Uncanny Valley…

I’ve heard people say that they prefer the graphics in World of Warcraft over those in EverQuest 2. The discussions I’ve had with people about why they feel this way seem to boil down to a description of the characters in EQ looking “plastic”, “like corpses”, or “not cool”.

I like the graphics in EverQuest 2. But I’ve heard reference in the past to something called the “Uncanny Valley“, and now that I’ve spent all of five minutes reading up on it, I think I see how this applies to this discussion.

The basic premise behind the Uncanny Vally goes like this: at one end of a scale lies something which is somewhat human like but obviously artificial (E.G.: the characters in World of Warcraft). Such characters tend to inspire empathy in people: we feel “sorry” for them, or overcome their limitations by filling in the blanks between their obviously artifical nature and something “human”. At the other end of the scale are things that look and act truly human: we feel empathy for these things as well, since, well, they are “us”. Somewhere in between are things that look very human, but are subtly wrong: corpses or the seriously ill fall into this category. They move wrong, or don’t sweat, or have skin tone that is a bit “off”…such characters make us uncomfortable.

I think its possible that the characters in EQ2, somewhat like the characters in the movie Final Fantasy: the Spirits Within, are somewhere in that “valley” of empathy. They look just a bit too realistic for some people, and the things that are “wrong” (skin tone, motion, lack of sweat…) are disturbing. Although this makes sense to me, it does raise a question: why didn’t Final Fantasy: the Spirits Within bother me? And why do I like EverQuest 2? I know the characters aren’t “real” people, yet I appreciate their proximity to reality. I don’t find the flaws jarring: I think I would find it more jarring if they were so perfect that I couldn’t distinguish the real from the machine generated.

And that difference between the way I perceive things in regards to this so-called “uncanny valley” and the way some others do intrigues me. My threshold is at a different point, I guess. The day I watch a movie with a computer generated character that is so human that I can’t believe it isn’t human is the day I’ll feel a bit spooked out. I wonder why other folks feel that discomfort at an earlier point than I do?

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8 thoughts on “Uncanny Valley…”

  1. I don’t know if it is so much about “empathy”

    A more cartoon like character or less detailed representation will trigger the parts of the brain that fill in patterns and images. In this way a few strokes of a pen can be much more evocative of a face than a photograph, because our mind is filling in the blanks and out mind is the best image processing equipment we’ll ever have.
    It is why characters from a book may seem more real than those on a movie screen.
    Once you get to a certain point however the opposite occurs, it is obviously a human face so the brain doesn’t need to fill in the big picture, it switches to detail, an so then it picks out the flaws the thing that makes this face different.

    Why do you percieve things differently?

    Possibly you’ve spent so long looking at things on a computer screen that you no longer have a “normal” range of visual perception. You expect people to look like computer generated images 😉

    It could also just be an artifact of the way your brain is wired and you see things. Justlike you get motions sick playing 3d shooters easier than I do and get lost easier than I do, where I have an easier time of building a 3d map for the 2d input. Your image processing software may have never seen humans the way most others do. There is bound to be a certain amount of normal variation – I see colours somewhat different than most for instance – and some of it may be environmental – I spot cats because from the time I was 2 I’ve looked for them. I’m programmed to notice any pattern that looks “feline”.

  2. I’m not sure: certainly, I play a lot of computer games, so I’m possibly more “willing” to accept a computer generated image. I can discern real versus artificial with an extremely high degree of certainty, and will often pick out computer generated images in movies before other folks will.

    But I still prefer a realistic computer generated image instead of a “cartoony” image. And I don’t have the distaste for realism that some gamers seem to have. I particularly don’t understand the people who think that “superdeformed” characters are the height of computer animation art. But, I guess if that inspires people to create a more realistic fantasy image in their brain to “fill in” the gaps created by art that portrays eyes so large that there is no cranium space left for brain or sinus, then … /shrug

    As for me being more prone to get motion sick…well, I doubt you play a game for 10+ hours like I do 😉 I guess my point is, why do people judge an almost perfect representation of reality as less pleasing than an obviously inaccurate interpretation? I like my fantasy creatures to look “realistic”: if its supposed to fly, it should look sort of like a flyer; if its supposed to have a brain, it should have room enough in its head for some grey matter.

