Beyond Space Invaders

Jonathan Rauch, author of "Sex, Lies, and Video Games," talks about a new generation of innovative and emotionally complex video games.

SCENE: A modern apartment, sparsely decorated. An abstract painting hangs on the wall above the sofa, and an Ikea shelving unit stands in the corner. The city skyline can be seen through sliding glass doors that open onto a small balcony. Trip, a blond man in his early 30s, stands in the doorframe.

TRIP (Nervously) Hey! I thought I heard someone out here! Great to see you! It’s been a while.

The next line is yours. Trip is a character in Façade, a new videogame that borrows its ambiance from the modern theater. Unlike most popular games, which transport players to fantasy settings or the NBA playoffs, Façade takes place in what could be the apartment next door. Its residents, a typical urban couple named Grace and Trip, are meant to be your close friends. Like the characters in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, they speak to each other in terse, angry sentences, each suppressing layers of mounting rage. Instead of slaying a cartoon dragon, your mission is to sit on their sofa and talk with them about their failing marriage.

From a programmer’s point of view, there are few tasks more daunting than creating believable human dialogue. Most videogame designers shy away from the challenge altogether, throwing their energy into crafting elaborate virtual landscapes—perfectly rendered castles, galaxies swirling with three-dimensional orbs, basketball hoops that resound with a gratifying swoosh. But the characters in these worlds remain primitive and flat, as Jonathan Rauch discovered when he played a widely acclaimed videogame called The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion:

The game enfolded me in lush, cinematic landscapes…. Looking down I saw grass rendered in granular detail; looking up I saw skies swept with feathery clouds…. The illusion was magical. But then it would all collapse. Approaching one of the characters, I would click for dialogue. The character would give a little canned speech introducing itself. In response to another click, it would mouth several bits of prerecorded dialogue. State-of-the-art games render action and environment with eerie realism and genuine aesthetic distinction. But their characters are dolls, not people.

When Rauch sat down to play Façade, he experienced something entirely new. Grace and Trip welcomed him into their apartment, and the three of them immediately began to chat. The couple asked subtle questions about relationships and peered into his face, waiting for a response. When Rauch became flirtatious, Trip threw him out of the apartment. When Rauch helped Grace understand her frustrated artistic ambitions, the pair thanked him for coming over. “You—I think you helped us,” Trip told him in a reflective voice. Leaving the imaginary apartment, Rauch felt strangely moved by his role in their reconciliation.

Façade, which is available for free on the Web, is an early prototype of a larger project that Mateas and Stern call “The Party.” Instead of two computer-generated characters, The Party will have ten. The player will be the co-host of a dinner party, and the plot will be rife with drama and intrigue. Characters will lure one another into illicit business deals and ill-advised romances. There will be sex and violence, but the driving force will be dialogue. As with Façade, the characters will “think” by virtue of an invented language called ABL (shorthand for “A Behavior Language”). As the dialogue swings back and forth, another Mateas-Stern technology called a “drama manager” will ratchet up the tension and steer the storyline toward its ultimate denouement.

Within the videogame industry, Mateas and Stern’s project is generally greeted with skeptical curiosity. One designer with the videogame megafirm Electronic Arts told Rauch that Façade “kind of works…. But then you try the next step and bam! You hit a wall and the wrong thing happens.” Rauch acknowledges that the game is riddled with kinks, and wonders whether Mateas and Stern will ever achieve their ultimate goal of transforming the computer into a de facto playwright and the animated characters into expert actors with the range and intelligence of real human beings.

Yet if Mateas and Stern are successful, or even close to successful, Rauch predicts that the potential of videogames will expand exponentially. He considers other recent innovations such as a game called Spore, which allows players to create and download complex non-human creatures. Combining these two innovations—realistic dialogue and vast creative capacity—Rauch imagines a game in which players will invent and download characters as rich and memorable as Holden Caulfield or Don Quixote. Instead of shooting at space invaders or hunting for hidden treasure, players could spend an afternoon exchanging witticisms with Sir John Falstaff or exploring Mr. Spock’s Vulcan civilization. The result, he believes, would be a world of open-ended drama that might surpass Aeschylus’s wildest imaginations.

Rauch, an Atlantic correspondent, is also a senior writer for National Journal and the author of several books, most recently Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America. He lives in Washington, D.C., where he is a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution. We spoke by telephone on August 14.

Jennie Rothenberg

When Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern sat down to create their new game, you write that they resolved to put a “not” in front of every current video-game convention. What are some of those conventions?

Most serious, full-scale games are very large and take place in big alternative universes. Mateas and Stern decided to create a game you could play from beginning to end in twenty minutes. Most video games go from level to level but don’t have any dramatic shape—you just proceed upward as you get better at playing. Mateas and Stern inverted that by trying to create a compact experience with a true dramatic arc: a beginning, a middle, an end, and a revelation, in a sense, a dramatic release. Most games are about manipulating objects: slaying creatures, firing bullets, solving puzzles. Mateas and Stern decided they would make a game about people and characters. In a standard video game, it’s very easy to kill someone but virtually impossible to talk to them. In their game, they decided it would be the other way around.

The point of most video games is to take you somewhere you normally couldn’t go—to the floor of Madison Square Garden, playing against Kobe Bryant, or on a quest through an imaginary Tolkienesque kingdom. But what’s the point of a game where you visit ordinary people and talk about the same things you might talk about with your friends?

You could ask the same question about many movies or plays. Why would you want to go see a form of entertainment where a lot of what happens is dialogue? We take part in dialogue all the time every day. The answer, of course, is that humans have an insatiable appetite for characters, stories, and plots. Those are areas where traditional video games tend to come up short.

The idea here, presumably, is to be able to teach a computer the fundamentals of reading, writing, animation, and story design so that it can give you a more compelling artistic experience than when you’re sitting passively in a movie theater. The vision these guys have is to take all the drama of a movie or a play and add to it the interactivity of a video game, so you’re the one making stuff happen. Imagine visiting Victorian London and being part of a Sherlock Holmes mystery. It gets pretty exciting when you think about it that way.

Presented by

Jennie Rothenberg Gritz

Jennie Rothenberg is associate editor of The Atlantic Online.

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