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.