Sex, Lies, and Videogames

What if a computer program combined the action and graphics of a video game with the emotional power of great art? The result could revolutionize interactive entertainment—and even change the meaning of “play”

When I set out to report this article, I thought I would bone up on video games and present myself as a suave expert. After all, I used to play a lot of Tetris. My aspirations to coolness lasted about three minutes, which was how long it took to load Electronic Arts’ NBA Live 06. Jake Snyder, a twentysomething employee of the Entertainment Software Association, handed me the controls of a Microsoft Xbox 360 game console while two startlingly realistic basketball teams took shape before my eyes. As I stabbed at the unfamiliar buttons, I could barely control the ball. Flailing, I became aware that the game’s color commentators were talking about … me. No, correction: they were mocking me. “Nice easy attempt, but they just can’t make a shot,” they said. “Totally disorganized,” they sneered. I realized, face burning, that I had just lost the respect of a software product.

Determined to endure any further humiliations in private, I bought a copy of a critically acclaimed single-player game called The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, a big hit from Bethesda Softworks and a new threshold of accomplishment in its genre. It came with a fifty-page manual full of instructions like this: “DISPEL: Removes Magicka-based spell effects from the target. Does not affect abilities, diseases, curses, or constant magic item effects. The magnitude of the Dispel must exceed the spell’s resistance to dispel (based on its casting cost) in order to dispel it.” I despaired. This sounded about as fun as learning Microsoft Windows.

Entering the game, I was at first mystified and frustrated, but before long I was slaying goblins and pilfering valuables and casting spells and exploring caves. As the hours went by, I felt myself drawn in, then immersed, then reluctant to leave. I felt I was in the presence of a powerful medium, nothing like Tetris.

Oblivion’s world is vast. A company spokesman told me I could explore for 500 hours before seeing everything. The game enfolded me in lush, cinematic landscapes. It populated the cities, changed the weather, cycled through day and night. Looking down I saw grass rendered in granular detail; looking up I saw skies swept with feathery clouds; all around me I found innumerable creatures and towns and terrains. 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.

It took me no more than a couple of minutes to see that Façade would be different. Grace and Trip, a married couple and old friends of mine, invite me over. He’s blond, she’s brunette, they seem to be in their thirties. As I arrive, I hear them arguing behind the door. After I knock, I’m cordially admitted by Trip into a small, sparsely furnished apartment with a view of towering apartment blocks glowing against a night sky.

Typing “Hi, Grace, you look great,” I begin chatting with the couple. They try to draw me into their simmering argument, nudging me to take sides. I can say anything I like; there are no rules. I can be sullen and unresponsive (that got me kicked out of their apartment), or I can talk nonsense, but in most of my visits I try to behave like an improv actor, picking up on their lines and shooting back cues of my own—agreeing with one, criticizing the other, flirting with either or both. No two plays are identical. In a typical game, however, Grace and Trip will argue with each other, one may flatter me while the other questions my friendship, and the tension between them will build until feelings are raw and the story reaches a revelation or a breaking point. Here I’m playing as Ed:

TRIP: Okay, you know what, Ed, I need to ask you something.

GRACE: Trip—

ED: What?

TRIP: Grace, let me ask our guest a question. Ed, yes or no—

ED: Let him ask, Grace.

TRIP: Each person in a marriage is supposed to try really hard to be in sync with the other, right?

GRACE: What?

TRIP: I mean, when you’re married, to make it good, you need to always be positive, and agreeable, and together, right?

ED: [Hesitates.]

TRIP: Yes or no.

ED: No, not always.

GRACE: What?! Oh, all right. Yes. Just admit it, Trip, admit it, we have a shitty marriage! We’ve never been really happy, from day one! Never, goddammit!

Here the drama manager is raising the tension to prepare for a revelation; notice how it demands my participation. The game can end in reconciliation or a split or, sometimes, neither. This time, Grace reveals that she let Trip stop her from becoming an artist, and Trip realizes his mistake, and they reconcile. “Ed, thanks for coming over,” Trip tells me, his voice now subdued. “You—I think you helped us.” I exit; the game is over. Next time, something quite different will happen.

Façade won the grand jury prize at this year’s Slamdance independent-game festival and has drawn wide notice from industry journalists and bloggers. If you want to play it, you can download it for free, at www.interactivestory.net. So far, more than 350,000 people have done so. Play and decide for yourself—but for me, playing Façade was both uncanny and frustrating.

Uncanny because Grace and Trip, despite being simply drawn, are at moments shockingly natural. “It was so subtle, was what impressed me,” Will Wright, the prominent game designer, said when I asked him about Façade. “Most games beat you over the head with explosions and life-and-death situations and saving the world. And this is so subtle!” Trip, he marveled, can be slightly annoyed. “The fact that a character could be slightly annoyed in a game!”

Frustrating because, for all their innovative AI-driven mechanics, Grace and Trip remain too dumb to sustain the illusion of humanness. When I played as a woman (I could choose my sex) and announced I was pregnant with Trip’s child, Grace and Trip thought I was flirting with them. They really only guess at a player’s meaning, and they don’t guess very well. “It kind of works,” says Doug Church, a respected designer with Electronic Arts, the 800-pound gorilla of U.S. video-game publishers. “It has moments of awesomeness. It has moments of Wow, if I could play that, I’d be so excited! But then you try the next step and bam! You hit a wall and the wrong thing happens.”

Yet when it does work, when the game flows and the player has figured out how to collaborate with Grace and Trip, there are those moments. After a successful performance (to call it a game seems wrong), I jotted this note: “I feel a strange desire to please these characters and, despite my better judgment, touched when Grace reveals she’s scared of painting and they reconcile.” Façade feels like the small-scale, no-budget, first-try research project that it is. But it was still capable of working on my emotions.

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Jonathan Rauch is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and National Journal and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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