The Depths of the Uncanny Valley

GameSpot investigates how video games really impact our lives--how they are changing our culture, what they're doing to our brains, and what this all means for people who play video games.

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By Carrie Gouskos- posted July 8, 2006

No Caption Providedou play video games, but do you have any idea how those video games are affecting you? They do, whether it's the subconscious way in which violence triggers chemicals in your brain, or your automatic repulsion at a game character that doesn't look quite human. With these ongoing reports, GameSpot will investigate how video games really impact our lives--how they are changing our culture, what they're doing to our brains, and what this all means for people who play video games.

Becoming uncanny

Image of the Uncanny Valley, courtesy of Karl MacDorman
Image of the Uncanny Valley, courtesy of Karl MacDorman

In 1970, roboticist Masahiro Mori published an article in the Japanese magazine Energy titled "Bukimi No Tani" (English translation: "The Uncanny Valley") detailing an observation that he had made from his experience working with humanlike robots. Mori noted that the more closely robots approximated human appearance and behavior, the more familiar they seemed to a human observer, until a point at which they resembled humans closely, but not perfectly. At this point, people would begin to react negatively to robots, citing feelings of eeriness or discomfort about their appearance. He called it "the uncanny valley," because of the way a graph depicting the correlation between familiarity and human likeness would dip suddenly and drastically, just before reaching perfect mimicry of the human appearance.

As technology improves and entertainment media such as movies and video games are able to more closely approximate realism, humanoid characters get dangerously close to what Mori described. For example, take a look at some of the most negative reviews that the motion picture The Polar Express received. The film attempted to create a highly realistic look through computer-generated imagery (CGI), but missed a few key points, such as the depiction of the characters' eyes and skin, which made them seem more doll-like than human, causing an involuntary repulsion among viewers.

So how does the uncanny valley work? Is it science? What are the factors that contribute to uncanniness--this unusual quality of realistic-looking characters that can seem so discomforting when we see them in action? Mori's observation may have opened up the discussion about this concept, but it left most of these questions unanswered. Only recently have scientists and roboticists begun to uncover the methodology and reasoning behind the uncanny valley, and in turn, how we can circumvent it.

Getting into the uncanny valley

"If you are interacting with an android and the timing of its speech and gestures is off, this will be uncanny for a different reason than if its eyes are too far apart." - Dr. Karl MacDorman, School of Informatics at Indiana University

Karl MacDorman is an associate professor in the human-computer interaction program at the School of Informatics at Indiana University and has been working with the uncanny valley hypothesis, using human participants, for the past year. In his own research on the subject, MacDorman has found scientific support for the hypothesis, which has revealed, among other things, that there are too many contributing factors for it to be narrowed down to a single theory. "If you are interacting with an android and the timing of its speech and gestures is off, this will be uncanny for a different reason than if its eyes are too far apart. This in turn is uncanny for a different reason than if part of its body is open, exposing wires and motors. I have identified about 10 possible causes for the uncanny valley, and I am sure there are many more."

The sheer number of factors and the precision of detail required to perfectly approximate humans makes the process seem extraordinarily daunting, though MacDorman believes that the most difficult of these problems is not in creating proportionately accurate humans, but in the timing and the interactivity of character movement: "I suspect the hard part will not be in finding the right physical proportions, but making the movements seem natural and well-timed, especially during interaction." This presents an extraordinarily poignant problem for video games, in which the player has control over the characters for the majority of the time. The characters must not only look realistic and animate accurately, but they must also react to control with perfect timing.

What makes this uncanny?

This character may look realistic, but there are many factors which make her also seem uncanny.
This character may look realistic, but there are many factors which make her also seem uncanny.

Of course, there are still plenty of problems within controlled situations. One such example of this can be seen in developer Quantic Dream's recent tech demo for its game Heavy Rain (working title), which has come under fire for uncanniness since it was first revealed at E3 2006. The trailer, which depicts an extremely realistic female character performing a monologue for the camera, is technologically impressive, yet many people have responded to it in a negative way, stating that there's something about it that is unsettling.

