August 30, 2004
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?