[Readings] (02.18.09, 1:21 pm)

This contains a lot of spoilers, so if you do not wish to read them, you’ll need to play the game until you’re ready to continue. I also generally refer to Facade as a game, because I think that term is complete enough to describe what it is. It is really an interactive drama, but there are enough game-like dimensions that justifies the label. There is a lot that can and should be said about Facade, but I will limit my discussion to the dimensions of performance, mechanics, and goals. When I discuss Mateas’s dissertation, I will get into the grainy art and AI related topics in more detail.

Theoretical Underpinnings

Facade is designed as an application of Aristotelian dramatic principles to an interactive experience. The term that has been adopted to describe this is interactive drama. The goal of the project was not precisely to develop Facade as an artifact, but rather to achieve interactive drama through the merging of AI and art practice. Facade works the way it does by a very thorough and complete management of the player’s experience. This is conducted by the drama manager, which attempts to fit the player’s experience into a very carefully sculpted dramatic arc.

The dramatic fitting is a concept both in keeping with Aristotelian drama and traditional AI. The structure of the drama (or narrative if one wishes to use that term) in Facade is organized into a system of “beats.” Each beat represents a dramatic moment, and as a term “beat” is borrowed from dramatic theory. Beats have preconditions, postconditions, dramatic value, weighting, and priorities. Thus, when arranged in a sequence, the beats form an arc which is the dramatic curve of the story. The drama manager is an AI which aims to select beats according to pre and post conditions, so that they will fit the best along the ideal dramatic curve.

Facade has been very influential on me. I have often described the intended result of my work as a “cross between The Sims and Facade”, but it is important to note some significant theoretical differences. My approach is anchored by the rhetoric and values of simulation, which involves a much looser and less constrained sense of player agency.

Mechanics and Performance

Facade is much more structured than many realize, despite the openness, there are several concrete mechanics that are under the surface of the seemingly transparent interaction. This is most notable in the “therapy game” section of the story, where there are several ostensible variables: who is being talked about (Grace, Trip, or their marriage), whether what the player is saying is “helping”, etc. The means of interacting with this system is affected by not only discourse actions, but also by player position, facing, and engagement with other objects.

Facade is extremely complex and deep, but still requires a somewhat structured system of mechanics. When the player attempts to engage with things that do not fit within the model afforded by these mechanics, these must be discarded by the system. The player may say something sound that might be said by a relationship counsellor, but the player’s words cannot be shoehorned into the somewhat limited vocabulary of discourse actions, then the response will need to be dropped. When this happens, Grace and Trip will pause, look somewhat confused at the player, and maybe look at each other. The message of this is subtle, but clear: we do not understand what you are talking about; you need to use our vocabulary and play by our rules.

This is a reasonable response, but the transparency of the interface leads to an invisibility of the suitable actions that make sense in the world, which is Facade’s greatest weakness. Many players who wind up getting frustrated with Facade simply have trouble abiding by its rules. My first experiences playing Facade were anchored in my experience roleplaying, and were very improvisational. I tried to carry in some bits about myself and who I was, referring to the bus which took me to their apartment, the night when I introduced the couple, and so on. These were intended to be part of the whole performance, but were understood only to myself.

It is important to realize Facade as a performance piece, as a special kind of theatre. The player is necessarily a performer as well, as well as the audience. Grace and Trip are actors, ostensibly in conflict but simultaneously coordinating to the player’s benefit. All three actors are necessary for the story to move anywhere. However, as Johnstone might point out, there are rules for performances. Overtly refusing to abide by these rules will lead to Trip escorting the player out of the apartment.

A challenge is in the dimension of embodiment, where it is difficult for the player to well express the intended meaning of his or her words. Part of this has to do with expression and tone. It is possible to perform a few physical gestures: comfort, hug, and kiss. It is not possible to change the tone of one’s voice, though. For the most part, communication is very direct and overt. Grace and Trip speak without subtlety and interpret the player’s spoken actions literally. It is interesting to compare this to other domains where conversation is generally much more subtle.

Goals and Rewards

Another issue is that of goals. The player has ostensibly no goals, but there are several types of endings. In one of these endings, both Grace and Trip realize their own problems and that they realize that their marriage is falling apart, and then they realize that it is possible for them to reconcile. This ending is both the hardest to get and the most idyllic, and thus can be seen as a goal. The player is put in this crucible where Grace and Trip’s world falls apart, and it becomes clear that they have a lot of problems. Thus, to players oriented as problem solvers, the player must find a way to solve these problems and save their marriage. I do not consider this to be a flaw or a bad thing, after all, the Pride and Prejudice world has a clear challenge and goal. However, it is interesting to compare the goal oriented structure of games with the traditional dramatic arc.

It seems to me that there is a potential poetics of game design, where the more desirable the objective, the more difficult it is to achieve. This is the case in all games, and is hardly something new, but Facade and and the Pride and Prejudice game I am planning would both be open enough to allow many deep alternative endings. Most linear games have a very small and clear set of ending conditions, but many of the endings reachable in Facade are deep and complex of their own accord. These endings also reveal a little bit more about the whole picture.

A proper playing of Facade involves many repeated iterations, to get a sense of the depth of the world, the problems that Grace and Trip face, and their characters. To reach the ending where the player actually solves their problems requires many play throughs to see what does and does not work in affecting their lives. Instead of mastery through practice, Facade rewards mastery through analysis and a constrained sort of exploration.

In terms of games, this is actually somewhat unusual.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorMateas, Michael and Stern, Andrew
Tagsspecials, digital media, ai, art, games, social simulation
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