Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Uncanny Valley

So. Jeff and I had this conversation a looooong time ago about how things like ponies, and clowns and gorillas really unnerve me b/c they remind me of approximations of the real thing. Ponies are small horses (weird, disproportional horses), clowns are the extreme versions of people, and gorillas are like people but hairy and moody and unpredictably violent. Well, apparently my unease is nothing new, it's related, at least in part, to an idea called the Uncanny Valley. The gist of the idea, as I understand it, is that when something approximates real human physical traits, (Ala robots, AI, primates) there is something instinctual within us that reacts with disgust. As in, "I recognize this foreign thing and it is like me, but it's enough not like me that I am repulsed." Do y'all know what I am talkin' 'bout?
Anyway, that conversation started a long time ago, but a few months back, Bagel read an article about the hookers in Grand Theft Auto IV, and how they have reached the Uncanny Valley. What's interesting here is a few things: 1) This started as a conversation about my own idiosyncrasies and in turn became about something Jeff could empathise and relate to and even more importantly made me realize I am not crazy or alone: 2) that there is a convergence between how people feel about every-day, normal things and the speed of technology: 3) that these people who think they have reached the Uncanny Valley in video games/animation/media are dead wrong.

I think that modern video game graphics are awesome. I am spoiled by the splendiferous variations of the Wii, the PS3, the X Box 360 and beyond. But to be honest? I don't care a fig about graphics. Now, let me say this, when I test a PlayStation One at work, it hurts. I am spoiled. I want crisp visuals, and no lag time. That being said, my favorite game system is still the NES. So what I have theorized is that the Uncanny Valley is not just bimodal, but a logarithm that expands across not just positive and negative but backwards and forwards.
Whoa, I think I just Math Geeked out, but hang with me for a second.
If the newest generation of game consoles is along the positive x axis, the old school game consoles would be at this point in time along the negative x axis, whereas they used to be on the negative y axis. Ya dig?
The original Nintendo is fun b/c the graphics are so far removed from real life that it doesn't even approach the Uncanny Valley. (Hence, the undying popularity of the really old-school game systems.) That is, it's not just nostalgia at work but a fundamental idea of entertainment that is as far removed from reality as possible. I can play the NES b/c it's 1) awesome, 2) fun, 3) not like real life at all. I guess what I'm saying is that I can move not just negative along the x-y axis but backwards as well.
I have a theory that once graphics become so advanced it feels
like we are manipulating real life, that gamers, web masters, illustrators, etc., will become disinterested in the current medium because it too easily replicates what already happens in everyday life. After that technology is available I bet we will see a resurgence in the popularity of older game systems, like we ( at my store, with friends, etc.) see now with the NES, the Super Nintendo, and with some people, (older, of course), the Atari.
You know how you hear that the suspension of disbelief is really important in regards to writing, film, what have you?
Well, I think that equally important is the suspension of belief. That is, the reason we seek media is because we are searching for distraction and as soon as it starts to truly replicate real life we will lose all interest. That is, media is interesting b/c it is not real life.
So anyway, anyway. Jeff said that essentially he agreed with this article about how the hos in GTA4 represent the Uncanny Valley but I disagree on a few fundamental levels:
1) Graphics are not so state of the art that this can happen.
I don't know about y'all but I have never truly believed a video game to the point that it made me uneasy. Maybe that's why I can shoot 'em up with the best of them in GTA4 and not give a fuck.
2) I think the queasiness that Bagel feels says more about his character than about the video game industries' proximity to the Uncanny valley. That is, I think the fact that he is not turned on by the hookers in GTA, and in fact finds them repulsive, shallow representations of women, says more about his feelings about women in general and their portrayal of media of all types than it has to do with the Uncanny Valley, though they are not unrelated. I guess that I think that b/c the graphics, as good as they may be, and as spoiled as I about them, are still nowhere near the Uncanny Valley region of discomfort.
So anyway. What do y'all think? And what is your favorite old skool video game? mine is Kid Icarus for NES. I hear they might be releasing an update for the 360...


s... said...

I'm not sure if a PS1 game actually counts as 'old skool', but regardless, my favorite is Vigilante 8 Second Offense. It's kind of like a precursor to Twisted Metal, I think (never played TM), where you drive AND blow shit up. Best. Game. Ever. Coincidentally, if you ever see it come through your store, would you grab it for me? I'd pay a small fortune for a working copy of this hard-to-find game.

Cangrejero said...

The original designers of video games weren't video game designers, they were electrical engineers who dealt mostly with hardware design of circuits. I think the type of problem solving involved in that sort of exercise requires a certain type of creativity absent in people who write software and storylines and don't touch circuitboards. Not a superior type, just a different type. I think that's one of the big reasons for the different flavors.

For my money, Street Fighter II is still one of the best video games ever made. Gorf was brilliant, and the hardware that went into making that beast talk was enormous and fascinating. Toobin' was a pretty fun (if forgettable) game that had an amazing cabinet. Defender was an ergonomic nightmare (the original Defender was controlled with a two-way joystick and 5 buttons! You had to be seriously coordinated to last very long on that beast of a machine)

The holy grail of old school arcade games was definitely Discs of Tron. It had a cabinet that you stood inside of with surround sound speakers. Immense.

Paul J. Straw said...

I often view Russians in this Uncanny Valley mind set. You should have included them.

I've never really been into vid-yuh games. But if I had to pick an old school favorite, I'd mosdef go with something like Kid I, Bionic Commando or Street Fighter II. (I sound real original here but there's no denying, them some good games and I've put some serious time into each.) For pc based games, I'd go with Kings Quest or Unreal Tournament (this being a more or less subjective 'old-school' game.)

That Obscure Object said...

i just reread this post, seeing as how I write in when I was drunk. (check the time posted) and i got some of the math bits wrong in my explanation, but whatever, you get the gist of what I'm saying. Discs of Tron was fucking CRAZY (there was one or at least something similar that I remember at a movie theater in Indianapolis) There is a lot of love for street fighter 2m that I just don't share. As for Vigilant 8 i never played that but I'll keep my eyes open for you s.
Your right about te Russina P, they are always fucking creepy. "You wanna see the seventh card, stop speaking fucking sputnik! I'm sure you guys were talking about pirogies and snow but let's cut that out."

idlewildeone said...

I loved Donkey Kong Country, though 1994 isn't exactly old school. Before that, I'd say I was all about the Zelda, though there will always be a special place in my heart for Mario Brothers. Jumping to the top of the flag pole with that little joooop noise was insanely satisfying as a youngin'.

As for the uncanny, I think that's why I hated the muppets and sesame street when I was little. I loved the cartoon muppets, but I couldn't stand to watch puppety ones, they made me feel sick and sad.

That Obscure Object said...

My first crush was on Dangermouse. No shit. I always felt a little perverted b/c a) he was a cartoon b) he was a mouse. I think this has something to do with the UV but I'm not sure. Muppets are creepy in a way though.