August 30, 2004

Façade and The Bus Station

by Michael Mateas · , 11:54 am

I was pleased by the reception of Façade at ISEA. There was pretty much someone playing it all the time, and often a line waiting to play.

For me, one of the surprising aspects of Façade is how well it seems to work as a group activity. At Level Up, GDC and ISEA (as well as more informally at TIDSE), we saw that people who are watching someone play Façade seem almost as engaged as the player herself. The audience is often laughing, offering suggestions, and commenting among themselves about the story. This runs counter to the results of an early ’90s Oz project experiment, The Bus Station. The purpose of the Bus Station experiment was to determine whether interactive drama, conceived of as a dramatic world inhabited by autonomous characters in which the player occupies a first-person perspective, with a drama manager watching over the world and issuing instructions to the characters in order to create a longer term dramatic arc, could actually create an engaging experience for the player. In a sense it was a sanity check to make sure that it was actually worth developing a bunch of AI technology for the characters and drama manager. In the Bus Station, the player stands on a stage with improv actors. The actors improvise around a loose script, simulating the autonomous characters. A director sits in the audience, simulating the drama manager. The director gives the actors direction via wireless headsets. In the scenario, the player is waiting in a bus station with several other characters, including the Punk. The situation escalates to the point that the Punk pulls a knife. The Clerk offers the player a gun; the player must decide whether she will shoot the Punk or not. In addition to the players on stage, there were several non-interacting audience members watching. In post-experience interviews, the players found the experience intense, fast paced, engaging, while the audience members found it slow, inconsistent (the director would sometimes tell actors to reverse what they were doing) and non-engaging. The experiment showed that interaction and immersion can create powerful player experiences, but that these experiences may not be engaging to passive observers (interactive drama is structurally different from experiences intended for non-interacting audiences). Based on this, one would predict that an experience like Fašade would not be engaging to spectators, yet in several venues now we’ve seen that it is. What’s different between Fašade and The Bus Station? Are we just seeing novelty effects?

8 Responses to “Façade and The Bus Station”

  1. andrew Says:

    Few GTxA readers have actually played Facade yet, so I guess there’s not many who can talk about this yet… I’ll throw in my thoughts…

    I think Facade is interesting for non-players to watch partly due to novelty, but I suspect even more so because we’ve directed our drama differently than they directed The Bus Station drama.

    Facade moves forward pretty quickly, almost as quickly as a non-interactive stage drama. If they’re not already yelling at each other, Grace and Trip will tend to slow down if the player starts typing, to give the player some time to finish their current sentence, but otherwise there aren’t pauses or slow periods. (Some non-fast-typists have complained to us that Facade moves too quickly.)

    Reading about The Bus Station — for which you need a postscript reader by the way, those old documents haven’t yet been updated to something user-friendly like pdf — I get the impression the human director of that live-action drama let things slow down at times, to give the interactor plenty of room to think and act. Since it was a very early experiment in interactive drama, it was probably safer to err on the side of too slow than too fast.

    With Facade we’ve chosen to err on the side it moving so quickly that it can be hard to keep up, so as to emphasize the chaos and emotions-out-of-control situation that Grace and Trip are in. As we’re discovering, it has the nice side effect of making it entertaining for non-players to watch too.

    That said, I still bet Facade is more interesting and intense for the player herself than for the non-players. But it’s probably wrong that watching interactive drama is universally as unengaging as The Bus Station paper suggests it may be.

  2. Ian Bogost Says:

    I wonder if it doesn’t have something to do with the spectator’s ability to conceptualize the possible directions he or she could give to the player-character. When you watch someone play Fašade, you tend to see approaches that are different from those you might try yourself. Once seeing such possibilities, the spectator may try to map those outcomes back onto his or her own actual or possible experiences of the work.

    Here’s another way to put it: Fašade offers the spectator a window into the affordances and of the procedural narrative as such. The Bus Stop hides the logic of the narrative in an impossible large possibility space, the mind of the human director. The fact that Fašade is software and therefore must have constraints may make it more useful for the spectator.

  3. Malcolm Ryan Says:

    “Facade is well received at ISEA”, “Facade wows the fans at IGDC”, Facade, Facade, Facade…

    And yet, there is still no sign of Facade being made available to the rest of us. “Coming Soon” the website says.

    I’m beginning to have my suspicions. The Interactive Fiction community is well known for it’s hoaxes. Could it be that Facade is the most elaborate one yet? Is there really a program, or just a front? Could it be that Facade is just of Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen’s Chess Automaton all over again? There is no AI, just a team of writers “in a box”, as it were?

    Is Facade just…. a facade?


  4. andrew Says:


    It certainly could be seen that way ;-) Point well taken. I have privately worried that it’s annoying to hear too much about a project you can’t get your own copy of. Plus, we tend to talk about it quite a lot, regardless.

    We realize that few GTxA readers have actually seen Facade in action; your best bet would have been at GDC’s IGF, where thousands saw it (it was relatively cheap to get an Expo Pass), and about a 100 took the time to wait in line to play it.

    Seriously though, this is a problem with working on a large research/art project in our spare time that takes so long to develop (we both work fulltime jobs that only give us 10-15 hrs week to finish it, a project that really needs a team of 4 or 5, not 2); because it’s research, we need to be able to discuss it and publish about it all along the way, as it’s being developed.

    We could have released a pre-alpha version for download, but since Facade has some story in it, we felt an unpolished incomplete version would have overly-compromised the experience. We have given these early public demos to show our progress, get feedback, and hopefully get people excited for its eventual final release — which certainly helps motivate us to slog through all the production labor.

    So, bear with us, thanks.

  5. Malcolm Ryan Says:


    I understand totally. All I can say is: it better be good. After all this hype, it better not be another Segway.


  6. nick Says:

    Segway? I think it’s going to be more of a jetpack.

  7. andrew Says:

    Oh, God. I was going to say this before and didn’t, but will now: don’t believe the hype!

    To help manage your expectations, please read these thankfully critical reviews, in case you missed them.

  8. Grand Text Auto » Some Joe Schmo Was First to Experience True Interactive Drama Says:

    […] cture before operationalizing it in code, enacted a live-action version of the system with The Bus Station, a short interactive drama centered on an innocent person […]

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