We are currently working out gameplay issues in the Doofus game and I am working on some serious tweaks to the A* algorithm used in the game. One of the feedback from beta testers was the movement of the enemies was somewhat robotic with very sharp turns. Fortunately all the enemies in the game are robots (smart move there), so the robotic nature of movement is kinda OK, still A* algorithm gives very sharp turns. I am working on some way to smoothen out these turns. (I hope it works out.)
Anyways, what the beta tester said, really got to me. He is right, you do get an uncanny feeling. So I decided to do some googling around to find out how other games were solving the same problem and why we got this sort of “uncanny feeling“. Before long I landed in the “Uncanny Valley”. The Uncanny valley is a hypothesis that was suggested by a Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori . The hypothesis states; As robots became more and more humanlike, people were attracted to them, but up to a certain point. As soon as a robot or an android passed a certain threshold and became too realistic, people were repelled or disgusted. So what does this have to do with game characters? As it turns out the very same thing can affect game characters too.
Another article on the Slate gives more details on the effects of the Uncanny valley on game characters. I had noticed this effect before, where game characters don’t seem lifelike and their faces seem a bit odd. I couldn’t quite nail what it was that seemed strange, but reading the article makes things more clear. I was playing Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion a few weeks back and there too the characters speaking to you looked odd. Their mouths, speech and gestures did not coordinate correctly. I remember in Quake 4 the character of Voss seems to be very robot like when he spoke to you.
I nearly shrieked out loud at one point. And whenever other characters speak to you—particularly during cut-scenes, those supposedly “cinematic” narrative moments—they’re even more ghastly. Mouths and eyes don’t move in synch. It’s as if all the characters have been shot up with some ungodly amount of Botox and are no longer able to make Earthlike expressions. — Slate
According to me, the Slate article is a bit too harsh and a little bit old. Yes, it may be true that games do suffer from uncanny valley effects, but I am not so sure they are here to stay. In fact after reading the article I fired up Half-Life 2 to re look at the animation effects from the cut scenes and guess what, the Source engine designers have nailed it! I mean the characters may not be totally lifelike but I found the animation system to have, lets say, less of the valley effect. Besides, if you look at the recent animation technologies like the ones in Shrek, Happy Feet, Chicken Little you see no visible signs of the Valley effect, at least I couldn’t. The gaming industry has some of the most intelligent and talented people in the world. With hardware evolving at law defying speeds and demands for realism going up all the time, I am sure these technologies will find their way into games sooner rather than later. To make claims like “though, gaming’s Uncanny Valley could be here to stay”, doesn’t do justice to the industry which is well known for its innovations and breakthroughs.