Saturday, 3 December 2011

Unit 3: Environment - The Uncanny - Valley

"If you see something that... looks human and isn't, you keep your eyes on it and you feel for your hatchet." (Lewis: 1950)
The Uncanny Valley applies to the unobvious artificial appearance of a human being. When something is obviously artificial it is stylized utilizing (in most cases) the quirks of its inventor, a good example of this is the fictional C3P0 and R2D2. However, when the scale tilts in the opposite direction where the human eye can only detect slight differences between human and automaton, we see this as an unusual human being and not an automaton.

Figure 1 - The Uncanny Valley

The Valley (shown above) itself applies primarily to machines mid way to them becoming human. Prosthetics are as low as corpses demonstrating human likeness but with an un-homely absence of life. The zombie seeps even lower as it is life in an unholy being something which is alive but almost mechanical suiting primal needs as opposed to emotional needs.

“Jentsch has taken as a very good instance “doubts whether an apparently animate being is really alive; or conversely, whether a lifeless object might not be in fact animate”; and he refers in this connection to the impression made by wax-work figures, artificial dolls and automatons.” (Freud: 1919:135)
This rule applies not only to physical dolls (sex/child and/or otherwise) but also to fictional 3D models. It is ever the game designers dream to appease a serene artificially simulated being but just as any automaton it risks falling into the dreaded uncanny valley not to attract audiences but repel them. One could argue that in some cases this could aid a concept that is otherwise meant to scare (Heavy Rain is a good example) with its genre working in tangent with a serene but eerie reality. In a recent interview David Cage (Games developer & creator of Heavy Rain) answered the question:
“So you don't feel that realism limits your audience?“

Figure 2 - Quantic Dreams Heavy Rain - Scott Shelby

"No, I'm the opposite. To tell you the truth, I think it's easier for a major part of users to relate to something that looks real, as opposed to something that's totally out there. I wouldn't say this is my personal opinion, because as an educated gamer, I can relate to basically anything based in talent. But I think a lot of games explore realism, and I think it's easier for players to relate to something that's close to what they know, rather than something totally strange.” (Cage: 2008)
One could argue that it was Cage’s goal to create a game for a specific type of audience or maybe he truly believes that all media of today are aiming for some level of realism. Below are some examples of digital models that have pioneered artificial realism bringing it to new realms in very different ways.

Figure 3 - Final Fantasy Spirits Within - Square Soft - Aki Ross

The leap began in 2001 with a feature film by creator of the Final Fantasy Franchise Hironobu Sakaguchi. The film was based entirely of CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) with voice actors as cast. It is believed that the films biggest undoing was its attempt of creating seemless characters which felt artificial in places likening them to "The Uncanny Valley" which in turn put off audiences.

Figure 4 - Beowulf - Paramount Pictures - Grendel's Mother - Half Human Half Serpent

Numerous films followed the Final Fantasy ideal of prestine artificial reality one of note is most certainly Beowulf. Directed by Robert Zemeckis, story inspired by an old english poem with the same name. The polar express was created by the same director only to meet the same issues via "The Uncanny Valley". The film was criticised mainly to its uncanny nature of the human being, irratic and eerie.

Figure 5 - Tron Legacy - Walt Disney Pictures - Kevin Flynn

One of the more recent to date is Joseph Kosinski's Tron Legacy with the uncanny younger CGI representation of Kevin Flynn (a young Jeff Bridges) combining the use of CGI with on scene cast. The problem with this method was the viewer is constantly reminded of what is infact real causing them to compare the serene older Flynn with the artificial younger Flynn. While the likeness was great it is obvious that this representation is not Jeff Bridges...

Figure 6 - Andy Serkis as Monkey in Enslaved - Created by Ninja Theory

To compare the serene with the stylised is to consider a game such as "Enslaved" which uses the same motion capture software as other studios. The thing that makes Ninja Theories work impressive is the likeness of the character that does not delve into the Uncanny. To look at the image above (Figure 6) one can see the likeness between cast member "Serkis" with his on screen representation "Monkey".

Figure 7 - John Noble as Leland Monroe in L.A. Noire - Created by Rockstar Games

L.A. Noire was born on the dawn of a new revolutionary facial capture technology allowing for realistic muscle movement. Each facial gesture, scream or suspicious gaze is well versed in how the human face distorts and folds. The technology is impressive but limited in range requiring accurate projections. The Visuals of L.A. Noire do not dissapoint and somehow elude the dreaded uncanny valley.


One could argue that the Uncanny Valley is applied to everything artificial. The only time one could possibly notice an uncanny moment is if something was machine (or incorrect). Maybe reflecting the real in limits (as Enslaved) with stylisation is the key. One could consider that the real is still a focal point for our imagination as we are required by law to return to the real no matter how fantasy orientated we are.

The world is real thus we should be able to chase the ideal of an artificial real.


List of Illustrations

Figure 1. The Uncanny Valley. (com) [Online image]. At: (Accessed on:04/12/11)

Figure 2. Quantic Dreams Heavy Rain - Scott Shelby. (com) [Online image]. At: (Accessed on:04/12/11)

Figure 3. Final Fantasy Spirits Within - Square Soft - Aki Ross. (com) [Online image]. At: (Accessed on:04/12/11)

Figure 4. Beowulf - Paramount Pictures - Grendel's Mother - Half Human Half Serpent. (com) [Online image]. At: (Accessed on:04/12/11)

Figure 5. Tron Legacy - Walt Disney Pictures - Kevin Flynn. (com) [Online image]. At: (Accessed on:04/12/11)

Figure 6. Andy Serkis as Monkey in Enslaved - Created by Ninja Theory. (com) [Online image]. At: (Accessed on:04/12/11)

Figure 7. John Noble as Leland Monroe in L.A. Noire - Created by Rockstar Games. (com) [Online image]. At: (Accessed on:04/12/11)



Lewis, C. S. (1950) The Lion the Witch & the Wardrobe. 3rd Edition
(Accessed on: 04/12/11)

Sigmund, Freud. (1919) Essay on The Uncanny, Penguin Classics, 3rd Edition
(Accessed on: 04/12/11)

Cage, David. (2008) Dreaming of a New Day: Heavy Rain's David Cage At:
(Accessed on: 04/12/11)


  1. hey man what are your thoughts on the environment the character conforms to regarding the uncanny valley?.. do you think this has an influence?..

    1. Hey Daniel,

      I don't believe that the uncanny valley can conform to an environment as it is generally inhuman life forms that tend to forge the valley. Notice the markers on the valley itself which illustrate robots, severed hands and dead bodies.

      However, it is possible for an environment to be uncanny. Colour schemes work in this way or other wise consider places which are commonly populated devoid of life (like in most zombie flicks showing city wide isolation).

      Hope this helps you...