The uncanny valley, to put it simply, is the experience where something looks close enough to be human, but still have trouble being seen as convincingly realistic. As you’ll probably know by doing a simple Google search, androids are the hot topic when it comes to explaining our relationship with the uncanny valley.
But then there are us folks who play video games. When asked to list beautiful video games some may include games like Skyrim, The Witcher 3, and the Assassin Creed series. Each has a grand, unique design that keeps us coming back to it and marveling in its world – whether it be the buildings, the great outdoors, or the characters.
And yet those worlds, and the characters inside them, can break. Whether it be falling through the floor, getting stuck in an extremely weird pose, or even something simple as you holding a gun wrong – each of these things messes with our perspective of the world we’re inhabiting as we play the game.
One of the more infamous examples of a game absolutely obliterating the fine line between human and the uncanny valley is Assassin Creed Unity. Thanks to a bug that made almost everyone you met appear ‘faceless’, Unity became one of the most horrifying games of 2014 – all without meaning to in the first place.
What made this bug particularly terrifying was the big, protruding eyes and how the rest of the body was left untouched. This identified the characters of Unity as human, but unlike us, the lack of a face is so obviously non-human that the response of fear at ‘otherness’ can’t help but be triggered by the look of it. Another example is that, when characters kiss and hug one another, the thought of something that looks so distinctly inhuman, but interacting in a way that we identify with? It’s horrifying to watch as it distorts our view on how we perceive the human body in general, as well as our own.
This leads to yet another example: body horror. Every individual has their own relationship with their body, but one thing most people can’t deny is that our body belongs to us, rather than it being a product. This is why the twist, distortion, and mutilation of the human body scares us, particularly in video games, because despite a controller being in our hands, we’re unable to stop what is happening with the glitch in front of us.
Yet, at times, it goes beyond the characters we play as. Sometimes the world isn’t all what it seems.
Once a world is established in a video game, familiarity seeps in and with familiarity? That’s when the feeling of safety isn’t too close behind. After all, recognizing our environment is comforting.
For example, I’ve played through Overwatch’s London map (Kings Row) a numerous amount of times. I know if I take a shortcut through the pub and circle back around into an alley on the right of me, I can most likely attack the team that’s pushing the payload and take them by complete surprise. It’s a familiar jaunt for me, and remembering the path is as easy as breathing.
Only, there’s something to jarring about being thrown from a familiar path and into a completely different world. Or, to put it simply, falling through the map.
More than a few individuals may find falling or clipping through the map interesting. You get to see the parts that developers don’t want you to see, as well as the building blocks that piece your favorite game together. It’s fun, right?
But there are people who do not fall into that category, myself included. As I fell through Kings Row, the crates and metal structures hanging eerily above me, it became more and more obvious that this was a game.
It sounds strange typing that, of course Overwatch is a game – what else could it be? But the familiarity of Kings Row had now been dashed from my memory. The structure of a London warehouse, once comforting in knowing the nooks and crannies of how to get around the enemy, had become an unsettling farce.
Playing through the map again, being brought out of my comfort zone sticks in my memory and the fear of falling through again is paralyzing. Of course, everything is familiar as usual, but nothing and nowhere is safe.
The uncanny valley is scary. That much is obvious and in video games? Well, it’s just downright terrifying.