July 12, 2005

Façade - Prologue

A lot of gamers have always longed for the kind of games that are like their favorite novels and films. Something that, for instance, carries with it the same emotional impact and capacity for provoking thought as an award-winning play.

While it's arguable that such games already exist, there has generally been some sort of trade-off between the narrative sophistication of a game and the level of agency that the game provides to the player. That is, the choices a player is presented with in a story-driven game rarely affect the actual story in a significant way.

For example, even the best adventure games--LucasArts' Grim Fandango, to take a relatively recent example--essentially consist of a linear plot strung together by puzzles that the player must solve. Eastern role-playing games such as Square's Final Fantasy series are a slight modification on this concept, replacing the puzzles with combat, exploration, and minigames--other activities that, while fun, don't usually affect the narrative in a significant way.

Western role-playing games, such as Baldur's Gate and Morrowind, have distinguished themselves from Eastern RPGs in many ways, one of which is their emphasis on agency. This sub-genre of RPGs prides itself on the open-endedness of its gameplay, presenting the player with choices that can significantly affect the lives of other characters and the world they inhabit. Along with a few cross-genre games such as the Deus Ex series, this is one of the few places in mainstream story-driven gaming where the story becomes part of the gameplay, rather than being completely distinct from it.

Presently, however, the only way such games have given the player control over their story has been through the use of branching story trees--essentially a glorified version of a Choose Your Own Adventure novel. That is, the player is presented with a list of choices and the story proceeds in some way that follows from the player's decision.

One of the reasons it's been difficult for story-driven games to move beyond this form of gameplay is because of the sheer programmatic complexity involved in making a story truly dynamic, especially when human emotions are involved. This is part of why we haven't seen the video game equivalent of High Fidelity or Lost in Translation: while there has been plenty of research into realistic physics and three-dimensional graphics for computer games, there hasn't been nearly as much research into modeling the way humans behave for the purposes of storytelling. Even once such a model has been constructed, the player needs a suitable interface to interact with the model that makes for fun and open-ended gameplay. Little, if any, research in this field has made its way into graphical computer games.

This is where Façade comes in. Developed over the course of five years, it is the product of two individuals' efforts to innovate interactive storytelling and take story-driven gaming in a completely new direction. Billed as a one-act interactive drama, this game is freely available at no cost (though donations are accepted); feel free to download it now, and watch for my progressive review of this ambitious game in the near future.

Update: This series of posts continues in Façade - First Play Session.

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 2020