Base-Jumping into the Uncanny Valley

Just something I need to get off my chest here: the games industry is obsessed with realism, especially realism of characters. And this is a bad, bad thing for three reasons:

  • Realism is hard, time-consuming, resource-consuming work, making game development vastly more expensive, and thus risky, and thus forcing other choices to be risk-averse (aka boring) to compensate.
  • If you have realistic characters, they tend to ‘look funny’ if you try to make them do unrealistic actions; this in turn has a knock-on effect on your animation and game design which can be unnecessarily restrictive.
  • The more realistic your characters are, the more they freak people out.

You see, there’s this concept known as The Uncanny Valley, which has been theorised about since the 70s. The idea is that while in general terms, the more human something is, the more we relate to it, if you plot ‘apparent humanity of a thing’ vs ‘our empathy with it’, there’s a dip in the graph — the Valley — when you get to ‘almost, but not quite, real’.

Which is where we arriving now. And it’s really hard to get out of the Valley, because that last 10% from ‘almost’ to ‘actually’ real is really difficult stuff. Stuff that human brains are hardwired to spot, because it’s innately linked to human intelligence and emotional interaction. Stuff like how eyeballs move, focus, widen and narrow, that we’re — mostly unconsciously — keenly attuned to because so much unspoken communication goes on there.

Stuff that’s difficult for Hollywood, with their vast resources and offline rendering. They can take hours to render an image, while we have 1/60th of a second. And they still screw it up

Notice how most of the really successful computer-generated films have stayed well clear of realistic humans? Toy Story, for instance, mostly showed just fleeting glimpses of the people, and the girl in Monsters Inc. is super-cartoony. The first Final Fantasy film, by contrast, tried to put realistic artificial human-beings up there on the big screen — and they just looked weird, and the same goes for other CG movies too. Check out some reviews of Polar Express:

Oddly off-putting

Frankly, they’re creepy

Combine the dead eyes with the shiny skin (…) the kids from Village of the Damned after being dipped in wax

And that’s where the games industry is leaping headfirst, whooping and throwing up the horns as it goes…

So what should we do? Visually stagnate? Nope, we should be pushing for more style — of which more in some other rant.