It’s hard enough scaring people in the 21st century with a multi-million pound budget, let alone in 8-bit style pixelated graphics. The opening 15 minutes of Uncanny Valley promises to shatter this monetary barrier though. With its confusing but alluring narrative we’re constantly made to question where we are and why. We’re transported to a graphically unsatisfying but nightmarish environment, which makes visitors feel uneasy and on-edge. It all has the feel of classic horror films of 70’s and 80’s that it’s so obviously taken inspiration from. But then you die, and replay the whole episode again. Only next time round, the horror element seems to lose all effect.
The first we see of our protagonist, Tom, is of him lying down along an eerily bleak street. Very soon after, a dozen or so shadowed ghouls chase him, and encase him in darkness. After another similar dream, Tom awakens to realise that, yet again, he’s been having nightmares. In his reality this train is leading to a faraway place, where he can get a fresh start as a security guard at a remote facility. Immediately the tone is set; this is a character with deep-rooted troubles, running away from something bad only to run into something worse.
We’re soon introduced to a fellow security guard named Buck, and Eve, a cleaner whom we first speak with in the workers’ apartment building. After finding collecting his uniform Tom begins his first night shift, and players have exactly 7 minutes until he falls asleep, and has his newest nightmare. This system continues throughout the first half of the game, giving us just a limited time to search the apartment block and remote facility in order to find enough clues and items to progress.
The second half of the game doesn’t limit players to a certain time, but instead there are 4 floors we must traverse, all containing items, clues and enemies. To complete these an element of stealth is required, as Tom can duck and hide behind certain objects in the facility rooms. It is here that the story takes a more horrific turn; if the first half evoked memories of The Shining, then the latter compiles inspiration from every guts, gore and loose body parts film since The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Once the end has been reached on the final floor, the outcome of the game depends on the decisions the player has made throughout, resulting in a multitude of possible endings. This consequence system is an interesting concept, if used well. In Uncanny Valley however, the result is a possible ending containing characters and plot lines you may not have discovered earlier, adding to the already confusing and muddled narrative.
I didn’t know this at the time, but I actually succeeded in dying at the earliest possible moment in Uncanny Valley. I thought it was odd – only 20 minutes in and the game had been finished – but with the consequence system in mind I decided to let it go, thinking that my premature death would affect the overall outcome of the game. It didn’t. Instead I was made to replay the exact same things I had 20 minutes prior. This argument sounds petty when you consider video games of the 80’s and 90’s, in which dying after 5 hours of playing means exactly that – no respawning to the last save point. Yet in these games players are reminded of how close they are to dying. In Uncanny Valley I had no warning whatsoever; it just all of a sudden, randomly ended.
The sense of tension I felt initially was tenuous during my second time around, but this did change after I skipped past my previous mistake. I felt on edge throughout all of my night shifts, and enjoyed the feeling of puzzling together the different clues I found along the way. The background story is told in emails and voice recordings, which surprisingly contained good voice acting. The ‘point and click’ style gameplay made me constantly on the hunt for any item which could help me progress, and the time limit added to the anxiety and tension that the horror elements had planted. Once I had worked out how to reach the lower floors and begin the second half of the game, my first death seemed like a distant memory, a slight hiccup. But then I died. Again.
The third time around I knew exactly how to reach the second half of the game, so understandably on my first shift I sprinted through the game, collected everything I needed to, and reached my apartment. Only I had 5 minutes left on my timer and couldn’t fall asleep. This happened every single shift. It is true that the game wants you to explore, but I had already found everything that needed finding. There are only so many emails you can read, voice recordings you can listen to and same-layout apartments to break into. It resulted in me waiting for the last-minute, until Tom says he’s tired; then I could go on to the next nightmare.
As for the nightmares themselves, what starts out as frightening and mysterious quickly turns into dull and nonsensical. You have two options: wake up through an exit or be attacked by not-so-scary anymore creatures. After a few times of replaying the same dream I chose which route was fastest, and sprinted to it. Like the jumps, scares and gore I was initially terrified of in the facility, the whole ‘mystery’ narrative loses meaning when you’re made to do the same thing over and over.
When I finally made it to the end – after admittedly dying again – I found no closure. I was wanting, hoping for the game to explain everything that had happened, for a final twist to make it all worth it. Instead, I was introduced to several random characters, that only with a bit of research did I find out could have been in the game earlier. They weren’t in mine. For a game that prides itself on a consequence system, a lot of features in Uncanny Valley sees a bit inconsequential to me.
The developers do mention before you even begin the game that it requires multiple playthroughs to get the whole experience. I guess I could have started another game, and played for another 2 hours for a different ending, or maybe a few more clues as to the background of the story. But I’m quite happy with 4. I think I’ll stick with that.
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