MacDorman lists several factors behind what makes the principal character of the video, Mary Smith, seem unnatural, although he recognizes that the video displays great technique nonetheless. "Presumably to enhance realism or reduce calculation, the game designers or animators exaggerate the depth of field, so that Mary's face is rendered in focus, but her hair and neck are out of focus and blurry. In addition, there is sometimes a lack of synchronization with her speech and lip movements, which is very disturbing to people. People 'hear' with their eyes as well as their ears. By this, I mean that if you play an identical sound while looking at a person's lips, the lip movements can cause you to hear the sound differently." He further cites her pale complexion and the fact that she behaves as a sociopath as reasons that most people will have trouble relating to her. "In general, sociopaths tend to seem odder than ordinary people--not only in their behavior, but in their facial asymmetries, which reflect developmental disorders--as anyone can tell by surfing Web sites that list photographs of known sexual offenders." This list of factors shows the breadth and depth of the uncanny valley problem, in that it goes far beyond what seems obvious (something like the lip synching) and into the more nuanced (the difference of the face structure of sociopaths).

"And as the animators make these characters more realistic, they have already become used to their less realistic predecessors. So they never get to look at their own creations with fresh eyes." - Dr. Karl MacDorman, School of Informatics at Indiana University

Posing an even deeper problem for developers, MacDorman believes that animators working from inception to completion will have difficulty witnessing uncanniness in their own projects. "They build up characters that start off looking not particularly realistic and, therefore, not particularly uncanny. And as the animators make these characters more realistic, they have already become used to their less realistic predecessors. So they never get to look at their own creations with fresh eyes. As artists, animators must always rely on their own sense of aesthetics. The problem is that they have lost what is 'common sense' to the rest of us." According to Elspeth Tory, the Animation Project Manager on Ubisoft's upcoming game Assassin's Creed, that's why it's absolutely critical that animators not work on their games in isolation. "You certainly start to get used to a character after a while and can occasionally lose a bit of the objectivity that you had at the beginning of the process. Getting feedback from others, especially the artistic director for animation, is an essential part of the pipeline in order to maintain a standard of believability."

Dealing with uncanniness

But it takes more than just feedback to get past the uncanny valley. Animators must deal with the phenomenon head-on, working to combat it from the beginning, not only by creating realistic-looking humans and animating them well, but also by making sure that the level of realism present is both believable and fun. Tory cites the uncanny valley as a hurdle in achieving realism with Assassin's Creed but distinguishes reality from believability, which is an equally if not more important goal. "Animating something that's believable gives you a bit of room for texturing a movement than simply making something that's realistic. A character that's realistic will seem to have ticked off a checklist of human characteristics, but a believable one will display nuances and subtleties that make them seem unique and alive." Tory notes that weight and timing are some of the most important aspects that contribute to a character's believability, and that hands are the most difficult part of the human body to animate.

Ubisoft animators aim for both believability and realism in games like Assassin's Creed.
Ubisoft animators aim for both believability and realism in games like Assassin's Creed.

Ubisoft has a good track record for believability, particularly with Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, which was critically lauded for its excellence in animation. Alex Drouin, the Animation Artistic Director on both Sands of Time and Assassin's Creed, reveals some of the tricks they used to achieve such a full range of fluid animations. "Everything was hand animated in Prince of Persia: Sands of Time. We used a lot of 'blending' of animations to get specific effects and a wider range of possibilities, and different kinds of interpolations to fluidly link different moves together. We used the same tools for Assassin's Creed but we added full body IK (inverse kinematics) and a rag doll tool." These tools helped the Ubisoft animators create a game that looked both believable and realistic, without getting bogged down in the kind of realism that would make the game unenjoyable. Focusing on believability helped them to achieve their animation goals with Sands of Time, and the result was a very attractive and well-animated game.

Out of the valley...for good?

