#BoRT: The Uncanny Valley of Gameplay

I need to Jason.  Right away!

The uncanny valley is a concept that video game enthusiasts are familiar with: that the closer we get to replicating the appearance of human beings, the more any remaining flaws will stand out.  The concept is often generalized to the appearance of all things that are made to look or act realistic in games.  And to generalize even further: the closer a game emulates reality, the greater the player’s expectation to interact with that world realistically.

Take, for example, Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain.  While praised for its cinematic qualities and harrowing sequences, it may be more widely known for an oddly executed section of the game that was exacerbated by its focus on realism.  In Heavy Rain, the player goes through the carefully choreographed routine of Ethan Mars.  You groom, play with his kids, and take care of the house.  Eventually, he loses track of his son at the mall.  While the actions the player performs as Ethan up to this point are believable enough, he can only awkwardly shouts “Jason” directly into the crowd.  This would probably be a reasonable thing to do a couple of times, but the game wants Ethan to keep saying it as though he suffers from Tourette syndrome.  It stands out for how clumsy it is compared to the rest of the game up to that point and more people may know what Press X to Jason is than the identity of the Origami Killer.

Another example of the uncanny valley shining through gameplay can be found in the tortured development and release of Duke Nukem Forever.  The Duke Nukem games have gained popularity over the years by promoting a caricature of action film stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Dolph Lundgren.  Duke Nukem Forever will be known for it’s infamously long development process that bridged multiple generations of video games and in that time games went from being about mascots and caricatures to fairly reasonable facsimiles of real people.  So when Duke made his grand return in the modern era, conveyed as a full-fledged character rather than a cartoon, he comes across as an abhorrent, detestable goon who drags the player along through a number of uncomfortable sequences.  For instance:

By the time Duke Nukem finally makes a “You’re fucked,” joke, which he makes in front of two girls who are about to die in the process of getting sexually assaulted, Duke does not come across as cool, witty or likable in the least. He comes across as a vile, callous, thoroughly detestable psychopath.

The joke would still be awful and tasteless if this were a game made in the 90’s, but in this example, more realism translates into a more grotesque and unpleasant experience.  Most games won’t be a trainwreck like DNF but it clearly illustrates how realism can make a bad situation worse.

There’s also an entire genre that has suffered from the emerging effects of the uncanny valley: the jRPG. Games like Final Fantasy rapidly promoted the implementation of realistic non-interactive cut-scenes as a way to highlight their storytelling potential.  But the divergence of realistic presentation against turn-based combat systems that stayed the same comes across as artificial and silly and has left developers of jRPGs struggling to come up with novel ways to bring gameplay into alignment with presentation.  A series known for aggressively pushing for more realistic character models expected its audience to not be baffled at seeing these people carefully taking turns trying to mortally wound one another.

These games go wrong by losing control of the player experience when expectations aren’t managed consistently.  If games can be made to look realistic and cinematic, then of course we want them to be.  But if the expectation for reality in appearance does not align with the expectation to be able to behave realistically then the player is less likely to suspend their disbelief.  For a recent example of a game that’s more successfully at balancing these expectations look no further than Deadly Premonition.  Deadly Premonition takes a philosophy that’s completely opposite to Heavy Rain.  DP dispenses with any pretense that the player should expect the experience to be attached to reality.  It embraces everything that made Press X to Jason unintentionally awkward and hilarious.  You are rewarded for trying to create moments like that by say, waiting until 2 in the morning to visit the sheriff’s house where the game’s protagonist asks whether he prefers mustard or hot sauce.  The sheriff rightly calls you a lunatic and sends you off.  But DP’s detachment from reality allows it to express a more genuine experience for audiences that enjoy that style of humor.  The player is left to wander about play a game that’s far fetched, but consistent by it’s own rules and as such, empowers it.

Developers are getting better at balancing the expectation of realism with the current limitations of the medium.  Realism can artificially constrain the players options in a game and can tie a designer’s hands.  Certainly, when realism is used well, it can make for a powerful experience.  If it goes wrong though, it can go very wrong.  Generally speaking, I prefer games that keep reality at arm’s length.  I find them to more often have a greater capacity for sincerity and entertainment.

Can't Believe It

Note: #BoRT stands for Blogs of the Round Table.  The preceding post was an entry to the February 2013 theme: Reflecting Reality.


2 Responses to “#BoRT: The Uncanny Valley of Gameplay”

  1. 1 Doug S.
    February 28, 2013 at 10:14 pm

    I’m still waiting for the Director’s Cut to try out Deadly Premonition. Once I saw the YouTube video of the sandwich scene, I knew I had to play it. The expression on the faces of the people watching York talk about the sandwich is priceless.

  2. April 2, 2013 at 9:15 am

    very interesting article. it’s true, the more games try to seem realistic the less realistic they actually seem. there are exceptions of course, like the amazing facial technology of a game like LA Noire. Have you seen the Metal Gear Solid V trailer? I think that game is going to be really amazing. It’s funny that you bring up ‘Press X to Jason’, that was my favorite part of the game haha…. I’m looking forward to playing Deadly Premonition when it comes to PS3

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