So, I had an interesting conversation today with my buddy Chad. It was about video games, as all of our conversations are. And as Dave said to me while I was giving him my side of the conversation hours later, both Chad and I care a lot more about the video game industry than he does. Dave is probably the average gamer on this–not in taste, but in philosophic inclination. As he said as I was telling him about all of this, as long as the games he likes are not affected by any changes, he’d be fine. And like most of my conversations with Chad, it started with him raving at me about Mass Effect 2, which he’s been playing for a good long while now. I don’t know if this is his first or second playthrough of the game, but I know he’s doing it on PS3, which is a bit–whatever. The real meat of the conversation started when I said I wasn’t turned on to playing it for a number of factors. And among the legitimate “I’m not good at RPGs or shooters” factors–does it even have any shooter elements?–there was one reason I didn’t want to play it above all: the Bioware Stare.
The BioWare Stare is this peculiar property BioWare characters have where, because they’re pitchfork and torch-wielding residents of the uncanny valley, they just stare at you. And everything. You know how everyone crapped on Polar Express for having dead, lifeless eyes on characters that seemed to be an off-centre representation of humanity? Like a replication gone wrong somewhere? BioWare has that in all of their games, including all three Mass Effect entries, I say without seeing the third one in action as it as yet to see release, but with full confidence, as, let’s face it, they won’t conquer this limitation of technology by the end of the year. And yes, this was my biggest complaint: that in a game cast primarily with humans, the humans looked like poor approximations of humanity, rather than actual human beings.
I’m not saying it’s a noble or good reason not to be interested in a game, but it is a reason, and it’s one that speaks to a lot of uncomfortable truths about today’s triple-A gaming industry. I’m gonna make not-like Zack Snyder and assume you can follow a metaphor. Cool? Cool. As Chad and I started saying to each other, a lot of time, money and man-hours are going into these games. They have full high-definition graphics out the backend and are coming the closest to one-to-one humanity we’ve ever come with a medium that’s a simulation. Except for, I dunno, books. Books portray human beings flawlessly, for some value of imagination. Sorry, that’s off-topic.
Our conversation got a little more heated when I saw his cutscene with the Illusive Man in Mass Effect 2 and raised him a scene of Martin Sheen as President Bartlett from season two of The West Wing where he takes down a Christian radio host. He said: so games are automatically inferior because they can’t match a human being’s performance? And I hate to be the bad guy in this one, but I have to say–yes. Yes, games are inferior to movies and television because they can’t give me a one-to-one, entirely realistic human being onscreen. I look at games being developed now like LA Noire that have spent a lot of time and effort on facial animation, bragging that you can call a liar by their face in this game. Except you still lose so much from the actor to the computer. If I can see your actor sitting in a chair performing better than your animators, replicating his face, your animators need to decide what to exaggerate in his performance to make it more human.
And there’s an area not being explored in our triple-A gaming industry: exaggeration. Stylization. Making the characters look deliberately non-human so that their more human qualities stand out better against the character. And I want it to be recorded here that I wasn’t the guy to say Pixar first. But! Carl Fredericksen in Up has a head the size of his torso which is the size of his legs. And he is entirely believable as a human being because you look at him and accept him. So if games were trying to emulate successful, Oscar winning movies, perhaps they should explore not high-definition, one-to-one human rendering, but stylized characters. Characters like Mario, still evocative and memorable after so many years. How did his character carry so well from the 16-bit era all the way through to Super Mario Galaxy 2? How did we always know he was the same guy, the same plumber coming through the pipes?
We knew because his character is distinctly stylized. We know the hat, the moustache and the overalls, so no matter what art style he’s transmuted to–from Paper Mario to Super Smash Bros.–we know who he is. And we know, ironically enough, that he’s a human being in all of his appearances. We look at him and we don’t say “holy god, get the hollow mannequin away from me mommy, its teeth look hungry”. No, we think “Mario, plumber.” We don’t stop to think “what kind of alien has a head the size of his torso?” We just think “Mario, plumber.” Human is assumed. And humanity is assumed expressly because we look at Mario and we know he’s a human being.
The industry’s general lack of ambition–its lack of drive to explore new territories, even ones that have already been explored and very successfully by previous creators and game developers–is kind of very frightening. And that’s the metaphor here. In this one small segment of the industry, striving constantly to achieve perfect one-to-one replicas of human beings, we see the entire industry in microcosm. And coming up tomorrow, I’ll explain how that’s so. Look for part four of my popular (I’m) Not a Gamer miniseries, coming soon!
For more information phrased better by a man reading through a pitch modulator, you can check out “Video Games and the Uncanny Valley“, a video essay by the team that would go on to do Extra Credits for the Escapist in the same style. It’s also likely where I cribbed everything I said, so credit to Daniel Floyd and James Portnow for my argument.