The Uncanny Valley, why some games are scary

Why do some characters in video games scare us more than others?
21 January 2021

Interview with 

Angela Tinwell, University of Bolton


A xombie


When we play a video game, what we see matters, and not always in the way we expect. For example have you ever seen a character’s face and felt uneasy? Sometimes things are wrong in ways that we can’t quite put our finger on. That might work against a game, but in special cases, it can work for it. Angela Tinwell from the University of Bolton looks at one facet of this, called the “Uncanny Valley” and she spoke to Chris Berrow…

Angela - Well, the idea of the Uncanny was first introduced by Ernst Jentsch in the early 20th century. And he described the Uncanny as an eerie sensation when you can't distinguish between what's alive or dead, what may be real or unreal. For example, of a tall waxwork doll, a crafted child's toy, or automator, and building on this, Freud actually described the Uncanny as an eerie sensation, or what might be unfamiliar when we see an object and it actually reminds us of our own death, or what might be repressed in ourselves or in others. Now, Mori, a Japanese roboticist in the late 1970s, he took this idea forward, because he observed with regards to robot design, engineers were including mechanical robots in the workplace, but people were developing more and more life-like androids, with synthetic skin, hair and flesh over the mechanical parts. But rather than having an increased affinity or likeability towards these new android designs, people actually suddenly took an instant dislike or repulsion towards them. And he actually coined this theory the Uncanny Valley, because we actually have a linear ascent with regards increased human likeness and perceived familiarity or likeability, for example, with a robot toy that emotes like a human that may have eyes, and a smile, and torso, and limbs. But as soon as we approach android designs, pushing the boundaries of true, of near human likeness, we take this sudden aversion towards them. And Mori placed things such as corpses, zombies, prosthetic hands, in this nadir of this Uncanny Valley with a human safely on the other side

Chris B - So interesting isn't it. And you've already explained my fear of dolls, and wooden toys, and things like that. But I want to ask you, so you mentioned video games and zombies is something that's so hugely included in video games nowadays. And I suppose, kind of scary horror games. What is it about the face specifically that people start to feel uneasy about? I suppose is it the eyes, mostly, the emotion comes from the eyes?

Angela - It actually comes down to, the best way to describe it, is Frankenstein's Monster, where we perceive a lack of movement in the brows, the forehead, and distinctly around the eyes, and the upper facial region. And that's important because we really do read a lot of non-verbal communication from another person's face, because the mouth might be involved in speech. And we rely on the upper face to give us an idea of what someone's feeling, thinking, and how they may respond to occurrences that are happening around them. And without this nonverbal feedback in the upper face, we might perceive that the lights are on, but no one's actually home in that character, but we can't perceive, or predict, what they're going to be doing, and when. And that makes us really uncomfortable.

Chris B - Well, I want to come on to how that might actually be useful for certain types of video games, but just before that, I've been playing on one of the biggest releases today, Cyberpunk 2077, one of the biggest releases of the year, the Last of us Part 2 as well, they are games which have very good facial capture, and motion capture. Is that one way that these huge companies are actually trying to tackle this problem?

Angela - Absolutely. You've got more and more sophisticated, high density, facial motion capture techniques that are being introduced to the game's animation, particularly with pre-rendered video footage that's played in games. And even in real time footage, the facial expression and emotive qualities of characters is improving. And you mentioned Cyberpunk 2077. That has received a lot of criticism in the last few days, but I would say that there are few small triumphs in the actual game. In that, for example, Claire, a character who plays a bartender, the upper facial expression, actually matches the emotive tones of her speech. And you can see that there's a lot of theory and conceptual thinking going on, by the way that her brow creases, and you have these emblems in her brows, moving up and down, that matches the tonation of her speech. The lip synchronisation is very good for that character, and she really draws you in and is very engaging. So I would say that, Claire the bartender is particularly successful with regards to facial expression in that game.

Chris B - The way that these motion captures and faces and the fact that sometimes they can look a bit unusual is actually something that can feed in very well to horror games. One that my wife has been enjoying loads recently is something called Little Nightmares, where you're a little kid running around essentially, and there's these evil creatures. And as you look at their faces, they sort of don't move, and they look almost like jagged, and the mouth will move, but the eyes will stay stationary. I imagine that actually in this instance, game designers will be tapping into this Uncanny Valley and using it to their advantage?

Angela - Absolutely. If a face is inanimate, or it has an aberrant facial expression, we may be reminded of death, which of course gives us quite uncomfortable feelings. If a game designer wanted to exaggerate the uncanny in a zombie type character, then based on the empirical experiments that I've done, I would definitely say reduce movement in the upper face, including the eyes, the eyebrows and the forehead, so that the character may have a Botox like effect, a grey or dull colour skin tone also would increase how antipathetic the character may seem. And also with regards to lip movement and speech, a distinct lack of synchrony between lip movement and speech does exaggerate the Uncanny, particularly if the speech is played before we see lip movement.


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