July 25, 2005

Façade - Second and Final Play

This game is not fun. I don't mean that as an insult; it's just an observation. I mean, how could mediating an argument that may result in the dissolution of a marriage possibly be amusing? There's a good reason that the authors call this an interactive drama and not a game.

And this interactive drama is exhausting. There's a variety of things that still confuse me, and most of them are centered around the main way that I interact with the other characters: the text parser. In my effort to graduate from simple responses like "yes" and "I disagree", I've run into a few problems with the interface.

For one thing, you need to type your response before Grace and Trip start another conversation topic. If you press enter just a second too late, once a character has started talking about something new, your response will register as a response to that new topic, not the old one. I wonder if it might have been better for the game to pause as soon as the player starts typing something, but this may have altered the pacing of the drama in a negative way--sort of like pausing a Tetris game to figure out where you want to put your next piece. But at the same time, in a real-life conversation, another person starts listening as soon as the first word comes out of your mouth, not when you've finished typing out what you want to say to them on an imaginary keyboard. So regardless of AI issues, I'm not sure how much I like the basic interface: the game rewards social agility, but only if you have quick fingers too.

Aside from that, you can only type out one line worth of text when you speak. This is a fairly sophisticated drama with complex themes; as a participant, I want to be able to address these issues by asking questions like "Trip, why are you so obsessed with prestige?" or "Grace, why don't you like advertising?". The text parser won't let me type sentences this long, though, and anything approaching this kind of communication has been met with misinterpretations from Grace and Trip--they have a tendency to think that I'm always either agreeing or disagreeing with them, rather than trying to reach a common understanding.

And I still don't feel like I have much influence over the drama that's taking place. When I agree with one of my friends, they sometimes tell me that I'm helping the situation, but my responses don't seem to have much effect other than to serve as tally marks on some sort of hidden marriage counseling scoreboard that will ultimately determine whether the couple separates or stays together.

So, since simple agreement or disagreement doesn't make for a satisfying drama, and because I can't adequately discuss complex marital issues with these characters, and because I'm starting to feel like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, I resort to subversion. But after a handful of attempts, my results aren't as interesting as I'd like them to be. The same kinds of things happen, only in a different order, with slight variations in form, but the same end result.

Am I expecting too much from this game? Days later, I look over my saved stageplays--Façade stores the script in a text file whenever you finish a game--and some of them are surprisingly entertaining, really. One of them features me playing an alcoholic who is perfectly candid about how messed up he thinks his friends are, at one point attempting to woo Grace in a fit of drunken reverie. He ends up getting kicked out of the house, of course; an outcome that has happened countless times before, but, as they say, the devil is in the details. This stageplay is just an enjoyable read, possibly more entertaining than its original performance.

And days later, I'm still not sure how I feel about all this. I think I've been most satisfied with the game when I just say what comes to mind instinctively, as I role-play some kind of character who is just there to have a good time and couldn't care less about how their friends' marriage turns out. And I guess part of the reason for this is because I still don't understand how my actions actually affect their relationship. It's just so much less frustrating being a one-person peanut gallery than it is futilely attempting to help these people through their degenerating marriage.

So, is this game worth playing? Well, despite the tone of this particular play rating, there are still things I love about this game: the unusual aesthetic style, the way the characters facial expressions change, the voice acting, the overall story and its characters. But there are clearly a lot of things that frustrate me, too, and a lot of them are tied to the game's subject matter: mediating an argument about human relationships is a horribly complex activity, and the technology behind Façade, as well as the interface presented to the player, may not be up to that task. I can't help but wonder if a lighthearted comedy or a simpler, more one-on-one encounter may have been a better basis for the world's first interactive drama.

In the end, though, this game has provided me with an experience--and thoughts resulting from it--that I couldn't possibly get from anywhere else. Façade certainly isn't for everyone; in fact, it should be kept in mind that Façade itself is a research prototype, not a commercial product. It's ultimately your decision whether you want to try out this game, and I hope this progressive review has helped you decide.

Epilogue

I prefaced this series of posts with a prologue that attempts to frame Façade within the context of mainstream gaming, so I thought it appropriate to end on a similar note.

As for the future, I'm just glad that the authors plan to make the game's development tools available to others, allowing new authors to build on and experiment with this interesting new form. Just think of what the creators of Homestar Runner could do here, for instance. Some may think that's a bit of a crass statement for a new medium that aspires to such great heights, but hey, I doubt the world's first non-interactive drama was Pulitzer-prize winning material either.

And for good reason.


Note: The above post was originally published on the now-defunct website The Game Chair. A somewhat readable version is available on archive.org.

© Atul Varma 2017