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Who's Afraid of Interactivity?

A subjective comparison of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Façade leads to considerations of how interactivity can alter our perception of a dramatic scenario.

Recently, I went to see a performance of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at Dundee Rep. I originally read the play as a teenager, but this was my first time actually seeing it performed. Afterward, as I was thinking about the contrast between the feelings evoked by reading the script on my own as opposed to watching the same events being enacted onstage in front of a packed house, I realized that there was another relevant experience to consider: the act of playing through Façade.

As game developers, we often discuss the contrast between our medium and others such as film and literature, trying to suss out the endemic strengths of our chosen form. But rarely do we have the opportunity to compare a series of artifacts that manage to retain so much commonality across all the different formats they span that the primary difference becomes the medium itself.

Having worked on games based on movie licenses in the past, I know all too well the tenuous relationship such adaptations typically have with their source material. This isn't necessarily a problem, but it can make it more difficult to compare the forms in a meaningful way when attempting to glean insight into the nature of interactive media.

Yet, watching Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, it occurred to me that Façade, without having any direct relationship to Edward Albee's play, manages to be one of the most faithful translations of the spirit of an author's work into the medium of games to date (at least until Dante's Inferno comes out, amirite folks?).

Whether intentionally or not, Façade creators Andrew Stern and Michael Mateas captured not only the setting and premise, but also the tone, tenor, and, I would suggest, even many of the themes of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, while still retaining the essential core of interactivity that, certain critics would proclaim, ought to have inherently unraveled any such artistic trappings into an indecipherable mess.

Not to say that the experience of playing Façade is entirely analogous to watching a performance of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, any more than seeing the play in the theatre was equivalent to reading the script. In fact, despite all the thematic underpinnings they share, the emotional effects that each individual incarnation had on me were quite distinct.

About the only thing that all three had in common was that they all proved to be compelling, albeit for entirely different reasons. But the point is that, in this instance, these differences in effect are primarily due to the medium in which each was rendered, and herein lies the opportunity to throw these differences into greater relief for the sake of analysis.

For instance, when I first encountered Albee's Woolf in print, the acerbic exchanges between George and Martha lead me to envision these scenes of smoldering domestic hostility as taking place within a prevailing context of deadly seriousness. But watching it in the theatre, the tension that I had originally imagined to be unrelenting was in fact leavened significantly by the actors, who were able to imbue even the most mean-spirited quip with subtle undertones of playfulness and time-wearied affection.

Another factor that made a substantial difference was the reaction of the live audience; the brutal jibes between the older couple came across quite differently when accompanied by smatterings of knowing laughter from the crowd.

But of all the differences between reading Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and seeing it performed live, I was most surprised that the print version actually felt more tense than the theatrical rendition. Though I expected the opposite, the inflexible bluntness of the written word made the emotional violence that much more vivid and stark in my imagination.

So, what about Façade? How does participating in this sort of interpersonal turmoil compare to simply reading about it or watching it?

Back when Katherine Isbister was teaching at RPI, I had the chance to ask her about her reaction to playing Façade. Given that she is one of the most interesting writers on the topic of character development in games, I was especially interested to hear her take on the experience, and her response surprised me.

Apologies to Katherine for paraphrasing here, but essentially she said that, while she respected Façade as an artistic accomplishment and admired the intentions of its creators to push the medium forward, the actual scenario presented made her uncomfortable, particularly when she was placed in the role of a participant.

Of course, pointing out this discomfort was not necessarily a criticism on Isbister's part, as it is likely that it was actually the intent of Mateas and Stern to evoke this feeling in the player. Still, it surprised me, primarily because it couldn't be further from my own experience with the work.

Façade did not make me uncomfortable. If watching Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was less tense than reading it, Façade was far at the other end of my personal spectrum, practically devoid of tension. The reason for this was precisely the fact that I was a participant. Not only was I a participant, but I was a participant with substantial power to alter the outcome of the events taking place.

It's become a cliché to point this out, but there's something fundamentally empowering about encountering a dramatic situation in a simulated environment where you have the ability to return to the initial state at any time, as opposed to merely watching a slow-motion train wreck as a silent observer. Call it agency or whatever else you will, but in Façade I always had the sense that if I just said the right words or took the correct action, I could help make Grace and Trip reconcile their differences (interestingly enough, a notion I am highly resistant to in real life).

Again, please allow me to clarify that this is not meant as a criticism of Façade. I love Façade. But I enjoyed it much more as an interpersonal puzzle, as an exploration of the dynamics of a relationship, and as a treatise on the importance and difficulty of honest communication, than I did as a dramatically charged work.

Further, I don't believe this to be a failing of Façade itself, but rather a natural entailment of the interactive medium and the mental state we occupy when we are placed in the role of a participant. This state is not quite immersion, but something more akin to Bolter and Grusin's notion of 'remediation', or to use a theatrical analogy, Brecht's 'verfremdungseffekt'.

What does this imply for us as game creators? Have I simply validated Ebert's claim that games are inherently incapable of eliciting a true emotional response on the part of their audience? Is interactivity actually the boogeyman that he portrayed it as, a concept to be feared for its capacity to ruin our chance at crafting emotionally resonant experiences? As it turns out, not remotely.

First of all, it bears reiterating that my response to Façade is not everyone's response, and some, like Isbister, have seemingly been profoundly affected by it on a primal, emotional level. But even if, as I suggest, we have a harder time achieving this emotional connection in games by means of immersion, I think we can still get at the hearts of our players by way of their minds.

Playing Façade made me think more deeply about the nature of relationships than either reading or watching Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and those thoughts in turn evoked a wide range of emotions in me. The only inherent difference was that Façade did this via a slightly more indirect route, not by struggling against the nature of the interactive medium, but by seizing on its distinctive advantages.

So, in the end, just who is afraid of interactivity? Not Mateas and Stern, and not the rest of us either - nor should we be.

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