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.