We are slowly crawling out of the uncanny valley.


Earlier this week, Quantic Dream’s latest technology demonstration was revealed at GDC. The company is famous for its story heavy games, which also attempt to blur the line between actual human performances and their video game equivalent. As a result of the tech in their previous release, Heavy Rain, I expected this video to be a technically impressive, but ultimately shallow affair, designed merely to further attempt to pull out of the uncanny valley. While the video certainly achieved that, it was brought about from a source I hadn’t quite expected: the character of Kara herself.

Heavy Rain’s greatest strength was its ability to draw the audience through the connection with its characters. While the technology advances certainly cannot be downplayed (they are, in fact, absolutely necessary), it was a handful of events in the game that brought the characters into physical and emotional situations that the audience can quite easily empathise with. While the "Press X to Jason" scene has been lampooned to death, it was difficult not feel the same initial dread and gnawing desperation of a father trying to find his young son in a crowd of people that are oblivious to what’s happening.

The ease in which an audience loses itself to the story and its characters is exactly the same in the world of film. Two key factors can prevent this from happening: the talent of the actor (with gaming’s analogue being the uncanny valley indicator) and the writing itself (which games share). They absolutely must work in tandem in order for the end product to be successful.

While films have easily been able to produce this combination successfully over the years, it’s been a much harder road for video games. Technical limitations have proved to be a large, contributing factor, but the comparative lack of well-written prose is certainly another. It’s difficult to feel any sort of connection to the characters of Call of Duty, or Gears of War, despite their graphical prowess. Granted, the enjoyment of those games comes from the gameplay itself, which is one huge advantage this medium has over film. But is there any reason why we can’t have both? In a way, the film equivalent is Avatar – a spectacular feat of rendering that is marred by the weak and cliché narrative and characterisation. While games (and films) like this have every right to exist (and they absolutely should), they should not be the majority.

Kara proved to me that we’re at a point where digital characters can evoke deep, emotional thought and reactions. I was utterly enthralled by this video: the fear that radiated from her eyes, the helplessness of her predicament; it all combined beautifully and in a way that easily overcame the technical inadequacies of the relatively old hardware the demonstration ran on. Quantic Dream picked the story, setting and characters well. It almost served as a metaphor for the uncanny valley itself: the desire to be as human as possible. If we are moving to a future where an audience can truly feel for the plight of a digital character, then a whole world of creative possibilities is opening. In the meantime, I hope that Kara has the chance to live beyond the world of a tech demo.

Tech demos might look fancy, but I'd prefer to see an actual game.

By Logic & Trick

So Quantic Dream released a pretty nifty-looking tech demo recently, but I don’t really know how article-worthy it is, at least for me. I guess Ant wants to write about animation, or some sort of analysis about something or other – he’s into that sort of thing. Me? I like playing games. Tech demos don’t really give me much to work with, so I’ll talk about the history behind it instead.

I’ve spoken about David Cage‘s work before, when I talked about Indigo Prophecy, also known as Fahrenheit. Indigo Prophecy is an unusual game in that there’s quite a big focus on in-game quick time events. The high-action parts of the game are pure QTE-driven, and the rest of it is more of a classic adventure game, in a not-quite-point-and-click kind of way.

Both the best and worst parts of Indigo Prophecy are the story. The whole game is extremely story-driven, and that makes is a very compelling game to play. That is, until the whole thing goes completely batshit insane. At about the halfway point, two things happen. Firstly, the plot jumps every shark you could imagine. Secondly, what seems to be about an 8-10 hour chunk of the game appears to be skipped. Even with that, though, it’s still very enjoyable.

In 2010, Indigo Prophecy’s ‘spiritual successor’, Heavy Rain was released. Heavy Rain had similar gameplay to Indigo Prophecy, though there were some small changes to the formula. The story was much improved over its predecessor, and didn’t go completely insane halfway through – though if you spend any time thinking about it, you could easily poke numerous holes in the plot. The plot holes are not what matter, though – the important thing is that the story is engaging and interesting.

The story is by far the most important element when it comes to games like this. David Cage calls Heavy Rain an "Interactive Drama", a term that I think he’s made up by himself. I think it describes both Indigo Prophecy and Heavy Rain rather well – they’re quite akin to visual novels in terms of how much control the player has over the characters. They’re almost like interactive films, where the player drives certain parts of the plot and key decisions. Similar parallels can be drawn with the choose-your-own-adventure books of old.

What these other variations of the genre don’t have is gameplay itself. As minimal as the gameplay in Heavy Rain may seem, it adds an extra level of depth to the game that visual novels and films cannot reproduce. With the gameplay comes an important concept: failure. In addition to motivating the player, the concept of failure also allows the story of the game to develop in different ways. Instead of a "game over" screen if you fail, the story simply continues from that point, taking the failure into account. Your character might get arrested instead of getting away, they might have failed to save somebody from drowning, or they might indeed have died themselves.

It’s this concept of failure that makes Heavy Rain (and the like) an actual game, not just an interactive film or visual novel. For me, it also makes them very engaging to play, and they are some of the most enjoyable games I’ve played, even with their various faults. The positives far outweigh any negatives in my book.

Heavy Rain was quite a vast improvement on Indigo Prophecy, and I don’t see that trend changing for whatever Quantic Dream’s next game is going to be. With or without impressive-looking tech demos, I want more games from them, and I want more games that follow their example. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I want to see an actual game trailer, not a fancy tech demo.