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Monday, December 05, 2005

The 360's Uncanny Valley

My hat is off to whoever designed the new King Kong game for the Xbox 360, because they've crafted a genuinely horrific monster. When it first lurched out of the mysterious tropical cave and fixed its cadaverous eyes on me, I could barely look at the monstrosity.

I'm speaking, of course, of Naomi Watts.


This paradoxical effect has a name: the "Uncanny Valley." The concept comes from the Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori, who argued that simulacra of humans seem lively and convincing so long as they're relatively low-resolution. Think of history's best comic strips: With only a few quick sketches on a page, Bill Watterson can create vivid emotions for the characters in Calvin and Hobbes. When an avatar is cartoonish, our brains fill in the gaps in the presentation to help them seem real.
-- Monsters of Photorealism

A year ago I would have thought Uncanny Valley was a lost Anne McCaffery novel, but now I can't seem to leave the back yard without tripping over it. To be honest, that's not a terribly great descriptiong of the Valley. It's not really resolution so much as intimacy, as I understand it. A robot which looks nothing like a human is safe because you can easilly emotionally distance yourself from it. A robot which looks exactly like a human is comfortable because you're used to it. A robot which looks almost human is just creepy, because your head points out all the distinctions of non-human features.

But the Wikipedia will do a better job than I will.

Still, Ebert's made this connection to CG in movies and therefore the connection to games is appropriate. Course, this feels like impatience. Expecting too much evolution from a 360 launch title which was probably designed mostly for today's mainstream cross-platform market is jumping the gun. The next generation of graphics will take a whlie for the developers to work out the tricks of compression, etc., to get the kind of bang for buck we in current gen consoles.

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Patrick Dugan said...

A further paradox is that the drive for photorealism, while alientating to the consumer, is also a major factor in balloning budgets and staggering asset demands. When will they catch on that games are art, not hardware demos?

Josh said...

Yeah, ya know I meant to add in here that in my weekend run I essentially went "backwards" a bit in terms of tech. From Quake 4, to FEAR to SWAT 4.

SWAT 4 still being my favorite .... by far, despite it's graphical "handicap". Why? Great game design, AI, etc. This issue is really a problem with the "games are movies" hollywoodization. Still a lot of evidence that great games don't need photorealism out there ... even for the genres most known to abuse it.

Patrick Dugan said...

More to the point, can you remember the last great game you played that strived for photorealism? Maybe the original Halo, three years ago.

Josh said...

Half-Life 2 does at least not suck, and is usually good ... but certainly not great.

Problem is that there haven't been a lot of great shooters lately, and they push the graphics envelope more than any.

But a good case in point is Deus Ex 2 ... which strove to push the Unreal engine's shader further, but in the process lost any capability to map or mod the damn thing. Very bad tradeoof there.