Façade is a videogame that puts the player at the heart of a domestic quarrel. The designers, who are fascinated with artificial intelligence, created a game in which the player literally becomes a character in the story, and interacts with the two characters controlled by the computer. The player moves around in a 3D environment (in this case an apartment), talks with the others by typing words on his keyboard, and interacts with his environment (he can pick up objects, embrace and kiss the other characters).
Façade presents a one-act drama constructed according to an Aristotelian narrative structure. The game begins when the player – after having chosen one of the available names – arrives at his friends Trip and Grace’s apartment, on the evening of their tenth wedding anniversary. In the course of the evening, the tension between Trip and Grace rises gradually. Though the conversational tone appears cordial and detached, it becomes obvious that the couple’s marriage has failed. No matter what he chooses to do, the player finds himself intimately involved in the unravelling of his friends’ romantic relationship (which is how the game ends). If he chooses to act, the spouses construe his actions as provocation, or as a way of taking sides; if, on the other hand, he decides to remain passive, the characters inevitably interpret his silence as the expression of an opinion.
The initial plotline (the player arrives at his friends’ apartment, the conversation turns into a quarrel and the evening ends when one of the characters leaves) varies based on a number of micro plots, called “beats” by the game’s designers. The system selects the beats from a database offering over two hundred options, depending on the way the story develops and on the player’s interactions. Some will appear at the beginning of the game, and others, inevitably, at the end, but most of the beats can be activated at any time. For example, if the player seizes a martini glass on the shelf, Trip will immediately offer him a cocktail, but if the player ignores the glasses, it is also possible that Trip will make his offer later in the game. The AI system is prepared to react, in each situation, to a certain number of speech acts the player may perform; he can express agreement or disagreement, say thank you, criticize, judge, reassure, comfort. In other words, the beats are programmed to respond to a number of plausible and common reactions, given the situation at hand. Thus, if the player answers “I feel bad” when asked “how do you feel?”, the system will interpret this as an expression of dissatisfaction, and the characters will respond accordingly (Ryan, 2006: 175).
However, this mode of functioning inevitably leads to certain inconsistencies. For example, if the player tries to reassure his friends by saying that “it is normal to sometimes disagree,” the system will likely construe the phrase as an expression of disagreement rather than an attempt to calm or pacify, and the player’s hosts will understand that he does not agree with the issue at hand (Ryan, 2006: 176). Note also that it is not always easy for the player to intervene one way or another. The characters’ lines flow rather quickly and the time allotted to respond is not always sufficient. Often the conversation has already taken a different turn by the time the player enters his response, which also causes inconsistencies. What is more, as the end of the game approaches, the player has less and less opportunity to participate. The planned dénouement will take place, no matter how he attempts to intervene. Provided the player is not kicked out of the room (this happens when he acts in an unacceptable manner, by kissing Grace or Trip repeatedly, for example), the narrative curve follows its course towards one of the possible outcomes (Trip’s departure, a reconciliation, the revelation of Trip or Grace’s infidelity).
The simple narrative structure, Trip and Grace’s personalities, and the small number of characters however quickly counterbalance the many inconsistencies. Indeed, the simple storyline – a discussion that turns into a domestic quarrel –, the spouses’ egocentric characters, and the necessarily small number of possible interactions between three characters fairly effectively compensate for the moments when the player is ignored or receives a ridiculous response. In fact, the couple’s dialogue constitutes for the most part the game’s basic structure. As such, the player’s written responses have a minimal impact on the story’s development. They will determine which “beats” are activated, but never give the player control over the game. He achieves a measure of freedom within the game space through his actions, as he can change the course of the discussion – though he cannot determine how it will evolve –, by picking objects up and moving them around.
In our view, however, certain narrative possibilities not explored by the game’s designers are lacking. For example, given that the player has the option to kiss and embrace his hosts, it would have been interesting to include within the possible outcomes of the story an affair between one of the spouses and the player.