Tobold's Blog
Thursday, March 06, 2014
Staying well left of the uncanny valley

The uncanny valley is a dip in a curve showing how people react to images showing humanoids that are more or less similar to real humans. The idea is that people react well to real humans and to humanoids that clearly aren't real, but somewhere in the middle there is a valley, where people react with revulsion to almost-human things like zombies. I don't know if it is only that, or if it is just a factor, but for myself I noticed that I clearly prefer computer game graphics that are a bit further away from photo-realism. Or in MMORPG 2014 terms, I much prefer the look of Wildstar to the look of The Elder Scrolls Online. A decade back I much preferred the look of World of Warcraft to the look of Everquest 2. I prefer candy-colored worlds with characters like pink pigtailed gnomes or characters with bunny ears to worlds using only shades of grey and brown with characters that all look human. I also like cel-shading and other means to create a more comic-like look in games.

Besides uncannyness, I also see an advantage of a less realistic look in terms of the user interface. For example TESO has an ongoing discussion where players complain that they don't see the effect of hitting an enemy very well. If you have a game where hitting an enemy causes floating damage numbers to fly away from the mob you hit, you don't have that problem. But those floating numbers are clearly better suited to a comic-look world than to a photo-realistic one. In Wildstar every attack has an area of effect which is painted in color on the ground, which in a world full of colors looks quite okay, but would break immersion if your immersion is based on things looking "real".

Furthermore a less realistic look is often easier to achieve, especially with animations. If your character is supposed to look very much like a human, you need to get human movements exactly right for that to work. If your character looks like a stuffed animal, its animations can be a lot simpler and still look good. A mono-colored surface without texture can look okay in a comic world, but looks strange in a photo-realistic one.

Maybe it is just me, but I can easier get immersed in a game when that immersion is just by gameplay, and not by the game pretending to be a video-camera. I don't know if that would change if I was using virtual reality goggles instead of a flat screen. What do you think?

Another good thing about less "realistic" visuals is that they age better. Choosing an art style that isn't attempting to mimic real life means that it never becomes outdated by newer technology.
Choosing an art style that isn't attempting to mimic real life means that it never becomes outdated by newer technology.

What I find kind of funny is that indie games today often use pixel graphics in an attempt to "not mimic real life", although those graphics originally were meant to be as realistic as the computers of that age could handle.
"Never" is a pretty long time. I agree that cartoonish graphics have a longer shelf life than attempts at photorealism, but they are perishable, too. And maybe it's my age, but "retro" pixelated graphics hold no appeal for me. Overall, I think I like the cartoonish art for now, but if someone comes up with the holodeck, I won't complain.
My perfect example of the Uncanny Valley is Miranda in Mass Effect 2. Much as I prefer the character models from the Mass Effect Series over Dragon Age, there's just something unexplainably spooky about the way Miranda looks and is animated in 2.
Off topic... I read you a lot more now that you post to G+ and I circled you.

Similar comparison with Disney/Pixar/Dreamworks/Etc animated films. The (cartoony) characters are instantly relatable.

Compare that to the(trying-to-be-photoreal)characters of the Final Fantasy film, or Polar Express, or Beowulf...
I'm admittedly turned off by cartoony graphics, and with the exception of WoW and Diablo III I don't even enjoy games where the melee combat is exaggerated or anime-like (any action game with ridiculously fast movement and sweeping, vibrant sword arcs --ala Kingdoms of Amalur, for example-- really turns me off). Yeah, they age....but I play a lot of these games for immersion, and cartoony looks break that immersion, worse for me than aging "realistic" graphics will. It's just a preference thing.

@Baktru about Miranda: spot on, although I admit that's what I liked about her. I call it the "creepy hot" look....!
Cartoon-like graphics are also easier to draw on old hardware. One of Wow's advantages was that it worked on any old PC.
So long as the art direction is sufficiently adept and the artists sufficiently talented it makes no difference whatsoever. Also it's clearly a very long time since you played EQ2, a more reasonable complaint about which nowadays would be that it never uses a natural color when an unnatural one will do and that if wishes were horses then rats would ride pink unicorns.
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