Those of us who remember Next Generation Magazine fondly--I especially miss Chris Crawford's "The Way Games Ought To Be" column--can take a bit of consolation from the continuing excellence of its sister UK publication Edge Magazine and from Next Generation's online resurrection as Next-Gen.biz.
Two apparently unrelated pieces appeared on that site today that got me thinking about the future of MMOs and what the post-WOW MMO universe will look like. Literally.
In his Game Design column, James Portnow discusses the concept of the "Uncanny Valley," based on Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori's hypothesis that the more robots are made to resemble humans, the more likely we are to feel comfortable with them...up to a certain point. When they become near-lifelike, but with small imperfections, we tend to become increasingly uncomfortable. As Portnow puts it, "if something is clearly not human but has human qualities, we find those qualities endearing, but if that something becomes an imperfect simulacrum we find it disquieting and revolting.
Hold that thought.
The other Next-Gen piece that caught my eye was the surprise announcement--still unconfirmed by Nintendo but due to appear in next month's Edge Magazine--that the Wii version of Animal Crossing will be an MMO/social networking title. You'll still be mixing it up with anthropomorphic critters like Blathers the owl and Bianca the cat, but now your Happy Room Academy judges may just be real-life interior decorators.
Am I excited for this game? You bet!! I love Animal Crossing and so does my wife. But why? And why is it that Second Life gets my attention, but has never once excited me?
Mostly it's because I have no interest whatsoever in creating a lifelike avatar of myself, or even my idealized self. Why would I want to do that? Much of the fun to be derived from Animal Crossing comes from making a willing leap into its imaginary and stylized world. The game rewards me for this leap in a variety of ways, such as letting me create my own designs that fit within the visual framework of the game and share them with others. The world of Animal Crossing makes sense on its own terms, making no concessions to questions like, "Why am I the only one collecting fish for the museum?"
Much of Animal Crossing's appeal lies in its gallery of characters and their unique visual representations. We immediately like them. They're peculiar and interesting, but nowhere near lifelike, which adds to their expressiveness. Portnow addresses this design approach in his essay:
Let’s look at some characters: Mario (human caricature), Master Chief (devoid of facial features and expressions) and Final Fantasy characters (stylized humans). These are some of the most recognizable characters in gaming today, yet none of them are photorealistic. In fact, if you make a quick mental list of videogame characters, say the first ten that come to mind…how many of them are photorealistic humans?
When a character is clearly not human their human characteristics stand out. Mario becomes more cute and funny, Master Chief becomes more stalwart and heroic, Final Fantasy characters become more earnest and expressive, because those are their most human characteristics.
The new version of Animal Crossing will join a growing field of virtual social networking games/hubs/portals like like Habbo, MapleStory, Second Life, and, presumably, Playstation Home. Leigh Alexander has written extensively about virtual worlds and the convergence of what she calls a "cocktail of play experiences":
You can now get to Second Life from Facebook, and you will soon play casual games on MySpace. There is a social network for your virtual relationships. You have a friend list and a leaderboard on your video game console, the same way you do on both a social network or a casual gaming portal. MMOs can learn things from social networks, which can learn things from virtual worlds, which can learn things from single-player console games.
What's interesting to me about these various projects is the way they have positioned themselves on opposite ends of the visual representation spectrum. Sony's unveiling of Playstation Home at this year's GDC showed a positively Kubrick-esque depiction of a city with extremely lifelike citizens, buildings, etc. and the ability to import real-world photos as art in the player's realistic apartment.
And, as announced recently, Second Life is receiving a graphics overhaul:
Linden Lab will acquire WindLight®, an advanced atmospheric rendering technology; Nimble™, a realistic 3D cloud simulator; and associated intellectual property and interests. Following this acquisition, Linden Lab will open source Windward Mark's leading graphics technology and integrate it into the Second Life Viewer software, bringing striking visual realism to Second Life.
Habbo Hotel and MapleStory, on the other hand, have chosen cartoon-inspired design styles closer artistically to Animal Crossing. I realize all of this is terribly subjective, but I find myself far more drawn to Habbo's colorful zen garden than to Second Life's virtual depiction of a mall.
Brainy Gamer reader Steve contributed the following helpful comment to the original version of this post:
I think the most useful material I've read on the psychological appeal of abstracted characters comes from Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics. He devotes an extremely accessible and insightful chapter to the idea of "identification through simplification." His examples range from Maus to manga, but the ideas are applicable regardless of medium.
Animal Crossing goes nowhere near Uncanny Valley, and I'm happy for that. Let's hope Edge Magazine is right and that we'll be playing the next version of Nintendo's quirky "communication game" online. If so, meet me in front of Tom Nook's store at midnight, and I'll give you some fruit.