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Playing in the Sandbox: SimCity, The Sims, and Facade

November 5, 2011

Noah Wardrip-Fruin, in the two chapters for this Monday, covers a lot of stuff, from systems & audience perception to discussing games like SimCity, The Sims, and Façade, with all of the complications of systems that go along with them.  So, there’s a lot to cover and I’ll try and make some of this brief.

The Introduction to Wardrip-Fruin’s book, Expressive Processing, deals primarily with computers and the systems involved with them.  It’s also in this Introduction that Wardip-Fruin lays out the purpose of his book: to bring to light what other books on digital media ignore, which are “the actual processes that make digital media work, the computational machines that make digital media possible” (3).  Wardip-Fruin wants to bridge the gap between previous works which focuses on the output of computers and the processes behind digital media through the notion of “expressive processing.”  For Wardrip-Fruin, “expressive processing” is meant to evoke two things about processes: the first is that “computational processes are an increasingly significant means of expression for authors.  Rather than defining the sequence of words for a book or images for a film, today’s authors are increasingly defining the rules for system behavior” (3);  secondly, he uses the term “to talk about what processes express in their design – which may not be visible to audiences” (4).

Wardrip-Fruin then goes on to discuss the authoring of new processes in digital media, particularly in the relationship between data (all the stored information, pictures, etc.) & processes (the working parts, like showing a series of images on a screen), adding the surface, through which the audience experiences the data & processes, and also audience interaction, which Wardrip-Fruin defines as “a change to the state of the work  – for which the work was designed – that comes from outside the work” (7-11).  After discussing these systems, Wardrip-Fruin goes on to discuss “operational logics,” which he describes as patterns in the interplay between data, process, surface, interaction, author, and audience, going on to describe three effects that arise “in the relationship between system processes and audience experiences”: the Eliza effect (“audience expectations allow a system to appear much more complex on the surface than is supported by its underlying structure”), the Tail-Spin effect (“works that fail to represent their internal system richness on their surfaces”) and (my favorite) the SimCity effect (“systems that shape their surface experience to enable the audience to build up an understanding of their internal structure”) (13-16).

So, to move on to SimCity and the SimCity effect, let’s start with a basic overview of what SimCity is.  SimCity is a simulation game where the player is a mayor of a city and the goal is to build up the city; in terms of process, it’s about “learning to understand the system’s operations” (300).  In contrast to the Eliza effect, the SimCity effect has “elements presented on the surface [that] have analogues within the internal processes and data.  Successful play requires understanding how initial expectation differs from system operation, incrementally building a model of the system’s internal processes based on experimentation” (302).  The Sims follows a similar concept, but instead of focusing on a city, the player focuses on individual people and their interactions with other Sims and their environment.  In short, regarding The Sims, “it succeeds in being an experience about human beings in familiar situations because it communicates on its surface precisely the simplicity of its processes and data.  It succeeds through the SimCity effect” (316).

At this point, Wardrip-Fruin moves on to discuss OzOz, unlike everything else up to this point, doesn’t deal with computers; instead, it focuses on interactive drama, “carried out with a human director and actors, but aimed at understanding the requirements for software-driven systems” (317).  This basically lays the groundwork for Façade since the Oz project establishes a drama that’s interactive with a user-character and NPCs that have some autonomy and flexibility, along with the ability to interact with one another and their environment, as well as the user-character.

So.  Façade.  There’s a good amount to say regarding Façade, but I’m going to try and keep it somewhat brief.  One of the things that makes Façade successful as an interactive fiction is its dramatic pacing with its “beats,” basically a dramatic shift based on something a character says or does.  In Façade, this can be something very simple, like choosing between whether to have a fancy mixed drink with Trip or something simple that Grace suggests, like water.  Also, the characters are dynamic, something that is based heavily on the Oz project, since the characters (Trip & Grace) interact heavily with the player-character and their actions/responses depend largely on what the player-character says and does.  Language, really, is the key with Façade since it is through language (not just written, but spoken) that the characters interact & react to what is happening.  Their responses are not scripted to follow a certain sequence of events, but are able to adapt to the context of what’s being said & done.

Well, unfortunately, I’m over the word limit, but Façade represents something fascinating since the game expands on the possibilities of A.I. in games.  NPCs are able to become autonomous in their digital environments, no longer constrained by having scripted actions & responses; they can be aware of their surroundings and adapt/respond accordingly.  This is cool stuff.


Additional Images…of SimCity, because I felt like it!  Not to mention, not everyone may know what SimCity is or how it works.

OMG its the title screen!!!

I enjoy random city names.

Hard Mode - Activated


In the Beginning (of Lolwut), there was nothing

Lolwut - The Beginning Sections

And now, a different (and better!) city with little crime

I do an awesome job as mayor.

My cities also hemorrage money like no tomorrow.

I build a lot.

Hey, it's Mr. Wright! (P.S. I hate pollution...)


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