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Adv: Façade [by Procedural Arts]

Game Review: Façade
Release Date: July 2005
Developer: Procedural Arts
Genre: Adventure/Sim (Interactive Fiction)
System Requirements: Windows Me/2000/XP, 1.6 GHz, 256 RAM, 1GB disk space
Players: 1
Price: $0 (14$ + shipping for the CD version)
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"It's not a game, it's an experience." Though this much overused phrase is thrown around to describe all kinds of games ranging from absolutely brilliant and revolutionary to horrible or simply misunderstood, it is very appropriate as a single-sentence summary of Façade (or, at least, what Façade strives to be). The game, or shall I say, the art project in question is an interactive drama created by Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern, featuring a combination of dramatic principles applied to an interactive fiction, based on years of research and a set of AI routines described in Mateas' PhD thesis.

The character you'll assume the role of is an old friend of Grace, a self-proclaimed tortured artist who feels trapped in the jaws of a conventional marriage, and her husband Trip, a really, really boring guy with a strange affinity for high-waisted trousers who likes to go on... trips. Seriously. One day, you're invited to their place for dinner, and that's where the game starts - in a claustrophobic lobby between the elevator and their apartment door. Knock knock.

As soon as you (the player, not the character), first meet them, you'll realize that Grace and Trip are one of those stereotypical married couples who live in a posh-looking modern apartment and earn enough money that they don’t have to worry much about worldly needs, but still somehow manage to be completely miserable. It is therefore not surprising that a night at their place won't leave you in a happy mood and not long after you get there, drama ensues.

Their marriage is slowly beginning to rip apart at the seams and the disastrous fight over who's to blame will inevitably include you (unless you manage to do something to make Trip throw you out before the "ending"), either as a spectator or a more active participant. The game itself is very open-ended at first, and there is no real goal apart from enduring the ordeal of waiting for the argument's resolution - the point is simply to experience the drama and maybe try to influence its course in a specific direction. As a "reward", a text file in screenplay format will be generated somewhere in the Façade directory, and you'll be able to see just exactly what you said, and how silly it may have sounded in a given situation.

The first noticeable thing about the game is that it can not be installed anywhere but a hard coded location on the C: drive and, according to Stern, getting the game to work on any other drive was "too much of a programming hassle". To quote Trip: "Uhh... yeah." Some of the other problems you could encounter include, but aren't limited to, AI unresponsiveness, clipping issues or simply the insane system requirements the game needs in order to run properly. It took me seven tries to finally experience Façade from start to finish - a couple of times no one opened the door until I ended all of the programs running in the background, once I did something Trip considered a major faux-pas and kicked me out of their apartment right away with absolutely no way to prevent it (so much for realism), and once I ended up in a wall with no way to get out. Be prepared.

Graphics: 5/10
Remember the clunky 3D engine from oldies like Normality? Strip it of all color, replace pre-rendered 3D objects with pasted flat-looking bitmaps and slap a low-resolution cityscape photo in the background. That's what Grace and Trip's apartment looks like. The characters themselves are, literally, cardboard cutouts (a rudimentary version of cel-shading) with the exception of somewhat more developed facial expression animations which consist mostly of eye rolling and/or completely avoiding eye contact, which is obviously done in order to enhance the feeling of uneasiness about the whole situation. In that, they succeed to some extent, but they also play a huge part in creating a very creepy Twilight Zone-like atmosphere.

All in all, I would rather see more abstract-looking surroundings, as well as more stylized characters, if only to help the players keep their focus on the conversation. It is, after all, the main part of the game, and the poorly designed gameworld visuals detract from the overall impression.

Sound: 8/10
Throughout the game, you won't be hearing much more than Grace and Trip's bickering. The voices sound quite realistic, and with the exception of "umm..." and "err..."-filled awkward silences and nervous laughter that is repeated much too often for the dialogue to truly flow, voice acting is very well done and the characters sound pretty believable.

Upon closer examination, it turned out that the sound alone takes up more than 900MB of disk space due to all of the voice tracks which for some inexplicable reason are in in raw WAV files. The soundtrack directory does feature some MP3 music, so I'm guessing the only logical reason for this "feature" could have been one of those dreadful "programming hassles". As the other game files are of trifling size, converting the speech to MP3 files of a very reasonable quality (yes, I did an experiment and compressed them just to see if it would make a significant difference) would reduce the speech storage needs to little less than 400MB. Not too shabby - that way, Façade could at least fit on a single CD.

Gameplay: 6/10
The actual controls consist of walking around the apartment, looking at it from a first-person perspective and interacting with objects as well as the characters by clicking on them to perform a predefined action. There is also, of course, a text input line, which is, interestingly, too short to type in a sentence more complicated than the usual "go north", "turn light on" interactive fiction commands. The notable difference is that (since movement and physical interaction is done through a different set of controls) you won't be using it to give your character instructions to follow. Instead, whatever you type will be treated as if your character said it.

