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 (available as a free download for the PC at www.interactivestory.net) has a simple premise: You're the best friend of a couple who are celebrating their 10th wedding anniversary. Trip has invited you over for dinner, but as you get to the front door you hear the sounds of an argument. 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; you talk with Grace and Trip by typing a statement or a question like "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, Mass. Mateas comes from an academic background, and is 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."
Stern and Mateas 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. 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. "Each line of dialogue and each story beat can be performed in multiple ways, in multiple emotional tones and in multiple tension levels," Mateas says.
The first time you play Façade, it can seem more like a dramatic experience or an improv exercise than a game. That 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 by 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. Talking with them isn't always easy: If you use words or sentence structures 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 in which they stumble into the apartment screaming, "I've been shot!" or wander around like zombies 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 says. "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."