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Sometimes I Wish That It Would Rain Here

Friday, February 23, 2007

where lies the uncanny valley?

a while back, when the PS3 was first being launched, I had a bit of a rant about the over emphasis of graphical fidelity in games and lack of emphasis on the behavioral components. I think that the comparison between the sales of the Wii and PS3 are a testament to the fact that gameplay ultimately trumps graphics and pretty volumetric lighting. however, because making faster, better, prettier graphics is relatively easy, as compared to making dynamic characters that truly interact with the player, people are doing just that. in a recent BBC article, David Knunkley of Obsidian Entertainment says that game characters are currently in the uncanny valley; "they're too close to real, but not quite real." graphically, I think he's probably right.

however, I would argue that the horizontal axis of "likeness" in Mori's uncanney valley graph is not a single dimension but is very high dimensional. it certainly involves visual appearance, but there's a lot more to "humanness" than appearance. the ability to interact with characters in a non-scripted way, the ability of characters to have believable emotional reactions both to PCs' and NPCs' actions, the ability of the character to make autonomous decisions that can impact the player, etc. in some regards, this begs the question of how close games lie to an interactive narrative. are you playing through a story, or is a story evolving based on the ways that you interact with the characters? furthermore, is humanness the quality towards which character developers should strive? consider the success of the WII, powered by what is essentially an overclocked Game Cube processor. the graphics are far from stunning, and HD support is limited, and yet you can easily acquire a PS3, while getting a hold of a Wii is a slight bit more challenging. point being, super amazing, photorealistic graphics are cool, but they are not the end all and be all of games, and the Wii's success is just one example of a focus on developing new player experiences.

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