Facade by Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern (2005)


Relationships are never easy things to negotiate, whether between companies, countries or individuals. The ones that cut the deepest into our psyches are those between individuals. Always the hardest and often the least logical, all our mental strength is required to negotiate our way through them. Constantly on edge and trying to react accordingly to keep at least some kind of dialogue going between all involved parties so that things don’t end in despair. At least, that’s the hope!

In Façade, developed by Andrew Stern and Michael Mateas, we’re asked to deal with such a relationship between an arguing couple. In this single act drama, the player or participant is one of the three and the other two are computer generated. We have to negotiate our way through a minefield of personal interactions with two characters called Trip and Grace, who just so happen to be celebrating their ten-year marriage.

They appear to have everything, successful careers and a good relationship, but behind the façade, (as in all good dramas) things are not what they seem.

Where and what is the façade, in Façade? Is it in the interface between their world and ours, and the fact that everything we see is actually just the outward appearance of a software program, despite the apparent realism of the relationships between all three characters? This game operates at a level that makes us consider our own relationship to the software, as much as it does the relationship between the couple and ourselves as their friend. Façade is somewhere between a Turing machine and a therapy session. How can we relate to each other as human beings and not just machines? One of the things Stern and Mateas are exploring here, in the form of art, is one of the oldest issues surrounding computing, namely the Turing machine, a thought experiment that determines the next action in a process, based on the current state of the ‘device’, and the current action being performed.

At the time of conception, Alan Turing, the British mathematician envisioned the machine as a form of tape being fed through a read/write head. What modern thinkers in Artificial Intelligence, such as Stern and Mateas, and many game developers, are doing, is translating these basic principles into digital narrative form. In some ways, this allows us to perceive our own social interactions as Turing machine thought experiments. If I am in THIS relationship, and we do THAT, where will it LEAD us? Of course, the mathematical development of the concept is far deeper, but the façade of Façade gives us a chance to explore this. Beyond soap drama notions, and not quite as much a spectacle as cinematic experiences, Façade works because of its apparent simplicity, leaving the player/viewer space to develop their own reactions to the experience.

Façade is playful and allows for some creative manipulation of scenarios. If you input sexually provocative comments, you’ll unnerve the other two characters, causing them to stop mid conversation and even ask you to leave. If you take a different approach and offer words of support, you might find yourself being taken into one side or the other of the argument. What matters as much as anything is the ongoing drama that we contribute to.

This kind of interactive narrative pushes beyond what we expect of ‘games,’ and doesn’t fall into the trap of being ‘worthy’ in the way that some games can be when they try to address adult issues such as relationships. What Façade does require of the player is multiple sessions, to fully understand how their actions can affect the outcome.

By Mark R Hancock