October 3, 2007

An interactive post about an interactive story. Totally freakin' meta.

facade_5therapygame.jpg This was originally going to be part of the previous post about reactions to my videogame op-ed, but I didn't want it to get lost in the shuffle.

Andrew Stern of Grand Text Auto and Procedural Arts sent a link to a fascinating article about his work that appeared in Atlantic Monthly last year. It's genuinely eerie. If I hadn't written that op-ed myself, I would have assumed that whoever did had cribbed large sections of it from this article and Stern's quotes.

Procedural Arts's first attempt at a game (if we can still call serious graphic stories "comics," I don't see why we can't call non-achievement-based interactive stories "games") is Facade. When it came out in 2005, the Times' Seth Schiesel called it the future of video games. Using an AI programming language Stern and his partner created, Facade is an Albee-esque drama about a marital crisis that develops organically based on how the player chooses to engage the characters. Stern told Atlantic's Jonathan Rauch it's about 30 percent successful. "We shot for the stars in hopes of getting to the moon, and we made it into orbit."

Each game of Facade takes 15-30 minutes to complete. You can download it here. I'm going to start playing as soon as I can, and I hope you will too. Sometime next week, we can meet back here to compare notes on whether this intriguing project really is what we're looking for... or at least the beginning of it.

Posted by Daniel Radosh


This interactive demo is about a gig big. I remember that it resists placing the characters in debauched situations.

Having played with this over a year ago, I still recall that it seemed unique enough that I had to recommend it to others.

I'm not much of a gamer, but I'm intrigued, so I'm downloading it.

Great article in the Times.

Stop. Walk slowly away from the concept.

Or don't.

Just be aware of the depth of the abyss you're peering into. Interactive narrative is a compellling dream that's been grinding up careers, projects, and companies for well over two decades now. It's a strange landscape, with a few far-flung real-world landmarks (Infocom text adventures, "Choose your own adventure" books, tabletop role playing games), and a few compelling but treacherously misleading fictional reference points (Star Trek's Holodeck, Niven's Dream Park, Westworld); and in between, a universe as bizarre and abstruse as advanced particle physics, sparsely populated by bitter cranks, starving artists, dotcom retirees, and Media Lab idealists who stagger around muttering an alien lingo of Dramaton, Phrontisterion, Erasmatron, Lilan, Zoesis, Woggles, guidance, emergence, foldback, nesting, story grammars, conflict maps, recursive goal trees, and on and on. Coming from backgrounds ranging from graphic arts to improv theater to cutting-edge AI technology, and lacking any generally agreed-upon terminology, denizens of different parts of the interative story landscape can barely communicate with one another and cannot easily learn what's being done elsewhere or what has gone before, so the wheel is constantly being reinvented and the same blind alleys enthusiastically re-explored.

Creativity flourishes in some of those isolated domains. A few years ago, for instance, an "indie role playing game design" renaissance produced games that overturn every D&D stereotype. Imagine, for example, rolling dice to decide not whether an arrow hits or not, but who gets to add an element to a list of established facts about a player-character's eventual fated death.

Even writing text adventure games is still an active hobby. Google "Photopia Adam Cadre" for an example of a work that uses the conventions of the text aventure game to create one of the most poignant stories I've ever read in any medium. (It's not interactive though -- that is to say, the presentation is interactive and uses that to best advantage, but the story itself is not.)

On the "truly interactive" front (and absent real-time human author-participants that tabletop role playing features), successes in interactive storytelling are fewer, farther between, and more modest. Progress is slow. The same early-days-of-film analogies were being pointed out at game designers conferences in the days when computer games were sold on cassette tapes. In the same amount of time, film progressed narratively from Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat to, say, The Mark of Zorro.

The technology behind Facade has been in more or less continuous development since Joe Bates's work at CMU kicked off that particular approach in the late 1980s.

The logical conclusion is that Interactive storytelling is much harder than it looks. Which might not be surprising, when you consider that it's an attempt to do something that even God doesn't appear to have managed: give people free will, and at the same time make their actions add up to some kind of coherent aesthetically pleasing narrative.

Please keep this in mind when evaluating Facade.

My perspective on this is from the "starving artist" category, though I might very well sound more like a "bitter crank." I don't regret the time I've spent in this endeavor, and I haven't (as many others have) come to the conclusion that interative narrative is in any way fundamentally impossible. However, I now believe that "story" is not fundamental to interactive media the way it is to dramatic theater, film, or prose fiction. In interactive entertainment, "story" is an adjunct to, and fundamentally secondary to, "world." An interactive world might well benefit from containing interactive fiction, but it's the experience of engaging with that world, rather than any story (however aesthetically constructed) that might result from such engagement, that drives the audience's emotions.

Thanks for the perspective. Having played a few rounds of Facade... I can see what you're getting at.

Maybe we'll have to settle for the MSTed versions of bad text adventures...

Walt, I think probably what I'm dreaming of is not interactive fiction as defined by folks like this, but an entertaining game that nonetheless breaks the achievement-progress dynamic of current games. Do you know anything about The Night Journey?

I just keep messing this whole thing up. I've got Grace to leave him twice, and twice I've messed it up by uttering "Fuck you" at trip when he was annoying me, and "Grace is a whore" when she was annoying me. They uncerimoniously escorted me out.

Trip is like, the most annoying person ever. But Grace is second most annoying.

I don't know anything about it except the public description, but reading what I can into it, it seems a potentially very worthwhile project.

It appears to be world- and exploration-oriented rather than trying to create or enforce the structure of formal narrative. The "journey" aspect of it will most likely be some sort of progress gradient, which is an effective mechanism. This is familiar from any number of games, where the gradient is often combat power, but other gradients that are more meaningful and perhaps abstract (one could imagine, say, progressing along a spiritual continuum represented as a color spectrum) can be used equally effectively.

In all these cases a player's progress is fairly predictable, but the actual path can vary widely. The fundamental mechanism is that the player's position on the gradient determines the available options. As long as those options are always numerous, there is not the sense of being forced along a path. (The real forced path is up the gradient, but that seems like a reward rather than a constraint.) And whether or not the progress along the gradient is perceived as achievement depends on how it's presented. In most games it's dangled in front of the player: "just three more levels and you can go through this door!" But it doesn't have to be.

Another alternative, especially for single-player games, is that it's the world that has the trajectory on a gradient, changing in response to the player's actions but on a fairly predictable course. An obvious example is a haunted house that gradually "wakes up" and becomes more active as the player explores it. (Try Gahan Wilson's Ultimate Haunted House, if you can find it and a computer old enough to run it.) But the concept goes all the way back to videogames like Space Invaders or Missile Command: the player's capabilities don't change but the enemies come faster and faster.

My guess is that there will in fact be an underlying achievement/progress dynamic in Night Journey, but it will be woven more subtly and elegantly into the fabric than in a typical video game.

I played a PC game in '97 or so, which played like an episode of "Law & Order." You selected the order in which to depose the witnesses, what questions to ask, and what persuasion tactics to use. Then at trial, you got to choose the order in which you called the witnesses and how to approach them. All these decisions mattered--for example, if you frightened the witless accomplice, he'd disclose information on the stand; but you also needed to call him to the stand BEFORE the mistress, so that you'd laid the foundation, etc. Very satisfying, maybe 15 hours of play per iteration. It only took me two tries to get the conviction, but I may have gotten lucky.

An internet search has come up blank...I thought it was called "Murder in the First."

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