Other than that, the similarity to a typical IF parser is uncanny - even if length limitations didn't exist, you still wouldn't be able to hold a realistic conversation with Grace and Trip. They are completely unable to understand anything more than the aforementioned IF-like simple sentences, and they mostly seem to catch just a single keyword, very often taken out of context and used to skip to a particular conversation branch. I could swear that I've seen a lot more responsiveness from, say, Seaman's speech recognition system, and this shortcoming is very surprising to see in a game hyped with such interaction as its primary focus. What Façade's gameplay boils down to when viewed from the typical end-user perspective is a choose-your-own-adventure game with a very shoddy text parser used on top of a story branching system.

There is a character influence system similar to the much praised one seen in KOTOR 2, and a recapitulation of your actions' effect on the game as you approach the ending (like it's done in the Fallout end movie) with a bit of interactivity thrown in as the characters ask you for further clarification on things that you "said".

Value: 6/10
Money-wise, Façade is free (if you don't count the possible bandwidth costs for downloading the 800MB installer from BitTorrent.) However, the clunkiness of the installation process and numerous problems you can encounter while trying to get the game to work all bring the value score down. Additionally, the fact that a 10-minute game with almost no graphic assets to speak of will eat up a gigabyte of your hard drive space makes Façade much less than hassle-free.

Concept: 10/10
After playing Façade, my curiosity was too great not to at least skim through Mateas' "Interactive Drama, Art and Artificial Intelligence" thesis. Although most of the good points made in it are simply facts professional game designers should already know (though they should know how impractical it is to implement such systems too!), there is a lot of sound theory behind Façade's character AI and PC-to-NPC interaction system. This, frankly, makes the thesis look a lot more interesting than the game itself. Stripped of unnecessary theatrical specifics and adapted to the needs of actual game production, it could have the potential to become the "next big thing" in game AI development, but it seems something like that may not be perfected in the near future.

One of the negative things he mentioned was the dire need for content cutting for practical reasons, using the specific example of a possible love affair developing between the player and one of the characters (something that I've, of course, tried to make happen). And that's the prime example of where Façade fails - the concept is great, but the implementation is, at best, mediocre and unconvincing.

Most of us probably think that a game with realistic non-player characters would be extremely cool to play if done in a reasonably interesting setting. I, for one, would be quite pleased to see a more fleshed out Façade-like AI used to make MMORPG NPCs (almost) indistinguishable from the rest of the playerbase. However, if a sense of immersion and a completely realised set of character interaction possibilities haven't been demonstrated even in a severely limited setting such as this, how can we bring ourselves to believe that it will ever be seen in a game with more than two NPCs and more than one room to explore?

Fun: 5/10
Putting the already mentioned technical difficulties aside, if you happen to think just like Trip and Grace, you might have a bit of fun the first couple of time you replay Façade. On the other hand, if you try to solve their problems by using a bit of common sense or do anything unexpected, it will become very apparent that the world around you is not what it's supposed to be. As you try more and more options, Grace and Trip will have a harder time understanding what you're trying to do, and the limited number of scripted events and their resolutions will get old really fast, regardless of their order being random.

Due to the AI limitations, you'll have to play along and try to figure out what kind of answers Grace and Trip will "know how to respond to" in a specific situation. After a short while of doing that, you might come to the conclusion that a branching multiple-choice conversation from, for example, Planescape: Torment can be infinitely more immersive, emotionally involving and thought-provoking than participation in a keyword guessing game.

The real art of game design isn't in creating the most life-like experience as much as it is in convincing people to immerse themselves in your imperfect creations filled with boundaries and restrictions while subtly encouraging them to play by the rules. If a game prepares you for a setting with no invisible walls and you keep bumping your head into one at every other step you take, there is something wrong and that's when the fun stops.

Overall: 5/10
The principles behind Façade look great on paper, but if you aren't that familiar with them and don't know what to pay attention to while playing (something that is worth doing, whether out of sheer curiosity or professional interest), you could end up being very frustrated. If fully developed, this type of a game, even if it featured the same uncomfortable setting, might be really appealing to the fabled non-gamer market (Roger Ebert loved Cosmology of Kyoto, didn't he?). But as it is, Façade is neither a good game nor a particularly outstanding play - it doesn't respond to player input well enough to be the former while still relying on it way too much to be the latter.

At this time, Mateas and Stern's work is merely a tech demo and one that, as such, does a much better job at suggesting that the technology it represents isn't even nearly ready for practical implementation than "selling" it to anyone outside very specific academic circles. That said, I would be curious to see a truly finished game that really brings the AI mechanics behind Façade to life. Disappointingly, Façade itself isn't and shouldn't be mistaken for that game. Not by a long shot.
Added: October 3rd 2005
Reviewer: Damjan Flegar
Score:
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