An Exit

I am constantly choking on the raw physicality of everyone around me, and all I want is a bit of freedom. Only when we play is our time together heaven, but otherwise I’m in agreement with a dead French guy named Jean-Paul Sartre – hell is other people.

Sartre, like a whole bunch of other alienated folks throughout the ages, decided to express his angst in literary form, particularly in a play called No Exit, from which the above phrase is taken. The play features three individuals: a heterosexual man, a heterosexual woman and a lesbian. It sets them in a well-decorated room they’re told is their eternal resting place. A single door admits them entry and presumably escape, yet each time they attempt to leave, they’re held back by social compunction. Efforts to be silent and not interact with each other eventually fail, and every time a pleasurable relationship begins to form between two parties, the third’s influence disrupts the harmony.

No matter one’s own take on existentialist philosophy, it’s easy to concede the sentiment of Sartre’s play is a fairly sophisticated one, and capturing such a sentiment in the interactive medium would be quite a feat. In July 2005, Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern accomplished that very feat, with an interactive drama called Façade.

There are exceptions to every rule, and a definite exception to “hell is other people” was Phrontisterion 2005. I watched, along with a gaggle of other hopeful innovators, as the finished build of Façade was played, for the first time, on Chris Crawford’s kitchen table. I remember the candor of the voice actors, the significance of their motions – much weightier than any FPS stroll – and the careful typing of Laura Mixon, a Storytron storybuilder, as she engaged these virtual constructs with fresh eyes and nimble fingers. I asked Michael if a player could cajole the drama’s main characters, the married Trip and Grace, into a threesome; he said you could try.

Like No Exit, Façade is a one act dramatic discourse, involving three actors in a room accessible by a single portal – the catch is, the audience is one of those three actors. The player interacts with dramatic elements to determine the outcome of the story, aptly coined “interactive drama.” Entering text on an open parser, the user’s expressive input is interpreted by the governing drama management AI’s shallow language processing. These interpretations boil down to combinations of verb primitives, “discourse acts,” which determine the resolution of a beat and the next successive beat, or major dramatic chunk, of which there are 27 total. Roughly 16 of these beats add up to a single play through, which can end in one of four ways – each of which involves someone making an exit.

Most game designers would balk at the term “interactive drama,” off handedly dismissing the possibility of virtual characters and social gameplay as being contrary to the nature of computers. They’d say games are supposed to be about physical conflict, measured in hit points and skinned with blank facial textures. Some give the idea a queer look of revulsion, fearing interactive drama will subvert the industry’s traditional ludic values or even make games “homosexual”. These fears are justified: Interactive drama is going to change everything; the ludic will be subverted.

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Maybe people suffer because of each other; maybe we’re so defined by our interactions with society and technology, suffering is inherent and pervasive to being human. Maybe every honest coder and graphic designer who woke up on their office floor this morning did so because it’s just the way things are. When you’ve been idling (or working) in hell for long enough, it can certainly seem like there’s no other way. The game industry has locked itself in a room, splitting cups of ramen for what seems like an eternity of crunch time agony. The door is unlocked, but we stay in because of fear, held back by the call of the collective, suspended in a grim consensus.

And why not? It’s a comfortable room, after all. We’ve got our plush couch, our new NVIDIA powered graphics card, our tidy assumptions about lineated goal-orientation, spatial level design, an uncross-able gulf between game and story which nevertheless keeps sending memetic hurricanes our way. The truth is, play is older than both games and stories, and despite its parsing fuzziness, end-game agency constraints and a rather contrived narrative set-up of a bickering couple with irreconcilable differences, Façade has a very real joy of play, fleshed out in free social expression. Façade‘s social dilemma has an exit, an exit found through play.

Unlike Sartre’s deterministic expository text, Mateas and Stern have shown us, hard coded in algorithmic form, there is hope, provided we’re inventive enough to mediate our differences. Likewise, there is hope for the game industry; Façade has shown us the door, all we have to do is walk through it. If you take my words seriously, running to that door with dewy optimism, there

is a chance you may find it locked by some technical glitch. The way out of the ludic box might not come intuitively, and the hard problems of interactive drama may seem ill addressed by the above text. I humbly offer the blueprint for the key.

The theory of game design is heavily limited, as seen in practice. This is largely because any “theory of game design” has until recently been confined to fuzzy definitions inside the intuitive drives of individual developers. Many unnecessary assumptions are embedded in the minds of practicing designers. We’ve assumed games are games and that’s all there is to it, players equate challenge with an interesting experience, and there is no market for titles without concrete objectives. In contrast to “ludic” is another Latin term, paidia, standing at the other end of the spectrum. What we commonly described as games is ludic play, structured by rules and inherently goal-oriented. Paidic play is unstructured and opened ended, it is the primal learning activity that predates games and culture. The Sims, a highly paidic title, has done very well critically and commercially, though few other commercial titles have explored the market demand for paidia.

According to Game Designer Raph Koster’s understanding, “Paidia just means ‘very big rulesets.'” The implication of this is any paidic title is going to have very high content demands and production costs. This assumption ignores the very Zen-like notion that complex results can result from simple rules, and the best paidic play is fostered by the confluence of a few robust mechanics. In Façade‘s case, these mechanics are the two characters and the drama management AI, which mediates the player input. From these, a very real – if constrained – freedom results. In their bold attempt to support paidia in a dramatic context, Mateas and Stern have moved away from the discipline of game designers and toward the discipline of interactive storytellers.

True, there is much complexity in each of Façade‘s primary objects, but this necessary complexity is encapsulated in the ideas of Grace, Trip and you. The introduction of the third party is essential here; it is the spark that ignites the play space. Were the play just you and Trip talking, the game would be relatively boring, and the constraints of the AI would become quickly noticeable, as the player’s frame of reference casually bounded outside the magic circle. Were there no you, the interactivity would not exist.

With the introduction of the third party, the system dynamics enter a realm referred to by the often-abused term “emergent behavior.” In astrophysics, two celestial bodies will circle each other in predictable patterns, but a third celestial body increases the complexity of interlocking motions, the three parties of Façade‘s drama create a relationship to focus on, constraining the frame of reference and, paradoxically, increasing the room for play within that constrained context. This rule of three is not a coincidence, Sartre’s take on hell as a self-perpetuating cell of social suffering depends on the third party to continually interrupt any stable two-person orbit. Hence the phrase: hell isn’t another person, hell is other people.

In Sartre’s play, hell is an algorithm of social interaction that perpetuates mutual suffering by the confluence of three different people. In games, hell is the uncertainty that the given play loop you’re riding will result in an interesting reward, or whether it will continue to throw you into Sisyphus-like frustration. A player of Façade can feel, by the intuitive virtue of the paidic mechanics, after enough play through, a resolution will come to Grace and Trip’s existential gripes and save their marriage. When that moment comes, the player is graciously and thankfully shown the door.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get the hell out of here.

Patrick Dugan is a ludosophist. He runs King Lud IC, a blog regarding game design theory, memetics and interactive storytelling. He looks forward to prototyping with Chris Crawford’s Storytron, and to pioneering socially-oriented narrative challenge.

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