Review by Draqq_Zyxorian

Reviewed: 04/10/06

The World Only Games Can Tell

Questioning whether Facade is a game would be to overlook its importance in game design. In fact, to rant on this independent-party, low-budget, one-gigabyte download would be a failure to admit its inherent production value. Facade does not intend to be a masterpiece. It intends to be an experiment in artificial intelligence and natural language processing, allowing you to type a short sentence of dialogue at any time during a conversation. And what better place to interrupt a conversation than between two friends whose marriage is falling apart. Hear Trip and Grace argue over simple wine glasses before you even walk through the door and you know you're going to get caught in the middle. Unfortunately, you soon realize you have little to no control over the outcome of this interactive storyline. And you are forced to question the game behind this one-trick pony.

So let's not beat around the bush. If you define games to need a winning condition or set goal, then Facade will disappoint. Much like The Sims or a tamagotchi, Facade is more of an experience. There is no clear purpose other than solving the mystery of "what can I do here?" You will fiddle with the arrow keys, scrounge for words to type on the keyboard, and move about the apartment in search of something - anything - that you can interact with. “Exploring for functionality”, if you will. Sure, the game challenges you to get all Dr. Phil and solve your friends' marital issues but nothing is ordained. You create your own goals and deliver their resolution.

Unfortunately, Facade takes this virtue to the extreme: you are never certain whether your actions will reflect your intention. This is certainly surprising, because Facade is a strong example of agency, our ability to alter the game world around us or our situation in it. Indeed, the game affords you much flexibility in what you can say. Type anything onto the screen, press Enter, and chances are that the game will recognize it. In effect, you will feel like you can make a difference at every possible turn.

Until you notice that you have no control.

Facade resembles an elaborate Goosebumps, choose-your-own-adventure book - artificial intelligence imposing as gameplay that just happens to have a setting and characters that speak. Have any programming experience and you can hear the if-then statements clicking and the temporary variables swapping. The game suggests that you replay the scenario (which requires you to actually quit and reload Facade all over again) so you can experience each diverging path, but it only makes the clicking and swapping louder. Surely, we have to expect this. If computer code could translate human dialogue with one gigabyte of memory, Facade wouldn't exist. Still, though Facade recognizes most words, it frequently fails to respond naturally. It's one thing if you are ignored (which happens often); it's quite another to write "You're not ugly", only for Grace to retort, "You know, insulting me isn't going to help things."

Such lack of polish insufferably dampens what Facade offers in interactivity. Usually, we find it difficult to empathize with in-game characters because they only have the ability to regurgitate pre-recorded speech and predictable actions. In this instance, Facade should be commended for making a worthy attempt at stimulating your thoughts, behavior, and emotions. Trip and Grace are believable enough that you want to help them out, and you will continue to replay the game until you get a good ending; that is, if you don't throw your hands up in disgust. The cel-shaded graphics clip more than a 3D program done in Flash. The music and sound effects are so uninteresting that silence would create more of a cadence. And the voiceovers are way too over-dramatic, making simple sentences sound worse than a daytime soap opera.

But nonetheless, even if you have a strict definition of a “game” or have a low tolerance for glitches, Facade is worth your while. Heck, it’s free. If you hate it, just delete it. All you will suffer is thirty minutes downloading from interactivestory.org and about an hour and a half before you never think of it again. Whatever your opinion, Facade will afford you a glance into the future of gaming – a time when robots and user interfaces can converse with humans beyond just “yes”, “no”, and “I do not understand your request.” Yes, Facade’s “interactive storytelling” is one-note and isn’t reasonably portable to other games today, but it makes the point that there is a world beyond the narrative, a world that only games can tell. Behind Facade is a deep, provocative exploration into the interactive craft and an answer to the art hidden beneath the cold, programmed machinery that is the video game.

Rating: 7

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