The black-bear overpass

PS3 games: Plunging deeper into the “Uncanny Valley”

I’ve written several times about the “Uncanny Valley” theory — the idea that as computer-generated depictions of humans become more and more photorealistic, they look creepier, more ghastly, and more cadaverlike. The concept is simple: When we look at a cartoon-like drawing of a person, like Charlie Brown, our brains fill in the missing information, and the cartoon seems warm, cute, and lifelike. But when an animated version of a human becomes incredibly close to being real, we start focusing instead on the tiny details that aren’t right: The slack skin, the not-quite-dewy-enough eyes, the stiff body movements. Paradoxically, the more realistic the human becomes — the worse they look. Sure, enhanced graphics look terrific when lavished on static things, like scenery or smoke or bullets. But the human face? Our video-game graphics aren’t up to it — and, if you believe the Valley theory, may never be.

The Uncanny Valley effect has become painfully, itchingly obvious in today’s video games. Whenever a game comes out with cartoonish and stylized humans — like the anime-style Final Fantasy series — they look wonderful and lively. But whenever the game designer gets obsessed with being “cinematic” and “superealistic” and producing “cutting edge graphics”, woof woof, meow meow, the results are just unwatchable — as with, say, the “lifelike” characters in Half Life 2 that cavort about like a corpsetastic army of zombies.

After hurling themselves against these shoals and crashing again and again and again and again and again, wouldn’t you imagine that game designers would learn their lesson?

But no. The advent of the Xbox 360, the Nintendo Wii, and the PS3 have all got them whipped into a fresh new lather about creating “photorealistic” humans. Thus it was that I came across the promotional trailer for Heavy Rain, the sequel to the terrific game Indigo Prophecy that’s slated for the PS3. I clicked on it, wondering … hmmm, are the PS3’s graphics finally so good that the designers have climbed out of the Valley?

Nope. They’ve trudged in ever deeper. Check out this clip, in which a young girl does a “casting call” and delivers a long monologue into the camera. Prepare to scream and scream again. Seriously: It’s goosebump-inducingly bad. Her lips attempt to smile, and pull back in some unholy rictus of a grimace; her skin slides like dead sheets of atrophied flesh along the surface of her bone structure; and her eyes — my god! Her eyes! It’s like looking over the edge of the flat earth into an endless infinite howling darkness, unto which an anvil could be tossed and fall for forty days and forty nights and not yet reach the inky awful depths of her soul.

This wouldn’t be so bad if the designers were actively trying to create some eldritch, sephulchral nightmarescape straight out of Goya’s Black Paintings. But no … they’re trying to create a spunky, cute, realistic girl.

God almighty, these people must be stopped. This stuff is hideous beyond description, and I describe things for a living.

(Thanks to Jonn Wood for this one!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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