October 5, 2006

Façade Crosses Pages of Atlantic

by Nick Montfort · , 6:09 pm

Facade in the AtlanticAs subscribers to The Atlantic Monthly may have already noticed, there’s a story in the November issue, mentioned right there on the cover and called “Sex, Lies, and Video Games.” It’s a detailed, seven-page article about Façade, with shots of Grace and Trip. There are quotes from Will Wright and from an anonymous video game executive who explains that people like to “blow shit up.”

Jonathan Rauch wrote the piece and really managed to make a great case for how video gaming (and creative computing) can transcend its current licensed, hyperviolent state. He also gave a good account of Façade that is accurate without being overwhelming in its technical details. Gripping journalism is often built on oppositions and conflicts; here, the conflict is Andrew and Michael vs. the conventional world of videogaming, which, I think, is not a fabricated opposition.

The article conveys Andrew’s and Michael’s views on interactive drama, and – despite some talk of hill-climbing – how the problem of interactive drama requires revolutionary rather than incremental improvement. It gives a portrait of each of them, too, allowing the reader to distinguish two-earring-wearing, bushy-brown-haired, large-headed Michael from extraordinarily-average-looking Andrew.

Via the magic of subscriber-supplied temporary URLs, I offer this link to the story (update: scanned in), which will last no more than two days. And perhaps less, if the link police come by to put me in the link jail.

A final note, which may intrigue you to read on: Rauch’s article also reveals that The Party, Michael & Andrew’s work in progress, will have audible sexual moaning. Stay tuned for more here on Grand Text Auto.

16 Responses to “Façade Crosses Pages of Atlantic


  1. scott Says:

    Overall, that’s a great article, and a great venue for the discussion that might hopefully ensue both about your project and about interactive drama generally. I also loved the description of the two of you (as sort of well characters, straight man aesthete and piercing eyedscientartist) and had no idea that Façade was borne of a shared epiphany the two of you had while emerging together from a baptismal hot tub in Snowbird, Utah.

    One interesting moment, towards the end of the article, was the paragraph about “funness.” I guess there is a sort of complication of expectations — on the one hand, the blowing shit up kind of fun or even the well that was kind of funny when the RV nearly fell off the cliff in the middle of a petty domestic dispute about eating habits kind of fun — and on the other hand whatever is fun about Holden Caufield’s bitter(sweet) voice or the acidic dissolution of unhappy couples in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf or the kind of ruthlessly complex friendships you see in Moliere or Tolstoy. The kind of funny fun involved in waking up to find that you are a cockroach in whose shell garbage festers, continuously wounds, offends both you and those around you. All of which are maybe sorts of fun and also simultaneously sorts of pain. Maybe it is a kind of fun to find ordinary human problems in strange defamiliarized contexts that make an absurd kind of sense. Certainly that kind of fun has been around in drama and fiction for a long time. I guess we don’t usually call it fun. But fun need not only entertain. I mean, shit, Kurt Vonnegut can write in a fun way about the firebombing of Dresden or the trial of a Nazi propogandist/double agent. Kind of fun, kind of hurts a lot too. Anyway, while I hope that The Party is fun, I guess I hope that you’ll keep pushing towards the kind of fun that I think you argue for in the article. I’m not sure that the best kind of interactive drama would be either as personal to you as your dreams, per Will Wright, or as timeless as The Persians. It might simply be recognizable, human, and interactively strange.

  2. andrew Says:

    Great comment, Scott, thanks.

    On “funness”… Instead of fun, I like to think in terms of pleasure. As you describe, I think most of us would say a searing drama can be pleasurable to watch or read, from the emotional ride we go on. Fun probably isn’t the best word for that.

    I have no concerns that an intense, provocative interactive drama would be pleasurable in that way — at least in those moments where the player is observing and empathizing with the other characters.

    However that kind of pleasure is secondary to what should be the primary pleasure of interactive drama, which is based on the actions that the player takes and their effects. We should distinguish the pleasure you get from taking action versus the pleasure you get from empathizing with other characters. They’re experientially different.

    Assuming that your actions in an interactive drama actually have effects on the unfolding story (that hard-to-create quality called agency), pleasure should come from the feeling that you have successfully expressed yourself, that your actions mattered, that you have influence over the situation, that you used your intelligence and creativity. I think some of that magical delight Rauch ascribed to Spore can happen in interactive drama too. Fun, perhaps, is a reasonable word for that kind of pleasure.

    So, when I said we want to make sure The Party is fun, I was thinking of pleasure in that primary, agency-oriented way. And, additionally, I hope The Party will be pleasurable in that painful, uncomfortable (secondary) way you’re talking about. With lots of moaning.

  3. michael Says:

    That discussion of “fun” was really in opposition to “fun” in the game industry. The unarticulated sense of “fun” that’s employed in the game industry is typically some amalgam of escape and power fantasy. All we were saying there is that there are other forms of pleasure besides escape/power fantasy fun. While The Party will likely be a bit more escapist (no reference to the magazine intended) than Facade, and thus a bit more game-industry-fun in this regard, we’re still interested in exploring the unique pleasures that interactive drama can evoke.

