The Rut If we were to compare the state of computer entertainment with an analogous stage of development in film, it would undoubtedly be most appropriate to compare the vast majority of video games, even the best, to the sci-fi and western serials of the 1930s. Occasionally a memorable character will emerge (and no, this does not mean a graphically- recognizeable chracter, but a relatable one). Once in a while a non- linear plot will be written. But by and large, characters, such as they are, exist to drive the action, and the action is blowing stuff the hell up. From the elaborate streets of Grand Theft Auto, to the sprawling fantasy world of Oblivion, to the claustrophobic hallways of Splinter Cell, each experience ultimately maintains a porn-like fixation on a unified goal: to take out the enemy, save the world, and score the loot. This, needless to say, is the same essential structure of the vast majority of games since Space Invaders. Thopugh graphics and physics keep getting better, the narrative structure of games is in a gigantic rut. This month, The Atlantic magazine ran an article describing the development of a game called Façade (or Facade for those of you with different character encoding). The game was written this year by Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern, formerly an AI scientist and a virtual pet developer, respectively. They set to work on a verbal scripting language, built on a more powerful series of algorithms, for developing a game in which it would be possible to subtly communicate with human-like characters. The result was a twenty-minute non-linear experience in which the player is invited to the house of a feuding couple in the midst of some sort of argument (what sort, exactly, varies each time). The player then types responses to various questions, insults, and goadings thrown around, make comments on a statement made by the husband, for example, and receiving a snide comeback in return. There is no dialogue tree; the player can say whatever he or she chooses, and expect a cogent reply. So far, the response has been that it works...most of the time. Outside of certain limits, the couple will not discuss everything the player might bring up; a query concerning the epistemic certainty of the existence of God will likely produce only unsure laughs from the couple. But the fact that they can laugh in an unsure manner, or "feel" awkward at all, is a fantastic leap forward. The next project for Mateas and Stern will be a $2 million commercial game called The Party. Essentially Façade on a much larger scale, it will allow the player to maneuver through a high-society dinner party, flirting, betraying, or coercing the other guests into various forms of (hopefully) dramatic behavior. But then there are the ambitious ideas: after a few more iterations of this basic concept, Mateas and Stern aim to write software that will generate an entirely functional dramatic world based on a few criteria input by the player. Want to be a Victorian detective and solve a murder mystery? If their concept gets off the ground, the software will write an original mystery, replete with deep, complex characters, and drop you in medias res. Their timeline claims that this will be a reality in twenty years, but we all know that in the world of technology, the future catches up to us rapidly. In articles from the early 1980s, programmers were speculating that by the year 2000, we might be able to render still paintings on the screen to accompany their text adventures. That happened by 1985; by 2000 we had Ocarina of Time. In short: with the application of the right minds, this sort of software will arrive sooner than we think. Now it ought to be time for me to play the Devil's Advocate, and complain about the likelihood that such algorithms may someday replace writers altogether. Actually, it seems rather unlikely, at least within my lifetime. Twenty years brought us from Asteroids to Wing Commander, but better graphics and sound do not a Star Wars experience make. It's intimidating to think of engineered narratives, but if anything, I would hope it'll push human writers to greater levels of skill. If you're competing with a cheaper, faster mechanical author, you'll be much more pressured to exceed expectations. And both Hollywood and Silicon Valley could use more of that these days.