Designing the Uncanny

Techniques to Create an Uncomfortable Experience

When talking about the Uncanny, particularly in games, often the phrase that comes to mind is The Uncanny Valley. A phenomenon where people tend to feel a stronger empathetic response to humanlike depictions the more lifelike they are, until they reach a point of being almost human, convincing enough at first glance but slightly off in a way that generates an intense discomfort. The phrase is prevalent when discussing the medium of games since they often contain humanlike depictions that aim for realism but fall slightly short into the realm of creepiness. The Uncanny Valley, however, is only one manifestation of the underlying concept of the Uncanny, which closely ties to childhood memories, nightmares, and the paranormal.

The Uncanny is a unique sensation that many of us have likely felt. It is best described as an uncomfortable distress when the familiar and the safe seem slightly off and inconsistent. For example, when you explore a familiar place that is now somewhat different, like your childhood home in a dream or when walking through an ordinarily busy place like a school at night. It can also feel like a drowning helplessness, for example, when you were a child in the supermarket, lost and trapped, going around in circles between identical-looking aisles looking for Mummy. Sigmond Freud explored the Uncanny in depth. He hypothesised that it occurs because our conscious mind is unnerved by the projections of our subconscious onto the world.

Since learning about the Uncanny, I began realising how many things invoke it in me, for example, the work of David Lynch, alongside classic fairy tales and the game Alien: Isolation. They all generate an uncomfortable feeling, which I am strangely drawn to and somewhat savour and indulge in. Such is the paradox of horror that we often enjoy indulging in uncomfortable emotions like dread and fear for fun. I would like to see more games and media explore the feeling of the Uncanny. Therefore I have outlined five methods that can be used to create this feeling in games.

Repetition

In Freud’s essay on the Uncanny, he describes an event where he got lost in an Italian town. He found himself in a creepy narrow street. He turned and walked the other way, but after some more time wandering unguided, he found himself again in that narrow street. Feeling as though he was being watched and mocked by onlookers, paranoia and anxiety washed over him. After some more time attempting to find his way back home, he, for a third time, ended up on the creepy narrow street. The feeling of discomfort and dread that consumed him was the Uncanny.

Freud believed this event caused him such dread because our subconscious mind attempts to go around in circles when lost. He describes this as a reptilian impulse, an ancient defence mechanism in our brain to prevent us from getting even more lost and stumbling into danger. However, the conscious mind is simultaneously attempting to push forward to find its way home. When we return to the same place, the disconnect between our conscious mind and the unconscious mind’s motivations causes us distress.

Anthony Vidler’s book The Architectural Uncanny further builds on Freud’s essay. It discusses how spaces that force repetition invoke a paranoia of being watched and hunted. One suggestion as to why this happens is that constantly returning to the same place in the wild would catch the attention of predators, and the feeling of paranoia is an ancient signal to warn us of danger. Regardless of this phenomenon’s psychological cause, the observation still can benefit game designers. Many can relate to the uncomfortable situation of being lost and going around in circles, be it as a lost child or in the peculiar helplessness of dreams; it seems to be a common human reaction.

San Cristobal Medical Facility level map

How a designer could apply this to level design is quite intuitive. Designing complex spaces that are easy to get lost in and that loop back on themselves is a very effective tool. Dynamic enemies whose behaviours shepherd the player around in circles can further enhance this design. An excellent example are the levels in Alien Isolation, especially the San Cristobal Medical Facility level, whose floorplan comprises numerous interconnected loops. As the player explores the complex environment whilst being pursued by the Alien antagonist, they inevitably go around in circles, leading to a paranoia of being watched that only enhances the horror experience.

Nostalgia

Freud described the Uncanny using the German words heimlich and unheimlich, their literal translations into English being homely and unhomely. Heimlich describes what is safe and familiar, whereas Unheimlich describes the uncomfortable and strange. The Uncanny occurs when inconsistencies in the comfortable make it slide into being slightly off and creepy. Nostalgia is not the first emotion you might connect to this phenomenon, but they share some commonalities. 

Nostalgia is an interesting emotion. It is described as a bitter-sweet reminiscing of times gone by. The phrase “viewing the past through rose-tinted glasses” describes the human experience of being nostalgic over a distorted but fond memory. The idealised past creates a warm, pleasant, homely memory; however, false memories also generate inconsistencies. Small, slightly off details mean happy memories slip easily into the unhomely and unheimlich and develop a strong feeling of uncanniness.

This connection between uncanniness and nostalgia was explored by Robin Sloan in his paper Homesick for the Unheimlich. He used Alien: Isolation as an example of this connection. The retro-futuristic setting of the Alien universe is incredibly nostalgic for the 80s, with chunky computers, Casio wrist watches and Converse trainers. Further, the Alien franchise has been around long enough that many may feel a strong nostalgia towards the property itself. In the game, callbacks such as entering the APOLLO core, a reference to the ship’s computer MOTHER in the original Alien film, establish this nostalgic tone in the setting. However, this nostalgia is interrupted by the tension and fear of gameplay and interactions with the Xenomorph enemy. This flipping between bitter-sweet nostalgia and danger invokes a powerful feeling of uncanniness.

