Written by Ryan Johnson Sunday, 10 October 2010 00:00
Gabriel takes on the most difficult trek yet for a Belmont: A trip through the Uncanny Valley.
For your reading enjoyment, please imagine the next few paragraphs are being read by Sir Patrick Stewart out of a dusty old tome, his face dimly lit by a single candle...
As he treads out onto the frozen lake, the wind bites against his flesh. The snow spins around him, flying into his eyes and blurring his vision. He knows this lake is treacherous, but he must press on. The warrior, battle-scarred from his ardorous journey, walks slowly, scanning the sides of the lake for the ambush he knows will come.
Suddenly, it happens. A titanic metal beast cracks through the brittle lake surface and begins its attack. With a mighty lunge it pummels the ground near the adventurer with its titanic left hand. Unfazed, he lassos his way onto the arm of his attacker and begins his ascent. The behemoth swats at his arm, but the valiant hero is unfazed. He dodges the blow, and with a series of brilliantly timed grapples, makes it to the beast's head.
The titan strikes again, this time making contact, hurling the intrepid warrior to the icy lake surface. The giant swings his mighty left arm again at the adventurer. The warrior expertly grapples back to where he was before...using...the same...grapple points...as the monster reacts...exactly the same way? His mind can't help but recall the vile beast that attacked the town he was in the day before. All would have been lost had that monster not kept leaping over and over from the same rock where that plank he had dropped twice finally impaled the beast...
Apologies to those of you who clicked on the link thinking that I had found a secret level within Lords of Shadow. Continue reading for my take on the game, and a review as well. I mentioned in my title the "uncanny valley". This is a term mostly used in robotics and android creation, but has recently leapt into the realm of realism in CGI movies and video games. As the things we are interacting with get more and more realistic, we bond more and more with them, feeling their joys and pains. There is a point, though, where something can be both not real enough and too real. Where something seems realistic, yet not real enough. This is called the uncanny valley.
Technicians have tried to recreate humans in robots. The physical aspect is there, but the true emotions are not. They can fake these emotions, but usually only in a limited way. A human has a myriad of emotions, reactions and nuances that cannot be easily replicated. In cinema, this was recently discussed when Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within was released. The programmers had done such an excellent job recreating every hair on their characters' heads and making them look real that it was impossible to see the moves they made as natural; every single move had to be scripted and programmed. Visually, it is more comfortable to watch, say, Toy Story rather than The Spirits Within, because the show is intentionally visually unrealistic.
This translates to video games as well. An older game can be viewed less critically due to its' lack of realism. I remember being immersed in the world of Pitfall! for the Atari 2600...I WAS Pitfall Harry. And yet, I feel disjointed from the world at times in Lords of Shadow. My mind was given more room for imagination in an older game.
Intense realism also limits your options. By poring so much time into developing graphics, restrictions have to be made on the player. I would have gone for less real graphics in a Grand Theft Auto "Open World, do what you want" game if I could choose, before I broke any laws, to go to the police station and sign up to be an officer, and do good for the community, stopping villians from completing the tasks I would have otherwise been doing. The developers have to limit you. Final Fantasy 13 isn't open world like others because of the detail required to achieve the desired effect. In Super Mario Brothers, I could jump over Bowser, run under him, get there with Fire Power and shoot at him until he went into the lava. The aforementioned bosses in Castlevania have only one way to be defeated. In Shadow of the Colossus (which many are referring to being similar to this game at times), you could attempt other ways to defeat the Colossus. You would fail, but you still might do a bit of damage. This game even has tutorial suggestions through your boss battle, akin to one long Quick-Time Event. This distances me from the game. I'm not allowed to try anything new. The developers have a single route for me to go through, and that's how I have to play the game.
I would like to take the time now to say I am LOVING this game. It is beautiful, the gameplay is rich and the controls are fluid. The storyline is engaging. Patrick Stewart steals the show as the narrator: I would NEVER skip his work on this game. Definitely a must-buy for any fan of the series. I feel, however, that this game represents a crossroads. To any developer I may have the fortune of reading my work: graphics are BEAUTIFUL...but they're enough. Games have been pumping out better and better graphics for some time now, and they almost appear real.
But we have fallen into The Uncanny Valley. We need to work on the other side of graphics: the emotional side. The common-reaction side. You know, Batman should only need to cinch up his gloves and crack his neck so many times. I do know this is a challenge, but it is a challenge I think developers can handle if we can get them off of the "more graphical power" horse and get them working on the next necessary development: the literal heart of the characters and the natural, lifelike movements that help represent those emotions.