L.A. Noire and the Uncanny Valley: The Reality of Photorealistic Video Game Characters

The Mirror past the Reflection 1

The world of video games has come a long way since the days of Pong and Space Invaders. In recent years, video games have become more than just a form of entertainment; they have become a work of art. Developers have striven to make video games more realistic, with more advanced graphics and lifelike gameplay. One of the most significant advancements in the world of video games is the creation of photorealistic characters.

The popular video game, L.A. Noire, is a great example of a game that is using photorealistic qualities to create deeper, more immersive acting. The game’s developers, Rockstar Games, have used global illumination, algorithms that create more realistic 3D lighting effects, and a new technology called MotionScan to create an impressive assimilation of film technology. However, there is something eerie about how L.A. Noire presents its actors. It’s something that feels uncannily familiar.

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L.A. Noire

L.A. Noire & The Uncanny Valley

The term “uncanny valley” was first coined in the 1970s by Japanese robotics professor Masahiro Mori. It describes the feeling of unease or revulsion that can be triggered by an artificial creation that comes close to looking human but falls just short of the mark. For example, a robot that looks almost, but not quite, human can be unsettling to people.

L.A. Noire‘s photorealistic characters fall into this category. While Cole Phelps, played by Aaron Stanton, looks really, really good, he also looks really, really fake. Photorealism in video games has been attempted in the past, but never to a degree where facial expressions are mirrored in such a realistic way. However, if we continue to trek down into the uncanny valley, we could end up a little lost.

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L.A. Noire

The Value of Aesthetics in Video Games

What makes video games different from film or theatre? The answer lies in the categories of realism and stylization. Video games present a stylized reality to their players. No matter how borderline photorealistic a video game may seem, it is still just a simulation of reality. Many video game scholars believe that video game technology, lighting, design, and theory are all progressing at such an alarming rate that photorealism will be within our grasp in the next ten years.

However, the general value of aesthetics is not derived from any one particular style, as evidenced by the massive variety in historical and contemporary design. So why do games seem to focus so singularly on photorealism? Could it be that because games lend themselves to a simulation of reality, their aesthetics meekly follow? Are designers choosing a default option at the expense of aesthetic variety and potential?

The Distancing Effect

Bertolt Brecht, a German poet, playwright, and theatre director, utilized a technique called the “distancing effect” in his productions. His theatrical technique worked to distance the audience from the reality that was the world of the play and to remind them that they were watching actors on a stage. Brecht’s influence in video games may be a little tenuous, but his techniques say something interesting about theatrical experiences. He wrote that the distancing effect “prevents the audience from losing itself passively and completely in character created by the actor, and which consequently leads the audience to be a consciously critical observer.”

Mass Effect Legendary Edition Review 2
Mass Effect Legendary Edition

When we engage in an experience like Mass Effect, we know that Commander Shepard is a virtual representation of our choices and decisions, and we become immersed in that fantasy. However, when we see photorealistic characters like Cole Phelps, the line between reality and fantasy becomes blurred. We are no longer actively participating in a fantasy; we are watching a simulacrum of a real human being. The question that arises from this is, do we want video games to be an extension of reality or a unique medium of artistic expression?

It’s important to note that the pursuit of photorealism is not inherently bad. In fact, it can lead to some incredible advancements in technology and storytelling. L.A. Noire‘s MotionScan technology is a prime example of this. However, it’s important to consider the implications of this pursuit and the potential dangers of the uncanny valley.

The uncanny valley is a term used to describe the uncomfortable feeling we get when we see something that is almost but not quite human. This feeling is often evoked by photorealistic characters and can actually detract from the overall experience. If video game developers continue to push for photorealism without taking into account the dangers of the uncanny valley, they may end up alienating their audience.

A New Video Game Reality

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L.A. Noire

Furthermore, it’s important to consider the impact that photorealistic characters may have on our perception of reality. If we become too accustomed to seeing virtual representations of real human beings, we may start to view real human beings as less valuable. This is a dangerous path to go down and one that we should be wary of.

Photorealism in video games is a double-edged sword. It can lead to incredible advancements in technology and storytelling, but it can also lead to the dangers of the uncanny valley and a potential devaluation of real human beings. It’s up to video game developers to strike a balance between realism and stylization and to consider the implications of their artistic choices. As players, it’s up to us to be critical observers and to engage with video games in a way that allows us to appreciate their unique artistic expression without losing sight of reality.

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