Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Party Time

Andrew Stern over at Grand Text Auto has dished out
some enticing information about the next step for interactive drama beyond Facade. It's called The Party and it's about . . . a party. Cool. Read the press release for the premise.

He also asks a few questions. I'll pick and choose a few to answer.

Issue 2) Even if there is richly generated story, can the player affect the generation of the story in significant, meaningful ways? I.e., is satisfying agency possible, and did this occur in Façade?

Response: Yes. Yes. Okay, fine, I'll give a longer response. Satisfying agency is definitely possible within the confines of a story. This is, in fact, the major premise of most pen-and-paper role-playing games. Much of the elasticity of PnP RPGs comes from having a human gamemaster's imagination to generate content on the fly, but most GMs put a strong narrative in place to provide focus. My experience attempting to play a pick-up game of D&D ended in boredom while the GM got stuck, threw cliches at the player characters and created an incoherent mess.

I got a few moments out of Facade that made me feel as if I truly affected the story - getting kicked out of the apartment is particularly memorable. My criticism rests with the premise. Having the couple argue is a good way to keep conversation moving, but it's also a good way to make players so uncomfortable that they don't want to get involved. Not getting involved is not what you want from a game. Be careful about the possible social reactions you might spark in your players.

Facade might have worked even better structured like the movie Two Girls and a Guy. The titular Guy has been dating Two Girls. The Two Girls find out when they are waiting outside his apartment. Guy gets home and the arguing begins. Accusations, flirtations, apologies, etc. As interactive drama, the player could choose the gender of the third person in the triangle. Maybe they would be the Guy role (think of this as a gender-neutral Guy), defending Guyself against the Two Girls. Or one of the Girls (gender-neutral Girl), trying to find out how long Guy has been cheating, who he really loves, all those nagging questions cheatees ask themselves.

Issue 3) Using an open-ended natural language (NL) interface, Façade attempts to allow the player to speak anything they like to the characters. What succeeded and what failed here?

Response: People suck. Nothing failed. The problem is that, when faced with limitless options, people will be disappointed when their own clever, obscure query comes back with a stock answer. "Ah ha!" they think. "I've foiled the system." No, dumbass, you just don't know how the game is played; Never be my improv partner.

Issue 6) By rendering its characters in a more illustrative style a la alternative comics such as Optic Nerve and Eightball, Façade attempts to break away from mannequin-ish, stiff-faced polygonal characters, hyperrealism and the uncanny valley. Simultaneously this technique allowed for the faces to be drawn procedurally, and therefore results in them being quite fluid and expressive. Yet, many players and reviewers considered Façade’s graphics to be crude. What’s the solution here?

Response: Sorry to say guys . . . the graphics were crude. This isn't an impediment to making a good game, but it is to bringing one out to the mainstream.

The problem might be the flat cartoony look. Think about South Park - it's bare minimum stuff. There's no musculature, which can be very important for reading emotion, not just eyes and mouth. Sure, anime uses a similar style, but anime is really good with overexaggeration, not subtleties. Interactive drama can only be helped by subtleties.

I wouldn't mind seeing a 3-d cartoony look. The humanoid characters in the Ratchet & Clank series or Jak & Daxter have a lot of weight to their faces, muscles that are both exaggerated yet allow for a great amount of subtlety.

Also - body language. This is a tough one. Facade's body language was passable. Barely. Good luck with this one guys. I'd start maybe with a core set of open/closed, familiar/protected stances (standing and sitting) and then tweak from there, add in beats that can be remixed procedurally, maybe even personal tics for each character.


As for The Party . . . maybe give us something a little more meaty to do, something to tie everything together. A mystery of some kind.

Which makes me think. This format would be great for an Angela Lansbury-type murder mystery. A dinner party in an out-of-the-way mansion. An eccentric millionaire, shot in the back. Whodunit?


Patrick said...

I agree there needs to be a more vivastic cast and fairly clear feedback affordances tied to their pesonality, I don't know if wrapping it in a niche literary genre is the way to do it. I think keeping it fairly Virginia Woolfe isn't too bad an idea, he's aiming for a strong degree of levity. Of course, comedy is harder to do than drama, maybe they could use some more writing talent on board.

GregT said...

The main problem with Facade was that the situation it dumped you in was inherently unfun. Being present at a break-up is something that's unpleasant whether in real life or in a game. It's the gaming equivalent of something which "realistically simulates being flayed alive" - it's not something I want to spend a lot of time in.

The Party, sadly, looks like it might be going down a similar path. Yes, people like drama where unpleasant things happen to people. The key is that the people concerned are NOT THEM. The other key is that the drama is outlined through witty dialogue in the form of verbal sparring (soap) or catty commentary (gossip). The model they used for Facade is the antithesis of witty dialogue, and I don't think this sort of story is the way to evolve from Facade. They'd be better going for a social environment full of positives (such as a dating sim or some sort of leadership-driven scenario) rather than one full of potential pit-traps.