February 24, 2006

Dramatic Paidia

by Andrew Stern · , 7:57 pm

I wanted to re-read Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit before commenting on Patrick Dugan’s article from a few weeks ago in The Escapist, “An Exit“. I’m glad I did, it’s a fascinating play that I hadn’t read in a long while.

When developing Façade we took direct inspiration from Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf; we actually hadn’t thought about No Exit. But in hindsight Façade does seem to share as much thematically with Sartre’s play as Albee’s. Façade‘s characters aren’t that likable, more like Sartre’s and less like Albee’s outrageously hilarious George and Martha. Also, No Exit and Façade are both one-act plays. So thanks to Patrick for making that connection.

Patrick points to Façade as an example of paidia — unstructured and open-ended play — and to the Sims as the most commercially successful paidic interactive entertainment. (This is opposed to ludic play, which is your typical rule-based, goal-oriented game.) Patrick surmises there’s an untapped market demand for paidia. (I keep wanting to type paella, but maybe just because I haven’t eaten dinner yet.)

It’s interesting — while I certainly don’t think of interactive drama a la Façade as rule-based or strictly goal-oriented play, it’s certainly not unstructured either like the Sims. Interactive drama, to earn its title and actually offer the player some of the pleasures of drama, needs to retain some degree of economy and efficiency, pacing, tension building, etc. — qualities I find the Sims sorely lacks. (I get paidic enjoyment from the Sims, not dramatic enjoyment.)

What we’re striving for here, with Façade as an early example, is collaborative generativity. In such an experience, the player and the system each act creatively in real-time through meaningful dialog and action. If each party is skillful, a moderately well-formed drama results. Players can form and pursue a variety of goals if they wish. In its ideal form, this is not unstructured play, but cooperative, open-ended creative performance — creating a structured play, actually. It’s less about emergent behavior and more a connection between two creative agents, the human player and the artificially intelligent drama manager, who make and take offers to and from each another, like in structured improvisation.

I see Façade borrowing the open-ended aspect of paidia, but not as much the unstructured part. I think people seek structure in art, interactive or not, and we’re actively trying to give it to them, to build those smarts into the system. At the same time, we want to offer players the open-endedness to say or do anything they want at any time, to support and reward a variety of player goals, for players to not be constrained to operate only within a particular moment’s mini-game or small set of options in a multiple-choice dialog menu. An open-ended interface is one of primary ways Façade distinguishes itself from adventure games like Indigo Prophecy (aka Fahrenheit), Grim Fandango, or command-based IF.

Of course interactive drama can be built to optionally allow players to have a chaotic, unstructured experience. Sometimes that’s what the players want to have, which offers the fragmentary pleasures of emergent behavior, e.g. Trip and Grace attempting to play it straight when players act like zombies or murderers. Screwing around, acting inconsistently or trying to break the system is allowed in Façade, but probably is less rewarding ultimately than actively collaborating with the system. Note, as we mention in “Behind the Façade“, collaboration with the system does not mean you should just agree all the time with Grace and Trip; actually it often means conflicting or disagreeing with them, but in ways that you think might propel the drama forward in productive ways (as opposed to trying to “break it”).