"We've put a lot more animation files in the game... More than anything I've seen before." - Alex Drouin, Animation Artistic Director on Assassin's Creed

So how does the future of research and technology help to resolve the problems of the uncanny valley once and for all? MacDorman hope his research will lay the groundwork for combating the uncanny valley, by narrowing down all of the factors that contribute to it and giving us a better understanding of all of the nuances that control our perception of a realistic human. "We know that the human brain doesn't even register many kinds of gaps in visual information. We don't notice that we have a blind spot. We don't notice when we blink. We don't notice floaters, particles of dust moving on the cornea. There would be no point in filling in details that we don't notice. Therefore, we need to identify what we do notice, and to fix that part, and this may not so much require new technologies as an improved application of existing technologies." But having new technology will help developers to work with our limited knowledge of these factors in the short term. Drouin says that the increased power of the PlayStation 3 has helped them to create more diversity in the Assassin's Creed character animations, adding to the believability of the game. "We've put a lot more animation files in the game... More than anything I've seen before. Therefore, variety is going to help us re-create a living and breathing world because our eyes are not used to seeing patterns in real-life movements." It is the combination of these two factors, research and technology, that, when applied correctly, will begin to strip away the problem of the uncanny valley for good.

So where does this all leave us? With a lot of work to do, it seems, but MacDorman's view is optimistic. "It is something that can be overcome through good design. By manipulating the many factors that influence whether a robot or game character is familiar or eerie, we can design around the uncanny valley for any degree of human likeness. As we come to better understand the norms of human interaction, I believe our androids will overcome the uncanny valley." Developers are showing that they are able to work around the problems that the uncanny valley presents, but as games get more and more complex, there is always more work to do. Getting more involved with robotics research, using advanced technology better, and continuing to animate the details that we notice over those that we don't will all contribute to a positive future for video game animation. In the end, though, it seems as though they've got a good grasp of what really matters. Says Drouin: "So is our game completely realistic? NO WAY... It's realistically fun!"

Previously: Empathy and Conditioning Violence

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Estearns

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Edited By Estearns

This reminds me of the concepts and uneasy fealings I get from watching the original, "Ghost in the Shell".

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Yorioto

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Edited By Yorioto

Well, I was thinking that perhaps we could make certain games purposefully uncanny. I mean, the lady seemed pretty freaky, well what if we used that to create an atmosphere. I mean, monsters and slime don't always do the trick. The scariest things come from the nuances I think.

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Chocoholic_Jedi

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Edited By Chocoholic_Jedi

Very nice work...I loved the article

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tobyvanbakel

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Edited By tobyvanbakel

very good article, but the proffesor indeed should have looked at half life 2 Ep1

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ZeroSonicT

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Edited By ZeroSonicT

Huh, interesting. That's kinda cool.

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chrisdojo

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Edited By chrisdojo

cool. and once 3-d tv's are released in the next couple years, things will be much harder to tell if it's real or not (other than the image being stuck inside a tv).

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sensaike

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Edited By sensaike

The best solution for this is to identified it. once you do you can fix it. the "uncanny valley" is something that you brain does as a defence mechanizing. It is a way of reacting to something new to you and your brain. Since your brain doesn’t know how to read it, it goes on the defence. Like the says “what we don’t understand we fear and destroy or hate” your brain doesn’t know what to do, so it does what it can push it away (in a way hating). So all you have you do is identified what makes you do this and fix it. Is sound simple but is like changing a habit. You already accustomed to it, so is not going to happen over night. But all you have to do is give the “uncanny valley” a chance and you will eventually come to see it as real. Cause it is. Just like everything else. Is just different real compare to us! Because the “uncanny valley” is just change! Change were not accustomed to but is change nonetheless. Once the change settles into your system is all good. So game designers on the other hand. They cant adjust to it.( well they can, but it wont change much). Because the games they make are mend for the gamers/other people. So therefore is the people playing that have to adjust to it. And give a change to played it. Therefore games have to be “realistically fun” because if people have to adjust to it before enjoying it, they wont give it a chance, therefore they wont play it.

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SuicideCivilian

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Edited By SuicideCivilian

I like it, lol. I thought it was on how video game mess us up. I like the subject on the uncanny vally. The picture from Heavy Rain does give that negative effect while in Assasins Creed it is not. THX ALOT~!

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jervo

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Edited By jervo

Excellent article; it would have been nice to see the professor's response to Half-Life 2's Alyx.

