"Play Andrew Stern and Michael Mateas' Façade, and at some point, you realize, with all the certainty in the world, that someday videogames will have the power to move you emotionally." - Games For Windows magazine, May 2007
If you have any interest at all in AI, read this.
Façade is an artificial intelligence-based art/research experiment in electronic narrative – an attempt to move beyond traditional branching or hyper-linked narrative to create a fully-realized, one-act interactive drama. Integrating an interdisciplinary set of artistic practices and artificial intelligence technologies, we have completed a five year collaboration to engineer a novel architecture for supporting emotional, interactive character behavior and drama-managed plot. Within this architecture we have built a dramatically interesting, real-time 3D virtual world inhabited by computer-controlled characters, in which the player experiences a story from a first-person perspective. Façade was publicly released as a freeware download / cd-rom in July 2005.
It is free and it is fascinating. I have played Facade probably a dozen times now and despite a regrettable tendency to lose the thread towards the end, the experience is incredibly realistic.
You, the player, using your own name and gender, play the character of a longtime friend of Grace and Trip, an attractive and materially successful couple in their early thirties. During an evening get-together at their apartment that quickly turns ugly, you become entangled in the high-conflict dissolution of Grace and Trip's marriage. No one is safe as the accusations fly, sides are taken and irreversible decisions are forced to be made. By the end of this intense one-act play you will have changed the course of Grace and Trip's lives – motivating you to re-play the drama to find out how your interaction could make things turn out differently the next time.
Trip will mix you a drink, while Grace puts words in your mouth. It's not perfect, but it's been lauded as a major advance in AI.
This work is unlike hypertext narrative or interactive fiction to date in that the computer characters actively perform the story without waiting for you to click on a link or enter a command. Interaction is seamless as you converse in natural language and move and gesture freely within the first-person 3D world of Grace and Trip's apartment. AI controls Grace and Trip's personality and behavior, including emotive facial expressions, spoken voice and full-body animation. Furthermore, the AI intelligently chooses the next story "beat" based on your moment-by-moment interaction, what story beats have happened so far, and the need to satisfy an overall dramatic arc. An innovative text parser allows the system to avoid the "I don't understand" response all too common in text-adventure interactive fiction.
The process of building Façade has involved three major research efforts: designing ways to deconstruct a dramatic narrative into a hierarchy of story and behavior pieces; engineering an AI system to reconstruct a real-time dramatic performance from those pieces that integrates the player's moment-by-moment interactions; and understanding how to write an engaging, compelling story within this new organizational framework. Along the way we have learned hard lessons about what works and what doesn't in the design and engineering of interactive stories, and developed a deeper understanding of what it will require to create even more generative story systems in the future.
I am embarrassed to admit it, but when Facade was first released, for free, in 2005, I missed it completely. A random acquaintance of mine sent me the link, http://www.interactivestory.net/ , due to a lucky series of coincidences that put him at a computer and synergistically placed the thought in his head to send it to me. Not to be self-serving, but I suspect the reason I missed it is precisely because it is completely, totally free.
Creators Andrew Stern and Michael Mateas sat down with Brenda Bakker Harger, Brenda Bakker Harger, professor of Entertainment technology at Carnegie Mellon University, and talked about the thinking that led to Facade.
Michael Mateas: Most games these days focus on huge physical spaces; the player's primary experience involves wandering and exploration. As they wander and explore, the player has a series of shallow interactions with a large number of objects and non-player characters--dodging, jumping, running, shooting, etc. Thus, most games tend to be broad and shallow, a giant space full of many, many repetitions of the same shallow interaction. With Façade, we wanted to think about deep interaction, and intimate drama is a good vehicle for forcing this. Grace and Trip's apartment is small, contains only a few objects, and has only two characters to interact with. So all of the design, and all of the player's interaction, has to drill deeper, has to be about the structure and longer-term ramifications of the player's social interactions with Grace and Trip.
We also wanted to make an experience that could be played to some endpoint (there are a number of possible endings, of course) in a short amount of time, say the length of a half-hour TV show with the commercials removed. This is an antidote or contrarian response to the 50+ hours of gameplay common in contemporary games. What about games that, like plays, movies, or TV shows, give you a powerful, meaningful experience in a much shorter amount of time? In some sense, Façade is the world's most complex casual game.
Posted by Garth Sullivan.