If Not Creating Truth, Then Suspending DisbeliefS

Ultimately, the challenges the "uncanny valley" poses to motion capture and animation will be overcome by technology. But suspension of disbelief is just as important to a game's storytelling, writes the actor who portrayed Ethan Mars in Heavy Rain.

Pascal Langdale, writing on his blog Motives in Movement, examines the latter concept, which he reasons is "often excluded" from the discussion of advancements in rendering ever more realistic animations and performances in games.

In the end, we're talking about technical barriers to a viewer (or player's) immersion versus more artistic ones - the story, the acting, the dialogue. If I'm reading Langdale correctly, the latter is not only more critical to a believable performance, it can also raise up a game whose visuals are perhaps not as advanced.

Acting Your Way Over the Uncanny Valley [Motives in Movement, April 27]

In my work on Heavy Rain as Ethan Mars, I was fascinated by the capture process. More particularly the challenge of performance "truth". I would perform an action, say going to a locker and taking a box from it. There was no locker, but instead there was a wire frame hung on a hinged stand, in an empty capture studio. I would have to perform the action as if:

• There were rows of other lockers on either side
• That the contents were unknown to me
• That the box has some unexpected weight in it
• That I was nervous, worried that I was being watched, that I might be walking into a trap etc. …

And quite a few other things.

Now this is the job of the actor – to suspend his own disbelief – and its something I'm quite used to doing. Eventually you develop a B.S. detector, both for your own work and the work of others. My experience in TV and Film however, has shown that occasionally, the camera sees truth where a performance didn't really provide it. In theatre, I haven't noticed this duality. Which highlights something else quite important.

On Heavy Rain, if I was worried that something didn't seem right, I'd request to see the playback – not of the Standard DV record, but the point cloud of markers. Because I very quickly realized that if something didn't ring true, it was more obvious than on standard. And this was the source data they'd be working from. I had no idea if all the added clothing, face, game design and the like would provide a smokescreen for any "unbelievable" clips they decided to use.

There's a fairly logical reason for this. If we didn't filter the information coming our brains would approach a kind of overload. Filtering what is, and isn't, worth our attention is the best way of being able to interpret and react quickly. However, this results in some curious ‘blind' spots (Inattentional Blindness) It seems that the less information our senses have to filter, the greater the ability to detect falsehood. This would be consistent with our lying-friend example, our feelings are also a filter, both what we desire and what we expect.

You don't have close-ups in theatre, and you're most likely to be at some distance from the actors; so again you're often judging on a whole-body view, and therefore I feel that it has more in common with this part of performance capture than film does. Your suspension of disbelief is reliant in part on a physical truth.

Which brings me back to the uncanny valley. I believe that now we have better technology that can bring highly detailed and subtle expressions and behaviors into the digital world, it is the quality of these performances that will provide the glue that keeps the observer/player immersed in the experience. As film and theatre directors know, technical proficiency alone cannot give the audience an experience that goes much further than a great fairground ride.

A dramatic narrative well told, then, will be the difference between a piece judged on the limitations of its media, and a piece judged on its merits as an emotional experience. To some degree we have already seen this in Heavy Rain, where its technical faults are more forgiven by those who have an emotional attachment to the narrative, meaning the performances, plot, and ‘truth' were more likely to be critically examined.

I was at an industry conference recently, and one of the panelists insisted that his best advice was to never try and mix the rules of the media you're working in. TV? TV rules. Film? Film rules? Video Games? Well this is where I differ. In this brave new world of convergence, it is premature to believe that the rules for Video games have been ‘set'. I would say its wiser to establish what Video Games have in common with other media, before excluding anything from the argument. This holds true for the Uncanny Valley- Pascal Langdale

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