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Flan_Man

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Edited By Flan_Man

Nice work, Carrie. Great coverage of a very interesting topic. The Uncanny Valley is something that I have been pondering upon for a little while now so it is nice to see they are making some progress in identifying various ways in which we come to experience that unnerving feeling.

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Nsae_Comp

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Edited By Nsae_Comp

I have to say that i love to read such scientific articels on gamespot, i like how you guys approach games, you not only see them as market and fun, but also as a field of science and something that effects us, and our life and maybe even society. Great work, go on like this!!!! But that with the lips synchro is crap, because i am german and i watch a lot of movies where the lips are not synchrone with the spoken and i never feel uncanny, you just dont recongnice something like this.

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Septimus

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Edited By Septimus

Good article. One thing I have never seen done well, (in either pre-rendered films, intros or interactive games), is realistic human hands. They never, ever get anything that looks natural. It's kind of important to, as humans use their hands in very descriptive ways, especially in story telling.

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RRrusSS

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Edited By RRrusSS

But the developers did successfully instill a sense of intense fear in me as i watched the demo.. the same fear that would come unto me if i were the person standing infront of the crying woman given the situation was for real.

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joey2day

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Edited By joey2day

I think the timing of the lips and the voice thing is crap. I mean, a lot of countries watch american movies but not in english, they watch them in their own language. To they freak out every time the sound is off with the lips?? NO.

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urquanster

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Edited By urquanster

Ok I might agree with some things in the article, but I don't think it's completely objective. "...blah-blah-blah ...Heavy rain sucks, blah-blah PoP, Assasian's Creed & Ubi rulz... blah, blah" (: There are also other game developers, you know.

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Daviejones

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Edited By Daviejones

Random animations will not help as much as one would think, humans are almost the only creature on earth that does things radnomly every time they perform a task, if you look at, for example, a squirrel running, every step seems exactly the same, and if another one comes along it too seems the same, and this is because humans have such immense brain power that they recalculate the same movement each time they perform it. also, trained military are supposed to do the things that in games seem wrong, such as always pointing their gun where they're looking, or taking corners softly rather than take one step to the side and then turn.

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LaNkyMaN

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Edited By LaNkyMaN

"ShadowCreature But also, the most noticeable thing is that I think it's more of a psychological thing with some of the people. Where it's so realistic that when the slightest difference is noted, it's kind of a creepy feeling, almost like being lured into thinking something is like you or real and then you enter a surreal state when noticing something is off and it kinda creeps you out. More or less a feeling of deceit most likely on a subconcious level, which can possible even create a feeling of something evil at work. Also brings into play this "creepy" or "uncanny" feeling. Like an animal familiarizing with a predator before it is attacked, something like that. I know people have already said that and I'm not trying to "copy them" or anything, in so many words it's basically (I agree with that dude) That's my stance on the subject. " What I think makes this topic interrrseting beyond creating realism, it is the possibility of using the 'uncanny vally' as a device within a game to enhance a horror game for instance. Such as your similie of an animal and predator. Much like in MGS2 where it appears the game itself is telling you to stop playing, that is an uncanny device that worked (whether or not the game was good)

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dileepvr

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Edited By dileepvr

In the cult hit anime movie "Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence" the character animations and rendering were handcrafted to seemlessly and eeriely blend in and out of the 3D structured, 2D hand painted world. Even the character movements were made to mimic that of a doll to bring out the theme in context. The most realistic of characters was a dog, but his ultra-realistic moves were over emphasised to draw attention to his "innocence". In this case, the uncanny valley was intentionally explioted to drive home the feel of the movie's noir plotline. I can't help remarking that i could actually quite profoundly relate to some of those characters on an emotional level. The valley doesn't have to be creepy or disturbing in the strictest sense.

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Sagacious_Tien

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Edited By Sagacious_Tien

Kudos to the editor, this is a great article, and something I didnt expect to see from the likes of Gamespot! Good work!

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LordGamer0001

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Edited By LordGamer0001

i really liked that article. i love learning about this side of games.

