I wrote a few weeks back about the uncanny valley and Hideo Kojima's possibly telling observation that war machines of the future may exploit the creepiness of robotic simulations to instill fear in their prey. I want to turn my attention now to a discussion of the valley as it applies more directly to us as gamers - overcoming the creepiness of computer generated people. Quantic Dream has already boasted of successfully traversing the valley with its upcoming (and secretly acclaimed) PS3 exclusive Heavy Rain. While realistic graphics are one thing (and it's up to interpretation whether they succeeded in the tech demo almost two years ago), is there more to escaping the valley than mere realistic modeling?
Any of you that have played through the tutorial of Indigo Prophecy will likely remember lead designer David Cage waxing poetic about the unique nature of the game, one in which you should "move the right analog stick slowly to really feel like you are controlling the character's hand". The game itself frequently gives you mundane tasks such as setting up candles and lighting them (place three candles, one-by-one, on the table, go down the hall to the kitchen, pick up the matches, walk back, light them one-by-one) in an attempt to make you feel more like - and therefore more sympathetic toward - the characters. All accounts suggest that Heavy Rain will play similarly, with an emphasis on taking actions, succeeding or failing at tasks, and living with the results. If the graphical side of Quantic's dream manages to live up to the hype, will we suddenly find ourselves in a new era where the uncanny valley is reduced to an historical oddity along the lines of the pager? Or are emotion and realistic human mental behavior just as important in dispelling the illusion?
First let me acknowledge that any creepiness or uncanniness resulting from visually perfect models acting in unrealistic ways may not technically be the fault of the uncanny valley. The theory itself suggests that as robots or computer rendered humans get closer to looking and acting human they will trigger the uncanny response (until they become so perfect that they are indistinguishable from us). I generally interpret "acting human" to mean having realistically moving facial muscles, walking gracefully rather than jerkily, etc. When an otherwise visually perfect human representation starts acting strangely the effect is still creepy even if it's not an according-to-Hoyle example of the uncanny valley. Rather humorous takes on this can be found in several video re-enactments of RPGs. The effect of actual humans acting like video game characters is just uncomfortable enough to be funny.
In fact, the concept of humans moving and acting in strange and unusual ways is sometimes used to intentionally evoke creepy feelings. Think about the characteristic twitchy movements associated with Japanese horror. This is all well and good when game developers are trying to create an eerie tone, but in serious "interactive cinema", which Heavy Rain purports to be, it's a death blow to realism. With Quantic Dream having purchased the best motion-capture technology available there shouldn't be any problems with graceful movement. But we still need good AI controlling those characters to keep them from walking into walls, taking inefficient paths around obstacles, or jumping out of cover in the middle of a firefight.
Perhaps it doesn't even stop there. As gamers we usually use the term "good AI" to refer to enemies that adapt to our strategies, neither falling for predictable behaviors that a human wouldn't nor succumbing to patterns of their own. Yet if Quantic Dream hopes to create a truly cinematic narrative in their game they are going to have to delve deeper than other games have at, for lack of a better term, "emotional AI". Characters may look, move, and interact with the world around them in completely human ways, but if they fail to make realistically human choices then players may still find themselves searching for a way out of the valley. Will NPCs become subtly snippy with me if I make snide remarks? Will they succeed at what Fable (arguably) failed at - remembering my actions and having appropriate, long-term emotional interactions with me? Perhaps they will still jump out of cover in the middle of a firefight, but will they have a compelling, realistic reason for doing so?
Granted, dramatic media has always been judged by the quality and emotional richness of its characters. Books and movies are often criticized for lacking rich, fully developed and believable people. If narrative is important then an individual character's choice of actions must be realistic. Can Heavy Rain do this? Did Indigo Prophecy do this? Perhaps more to the point, does the interactive nature of video games make it even harder for characters to be realistic because they must be able to respond to whatever behavior we subject them to? I'm not entirely sure, but it seems that if Quantic's goal is carry us into the promised land where characters in games don't unsettle us in the slightest, it's going to take much more than miraculous CGI.
Maybe aspiring to a deep interacto-narrato-cinematic experience is a little beyond our belaying skills at the moment. Check back next week for a bit lighter discussion of the uncanny valley surrounding the realism and novel interactivity of the recently announced EyePet.