Nathan Drake is well equipped to deftly traverse the Uncanny Valley using whatever uneven protrusions or dangling ropes it presents to him. Regardless of his prowess, though, it would appear that this particular, initially insurmountable obstacle is not one that appeals to his adventurous spirit. Any objective reading of Uncharted 2's Drake would reveal him to consist of around 80,000 polygons and several shader passes, all picked out with exaggerated lighting. The result of this is a recognisable human figure, albeit not one whom could blend into a queue at a supermarket. Yet we are easily able to empathise with this ‘person’, and he (along with his supporting cast) very rarely make us feel uncomfortable through that particular unnerving stare, or ever so slightly inhuman movement that more ‘realistic’ avatars, despite their best efforts, so often deliver.
Of course, a large part of this Trojan relationship is the excellent vocal and physical contributions of the game’s actors (which produces an effect as revelatory as that of early rotoscoping experiments in Snow White or Prince of Persia), and the snappy script. As important as these factors are, many more hours were spent by animators and programmers to translate these performances to the screen; even the greatest voice acting will be let down by discrepant physical behaviour, whilst astonishing animation will carry less weight if delivering flat dialogue.
However, believable, empathetic characters are not only the preserve of motion captured actors, and whilst this method is undoubtedly one route that will progress our emotional investment in games and their protagonists (whilst reducing jarring inconsistencies), it is not the only way to effectively fool our senses. Ico is often cited as an exemplar of story telling and game design, but it has lessons to teach in character design too. The character models of Ico and Yorda are many times less detailed than those in Uncharted 2, the dialogue offered is sparse, and the animation is iteratively created by hand; regardless of this potential disadvantage in engaging our affections, we have no more trouble accepting their façade as ‘canny’ than we do Drake’s, Chloe’s or even the seven Dwarfs’.
Perhaps the greatest personality in Ico is the castle itself, its stylised aesthetic equally as sparing as that which is applied to the characters. Even so, every dappled shaft of light, crumbled piece of stone and gust of wind is burned into the memory; this place feels real, and sits alongside recollections of genuine locales with astonishing parity.
Since the beginning of representation, from cave paintings to political satire, we have stylised and caricatured in order to accentuate. Exaggeration of characteristics is a rich shorthand which, when used well, allows for large ideas to be communicated through smaller actions. This shorthand has brought many believable characters to life; Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny and Homer Simpson have all benefited and iconic game characters from Mario to Ico also sit comfortably far from the Uncanny Valley’s precipice, yielding a positive emotional response from players. But there is a tendency to see this position as inferior to the verdant, untouched fields on the other side of the valley. The ongoing drive for realism is usually tied to graphical fidelity, whilst abstraction and stylisation are considered experiments in synaesthesia (Rez) or childish regression – the back lash which resulted from Link's foray into cell shading is testament to this.
Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, broadly stated, asserts that we cannot know the position and momentum of an electron simultaneously – knowing one will preclude your ability to measure the other. While this is an imperfect metaphor, there are some definite parallels with the Uncanny Valley; like a fractal image relinquishing ever more detail, the more a character attempts to convincingly ape real life, the more previously subtle inconsistencies are rendered glaringly obvious. It is conceivable that the dip on the graph is actually a more sustained tailing off, realism and revulsion inversely proportional and governed by some kind of 'Less is Moore’s Law'; at the very least, the other side is probably further away than it appears.
In dismissing the opportunities afforded by alternative aesthetics, we risk finding ourselves in very monotonous, and much less charming worlds. Given the success of Uncharted’s hyper realistic caricature in endearing itself to us, it would seem that Drake has found some ruins worthy of exploration somewhere at the base of the valley. I Am The Manta hopes that developers continue to explore this landscape before attempting to scale the opposing face.