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A hands-on look at Façade archived preview

Façade is the product of a four-year research project by Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern. It will be completed and made available for download sometime this summer, but we had a chance to play a work-in-progress version at the recent Game Developers Conference. Now, I'm not going to waste any energy philosophizing on whether Façade is an adventure game, or an interactive drama, or something else entirely; I'll leave that issue for others to debate. Suffice it to say, it is an impressive experiment--one that will appeal to adventure game players on many levels.

Façade invites the player to an evening get-together with Grace and Trip, a seemingly happy couple. I write seemingly, because you'll quickly find yourself right in the middle of a heated marriage conflict. It's up to you, as their guest, to succesfully navigate a minefield of misunderstandings, accusations, and socially awkward situations. Your obvious and not-so-obvious interactions with Grace and Trip determine the outcome of their argument.

It's possible to complete Façade in the span of a lunchbreak, but that's a good thing; this game's value should not be measured by its length, but by its breadth. Each session of the game can be completely different, offering a replay value of a magnitide that is seldom seen. Trying to save Grace and Trip's marriage is in fact just one of many goals. There were reports at GDC of one player declaring his love to Grace, thereby opening a valid sidetrack. Another player opted to ignore the couple and raided their minibar. He eventually passed out on the floor.

In Façade, you're pretty much free to experiment within the boundaries of the narrative. It's important to note that the designers opted to not use the traditional branching story approach; instead, small snippets of authored material are put together on-the-fly based on a set of AI routines.

Interaction with the characters is achieved through various means. Façade primarily uses a text parser, though it's not used as a command interface. Players can type words or sentences at any time during the game, either in response to a question or to bring up a subject. Trip and Grace will respond intelligently or just ignore you if you're not making sense to them. While not used as often, it's also possible to click on their bodies for physical communication. (I accidentally hugged Trip this way, causing a socially awkward situation.) Finally, the game takes into account your position in the room and your interactions with the objects in it. Some of the objects have a certain meaning to Trip and Grace's relationship and will trigger a new set of events.

While the graphical implementation of Façade is not extremely noteworthy (nor should we expect it to be), a great deal of time was spent on the characters. They're very effective at communicating emotion, using a good range of facial expressions. In a desperate attempt to win back Grace's favor, I complimented her home decorating skills. I thought it would do the trick, but it didn't. "You're laying it on thick," she replied, rolling her eyes.

The level of responsiveness, combined with their expressiveness, makes it very easy to care for the characters. Although I've connected with game characters before, Façade managed to establish this feeling in a matter of minutes.

Speaking from my personal playing experience, the wide scope of possibilities gave me an unusual feeling of involvement. I felt that each choice I made affected the game, which made me pay a lot more attention to what went on. Whereas conventional adventure game dialogs provide only navigational interactivity (if that), Facade is a constant action/reaction flow between the user and the game.

Of course, every simulation has its limits, and I only played Façade briefly (and poorly, I might add!). While its technical achievements are quite remarkable, we'll have to play the game some more to see if it's still as involving when the initial excitement has eased off. We'll be testing a more completed version once it's available.

Façade was one of the finalists of the Independent Game Festival. Additional information can be found at InteractiveStory.net. Also check out Grand Text Auto, a group blog on digital narrative with regular contributions from the Façade creators.


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