Façade is a game created by Andrew Stern and Michael Mateas that was released in 2005. It’s something that seems to be best qualified as a relationship adventure. You are the first-person protagonist who has come to see his/her friends, Grace and Trip, in order catch up and give out free, conscripted therapy. It quickly becomes clear that Grace and Trip are having relationship problems and the game is predicated on the idea that you, as a good friend, will do your best to help bring them back together through kind words and concern. It’s up to you how you want to approach this. You type in whatever dialogue you like (character limit permitting), and the game’s AI reacts to it as best it can to recreate the expression of an actual conversation. Eventually everything you say is verbally reviewed by either Trip or Grace, and depending on how successful you were at governing the situation, they either get back together or one of them leaves alone.
Of course, that’s assuming you desire to get that far. A lot of enjoyment can be derived from finding out exactly what you can say to make Trip throw you out early. Typing the word “LIES” in all capitals when he first opens the door is effective. Again,it’s up to you how you want to approach it, but the player’s idea of success doesn’t always match up with that of the the programmer’s.
However, both of these approaches to the game run parallel to the same question: how real does this interaction feel? The game makes it easy for us to focus on that question. There seems to be threadbare effort applied to the graphics, character designs, and sounds within the game. The setting is a fairly bland 3D environment that evokes a bit of a desolate feeling, but that has much to do with the decor as it does with the blocky, uninviting graphics. The characters are given just enough attention to show the player that they are both human and are probably different genders, but nothing about their appearance is especially interesting. The background music is just an ominous drone that seems to indicate that you three are the final survivors of a horrible attack on humanity that the characters have yet to realize happened (the game neglects to address this). Even the plot seems tacky. Trip doesn’t want to be poor, Grace wants to be respected, and neither of them has ever seen pineappling. The result of stripping away everything of potential interest or distraction is make the words the only thing that stands out. The interaction between yourself and the characters is given priority.
In fact, that seems to be the entire purpose of the game’s creation. It seems a beta test to find out if a computer can recreate emotion, or react to dialogue with the proper emotion, or if its programming can evoke an emotional reaction in the player. When Trip walks out the door and Grace’s voice actor painfully expels the words”I should have… I should have said…” is the player moved? Does the fact that it was clearly a computer game character saying those things help distance the player from the reality of the dialogue? If it does, why play the game that’s meant to attach you to two computerized characters? Does this codified sadness undervalue people’s reaction to emotions outside of this virtual world, or does it even devalue emotion as a whole by assuming this virtual world can recreate real feelings? What happens when interaction with a false entity drives you to tears quicker than interaction with someone you know personally?
The first time I got to Grace’s emotional impasse, I laughed and wrote “nice going” before the screen faded to black. We’re not at the point where we need to start considering these questions on a practical level. That doesn’t mean they aren’t things to consider, though. The game is remarkably effective in making us do so. The setting of the story raises baseline questions of “do these characters really love each other” or “is the best thing for any faltering relationship to try and mend it or should some end?” but by stripping away depth from everything but the interaction itself, the interaction becomes the topic of greatest interest.
Does it feel real to you? Will it ever? Would you want it to?