‘NBA Jam’ Big Head Mode: Cure For The Uncanny Valley

I went in-depth with “NBA Jam” yesterday in a hands-on preview and some info about legendary players making an appearance. There was, however, something I was so taken with about the upcoming Wii reboot that I thought it worthy of a post on its own: The heads.

As you can probably tell from the above screenshot, the new “NBA Jam” doesn’t use painstakingly designed 3-D heads for player characters. Instead the developers opted for 2-D photos of player faces in a small variety of reaction shots. While dunking, Shaq’s head image might switch to one where his mouth is open, for example. The transition from one head to the other isn’t fluid, it’s instant, and yet, it really works for “NBA Jam.” It brings a level of campy, over-the-top fun which meshes beautifully with the tenants of the franchise.

While ridiculous, the 2-D head technique also offers something that no sports game has ever managed to offer: Every one of the players in the game will be instantly recognizable. No matter how much game publishers claim ultra realistic-looking players, they’ll never be perfect. The task of creating hundreds of recognizable, 3-D faces is simply too much to ask, so developers often place most of the design focus the all-stars, leaving players like Beno Udrih out in the cold:

With the new “NBA Jam” though, this will never happen. A photo of someone’s face is always going to look like that person. Incredibly the developers at EA Sports have managed to defeat the uncanny valley by taking the path of least resistance, and the end result is pitch perfect for the franchise.

I spoke with Trey Smith, the creative director of “NBA Jam,” recently, and he recognized the importance of 2-D player heads for fans. “The digitized faces was such a key thing [about the first ’NBA Jam’],” said Smith. He went on to say that the screenshots that have been released for the game only hint at how ridiculous things can get. “Wait ’til you see Big Head mode, ’cause that’s where it really starts playing around with it.”

In recent years there’s been a throwback trend in the gaming industry (8-bit reboots of “Mega Man” and indie games like “Star Guard” are an example of this), but I don’t think anyone ever expected throwback graphics to offer more recognizable characters than their ultra-modern 3-D cousins. I suppose everything old is new again.