Recently, a lot of games have gotten really creepy. Not because of any challenge in their gameplay, but because of the way they look when you talk to them face to face. This has always been an issue with 3D games - it was particularly groteque in the Elder Scrolls games, where they would stare flatly at you for hours. It was also notable in the Mass Effect games, where they used the same bizarre, robotic "we're done talking" animation for all three games.
These creepy interactions are only getting worse as the faces get more detailed.
At first I thought it was typical uncanny valley stuff, but it's not. Because there are many games where it's not creepy at all.
Yesterday, I finally figured it out. They're not creepy because of the number of polygons or the textures or whatever. They're creepy because they're four inches from your face and ignoring you.
When you talk to someone at close range, there's a natural rhythm to your body language. Your eyes meet and wander at a particular pace. Your faces are pointed at them or off-center or even off to the side at various times. There's a subtle action to the eyebrows, the small motions of the muscles around the eye, the corner of the mouth. These are all negotiated: depending on how comfortable you are with each other and each other's natural inclinations, you will get different pacing.
Of course, there's no way to know what sort of things the player's face is doing. Short of playing with a webcam, the game cannot react to the thousands of social cues the player is giving off. The NPC just bulls through with whatever animations are hardcoded.
This is very creepy to me. I think it's because it feels like I don't exist to these NPCs: they are talking for their own self-satisfaction and have not even the slightest care if I'm hearing them at all, let alone understanding them.
I think a lot of devs know this, because they have found a good way around it. There are many games which are not creepy despite their high-fidelity faces. The trick?
Proper cut scenes.
I know, I know. Cut scenes are cheating. But by moving the camera to the side, you let the NPC converse with the player avatar. The player is not being stared in the face - instead, the player's avatar is being stared in the face and the player is simply watching from the side. The two characters are animated together, and they react properly to each other. At the worst, they might appear to be stomping over each other's social cues, but they aren't stomping over YOUR social cues.
This has the added advantage of putting the player's avatar on-screen, up close and personal. Being able to see your avatar is great, especially if it's highly customized. It also has the advantage of showing us the player avatar's social nature - how they interact with the people they talk to in subtle ways. This makes the avatar feel like they exist as a person in that world.
Anyway, if you have detailed 3D faces with detailed 3D facial animations, think about not pointing them straight into the camera. It's creepy.