OPINION: Look before you leap into PS4, Killzone, and the uncanny valley
There was something deftly unimpressive about Guerrilla Games' showing of Killzone: Shadow Fall last week. It may only have been a small demo, and certainly a work-in-progress, but I wonder if it had the audience at Sony’s conference cringing as much as I did. Maybe my expectations were too lofty - examining each frame of every explosion, measuring draw distance, mapping the amount of moving objects, charting the way light glints off the weapons. Perhaps that would make anyone pessimistic. Yet, through such a lens, how could anyone expect to be satisfied? Looking for a next-generation leap is, at this point, a bit delusional. Graphical advancements met a steep series of diminishing returns long ago, but to its credit, Guerrilla is clearly managing to display some new technical possibilities on PlayStation 4 . . . just with more subtlety than some may have hoped.
But what’s got me jaded about Shadow Fall and (in general) the upcoming generation isn’t that the visual jump is too small, but that maybe it’s already too large: a pursuit of photorealism that’s becoming all too reckless. Developers might be jumping these distances before judging them, giving us production values that don’t have any reason to be as high as they are. When this happens, games come up short of their intended visual impact and prove unable to land on solid footing. Instead, they fall short, into a ravine, down the cliffside and into what’s commonly dubbed the ‘uncanny valley.' This pit widens with each generation and represents the ever-increasing disconnect between what looks real and what we all know is very unreal.
This is hardly a new criticism; the problem was even more apparent in 2005 when PlayStation 3 tech was first demoed at E3. Indeed, last week’s reveal comes off as decidedly modest when looking back at that fiasco, where Guerrilla was literally showcasing a CGI interpretation of a first-person-shooter that had yet to be. Killzone 2’s footage was so outlandish, so beyond modern capabilities, that it simply couldn't be believed. A game couldn’t be that seamless, couldn’t be that human; it just couldn’t. To this day, it remains a perfect example of the kind of realism we want to believe is possible, but that we know is not. As lovely as new textures and particle effects get, as surreal as screenshots become, when actually sitting down with games that tout realism, I will find that they are just that - games. They will feel like games, they will control like games, and the better they look, the more they will have to try and fool me that they aren’t, in fact, games.
Consider the original Assassin’s Creed: one of the most well-marketed projects of the past decade, talked up and shrewdly exhibited by the very talented Ubisoft. It advertised cities that breathed, reacting to the player's every move. Dynamic A.I. would immerse you in the role of Altair, an assassin in the era of England's crusades. The game’s producer, Jade Raymond, would demonstrate for us how Altair could approach a target from several different angles, and every time she played a small portion, it seemed too wonderful to be true. In the months leading up to release, Assassin’s Creed was defining the term ‘next-generation’ more than any other game of the time; I told myself I could die happy after getting my hands on it. But upon its release, what did I find? Medieval cities, yes, but astoundingly medieval game design, as well.
Instead of ‘real’ sword combat, I was merely treated to a primitive counter system with pre-rendered takedowns. Instead of human intelligence, the city guards had a behavioral trigger firing every time you broke into a slight jog. And instead of enabling actual espionage, angles of approach would be completely arbitrary, with the entire game acting as a very fragile illusion. It felt silly precisely because it appeared to be so real. Only when perched above it all, looking down at the marvelous architecture and the bustling movement of people below, could you imagine yourself as part of an actual, living environment. Visually, Assassin’s Creed had what it takes to make that environment believable. But when interacting with the streets below, the game tumbled down from lofty, theoretical heights to a carnival of ... (continued on next page)