Sunday, July 31, 2005

Return of the Living Dead

I thought this would be a two-part series, but I realized I had more to say on the subject of the zombification of the gaming industry. Here are links to the previous posts regarding zombie graphics and zombie AI.

It's not that I have anything against zombies themselves. (Other than that those rotting, lumbering, infernal abominations are trying to harvest my mind, that is.) It's that we've seen game designers use these tricks before.

The hordes of bad guys used to be aliens or demons. It's a much easier task for the graphics and animation department. We don't expect to be able to read the emotions on the puss of a slobbering green monster. In fact, in many games, these creatures never change expression at all. Contrast that with how we'd react to a human-looking opponent whose face betrayed nothing but a perpetual Zen-like calm in the midst of horrific carnage.

We also cut aliens or monsters slack as well in the behavior department. We assume that the monster just isn't smart enough to realize that charging directly into the barrel of a BFG-9000 might not improve the chances of its survival. We expect aliens to follow their own, alien logic. We don't expect them to have human reactions. Besides, they're far from home and in unfamiliar territory. It might not occur to an otherwise highly advanced alien that standing next to a primitive barrel of flammable liquid is a bad idea.

In earlier generations of computer and console games, the excuse was that the technology simply wasn't capable of these feats of graphics and gameplay. To have returned to zombies, aliens and demons once again in the current era of gaming is simply laziness. Game designers have exploited these tired old story devices ad nauseam. We should demand more.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Brains! We must have brains!

As discussed in my previous blog entry, the wave of zombie films and games stems from two limitations in computer technology. The first has to do with graphics and animation, and the second with artificial intelligence. The latter is the subject of this entry.

Game designers fall prey to the zombie temptation because virtual actors have to move and adjust to the world around them in real time. Conscious beings do this quite easily. Natural selection weeds out the animals and human beings that fail to adapt to their surroundings. When we see a dog or a human, we expect them to react to the world around them.

Zombies are, by definition, unconscious. Their skulls contain decaying, rotting, stinking grey goo. So it's to be expected that a pack of the living dead won't react -- or won't react quickly -- to the fact you've just tossed a grenade in their direction.

The game player will forgive zombies if they can't figure out how to jump over a low obstacle or open a door. After all, it's just a shambling corpse. You don't really expect it to pick up one of the numerous weapons lying strewn about on the floor and start firing back at you. You would expect that from a living, breathing human being, however.

So, the game designer thinks to herself, zombies it is! It neatly explains the unnaturalness of the animation, the lack of facial expression, and the poor AI found in most games today. After all, it's only a zombie! It has no brain. That's why it wants yours.

The Grinning Mask of Death

So there's a wave of zombie-themed computer and video games on the horizon. This naturally follows a recent wave of zombie movies. Why are the undead all the rage?

I have two complimentary theories that I'm going to discuss in this and the next blog entry. The first has to do with graphics and the second with the artificial intelligence (AI) that determines behavior. First, the visual aspect of the zombie craze.

Computer graphics have improved to the point where we can, fairly accurately, re-create human faces in 3D. The problem is, human beings are acutely aware of other human faces. We can read lips, sense small changes in expression, and most of us can remember a single face years amid thousands of others even after we've fogotten everything else about that indivdual. Millions of years of evolution and social pressure have hardwired facial recognition into the human brain. We're fine tuned for it. We subject the human face to such intense scrutiny that we can sense even the smallest infidelity.

The more something looks like a human face, the more these instincts kick in. While we forgive cartoons or caricatures, if a human-looking face rings false we react badly to it. Ironically, our quest for realism in computer graphics can actually make in-game characters seem less real. The problem is recognized in the robotics field, and has a name: the Uncanny Valley.

A good discussion of this phenomenon, and its relation to anthropomorphism, can be found in Dave Bryant's essay. In it, he considers primarily the visual aspects of the uncanny valley, but I'd like to argue that the uncanny valley is more than just visual; it also relates to motion and movement.

This is, after all, what makes acting an art and a discipline; it's not simply a matter of a human actor memorizing a bunch of lines and saying them on cue. An actor must get the body language right as well. The facial expression is the loudest part of that body language. Most audiences can tell when a smile is real or faked. It takes a really, really good actor to get the whole package -- his movement, voice and expression -- working together to fool the audience into thinking that they're looking at something real.

We can't do this in the computer world convincingly; at least not in real time. It requires teams of artists and animators to get the look. It requires a well-written script and a talented voice actor to get the sound. It requires a director who can put both these things together. It's really, really hard to get right.

What do you get if you get it wrong? Something unnatural and waxen. Something that doesn't look quite real, or quite alive. You get the undead. Enter the zombie game or movie. We see these characters because they are easy to do with current technology. It's easy to animate a stiffly moving character. If your computer-generated extras are going to walk like they have rigor mortis anyway, why not call them zombies?

Sunday, July 24, 2005


Both Paula and I are big fans of games: board games, console games, computer games, and old fashioned running-around-in-the-outdoors games. We spend time on Board Game Geek. We read GameSpot and PC Gamer. We gather with friends to play games on and offline. Now, generally, I'd rather be playing games than writing about them, but I'm going to give this crazy blog thing a try. Over the next few days, I'm going to post a series of articles about game-related topics. Maybe I'll get in the habit of posting, and maybe I'll actually write a few things worth reading. Then again, I've never kept a journal for longer than a week. I blame those darn games.