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tehchiken

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Edited By tehchiken

[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

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Edited By VampyrKDB

First of all, this is a fantastic article! Kudos to you Carrie! I found this incredibly interesting, both because I'm studying psychology and philosophy at university, and also because I'm a major cyber-punk fan (which for the uninitiated is basically sci-fi that deals with humans becoming machines and machines becoming human... Think "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" by Philip K. Dick). I understand the idea behind the Uncanny Valley, but I have to say that I didn't feel the sense of eeriness while watching the demo of Heavy Rain. It's clear that Quantic Dream is going for realism, but I just found myself picking out details that looked off. The way the character's brow furrows, the tears (which I thought looked overdone, as if they tried too hard to get them right) and the shading and shadow of her face were all things that didn't look quite right, but I never saw it as creepy. Perhaps it varies between individuals. I'd like to see a comparison study between gamers who play relatively highly realistic games and those who don't, to see if exposure and an expectancy/desire for realism come into play. It's a fascinating topic. Now I'm going to go watch the demo again... Bye now

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VilgeDuin

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Edited By VilgeDuin

I just wanted to say, bravo on the article. It's nice to see stuff like this on Gamespot for once. Insightful and educational. Kind of gets tiring seeing numerous articles about "Racecar game #849", "Listen to developer lie though his teeth # 389", etc. Kudos on livening things up lately with things such as this and Designer Threads. Now just start doing Freeplay again, and all shall be good.

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SonicTheMonkey

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Edited By SonicTheMonkey

i think that lewis from RE4 is a good example of overcoming the 'uncanny vally' he seems so alive and full of character...and to see him die...*tear*

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Hikiera

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Edited By Hikiera

This is probably why I get bored of a game so easily. After 4 hours of seeing a character repeat the same animation over and over, it will be a welcome additive to see characters do things differently even though it's the same task. No-one opens a beer the same way every time and after a few beers you definitely don't. I'd like where this is going. (No I am not a heavy drinker, it's just an analogy).

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juanfraino

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Edited By juanfraino

video games own, but when it comes to realisim, i stick with the real world thanks.

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Connor24

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Edited By Connor24

Realism is cool and all, but arn't videogames ment for escaping reality.

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Connor24

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Edited By Connor24

[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

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Edited By XenJackal

I think physhically the character from "Heavy Rain" poses some illusive and creepy attributtes (e.g the eyes and her tears also her overall face shape) but i think that as time goes on developers will get it right as well as the animation.something weird also when i was playing oblivion its kinda odd as u hit a charachter and they just turn around and unholster there weapon without even looking hurt wtf?? i think that getting more randon animations should help things.

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Getahl

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Edited By Getahl

^ true that

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schalkwijk

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Edited By schalkwijk

i agree with Naruto... realistic games are cool, but i HAVE noticed a certain level of uncaniness many times. It gives the game and eerie feeling and makes me wanna drop it and play something weird like viewtiful joe or mario.

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Sandlynx9

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Edited By Sandlynx9

Its interesting to read articles that talk about whats going on in our brians as we play games. Usually, everybody is just concerned about "Well, do games make you violent or what?" ITs nice to read an article of a different nature once and awhile!!

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dronionmonkey

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Edited By dronionmonkey

I completely agree that more random movement and less repeated or repetitive movement of characters helps create the allusion of realism and might be close to the most important factor along with facial expression and lip movement. Hand movement it important but not many people pay attention to other people's hands too much, but it helps maintain the effect. This also has a big effect on how much one can immerse themselves into the game and believe what is happennig versus saying to themselves "riiiiiight."

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eunicom

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Edited By eunicom

it's definitely the small things that we notice even though it's not really a conscious choice at times. the game industry has made leaps and bounds over the last couple of years and this is just another factor that needs to be improved in this generation of games and the next.

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clockworkboy00

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Edited By clockworkboy00

this is exactly the reason why Star Wars Episodes I-III were less well received than IV-VI. Well...alot of the reason anyway. The poorly written script and god-awful directing didn't help any. but seriously...the first characters you saw in the Phantom Menace were those Trade Federation guys whose mouths didn't move realistically...and just about every other CG character in the last 3 movies. No one ever looked at the green pig dude in Return of the Jedi and said, "That looks so fake." also...everyone loved the cute, cuddly puppet Yoda. But "ultra-realistic" Yoda always seemed off...and not definitely not cuddly.