    In the same vein, I generally don’t like caricatures very much, personally- I think they look rather stupid. That said, I like cartoons, but computer games aren’t “cartoons” for me. Maybe that’s where I differ from some folks: to me, a computer game is a simulation of an artificial reality. The closer it gets to pushing the boundary towards realism, the better. I’m not a fan of Sonic the Hedgehog or Super Mario in part because I don’t want to play a stupid looking cartoony character. But for some people, the more unrealistic the characters are, the happier they are.

    If I sat down and showed you a slideshow of twenty characters, 10 of the “interpretive” super deformed cartoon variety, and 10 of the realistic “simulation” variety, which would you prefer? Knowing that the realistic variety will probably slide into that “uncanny valley” where they look almost right…but not quite?

  3. “Art” is in the eye of the beholder. I’ve long had issues with the anime influence on artisitic styles, but hey, it’s a fad. 25 years from now it will be as passee as pop-art is today.

    What bothers me the most in computer animated figures is the way they move. You give me a stick figure that moves like a human and I’ll be happpier than if you give me a perfect 3d representation that moves like a puppet on strings.

    I don’t tend to play a lot of first person games other than flight simulators. Most of the games I play are representational. I need something to signify a soldier, or a castle or a catapult, but I’m not looking at them as “people” but as objects. I do like spectacular effects like when I can set up a massive artillery bombardment in Rome: Total War. But I’ve played strategy games since the days when you had red dots and green dots on the screen. Clarity is more important that realism for me there.

    But I still think that what bothers people about “nearly” human animations is that it makes the “nearly” stand out. Golum for exampe was great, I often forgot that I was looking at CGI. But golum wasn’t human either. I suspect if they had used CGI to make Aragorn or Sam I would keep noticing all the things that ‘weren’t quite right’ rather than enjoy the movie.

  4. > I suspect if they had used CGI to make Aragorn or Sam I would keep noticing all the things that ‘weren’t quite right’ rather than enjoy the movie.

    Yeah…I agree. But where I differ from many people (?) possibly is in a willingness to accept “near” perfection, when it is consistent within the movie/animation/game. I didn’t dislike Final Fantasy: the Spirits Within because it was too realistic without being perfect- I accepted the imperfections as being internally consistent. The movie didn’t work well for me because I found the plot rather unappealing- the “almost real” graphics didn’t hurt.

    I do think that there is often too much investment by game developers in graphics “glitz” and not enough in the plot and control interface. But I guess I don’t automatically put marks against something just because it has realistic graphics. That’s one of the things I’m trying to get a handle on. Its become trendy to rate a game with realistic graphics poorly *just because it has realistic graphics*. All things being equal, I prefer a game with realistic graphics. And I guess therein lies a puzzle for me: some people want to stay on the “cartoon” side of the uncanny valley, and get all up in arms whenever a game pushes the threshold. I’d be disappointed to say the least if I ended up seeing more Mario Carts and the like as opposed to more Halflife 2 and F.E.A.R.

  5. I found in watching final fantasy that I kept thinking, “what wooden acting.” If I closed my eyes and listened to the voices, it didn’t jar as much during the moments of “intense emotional drama” Clearly the graphical characters were lacking something that allowed them to convey emotional power. But this is why a portrait, though not as acurate as a photograph, can still be a truer picture of the subject. I suspect in the non realistic movies there is also a greater artisitic tradition – the animators are artists more concerned about conveying emotion and personality rather than technicians concerened with accurate replication of texture, lighting etc.

    When it comes to games I don’t think that really applies that much, they are a different medium. But I will say this, having just finished looking at the screen shots of both EQII and WOW on their respective websites, the ones from WOW show more artistry. The ones from EQII are more photo-realistic but they are in many cases “lifeless”

    Now, this may very well be just an artifact of the selection of screenshots I viewed. But the EQ ones had the feel of a snapshot, whereas the WOW shots more often had the feel of a picture from a professional photographer, or asketch by an artist, where a story is being told. It’s the difference between a picture of a house, photographically accurate, and a painting of a cottage, with the door slightly open, light pouring from the windows, and smoke rising from the chimney. The first is more accurate, the second is more inviting, and therefore more interesting.

    I haven’t played WOW and only did a little couple hour tour of EQII with you, so the games may play quite differently, but the scenes form WOW, especially the backgrounds, are much more inviting. They seem more like real environments with a thought out history and background ( even if it was only in the miond of the artist and we will never know what it is ) than do the ones in EQII which have a feel more like painted backdrops on a stage. Expertely executed to be sure, but somewhat flat and lifeless nonetheless.

    Of course, art is in the eye of the beholder and those are just my subjective impressions.

