Saturday, August 6th, 2005
Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern’s Facade has an interesting and compelling way of drawing you into the lives of Trip and Grace, the two principle character’s of their situational sim. Ultimately, the concept is wonderful, but it’s also tricky and frustrating. You play the role of an old friend come for a visit and find yourself in a wreck of a relationship. The problem with the relationship is simple: both Trip and Grace feel as if they are not living their “true” lives. Are they mere decorators; have they failed at designing their lives or take the right path? It could be your job to see them through to the truth, whatever that truth may be: is Grace an artist? Is Trip enlightened? Should they stay together or find freedom on their own? Are they lying to themselves and to you? Are these lies healthy or caustic?
The compelling part is to dig deep enough into Grace and Trip to find some resolution to their situation or to learn “the heart of the matter.” And so you keep coming back to their amazingly liquid environment to interact, to try different words, gestures, questions, and phrases. I keep returning with question as to the extent of the vocabulary the “system” will respond to. The frustration comes when you feel that you’re not being listened to or that the AI engine’s direction takes off without any ability to restrain it and that indeed words that you think are perfectly appropriate for response, such as “love” and “explain” seem to be unrecognizable. In a conversation with old friends–whatever the situation–you can direct comments or questions to an individual, but in Facade it appears that “directing” a question to Grace can lead to a “question” to Trip, one that you hadn’t intended (this kills the drama), and this makes for odd and flat and bewildering outcomes. So you close and come back and try something else.
In one run, I asked about a sculpture and Trip wondered why I was criticizing him. In another, I asked for water, breaking a scenario that would’ve led to an argument about making drinks. This led to a screaming match that seemed to come out of nowhere, causeless (a drama killer).
But I keep coming back. In another session, Grace finally came to the conclusion that she was an artist and that was that. But the realization was “flawed.” I didn’t generate “the outcome” and Grace continually referred to things that I had not remarked on, such as the view outside their apartment and some unstated agreement I had supposedly made on her behalf (against Trip). But I keep coming back.
In another scenario, playing the role of “Carol,” I attempted to comfort Grace but she seems to want to take this as flirtation. The AI forces a flirtation scenario so forcefully that Grace’s reaction is “no longer” dramatic but predictable (Grace will almost always assume that if you have chosen a woman’s persona at the start of the drama, Trip must have latent feelings for you) and this generative scenario, when it arises, makes you shake your head, visualizing the machine.
This is both the failure of the simDrama and its saving grace. I have it in my head that if I learn to be a “better” friend, then Trip and Grace will learn from my best wishes. Grace and Trip are strange, just like friends in need. And I think I should keep trying.
Does Facade generate dramatic outcomes that give a sense of closure? My answer is no. The eventualities don’t surprise, and the reactions of Grace and Trip to your interactions come off as programmed. As you interact you feel a part of the scene and not a part of the scene. You are there and not there. Still, this may be my mistake.
Facade is made for experiment, for different approaches, for answers beyond what may be obvious, but I have yet to fall into the propensity to snap or call Trip a butthead or Grace a lesbian just to see what will happen (which seems to be a favorite approach on discussion boards). I think this not only diminishes Andrew and Michael but also Grace and Trip. I don’t want to do this, although I made lots of mistakes at the start by unintentionally poking Trip in the eye before learning how to use the arrow keys to enter the apartment.
I come back to see if I can keep them together or learn something new from them (how have parents pressured them; is sex an issue?)–I think I did, by drawing Grace and Trip into a situation where one came to aide of the other and I as Brenda was dismissed (but always to the same eject)–but why couldn’t I have stayed and enjoyed some happier resolution in this specific case?
As a look into a “holodeck of sorts,” a term I use with inexactitude, Facade fascinates–the possibilities that this digital stage opens up are incredibly interesting. And I look forward to more approaches like this, but it will be a long hard road until a true sense of meaningful “interaction” surfaces so that an avatar, such as Al, can get beyond sensing the machine mind behind the characters with whom you interact.
I’m still looking for a real sense of “choice” and “causality,” for the mobility to “shape” the outcome, in Facade. Should I expect Grace and Trip to learn from “me”? At this point this “learning” has yet to surface. But I keep coming back. I wonder how deep I can go.
To enjoy the drama yourself, you can download Facade here.