Here’s a Slate article about the reaction that many people have when robots or computer animation get too lifelike. I’ve had this reaction myself, and I’ve tried to put my theory about it into words. I’ve never succeeded. This article is more or less what I think.
But when a robot becomes 99 percent lifelike—so close that it’s almost real—we focus on the missing 1 percent. We notice the slightly slack skin, the absence of a truly human glitter in the eyes. The once-cute robot now looks like an animated corpse. Our warm feelings, which had been rising the more vivid the robot became, abruptly plunge downward. Mori called this plunge “the Uncanny Valley,” the paradoxical point at which a simulation of life becomes so good it’s bad.
The Uncanny Valley can make games less engrossing. That’s particularly true with narrative games, which rely on believable characters with whom you’re supposed to identify. The whole point is to suspend disbelief and immerse yourself. But that’s hard to do when the characters create goosebumps. You fight searing battles, solve brain-crushing puzzles, vanquish enemies, and what are you rewarded with? A chance to watch your avatar mince about the screen in some ghoulish parody of humanity.
I think that CGI in feature films suffers from this as well. Space ships and effects aren’t too bad most of the time, but I find something just plain creepy about some of the better human characters when we see them close up. The first time I recall noticing it is in one particular shot in SHREK of Princess Fiona. The detail and texture of her face was so good it made me shiver in semi-revulsion. Since then I’ve wondered about it.
Why is it that the special effects in the classic 60’s STAR TREK, while cheesy beyond all get-out, seem to stand up better than most computer effects from just five years ago? Why do the plastic monster costumes in the original STAR WARS actually look better than the CGI creatures added for the late 90s Special Editions?
Don’t get me wrong. I love CGI effects and what you can do with them. But I think they’re best when used to “touch-up” real footage of real people doing real things. When it takes center stage, especially when portraying living things (and especially humans), it isn’t quite there yet, and we can be repulsed by things that are “close but no cigar”.