  4. michael Says:

    By the way, I’m at Medi@Terra in Athens, Greece this week. Will be writing some blog posts on the conference soon (I have copious notes) if I can ever find the time. The great program is quite packed and keeping us very busy.

  5. andrew Says:

    Here’s a soon-to-expire link to a sidebar article on the Atlantic site, “Beyond Space Invaders” (update: refreshed 10.9.06), in which Rauch himself is interviewed about the article. I guess interviewing themselves is a hip new “meta” thing the Atlantic is doing these days? ;-)

  6. Jason Dyer Says:

    The article implies the comedy genre doesn’t exist, but it’s more out-of-its-prime than never awakened (see: Lucasarts in its heyday).

    I think more interesting is the possibility (and The Party seems to roll with this, at least from the descriptions I read) that you can have something interactive where it’s not predetermined what sort of genre it is in. Perhaps the player goes around trying to pull practical jokes on the guests (comedy), or perhaps the player has a jealous fit and makes a beeline for the gun (tragedy) — that’s rather swinging between the poles right there.

  7. William P. Wend Says:

    It was a nice surprise finding this article when my copy of the Atlantic came this month. Congrats!

  8. Ernest Adams Says:

    Congratulations, guys. This is a fantastic article, and I think one of the most telling parts of it is the fact that the “industry executive” insists on remaining anonymous. If he’s so sure he’s right, why the anonymity? It’s not as if you’re in a position to blight his career for daring to oppose you. It strongly feels as if he doesn’t want to be made to look like an idiot 10 years from now when interactive dramas are a recognized sector of the business. In which case, why be so adamant now?

    Anyway, wonderful publicity, and it hope it proves valuable for “The Party.”

    Ernest

  9. William P. Wend » Facade In The Atlantic Monthly! Says:

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  11. andrew Says:

    I think we all have major Façade fatigue, so this article isn’t going to generate much discussion, I guess. But before it fades from our front page, I’d like to make a few comments on the whole event.

    Frankly I’m stunned that this two-guys-in-a-garage project somehow found its way into a feature article in such an august publication as the The Atlantic, a magazine that almost exclusively focuses on national and international politics, culture and literature. A profile of videogame developers is unprecendented for the magazine, I believe, but clearly part of a trend of late among the highbrow press: the recent Harper’s piece that Nick blogged, the explosion of coverage of games over the past year in The New York Times Arts section and Magazine (in fact Will Wright is profiled in the magazine this week by Steven Johnson); we’ve been told The New Yorker has a profile of Wright in the works as well (also a first for that magazine I believe). Also recall the anomalous The New York Times Book Review cover story in June 1992 on electronic literature, “The End of Books“; I remember being inspired by that at the time, and in fact it was one of the things that encouraged me to pursue interactive story.

    Not that Rauch considers Façade a piece of art worthy of review; he accurately characterizes it as the “small-scale, no-budget, first-try research project that it is”. Yet as he told us when he spent two days with us in Portland last June, in his research for a potential article on why video games should matter to Atlantic readers, he didn’t find what he wanted to write about until he came across Façade.

    I’m thrilled, but still feel disbelief about it all. I notice that to boost the interest-level of the material, Rauch frames it as something of a David vs. Goliath story, as Nick alluded to. It’s true that’s how this pursuit often feels to us, or to most indie developers about their projects, yet I still think it’s hilarious that our no-budget project is discussed in the same breath and manner as mega-million dollar budget Spore. Hopefully everyone can gain renewed faith that it’s not the size of your budget that matters, but how you use it.

    Also amusing to me is that in the magazine itself, the article follows immediately after the cover story on Hillary Clinton, versus being tucked in the back in the technology section. I can just imagine Bill Clinton reading the Hillary piece by the light of his nightstand lamp, getting all hot and bothered by it, turning the page to read about Façade, and saying, “Hey, honey, whattya say we try this out.” Could be therapeutic for them, don’t you think?

    By the way, we surely would have waited a lot longer to announce The Party if this article wasn’t hitting the newsstands. We want to avoid revving up the hype/vaporware machine so soon; it’s foolish to talk in detail about a project that probably won’t ship for 3 years from now. (We broke that rule for Façade since it was research, that we needed to publish about regularly for academic purposes.) On the flipside, with any luck, this early exposure for The Party will attract an angel investor or two.

    Another tidbit worth pointing out: Rauch puts the economics of videogames in its place. “[I]ts rapid growth would still leave it, in 2010, about a third the size of the film, radio, or book industry, and about a seventh the size of the television industry.” This helps bolster the argument that games have yet to go mainstream. Isn’t it interesting how there’s a such a discrepancy in the reporting of that fact?

  12. andrew Says:

    A blogger who found Façade via the article called it “Virginia Woolfenstein”.

    I like that, almost as much as Nick’s nickname for Façade, “Doom With a Cocktail Glass”.

  13. michael Says:

    Jonathan Rauch, the author of the article, has the full text of it up at his personal website.

  14. michael Says:

    Huh, just noticed that Jonathan has an entry in Wikipedia. Cool.

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