The Gaming Club

The Characters in the Most Realistic Video Games Are Still Basically Puppets
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Dec. 14 2011 4:56 PM

The Gaming Club

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The characters in the most realistic video games are still basically puppets.

L.A. Noire.
L.A. Noire

Photograph by Rockstar Games © 2011.

Michael, I like your idea of a proper conference. We could call it Michael’s Meatspace Meetup of Gamers in Real Life (MMMGIRL) and have T-shirts made and everything. If that’s not possible, we’ll just have to wait until some modder creates a Skyrim multiplayer. Then we could all stand around in Ravenwood drinking minor potions and practicing our archery. You guys would just have to promise not to rob me blind. (I can just see it now: Press A to pick Charles Yu’s pocket. Chance of success: 100 percent.)

And that list of games you provided is just what I was looking for. Not only have I not played most of the titles on there, I haven’t even heard of a lot of them. I’m the gaming equivalent of a guy whose exposure to music is limited to top-40 radio, so it’s great to have a playlist of all the titles the cool kids are talking about.

One game on Michael’s list that I have spent some time with is L.A. Noire. I’m glad you brought up the facial cues, which I found to be a fascinating aspect of the game. Ultimately, I think it is an ambitious idea whose reach exceeds its grasp. As far as games have come in recent years, the characters in visually realistic games like L.A. Noire are still basically puppets. And relatively speaking, it seems (at least to this untrained eye) that the greater advances have come in the areas of anatomy and biomechanics—how people punch and kick and run and jump—and not so much in terms of the nuances of how people smile and frown and fly into a murderous rage. That is to say, given limited resources of time, money, and technical effort, games (for obvious and good reasons) have thus far been focused on the body at the expense of the face, the goal being to maximize motion fidelity as opposed to emotional fidelity.

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All of which is to say, the first time a menu popped up in L.A. Noire asking me whether I thought a) the witness was telling the truth, b) she was lying, or c) there was reason to doubt her, I had mixed feelings. It was a little like watching a marionette performance, and then being asked by the puppeteer whether or not I trusted the marionette. I mean, as impressive as the puppet is (and it is impressive; I happen to know how hard it is to render humans with anything even remotely resembling believable emotion, so I do not intend to diminish the achievement of getting this far, nor do I doubt that the tech will continue to progress), at the end of the monologue I’m still left staring at a blob made of chunky polygons. Being asked whether or not that polygonal blob is lying is sort of a reverse Turing test. Instead of not knowing what I’m talking to (human or computer) and being asked to determine which one it is, in this case, I know exactly what I’m talking to (a computer with a human moving its mouth) and I’m supposed to look at the fake human and pretend I don’t see the real one, right behind, pulling the strings.

Given the tools they have, the developers did a good job of simulating gestures and tics and other behaviors meant to indicate whether a character is telling the truth. But the subtlety of human facial cues is so complex (as has been catalogued and analyzed by Paul Ekman with his FACS) that asking a game to approximate this complexity, even a game with production values as high as L.A. Noire’s, is still a ways off. Instead of “reading” the characters’ faces as if they were, in fact, characters, I was guessing what the characters’ gestures were intended to convey—that is, the emotional cues worked more as signals than as actual impressions. I should admit that I got a lot of these questions wrong the first time around, part of which I can chalk up to the aforementioned chunky-puppet problem, and part of which I should probably attribute to my own low emotional intelligence. What will be really interesting is if someday the ambiguity in game-character emotions comes not from insufficient detail, but from the irreducible ambiguity of actual human interactions.

Having said all of that, I applaud the late Team Bondi for the ambition and the execution. It would be silly (and inconsistent) of me to complain, as I did yesterday, about the limited scope of games, and then knock the best efforts of game makers who are trying to broaden that scope. If aliens came to Earth and sampled video games, they’d probably think that—at least on a proportional basis—we spent most of our time aiming through the scope of a sniper rifle. So it’s a very good thing to see forays into more common, useful, fundamental, and, frankly, interesting types of human interaction besides just shooting each other. The potential is huge, and I think many types of scientists and social scientists should be studying and using video games (or maybe they are already). I know there have been studies of the economies of certain MMORPGs, but what about evolutionary psychology, neurobiology, and other fields? Video games are (or at least can be) controlled experiments in cognitive science. Speaking of which, how about a Kahneman and Tversky game that demonstrates and plays with heuristics and biases? It could be called Boardroom 2: Loss Aversion.

Chris, I’m so glad you brought up the money issue. As I mentioned yesterday, I fell out of gamerdom sometime in the ’90s, and one of the reasons for that was cost. I remember when the first PlayStation came out—one of my housemates could afford it, and I couldn’t. So he bought it, and the rest of us hung out in his room and mooched off of him. (The price of gaming time was usually paid in packets of Maruchan ramen.) But he kept playing long after he’d kicked us out. (And then when his girlfriend became a gamer, we never got into the room anymore.) Before long, he was too far along the skill curve for me to catch up.

I have some more thoughts on this, but I’ve held the controller too long and need to pass it back to you guys. Before I go, though, I want to mention two games, both purchased for less than a dollar. Chris, you mentioned the iOS game Jetpack Joyride yesterday, and I have to say it has brought me as much pleasure as any game this year (on a dollar-for-dollar basis, anyway). And my 2-year-old son recently started playing this game called Monkey Preschool Lunchbox. It teaches and tests matching, memory, counting, spelling, sorting by size and color, and spatial intelligence (i.e., simple puzzles). When he started playing about a month ago, he had no idea what he was looking at. He just kept exiting the game and going to Fruit Ninja. But a few days ago, I watched him play the game without error. The highlight was watching him match eight cards face down in a game where he had to remember pairs. He worked systematically (starting with an anchor card and working through the choices until he found his match) but was also able to improvise—if he came across a different pair in his searching, he would eliminate that pair first, and then return to his system. I watched him cycle through all the mini-games a couple times, just to be sure it wasn't a fluke. It wasn't! At that moment I felt an odd mixture of pride in my son, and shame at having ceded parental duties to an Apple device.

Chris, you talked about your efforts to recruit your wife into the legions of gamers. How about your kids (if you have them yet)—do you plan on letting them play games?

Oh, and one more thing: I don’t blame all of you for punting on my question about the perfect game. The question itself was kind of a punt. (Speaking of which, how awesome would it be if Madden NFL 13 had Shane Lechler on the cover? He punted it 80 yards in the air. I mean, what’s it going take?!) And to address Tom’s question about the most well-made game of 2011: I loved how it felt to play Arkham City so much that I preferred messing around to actually playing the game. A lot of times I found myself just batarang-ing around the city, dropping in on deserted alleys and performing solo kung fu exhibitions for myself, whipping my cape around, saying “I’m Batman” over and over again.

Charles Yu is the author of How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe and the short story collection Third Class Superhero, for which he received the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 Award. His writing has appeared in Harvard Review, The New York Times, Playboy, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two kids.

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