Similar to how I got swept up in the hype for the Witness, I’ve spent the better part of this week hearing all about Firewatch, yet another new release that I can’t really afford to spend my money and/or time on at the moment. That said, finally seeing the game in action for a prolonged period of time made the wait a bit easier. While I can certainly see myself enjoying the hell out of it, I was a bit thrown off by the Whedon-esque dialogue; the biting wordplay that’s always a little too well-timed to feel authentic. As someone that goes through life in a state of perpetual deadpan snark myself, it may just be me projecting. I don’t know, but it did prompt me to revisit an old favorite.
I don’t think I’m overstating things when I say Facade is probably one of the most important games that most people have never heard of. Created in 2005 as an experiment in AI and language processing, it still stands today as one of the most impressive attempts at natural conversation in an interactive context. While voice acting has certainly evolved in the past decade, most games still rely on rigid dialogue trees to deliver information. In Facade, you can say just about anything you want, operating more on a series of triggers and story beats than an actual script, which makes each playthrough different, even though you’ll still come to the same conclusion that Trip and Grace are terrible garbage people. Seriously, I wanted to light both of them on fire and just run out of the apartment the first time I played the game. It wasn’t until several attempts later that I realized just how much care was required to get anywhere with them.
That’s the part that probably stands out to me even more than the tech on display. There’s a nuance to the characters and how you “solve” their problem that works against our natural inclination to assume everything can be fixed with rigid altruism, as if you were simply passing through, ready to move on and save the next troubled couple. That’s not how life works, unfortunately. People are awkward and hypocritical, and often they’re just flat out liars. It’s hard to convey these things in an egocentric game world. Typically we only have time to attribute negative features to simple antagonists and rarely our friends… and even more rarely ourselves.
It’s not perfect by any means and the seams are more obvious in an era where game development has become so much more transparent, but it still works to remind you how much further we have left to go when it comes to emulating something human and natural, not through appearance, but through feeling.
You know, like the feeling of wanting to punch Trip in his stupid smug face. Seriously, give it a try.