Monday, March 27, 2017

Me, Uncharted 4, and the Uncanny Valley

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End took me to the edge of that state of mind known as The Uncanny Valley and left me there longer than any other video game has ever managed to do. This was a good thing. Dare I say, an excellent thing. An astonishingly immersive thing the likes of which I have never experienced before. 
Obtained from wikipedia, after I'd 
already typed up my definition... 

Before I explain why my experience was so sublime, I first need to ask: Do you know what The Uncany Valley is? It’s a chart. A line-graph, more specifically. On the one axis you have immersion, suspension of disbelief, whatever you want to call it; this is the measure of how
enthralled you can get in a particularly simulated experience. And on the other axis you have the human-ness of the characters, objects, and concepts in that simulation; in other words, you’re measuring how ‘real’ and ‘relatable’ (i.e. ‘canny’) those things are, as objectively as possible. The lines go up, then plateau for a bit, then suddenly drop way the hell off… That’s because the more and more human something gets, and likewise the more and more your mind starts to believe it’s human, the more immersed you get, until suddenly, your mind reels because something just isn’t quite right. A character’s eyes or teeth are too white, or she never blinks, or her hair is perfect except for that single strand that’s clearly digitized. Welcome to the Uncanny Valley.

A [meme-famous] glitch from Assassin's Creed Unity, and
a perfect example of how you can plunge over the edge!
A lot of games take you there. But, getting back to my main point, not a lot of them do it quite the same as Uncharted 4. And it’s not just the astoundingly detailed character models and animations that brought me there. It’s the voice acting. It’s the script itself. It’s the emotion that emerges as all those elements become one. It’s so utterly beautiful.

One of the best scenes in any video game ever.
I approached Uncharted 4 pretty much the same way I approached all the other Uncharted titles: I heard about it, scoffed, said to myself and anyone who would listen that no doubt they finally sold out their quality storytelling for a quick cashgrab, didn’t actually care, and ultimately avoided playing it. In brief, I’d written the game off. The only reason I actually decided to play the thing was because I saw it sitting on my local library’s shelf (a rare occurrence since the thing had obviously been passed around like a virus in a daycare). On a whim, I picked it up and checked it out.

"Shot" like a movie. Acted like a movie.
As gripping, if not moreso, as a movie.

It was probably the best decision I’ve made in the past several months. Certainly the most rewarding. This isn’t a ‘review’ of the game. If you’re reading this and wondering if I’ll recommend you play it, I can answer that already: YES!

But here’s the thing: I quickly lost interest in the GAME that is Uncharted 4. Whenever the Brothers Drake found themselves in yet another gun battle or throwing out a grappling line and then eerily and instantaneously drawing it back in after swinging and leaping over impossible fissures and slamming their heads against cave walls and suffering gunshot wounds and murdering countless fellow humans and laughing it all off… Well, the GAME broke my immersion, and I think, for once, it seriously damaged my immersion.

You see, the game is so realistic – it doesn’t just LOOK it, it FEELS it, in your heart – that it would take me right to the edge of the uncanny valley and leave me there, and I felt the world fall away, and it was breathtaking. But then the game would assert itself because I think the game felt it kind of had to, and that would send me reeling over.

....Maybe TOO MUCH movie. Realistically, how many times can a human daredevil expect to swing to a ledge
while being shot at, grab a hold firm enough to hold his weight, and scramble to safety? It breaks immersion.

What could Naughty Dog – oh, brilliant frikkin’ Naughty Dog – have done? Should they have cut out all the combat and exploration and platforming and dared to sell it as an Uncharted game? No. I understand. They couldn’t have done that. I am left wondering, however, if there could have been a way to evoke the same excitement during a chase, a shootout, or a standoff WITHOUT the gratuitous violence and gonzo unbelievability. I think so. But who can say whether re-writing the Uncharted formula in such a way would’ve broken my immersion in another way.