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Saturday, December 17, 2021

Josh Korr writes up a pretty good summary about how ever-advancing graphics manipulation is resulting in videogame imagery that’s, paradoxically, less lifelike than one would expect. Characters that are supposed to be true-to-life in sports games instead come off as looking fake, with plastic-like skin.

(A quick aside: I’m thinking a good nickname for Josh would be “Hard”. Imagine introducing him at some convention or something: “And here’s the tech blogger from the St. Pete Times, our main man, Josh ‘Hard’ Korr!”)

The problem lies in what Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori calls “the Uncanny Valley”:

When an android, such as R2-D2 or C-3PO, barely looks human, we cut it a lot of slack. It seems cute. We don’t care that it’s only 50 percent humanlike. But when a robot becomes 99 percent lifelike — so close that it’s almost real — we focus on the missing 1 percent. We notice the slightly slack skin, the absence of a truly human glitter in the eyes. The once-cute robot now looks like an animated corpse. Our warm feelings, which had been rising the more vivid the robot became, abruptly plunge downward. Mori called this plunge “the Uncanny Valley,” the paradoxical point at which a simulation of life becomes so good it’s bad.

That “cutting slack” action is crucial, and it takes place on a subconscious level, where the human brain processes visual information and makes symbolism possible. It’s the same processes that allow us to look at a circle, an arc and two dots, and recognize the arranged imagery as the classic smiley face. As Scott McCloud pointed out in his book “Understanding Comics”, it’s not so remarkable that we can interpret such graphical information thusly; it’s more remarkable that we can’t look at it and not perform that mental calculation into representative glyphs.

In the videogame world, the progression is quite clear. We’ve gone from the block-pixels of Pong, to the cartoon animation of Mario and the like, to the faux-realism of Grand Theft Auto and Doom. The balance between how pretty the game looks, versus how much of the focus should go to the gameplay (which Korr argues for, and is a constant point of contention among gamer cognoscenti), is delicate.

The question comes down to how “real” the imagery in these mediums has to, or should, be. I’ve always felt that what made comics work as a storytelling format, particularly for the staple superhero/sci-fi/fantasy genre, is that the nature of line-drawn representation makes the classic suspension of disbelief easy to complete. That doesn’t necessarily create allowances for the quality of the storytelling, although it’s certainly contributed to the kid’s-stuff attitude attributed to comics (and, if you think about it, to videogames too). But it’s a device that you don’t see in text-based storytelling or in film.

However, as it becomes more feasible to use close-to-life representations of people, animals, backgrounds and objects in videogames, will our visual processing adjust? To me, it seems like we’re in a transitional phase for all this: That 1-percent-focus will someday disappear, to the point where controllable videogame characters and environments will be as high-quality as a movie. Then what? Will all the gaps be filled sufficiently? Right now, we’re used to a certain level of unreality in this arena, and accept that. We may not have to settle for that when the process is complete.

- Costa Tsiokos, Sat 12/17/2005 04:27:28 PM
Category: Videogames, Creative, Science | Permalink |

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