  6. I trust your opinion, Chris, but I disagree with your conclusion regarding the “artistry” of the WoW pictures. And perhaps a big chunk of that comes from playing the game. The first time a troll starts speaking using a “Ya, man” Jamaican “accent” in his text…the first time an orc does a “can’t touch this” rap dance shuffle…the first time a dark elf female does a strip tease-esque dance move…the first time an “undead” does an air-guitar animation in my face for five minutes… I feel like I just walked into the badly structured imaginings of a 16 year old smoking weed.

    I don’t see a game world based on sound principles of fantasy realism. Instead, I see a game world where stuff is tossed together in a mish-mash by people who are more interested in appealing to a 13-20 demographic then they are in creating a well-realised fantasy realm. I’m sure there is more depth to it than that, and to be honest I didn’t find the game itself as appalling as it seemed on first examination. But that’s the flavour the “art” and setting left in my mind.

    Its an interesting debate, though, and identical to the one I’ve had for months with various people. Thankfully, there is room for both types of “art” in the computer game world.

  7. Ahh, but you are judging the over all “game experience.”

    I have the advantage of never having played the game, and hardly ever played EQ.

    So, all I am looking at is the screenshots provided on each company’s website. On that basis the characters in EQII look better, as they are rendered better. But the backgrounds are, backgrounds.

    It would be easier if I could actually link to the shots to illustrate but I can’t seem to do that.

    But I look at pictures 2,6,11 and 21 on the WOW site today
    And I compare those to pictures 18,48,54 and 55 on the EQII site.

    The backgrounds on the EQ captures are for the most part standard textures on provided by a rendering engine. The same thing that Bryce has provided for years. The fact that it is done in near real time in a game is nothing to sneeze at, but the level of detail in and of itself is nothing that hasn’t been around in desktop CGI for years. They have laid out the buildings and so forth, put in a few features, and then for the most part let the rendering engine do the work.

    Now look at the WOW pictures, especially #2. It looks like an artists conceptual drawing. It looks like the sketches you see from StarWars or LOTR where the art department spends a lot of time drawuing a city, working out what it will look like making sketches of little details that may never make it into the final set, much less the movie. It certainly doesn’t look realistic. But it has a certain artistic whole to it. It is arranged not based on where the buildings should go etc and then “dressed” in the computer. The image, the ‘look’ takes precidence.

    Now, I have no idea which world feels more realistic to play in. I have no idea as to which game actually does a better job of displaying an in depth background setting rich in detail. But looking just at the screenshots, those on the WOW site show signs of someone some where a long the line taking the time and efffort to develop a unique look and style, and to convey an emotional impact in the backgrounds. Whereas the EQII screenshots show either a few “fantasy landscapes” that can come out of any reasonable quality 3d rendering program, or simple bland backdrops for the characteres to stand in front of.

    That may be why you hear a lot of commentary that the “graphics” are better in WOW. Clearly they are not more detailed or more realisitic, but they may transfer more emotional content. Technically inferior but artisitically superior.

    Of course, you don’t like the art because you’ve played the game and it makes you “see a game world where stuff is tossed together in a mish-mash by people who are more interested in appealing to a 13-20 demographic then they are in creating a well-realised fantasy realm.” So it’s possible the people that like the graphics only do so because they are that 13-20 year old demographic 😉

  8. I think you’re on the right track!

    Me and a couple of friends were discussing why we liked the world (in terms of graphics) much better in WoW compared to DAoC and EQ2.

    We came to the conclusion opposite of yours, that the WoW characters are *more* life-like than the EQ2 or DAoC ones.

    I think it boils down to the artist/animator. A skillful painter can paint a face to be extremely life like, but he’ll lack the ‘spirit’ in the canvas. Whereas another artist’s work might not be as perfect, but he captures what we as humans see as the spark of life in the colours.

    Simply: Blizzard hired the best artists they could to create the best art they could, and they hit home.

    And i think this is reflected throughout the game, and contrasted easily with DAoC and EQ2:

    Zones for instance, wandering through the world in EQ2 or DAOC felt sterile, dry, cut and pasted. Whereas in WoW they obviously put in tremendous effort in making the zones cohesive, making each element in the zone blend in well with other elements. Object models are elaborately designed individually, but also in order to contrast well with other objects nearby it.

    So, i must dismiss your claim that it’s empathy (feeling sorry), i think on the contrary, it’s the ability to recognize the ‘humanity’ in the art and models that makes Warcraft more “cool”.

    – Pops

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