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Costume Quest & the uncanny valley

2015 January 20

So, I’m a bit behind the times. I bought a PlayStation3 after the PS4 came out, and—while the PS3 still sees new titles released—my most recent acquisition for it is from 2010. It’s so old that the promotional web site has apparently expired.* I do think this is kind of chintzy and lazy, actually; you can’t be bothered to pay the pennies it would take to keep this online? I’m planning to keep www.brilliantdeduction.info live, and Costume Quest is probably still more profitable in 2015 than Brilliant Deduction will ever be…

This aside, I commend DoubleFine for a delightful, delicious game.

As much of the gaming community has already recognized this achievement and moved on, however, I’ve decided to direct most of my comments to some aspects of the game’s design. (Which is why this post is here rather than at my personal site.)

Prominent among its merits, Costume Quest is a feast of design. Keen-o costumes, the icon system of “Battle Stamps,” plus the whole set of “Creepy Treats Cards” (presumably inspired by Garbage Pail Kids) which serve negligible function in the game besides ornamentation. The design element that has prompted the most fascination for me, though, is the built landscape.

Costume Quest's Autumn Pines suburb

Screen shot from Costume Quest’s Autumn Pines suburb

Most of Costume Quest takes place in a suburban neighborhood, a shopping mall, and some kind of rural setting that I can’t even describe effectively without going into it at some length… Before getting to that, though, I’ve wondered why I have wondered so much about this scenery, and today I had an idea. I think maybe the locations in Costume Quest hover in some kind of uncanny valley.

For those unfamiliar, the term “uncanny valley” usually refers to some sort of simulated person, the most advanced of which at present not only continue to seem “off” somehow, but may seem more “off” because they come so close to being convincing that the gap is more unnerving than something which is obviously and reassuringly not a real human. Or something like that.

With Costume Quest, I think we might have a kind of urban landscape version of this phenomenon. It struck me right away that Autumn Pines is a lot like the typical residential suburb, except certain subtle differences make it feel quite different. It’s awfully compact, for one thing; lawns are small and houses are quite close together. The only cars are decorative objects. Not one of them ever moves. In contrast, though, there’s plenty of pedestrian life.

This last can, obviously, be explained at least in part by its being Halloween… but of course, all of it can potentially be explained by its being just a frickin’ game already; what is there to get? Why am I thinking about this? I think it might be proximity to the uncanny valley. (In addition to my being weird and bored.)

In a sense, yes, it’s very simple: Autumn Pines is a cartoon version of a suburban landscape. Costume Quest is a video game. The settings are just play sets. Yet I noticed something, here, that I haven’t really in other games. I’ve never given much thought to the accuracy of the urban settings in River City Ransom or Skate or Die 2, e.g. but those are 8-big games. Their abstraction is plain as day. Among the other PS3 games I’ve played, meanwhile, the settings in Testament of Sherlock Holmes mostly seem entirely convincing, or at any rate with the same precision as my familiarity with Victorian London.

Most of the urban settings in Ni No Kuni are obviously fantasy realms, meanwhile, except “Motorville.” This probably comes close to the same uncanny valley effect as Autumn Pines, except that it’s still time displaced—”Motorville” seems like a kind of idealized mid-20th-century American town—and you also spend relatively little of the game there.

In contrast, the Autumn Pines “level” is 1/3 of the game, and so I had lots of time to compare it to real modern residential suburbs, with which I’m very familiar. Again, the comparison just feels odd. Most of the scenery is of sufficient realism, I think, that it wasn’t much of a leap to being probing the exceptions. I think I’ve already noted most of those that apply to Autumn Pines. Autumn Pines Mall, setting for the game’s second act, mostly felt accurate in terms of the physical setting; perhaps a shopping mall is by nature something of a playset and just doesn’t require much modification to become a video game level…

This, however, may have made the game’s final location all the more vexing. What is one to make of Fall Valley? Its oddities probably stray further from the uncanny valley concept, but again, I think it’s partly the contrast of familiar and “off” at work. Much of Fall Valley makes a kind of sense: you’re in the countryside, and the presence of people and bits of Halloween decor can be explained, up to a point, by the presence of a small carnival and a corn maze. I can buy into this, again up to a point. Both of these sub-regions of Fall Valley seem adequately convincing, perhaps again helped by being phenomena intended as playsets even in real life.

But much of Costume Quest is structured around trick-or-treating, and Fall Valley includes provision for this as well. Except the particular provision is just odd. Trick-or-treating in a residential suburb makes perfect sense; trick-or-treating shopping mall stores as a customer promotion I can buy into. Trick-or-treating various tents at the carnival is rather more of a stretch but the thing is I hardly even noticed this because what precedes it is even stranger: the game’s designers included a kind of village to trick-or-treat.

What the heck is this place?

Fall Valley Township?

The above screen shot isn’t the best example, but basically the Fall Valley “town” resembles an old European village square, or perhaps a kitschy replica thereof. Timbered houses, cobblestones. All of this, meanwhile, apparently out in the countryside yet there aren’t even any parked vehicles in Fall Valley. What the f…?

Yeah, again I do realize it’s a game but this is just weird, if only because—monsters and magic excepted—much of Costume Quest carefully stays just within a broad but consistent border of plausibility. (The ferris wheel sequence being a consciously acknowledged exception that proves the rule.)

Fall Valley seems more like it straddles both sides of that border, I guess. Having thought about it, I think you could almost imagine it as some kind of exaggerated version of a quirky and dubiously sited condo development; presumably all the cars and the access road are behind the houses. Though they’re usually more like Autumn Pines in form, I know that plenty of such isolated housing enclaves get built. Maybe this is an oddity from the very end of housing bubble silliness, that is by chance (and artistic license) 100% occupied.

Still weird… I suppose the other weird element in common to all the Costume Quest areas, meanwhile, is entirely down to its being a (well-designed) game: they’re such fun places to spend time. In each case, everything’s lavishly decorated for Halloween, there are things to do and hidden secrets to discover, and you can just walk up to and start a conversation with anyone.

Most of this is entirely conventional for a game. That said, real life seems a bit poorly designed by comparison, you know? Most people—myself included—find the idea of chatting up every stranger you meet very awkward. The real world does have stores full of goods to acquire—but games’ ready opportunities to earn access to a substantial portion of the market’s wares is woefully absent from real life.

Lakewood could certainly use more (accessible) secret bonus areas, too… Though perhaps some people have a cool idea along these lines, at least.

* The Internet Archive has back-ups, at least.

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