Sauna 2000

Nostalgic settings are excellent starting points for establishing uncanny feelings in games. Using shared cultural experiences to design familiar spaces can capture this feeling, for example, a high school or office setting. Aesthetics can also help, for instance, by using art styles that are friendly or nostalgic. Look no further than the resurgence of PS1-style graphics and their use in indie horror games to see this in action. These techniques of nostalgia are effectively employed in the indie games Perfect Vermin and Sauna 2000

The Valley

Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori first described the Uncanny Valley in 1970. He observed that our emotional reactions tend to be more positive towards inanimate objects the more lifelike they are until they seem “almost” perfectly real. This narrow band where something is almost lifelike but not quite provokes a strong reaction of disgust and unease. Many theories have been suggested to explain this phenomenon. One is that it is a defence mechanism that prevents us from getting too close to rotting corpses that may contain diseases.

Graph showing the Uncanny Valley

The Uncanny Valley’s connection to Freud’s definition was unintentional and simply the result of how Masahiro Mori’s original work was translated. However, the two definitions describe similar phenomena. For example, creepy lifelike dolls, a horror staple, generate deep feelings of creepiness and disgust. When they sit motionless, our unconscious mind imagines and projects onto them impossible images of them moving, which unnerve our conscious mind. This feeling combines with their almost lifelike appearance, which falls in the Uncanny Valley.

Characters that move in stunted, weird and unnatural ways also fall into the Uncanny Valley. An example of this done intentionally in games is Zombies, decaying corpses that are animate with staggered and erratic movements that confuse our unconscious mind as to if the creature is alive or dead.

Swamp Sim

An indie horror game, I believe, does this very well, and one that I’m pretty fond of is Swamp Sim by Arman Karshenas, which is a clone of Slender where the player collects onions whilst being pursued by Shrek. The nostalgia of Shrek plays into this game’s uncanniness, but another contributing factor is the character’s awkward and amateurish walk cycle animation. The movements are inhuman and weird. This choice was likely made intentionally, both for comedic and horrific reasons. Also, a distorted version of the song All Star by Smash Mouth plays and gets louder the closer Shrek gets to you. This use of sound is another effective technique as distorted audio, particularly voices, also fall into the Uncanny Valley. 

A designer can incorporate the uncanny valley into their game in many ways. One way is through character design, by giving characters purposefully strange body anatomy, for example, eyes that are too big or limbs that are too long. In addition, the animation of such characters could be deliberately off and inhuman-like. Furthermore, sound design can also be used, distorting, compressing and modulating sounds and voices in unnatural ways that create doubt over their source.

Doppelgangers

Abjection is an idea explored in depth by psychologist and philosopher Julia Kristeva in her work Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Abjection is a powerful feeling of disgust when there is a breakdown between the Self and the Other. The Self is everything we consider familiar and in our image, and the Other is everything we think of as deviant and different from how we define ourselves. When we see similarities between ourselves and what we consider Other, we often experience a powerful abject reaction. An example of this is when we see vomit or rotting flesh. These powerful images remind us how similar we are to corpses, which causes disgust because we see the dead bodies as otherly. The technique of portraying something as different to an audience and then breaking down the distinction between it and the audience invokes a powerful feeling that horror entertainment and propaganda both exploit.

A common trope for triggering abject reactions is the doppelganger, a literal visual depiction of the Other and Self. It is also a method of creating uncanniness. The Uncanny is often described in terms of duality, be that duality of conscious and unconscious, homely and unhomely and self and other. Freud describes how mirror images of our self are targets for repressed thoughts to be projected on by the unconscious. Copies, doubles, and doppelgangers are, therefore, also deeply uncanny because of their simultaneous familiarity and unfamiliarity. There are many effective examples of this trope in media in media; anyone who has seen Twin Peaks knows what I’m talking about.

 Games can achieve similar feelings by having the player interact and fight doppelgangers of themself or by having the player play as both hero and enemy, breaking down the boundaries between them and having the player realise how similar they are. The Last of Us Part 2  used this technique in its narrative, and the classic horror game Siren made use of it in its mechanics by allowing the player to “sight jack” and see the world through the eyes of the enemies pursuing the player.

Layers of Reality

Invoking the Uncanny can be done when there is doubt over what layer of reality a person is on. This doubt is another contributing factor to the uncanniness of dreams when a dreamer begins to realise their reality is full of inconsistencies and they are unsure if they are awake or in a dream. This flavour of uncanniness is the basis of the sci-fi films The Matrix and Inception, which explore the feeling of being unsure of what layer of reality somebody is on. This trope is also often explored in mirror or parallel dimensions where things are similar but slightly different, for example, in the profoundly uncanny film Coraline.

As game designers, we can even break into the player’s reality, breaking down the barriers between the game and the player. For example, controllers can be made unresponsive, and screens go black. Often removal of player agency like this is considered bad game design, but in horror, lack of control can bring about an exhilarating type of fear and anxiety. 

Volume slider in Eternal Darkness

Horror games have been blurring the line between reality and media for a while, like a document from a game’s source files that needs to be deleted to continue or for the game to reference what other games the player has been playing. Some great examples can be found in Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem, where a fake volume slider changes the volume of the game to make the player believe someone is in the room altering it or in the now infamous horror game demo PT where the player must speak aloud into their microphone to progress the game.

Conclusion

The Uncanny is a fascinating and complex concept that designers can use to create unique and immersive gaming experiences. By tapping into our childhood memories and nightmares and exploring the feeling of the Uncanny, designers can craft environments that are both familiar and unsettling. Repetition, nostalgia, and ambiguity are just a few of the tools that can be used to create this sensation, allowing players to indulge in uncomfortable emotions like dread and fear for fun. The Uncanny is a paradoxical feeling that draws us in, leaving us intrigued, and serves as a reminder of the fascinating complexity of human emotions and perception.