Friday, January 12, 2007

Game Friday: Getting (More) Intimate

"Façade is one of the most important games ever created, possibly the most important game of the last ten years." --Ernest Adams, Gamasutra

I don't know if I'd use quite the same level of hyperbole, but Facade certainly is a fascinating study in the possibilities for humans to interact with--and care about--virtual characters. It's a game in which you portray an old friend of Grace and Trip, a couple in their early 30s whose marriage is falling apart. Your goal? Well, it's up to you, but unless you’re the kind of masochist who likes watching couples fight, you’ll try your damndest to keep them together. To do so, you type short statements to interject into their conversation. The characters are simply rendered, but the voice acting is good and the artificial intelligence (AI) engine that coordinates the conversational flow is impressive. Not that there aren’t frustrating miscommunications, but in general, while playing, I feel like I’m interacting with humans, not machines. There may be kinks in the conversation, but the emotional reactions the game elicits are real.

How real? Real enough that I turned off the game after just a few minutes the first time I played because I couldn’t bear watching these people fight. Real enough I had to remind myself they aren’t REAL people. Real enough that I started thinking more about how to help these people and less about how to win the game.

I listened to this podcast recently, put out by the Smithsonian Lemelson Center. It’s a talk by Stan Winston (part 1), the makeup artist turned special effects king who created the Terminator, the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, Predator, among others. I was impressed by the way he talked about his job being not creating robots but creating characters. He spoke about these 40 ton machines as actors, and he emphasized that his goal is to make them the most expressive characters possible. Similarly, the creators of Façade focused on creating human characters rather than the best AI.

What are we focusing on? How do we design the best experiences instead of the best exhibits?

Façade is free to download, but it requires a fast machine. You can find all the specs here.

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