, and a new form of improv — and by rounding up gamers who like to solve problems just by talking about them.

Façade is available as a free download for the PC at www.interactivestory.net, where you can also find more information about the game and links to other projects by Stern and Mateas.

Issue Date: July 22 - 28, 2005
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