Uncanny Valley

"Although its tendency toward unambiguity hampers the core experience, Uncanny Valley manages to be a sterling effort that stands out from its indie contemporaries."

Some of the most terrifying nightmares are those that take place within familiar locales. Few things feel more chilling than to be trapped in a recognizable place that just seems... off. Say you're in your favorite bar, but the lights seem unusually dim, a strange din reverberates from the jukebox and the patrons are dismissive at best, if not outright hostile. You step out into the night air, but none of the streets look familiar to you. A man lays in the gutter, twitching unnaturally, as a shadowy figure approaches from a dark alley. You start to run, but your legs feel like they're wading through molasses. Whatever's after you is gaining speed, and when it reaches you... With a jolt, you wake up in bed, nervous and unsure of your surroundings.

We've all had these types of nightmares, and that type of primal fear is exactly what Cowardly Creations has tapped into with their debut Uncanny Valley, a bite-sized horror adventure heavy on atmosphere. Narcoleptic protagonist Tom has been experiencing a chain of disturbing nightmares in which he is endlessly chased through his neighborhood by shadowy pursuers. Disoriented and tormented, he decides to get out of the city to clear his head and takes a job as a night watchman at a recently-shuttered facility out in the sticks. Upon arrival, Tom meets Buck, his surly and obese co-worker, and Eve, the attractive young caretaker of the staff dormitory. While Buck is immediately standoffish, Eve expresses her desire to get to know Tom better by leaving him the occasional note. The only problem is, she's been leaving these notes inside of his room while he's been asleep...

After a brief tutorial from Buck, the game begins in earnest: Each night Tom is to patrol a large facility made up of offices and research labs to make sure no pesky teenagers are trespassing, and, if the player is so inclined, to snoop through former employees' e-mails to learn about what led to the facility's closure. The dimly-lit building manages to be a pretty spooky place, with its cold color pallette accompanied by a disquieting ambient soundtrack that builds on its lonely mood. These night shifts feel wonderfully uncomfortable as if you're a trespasser yourself.

Each night lasts seven minutes, with a grace period of two or three minutes to get back to Tom's room before he falls asleep. For a game so heavily based around exploration, the nights seem too short; just getting from the dorm to the main building will take almost a minute. Rooms are very large and Tom can't sprint for long without getting winded, so players will find frustratingly little time to explore before the night ends. Furthermore, time doesn't stop when the player is reading e-mails, managing inventory, or using the elevator. A game so heavily based around exploration and reading data logs would benefit from longer time limits. From the second night onward, the timer starts from the moment Tom wakes up and before he's even dressed, giving the player that much less time to spare.

Depending on the actions you take, sometime between the third and fifth nights the time limit is expunged as the player finds Tom sneaking through the basement to avoid hostile creatures. The more damage Tom takes, the fewer abilities are available: Tom can only take a handful of blows, and if he takes more than two he loses the ability to run or crouch. It's interesting in theory, but a late-game sequence requires these abilities to successfully escape a room. Taking Tom's quota of blows doesn't give a game over but instead fast-tracks you to an ending path, and the game's single-slot autosaving makes retries an impossibility. However, Uncanney Valley is pretty short: A typical playthrough can take anywhere between one and three hours and there are a variety of outcomes depending on what actions are chosen, some of which are delightfully ghoulish. The lengthy and unskippable intro starts to feel like a bit of a chore during repeat playthroughs, but the story has so many variables that an invested player can overlook this.

One thing that surprised me about Uncanny Valley's script was its unexpected amount of profanity. An e-mail from a jilted homosexual to his closeted former-lover crudely compares his betrayal to sodomy, which felt a little cheap. Aside from that, the writing is generally pretty solid but perhaps too revealing: There's a series of (expertly voice-acted) audio cassettes players can track down, but an astute player can figure out the game's big twist from hearing any of the tapes in isolation. The story's tendency to overshare extends to the dreams that punctuate each shift, which begin to form a chronological story the more the player progresses. They start out menacing and obscure, but before long, all semblance of metaphor is thrown out the window and the surreal elements all-but-disappear in favor of clear chunks of on-the-nose narrative. The game's desperate need to communicate its story undercuts its initial mystique and any fear of the unknown gleaned from it.

When Uncanny Valley first hit Steam, it was plagued with game-breaking bugs. Although its most serious issues have since been fixed, there still seem to be a handful of glitches that may hamper enjoyment. Event flagging can be a bit iffy; during my playthrough, Tom admonished himself for sleeping on the job even though I had put him to bed after his shift had finished. Most grievously, a late-game glitch prevented me from firing my gun. Despite the screen displaying that I had a clip of 10 bullets, attempting to pull the trigger only produced the sound of an empty chamber. The narrative structure meant that this was not game-breaking, but I was thus locked out of any ending that required combat.

Despite its glaring flaws, I enjoyed my time with Uncanny Valley. Playing the role of a night watchman is a surprisingly underutilized setting in games; the concept of exploring a vast complex at night — and the tension of what one would do if they encountered an intruder — is a great set-up, and one that Uncanny Valley excels at. Though I felt the overarching plot was too keen to play its hand, the environmental and indirect storytelling methods it employs are very effective at building dread; the moment when the dozens of e-mails you've read start to coalesce into a sinister whole feels great, especially because it happens to be completely optional.

Horror is a very hard genre to get right, and Uncanny Valley manages to be a sterling effort that stands out from its indie horror contemporaries. Low-detail pixel art gives it a unique flair, with well-animated character sprites and superb sound design that excels at building a mood of discomfort and unease. Although its tendency toward unambiguity hampers the core experience, all of the hallmarks of a great horror adventure are here and I look forward to seeing more from Cowardly Creations.

© 2015 Cowardly Creations. All rights reserved.