SOGA: Bridging EverQuest 2's "Uncanny Valley"
Why the new, cartoon-like models may play an
important role in the Reinvention of
Perhaps you've heard of the "Uncanny Valley," it's gotten some coverage
Slashdot in recent
months. If you think I might by talking about a
largely unknown corner of Norrath, far from it: the "Uncanny Valley"
was a theory devised in the late 70s by Masuhiro
Mori, a Japanese roboticist . Mori sought to describe the human
empathic response to a robot's
appearance and interactive capacity. In recent years, researchers have
applied the theory to intelligent (or, at least, intelligently
programmed with a robust set of responses), animated depictions of
humanoid figures. While some have described Mori's work as "brilliant,"
"unfounded," and "pseudo-scientific" (sometimes in the same breath),
the theory is certainly interesting, especially when examined in the
light of the new SOGA models SOE has brought players in celebration of
EverQuest 2's first anniversary.
From Robot to Reality
Growing up in the industrial northeast, I noticed an
undercurrent of fear regarding the most mundane of automatons:
industrial robots. Replacing human workers with robotic labor is
profitable; at least, it's advantageous in a strict cost-benefit
sort-of way. If you can get past the the up-front capital requirements
and maintenance expenses, you'll have a robotic worker that can work
around the clock, doesn't tire, get bored or complacent toward the job,
nor does a robot call off sick (breakdowns and scheduled repairs
aside). Robots can also possess superior strength, unerring accuracy,
and do exactly what they're told to do.
Robots are programmatic beings, just like the NPCs we find in
EverQuest 2. They can't give you the time of day or shoot the breeze
without consulting a programmer's script. To some extent, videogame creatures are
meant to fool our eyes and ears, and the more we let ourselves be
fooled, the more fun we typically have. Movies, drama, and fictional
books do the same thing; when someone finishes a good fictional story
and ends their critique with "it could never happen" - I can only say,
"Exactly!" Good stories usually offer enough in the way of
easily-relatable theme elements to transform the fantasy into something
we want to be truly real.
A disconnect occurs only when the robots are created and programmed to fool us... and
fail. We can admire the industrial robot's precision and efficiency and we
can enjoy our work computer's mathematical wizardry precisely because
technology lets us do more in less time and, potentially, have more
time for the things we really enjoy doing. When a technological titan
attempts to emulate all the things that make us human- ethics &
values, complex emotions, spiritual capacity, adaptability, so forth-
we start to get scared. Mori called the reaction "revulsion"- something
way beyond hate or disgust - like coming in contact with a living
corpse, devoid of true vitality but nonetheless animate.
Close Only Counts in Horseshoes...
Call it an extension of the soul, call it the spark of life or
spirit, but there's something that animators and designers can't quite put
into their creations. The effect works well for garden-variety
cartoons, slasher films, and other forms of entertainment that don't
have to produce the genuine article to arrest the base senses and
instincts. It's why theatre hasn't died off with the rise of
motion-picture entertainment, and why people go to live concerts when
they could just buy the CD. It may also help explain why a
relatively true-to-life animated movie like style="font-style: italic;">Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within
did so poorly at the box office.
Let's take a look at the idea from a more personal standpoint. How much more heartbreaking is it when you're favorite team wages a
comeback to narrowly lose a critical game than when they are defeated
in an absolute blowout? How much more disappointing is it when a
longtime romance ultimately goes sour than when you simply part ways
after the first date? When a power loss wipes out the nearly complete
essay you forgot to save than when a bug shuts down the program two
sentences in? It's irony, it hits us hard emotionally, and it's exactly
what Mori is talking about when he developed this interesting diagram
on our emotional response to humanoid objects, moving and motionless..
align="middle" height="375" width="500">
sets in, the shade of gray between amicably alive and creepily... well, not
alive. And it's one explanation as to the underlying psychology behind
SOE's move towards making EQ2 character models more cartoon-like as
Gamania readies the MMO for localized release in Asia.
So Far, SOGA
Putting the spring of life into EverQuest 2's characters has been a
priority from the start. I know of no other game that has invested so heavily
in voice talent: enlisting countless actors and actresses for voiceovers, including Heather Grahm as the voice of Queen Antonia
Bayle (as game designer Steve Kramer pointed out to me,
Sony has onboard talent through its various entertainment
subsidiaries), and the recent addition of character voice options (a
fun little addition to the game that was perhaps buried in the Combat
Changes hubbub). No one can deny that the "launch" models for
humanoid races looked, well, human. The stunning quality of the female
character models leads some male players to play as females, and after
all, guys, would you rather spend countless hours of play looking at a
hulking male barbarian or a slinky female half-elf? (My little halfling
dude isn't easy on the eyes, but chicks dig the sideburns.)
In North America and Europe, we've been playing human-looking
characters ever since href="http://www.tentonhammer.com/index.php?module=ContentExpress&file=index&func=display&ceid=39&meid=61">Anarchy
Online debuted in 2001, followed shortly thereafter by target="_blank"
Age of Camelot. Subsequent fantasy-themed games went in a more
fanciful direction, culminating with href="http://www.tentonhammer.com/index.php?module=ContentExpress&file=index&func=display&ceid=64&meid=69">World
of Warcraft's angular, cartoony, franchise-trademark models. It's
no secret that WoW has come into its own- especially in the anime-crazed Far East,
where even some of the live TV shows are made to look like cartoons.
Whether or not the SOGA models were an attempt at addressing the
"uncanny valley" or simply the ancient wisdom of learning from
a competitor's successes, we'll never know. As the novelty wears off,
EverQuest 2 may unwittingly serve as an ongoing sociological test-case
for Mori's theorem. If players continue to use the SOGA models, flip
back to the launch models out of curiosity, and quickly go back to
SOGA, game artists and social researchers alike should pay attention.
If gamers are just looking for variety, well, EverQuest 2 scores a
different kind of victory. In any case, moves made along the lines of
personalizing the MMO experience usually prove worthwhile, if not
earth-shattering. Whether the new models prove to be a paragraph or an
exclamation point in SOE's long love letter to its faithful fans, EQ2's
dev team continues to deliver faithful gamers new content and
We want your take on the new SOGA
models! Like them, hate them, stuck
in the "uncanny valley" of indecision?
in the SOGA poll and style="font-style: italic;"
your voice be heard in the forums!
To read the latest guides, news, and features you can visit our EverQuest II Game Page.