July 13, 2005

Façade - First Play Session

Gaming is born of conflict. From chess to Super Mario Bros. to Halo, it's always had something to do with disharmony, the player's mission to set things right being the impetus for gameplay.

It's no surprise, then, that the story of Façade, a one-act interactive drama, involves a battle of wills and charged emotion. Being the mediator in a pivotal argument that could easily lead to the dissolution of a marriage is probably about as tenuous as being caught in the line of fire between two opposing armies, if not moreso, and Façade faithfully depicts this psychological battleground with terrifying aplomb.

I'll start from the beginning: you're the close college friend of Grace and Trip, a married couple who invite you to their apartment one evening. Though you might not guess it from the screenshots, the environment is fully three-dimensional, from a first-person perspective, and the aesthetic is a pleasant blend between cel shading and a rough hand-drawn sketch. The arrow keys move my character around, and the mouse cursor can be placed on certain hotspots on the screen to perform associated actions, such as knocking the door of the apartment in front of me.

But before I do that, I hear voices from behind the door; it sounds like my friends are having an argument. Trip seems to be looking for wine glasses, Grace asks why, Trip says it should be obvious, and the whole conversation burns down in flames, concluding with Grace telling Trip that he's going to drive her crazy. At this point, Trip opens the door to greet me.

The expression on his face is great. From a technical standpoint, it's fluid animation and fine voice acting: his eyes widen, he smiles, affectionately says my name--I had chosen one from a list at the beginning of the game--and genuinely looks happy to see me, despite the fact that part of him must obviously be very annoyed at his wife. He's presenting me with a facade, which is something that will happen a lot more through the course of this aptly-titled game.

And now, Trip is asking me how I'm doing.

This is when I realize that I'm rather uncomfortable here. Not only because the person in front of me is clearly agitated yet acting like nothing is wrong, not just because I know I'm about to walk into a room with two other people who will probably continue to become more annoyed with one another and use me as their foil, but because I have no idea what to say.

There's no scripted response here, no list of choices for me to select from. Trip's watching me expectantly; his eyes are blinking, his head cocks to the side. I nervously type the sentence "i am fine.", which appears in large type at the bottom of the screen, and I press enter.

He responds in a realistic way. In a subsequent play session, I'll ask him "is everything okay?", to which he will laugh nervously and respond somewhat cheerily that of course, everything is great. In fact, rarely do my friends respond to something I say in an unbelievable way; the unease in their replies cleverly accounts for both their emotional state and any confusion that may have resulted from a sentence that couldn't be properly parsed by the game engine. This drama, as it turns out, is all about miscommunication, so in a way it's appropriate that some of the things I say are misinterpreted by them--though this is a pretty unusual occurrence.

Inside the apartment, things get decidedly more heated. The facade slowly breaks down; the husband and wife contradict each other openly, soon they're shouting at each other, swearing, and I'm trapped in the middle of it. Under ordinary circumstances, I would throw a smoke grenade and make a break for the nearest elevator, but this wasn't SWAT 4. Nothing I learned in all my years of gaming had prepared me for this kind of experience.

So, I've been learning things from the ground up. My first play-through of this relatively short game--it takes less than 30 minutes to complete--consisted of me saying little more than "fine", "yes", and "no". I couldn't believe Grace and Trip were friends with such a boring person, and I didn't come out of it feeling like I influenced anything to a great extent. By my second play-through, I was picking up objects by clicking on them, though it seemed not to have much more effect than my hosts getting annoyed at me when Grace's dad called and I picked up the phone while he was leaving a message. And on my third play-through, I discovered something close to my desired smoke-and-run tactic when I began to repeatedly kiss both of my friends until they forcibly removed me from their apartment.

After a handful of play-throughs, I'm still not quite sure to what extent my actions affected the course of the drama, with the obvious exception of repeat kissing; most of the time my involvement consists of me agreeing or disagreeing with something one of them says, at which point the conversation switches to another topic. As a result, right now the game feels less like an interactive drama and more like a very sophisticated random story generator--and every replay has been very different because of the random events that occur, from unexpected phone calls to the different conversation topics that Grace and Trip choose to bring up.

But at the same time, I also have a feeling that I'm just scratching the surface of the gameplay here. As I mentioned before, I've simply never played anything quite like this; to make a rough analogy, I feel like the newbie gamer who tries to play a first-person shooter for the first time and realizes that he has no idea how to control four axes simultaneously, much less aim with any degree of accuracy. This text parser is interesting, but it's hard to tell what my range of possible actions is, and I'm not entirely sure how to combine this with object manipulation. But every time I play through Façade, I'm a little more adventurous and discover something new about it, so I look forward to writing about the game more in the near future.

Update: This series of posts concludes in Façade - Second and Final Play.

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

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