Blockscape, Minecraft, and the Uncanny Valley

Whether you have been playing Minecraft for over a year or are just now getting into it on the Xbox 360 I’m interested in hearing what you think of this.

A man by the name of Jens Blomquist is working on a game called Blockscape that appears to be centered around the idea of being a much more detailed version of Minecraft. I’m generally bothered by games that seem to blatantly rip off something that’s popular without doing something new, but Blockscape is far too early in development to tell how things will turn out.  Only time will tell whether it’ll be a Terraria or just another FortressCraft.

What I’m curious about instead are the visuals and somewhat altered world mechanics. Lighting, water, shaders, and many other elements of Blockscape appear more technically advanced than those in Minecraft, and there seems to be an emphasis on having a wider variety of sizes and shapes to build with. Despite this increased complexity, I immediately and frequently find myself strangely revolted by what I see.

It makes me wonder if there’s some element of the uncanny valley at play here.  For the initiated, the uncanny valley originally referred to an issue where the more lifelike a humanoid machine became the more disturbing it looked.  In video games it is frequently used to discuss how realistic graphics can often be less appealing than stylized visuals.  Extra Credits also recently applied the concept to analyze why people can use a controller to play a game but are so alienated by even the smallest problems in ultimately more realistic motion controls.  The idea is that the more realistic something becomes the more individual flaws bother us.

Perhaps it’s the simplicity and utter absurdity of the world of Minecraft that makes it so engaging, and bringing things closer to reality causes problems.  I see a floating platform in Minecraft and think nothing of it, but a similarly precarious catwalk in the Blockscape trailer immediately feels like a glitch.  Watching the camera jerk upward as the player walks over a series of steps in Blockscape is jarring even though traveling around in Minecraft requires the player to constantly jump over waist-high blocks.  The nonsensical water physics in Minecraft are oddly charming while a similar sight in Blockscape actually bothers me.

Minecraft FEZ skin by inthelittlewood.

This notion is further enforced by my experience with dozens of Minecraft skins.  While it’s always fun to mess around with depth of field and shaders, I’ve noticed that high resolution texture packs only serve to hamper my enjoyment of the game.  After swapping them out for months for the sake of variety I’ve ultimately landed on a FEZ-themed skin, which if anything probably decreases detail in the game.

This is interesting because people often ask why Minecraft’s world is made up entirely by such large blocks. With six million games sold this look clearly has an appeal, but it does restrict the amount of detail players can put into their creations.  Intentionally or not, Minecraft has an established style.  I wouldn’t say it is as masterfully done, but Minecraft’s visuals function in a manner similar to that of Pixar’s animated films.  After all, no one is really bothered by how unrealistic the old man looks in Up.

When the visuals become more lifelike however, the physics quirks become a problem.  When that random NPC in Skyrim is soaring through the sky while spinning end over end it becomes clear that something has gone wrong.  Similarly, when a realistic water texture seems to be flowing down a series of plywood boards the image seems off.  I would argue that rather than being seen as a more detailed take on Minecraft, games that look like Blockscape run the risk merely looking like a low quality version of the real world.

I’m not writing this because I want to rip on some indie game that’s still early in development, in fact I encourage you to check out his site and judge the €9.90 game for yourself.  I’m mostly interested in the idea that the uncanny valley could potentially have some impact on the world of voxel-based games.  What is your take on the issue, or do you agree that there is an issue at all?  How might it be fixed, or does it even need to be?

Learn more the author of this post:

Keith Ballard
I run a gaming channel on Youtube called TheSaDGames and occasionally write about games. I can be contacted on Twitter as @SebastianSB.
  • Lisa Morrison

    The first thing I thought about when I saw the game on the Greenlight section of Steam, was “What makes this game different to minecraft, has it anything to offer but better visuals?” I couldn’t find it, because the word was marked ‘too common’ on their forums. Uncanny valley certainly applies to me here.

  • Lachlan

    I personally like Blockscape just as much as i like minecraft. When i first found it on steam greenlight i was amazed. I love the fact that the world gen has more polygons. And if you look at what they have planned you can tell that it is going to be more of a terraria. And the fact that it has the possibility of being on steam just makes it even better, can you imagine the modding possibilities if minecraft was on steam? Blockscape will have this if it is merged with steam.
    Also blockscape is still only in phase 1 of beta, there is going to be massive changes before it is released as a finished game.