Developed by Cowardly Creations
Not Classified by ESRB (best for ages 13+)
Available on PC through Steam
I give Indie games a lot of unnecessary heat. It isn’t that I genuinely despise the unending tide in a manner an overweight Texan stares at the border and begins to foam at the mouth while stroking his shotgun. I’m mostly just critical of art in general, which I feel much of the market isn’t. As long as you have some trendy art style and a message about how life is sad or stuff happens, then people can’t wait to trip over themselves to give you hyperbolic praise. I don’t dislike a game for being indie, I dislike games that are bad, and indie games don’t just get a pass for being low-budget and made in a basement. Sure, I get that there are different standards that have to be applied, but there still has to be standards.
So despite all of the hard-line negativity I fling at the indie tidal wave, I love it when an indie game comes along that makes me feel like it’s all worthwhile. Uncanny Valley proves that a game can both be low-budget, have something to say, and still be interesting and playable. Though a brief game, Uncanny Valley tells several stories in a natural and dynamic format. It demands more than one playthrough, and with all there is to dive into, it is a demand I was happy to meet.
As of writing this, I have only beaten the game three times. The developer says that there are eight endings, but I’m not sure exactly how similar each ending is, so I can’t definitely say you need to get all eight to fully grasp what is going on. Having gotten three, I have a pretty good understanding of the surface of the world, but there is still a whole surreal world of symbolism to dive into, so forgive my relative inability to explain the intricacies of the nightmare world or the exact relationships between the characters.
The visual graphics are standard pixel art fare: serviceable, but not excellent. The shadow creatures of the dream world attack you in a decently interesting manner, but what really makes the visuals stand out is in the design. The “real” world (or what passes for one while awake) is a stark contrast to the surreal nightmare world, whose claustrophobic spaces and oppressive darkness make the lonely halls of the hotel and facility seem open and inviting. Things can get truly horrifying at times, and as you slowly realize that nowhere is safe, the visuals evolve to match.
It pairs well with sound design that isn’t afraid to use silence. A lot of games try to fill as much audio space as they can with overwrought monologues or music, but there’s a tranquility to Uncanny Valley that is just waiting to break. The shrieks and slams of the nightmare world reflect the surreal and dreadful mind of the protagonist, while the echoing footsteps in the facility remind you that you are alone, exploring the abandoned remains of a place once alive. As a game, it shows an excellent understanding of design and player experience. As an art piece, it shows vision.
I’m someone who always eats his salad before his steak, so I’ve been awash with anticipation to talk about the story design. With all the straightforward narratives, I get used to a certain method of things being spelled out to me. I forget sometimes that I might be a little clever, and Uncanny Valley reminded me of how satisfying piecing together a story on your own can be. Nothing in the game is directly spelled out for you beyond the initial instructions and introductions, allowing you to pursue the world in a direction of your liking.
Reading emails and searching the facility for tapes gives you snippets into the lives of the previous employees, who come together to tell stories of adultery, corporate dickery, personal fears, and a project both grand and sinister. This was the story I first chose to pursue, leading me to the discovery of an AI who was just not quite perfect.
The nightmare world is what I explored next, as the protagonist is transported each night in his dreams to memories haunted by shadows. It reveals a new side of the story, a personal narrative about a single man’s haunted past that juxtaposes the titanic struggle against a corporate produced machine of the waking world. This world is also just slightly not right, as characters responses are odd and disconnected and environments a bit off.
The characters that inhabit the waking world are also just slightly unreal. The mysterious Eve is too familiar with you, and needy enough that it’s almost like she needs you to exist. The obese Buck starts off friendly enough, but slowly gets more negative and aggressive with seemingly no slights on your part. You lack control of how these characters act, and they get more extreme as the game goes on.
All three together rope into the theme of the game’s namesake, the “uncanny valley.” Things artificial become more sympathetic as they become more human-like, until they reach a variable point known as the uncanny valley. At this point, things that are almost human disturb us. The sense of the uncanny is too great, and we notice more how something is just not quite right than we would if it wasn’t attempting to be a perfect replica. As technology advances and seemingly perfect visual and artificial intelligence becomes possible, things dip more and more into this uncanny valley, but we also become more desensitized to it. The game reaches back into that concept with story, doing with pixel art what creepy Japanese love dolls have done since lonely men decided they wanted their fleshlights to be furniture pieces that creep you out.
The diverse storytelling methods and quality of the stories pulls the game out of just being a good indie game into the realm of a great game in a larger market. While there certainly are more robust or epic stories out there, the mastery of narrative process and style brings the game a cut above the limitations in budget. Most importantly, it lacks the pretension that games like this often fall into in hopes of being trendy and unique. It tells a great story in an interesting fashion, and doesn’t let it descend into hyperbole.
I have to do my due diligence and list the flaws. The game suffers from several bugs, including looped animations and disappearing text. The game does a good job explaining itself initially, but many puzzles require moon logic or interactions that are poorly explained. The game has a lot of dead area, which while it serves in fleshing out the world, also makes the game seem like it lacks content. It also is pretty short, which works well in the multi-playthrough format, but might turn people off that are looking for a longer singular narrative.
It is amazing how well they did with so little funding. They only got 900 euros on their Indiegogo, a point that would lead a lesser dev to abandon the project. I’m sure at one point the game was a far more ambitious project, but now serves as an example of shoring up your losses and delivering a great product within budget. It isn’t perfect, but it lights a spark of hope in the indie market that I haven’t felt in years.