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gabi67

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Edited By gabi67

The human eye can be fooled but not with visuals like this,because a trained eye is hard to trick.Our eyes and mind should,and in most cases they do,make the difference between reality and fiction.

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darkfox101

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Edited By darkfox101

Al games have that feeling of unrealistic movement.. like fps they all run the same and do the same thing everytime.. theres always soemthing different when someone runs and takes a step.. face might be differ bigger step, tripping.. then theres that sliding thing on some games when you turn around.. they just slide lmao and alawys look forward

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X_Facter

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Edited By X_Facter

Very impressive artical but this game is beginning to creep me out.

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sonicspear

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Edited By sonicspear

The eyes... don't really seem to be together, and... you would think her head would be a bit more furrowed then that. It sorta creepy.

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dave19067

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Edited By dave19067

This explains the reason why humans are sometimes creeped out by human like dolls or almost realistic paintings of humans.

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dee_1

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Edited By dee_1

humans are afraid of only what they dont understand....

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OddballTECH

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Edited By OddballTECH

The picture of the crying woman is eerie in a way. If you click on the image, it directs you to a larger image. It is strange how the focus in detail and sharpness is directed on the woman's face, a face which almost contradicts itself. If you cover the bottom half of her face and focus on here eyes, you'd think she'd be saying "Time to die!" or something like that. Her eyes look angry. But when you look at the bottom half of here face, you see that she is crying, and her mouth is slightly open. It seems like a sort of helpless look. I think that is the reason why that picture seems to strange and abnormal to people who look at it.

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aries27

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Edited By aries27

its a really good reason to be scared because people knew that with the introduction of voice-overs we would think that the game(s) were realistic and that scared most gamers all in all a good piece of work

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Digitalfx512

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Edited By Digitalfx512

and I guess that if know one gets it................people then immedaitley think that it's frightning or that its supposed to be scary, "Lol" come on, have a different oppion at least........

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Spartan_418

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Edited By Spartan_418

this is a good article, but the only time I have ever experienced what they are talking about is in Oblivion. All the character models are extremely realistic but all the females have man-faces at the same time. Creepy.

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Digitalfx512

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Edited By Digitalfx512

Is it just me or is everone just afraid of this game...............I mean come on

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edhc44

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Edited By edhc44

great article, creepy game...

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ragnawave

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Edited By ragnawave

The crying woman weirds me out as well. It's not a matter of what was infocus as the article suggested, but her facial expression along with a single tear placement. She doesn't really look too sad, but there are tears rolling down her face. It appears to me like a look of shock. The tear the firthest to our right is falling from the center of her eye. With only three tears falling, each would have time to roll to the inner corner of her eyes before falling. Louis, I can see where the tears would seem like scars; there is no fluid welling up from her eyes.

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Jiggafly117

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Edited By Jiggafly117

i dont think this problem will pose a threat for any real gamerr but i think the people who look at games or movies such as this get disturbed just for the fact because they are not used to it as we are..... amazing article good job

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Sidepocket_Pro

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Edited By Sidepocket_Pro

I personaly as an animator, designer, and small-budget film director see this as a problem. The reason is that designers are focusing on what is "real" rather than what is "fun". Even movies with real people, are hypereality versions of themselfs. The thing is, you do not want to extend that hypereality to far or you will suck the emotion out of it. Star Wars Episodes I, II, and III anyone? So back onto my point, the reasons why Pixar stuff looks like fun rather then Hevanly Rain is because the visuals and movements were fun. Look at FF: Spirits Within...human movements. Boring. Now look at FF: Advent Children, we see those movements, but they are never like they are in real life. The fact that the cahracter is shining through, not the realism, lets just pull away from the realisum and enjoy the product. Having something focusing on too real rather then on what looks or plays fun will snap that link to your consumer and force them to distance themself's away from it. So, I think in the videogame world, we should be focusing on what is fun rather then tyring to be real. Its the same reasons why I do not like all military shooters. They are all so real that if I realy wanted to do this, I would have just joined the US Army a long itme ago and skipped Call of Duty 2. End.

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