Three years into “next-gen” video game consoles and we haven’t seen any truly “next-gen” ideas. Graphics and sound are better, the worlds are larger, and “stories” are longer. Those really are just incremental improvements over the games I played on my Atari 2600 and Commodore 64. In the early 80s, we played the dominant game types we have now: fighting, role playing, and simulations of real-world activities such as sports, pinball, or municipal planning.
None of these games have a real human (or Ork, Vulcan, Wookie, etc.) element. Recent games contain lots of pre-recorded dialog but we players can’t really affect the behavior of the characters in the game. Unless we kill them. On-line gaming gets around this by having real humans play the role of humans. That’s great fun, but add a wedgie and it’s not that much different from playing Atari with my brother.
Video games cannot duplicate complex human behavior, so they neglect the parts of life that could make the most intriguing games. The most difficult thing we do is to interact with other humans. Our society is so complex that we need these massive brains to survive in it. Despite their computing power, video games cannot model that complexity. Fiction and the dramatic arts to allow us to “play” with human relationships. However, none of those forms are interactive. We can think about or discuss an opera or graphic novel, but we cannot participate it it. In fact, as Jonathan Franzen suggests in his essay collection How To Be Alone, one of the pleasures of reading fiction is submitting to the will of the novelist. We often insert ourselves into the fiction and imagine what we would do in a similar situation. Wouldn’t it be great if we could enter the drama and truly interact with the characters? The Empire Strikes Back for Atari 2600 allowed me to be Luke Skywalker blowing up AT-ATs in my snowspeeder, but I couldn’t try to make Princess Leia fall for me instead of Han Solo. Fast-forward 25 years to Untold Legends and my PSP. This is a role-playing game, but my hero role is very strictly defined. The good guys ask me to do things and thank me when I do them. The bad guys threaten me until I kill them. I can’t have any other relationship with the characters. Jokes, friendship, diplomacy, seduction, camraderie, etc. are not options.
Façade is a ground-breaking step in this direction. The developers call it an interactive story game. Although Façade is really just a demo, it shows where video games could be headed. It is an attempt to have the human characters act like real people. The characers base their actions on what the player says and does more completely than any video game I have ever played. Façade‘s premise is simple: a married couple invites you to their apartment for drinks. You can hear them arguing as you approach their door. The visit starts off awkward and becomes more so as they continue to argue and try to pull you into the argument. What they fight about changes from game to game. It is possible to piss one or both of them off. They will accuse you of taking sides or even ask you to leave. Gameplay is limited to walking around their apartment, picking up a few objects, and talking. Unlike the text-based games I played (and tried to write) in the 1980s, this game understands a fair amount of what I type. The characters usually respond appropriately.
This game is important for two reasons. First, it shows how existing types of video games can be vastly improved by adding more realistic characters. I often find myself truly intimiated by the female character. Imagine how much better the Grand Theft Auto series could be if the gangsters were truly intimidating.
More importantly, it opens up the possibility of new types of video games that aren’t video games at all, but truly interactive stories. Here is a crazy thought. Could this technology be used to help people with Asperger’s Syndrome “practice” their social skills?