Uncanny Valley

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Uncanny Valley
Uncanny Valley

Uncanny Valley thrives in the unknown and dies in the familiar. Playing is a push and pull between two opposing conditions, and in time perseveration shoves mystery over the edge and becomes a dominating force. Consequence, the commanding authority of Uncanny Valley, is resistible when it's ultimately undermined by routine.

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Uncanny Valley’s style makes a strong case for low-fidelity horror. Coupling blown-out pixel art, where simple insinuations of malevolence can be seized and twisted exponentially by a subconscious mind, with meaningful consequence is a blueprint for a trepidatious afternoon. Lone Survivor and Back in 1995 have taken similar routes with dramatic results, proving a low-fi aesthetic has a place inside of interactive terror.

An everyman named Tom escapes the turbulence of life by accepting a security guard position at an abandoned office building in a desolate town. His immediate superior, a sloppy gentleman named Buck, assures Tom that it is the easiest job in the world. All Tom has to do is show up to work and tool around the building for a few hours every night. After his shift ends, he can return to his provided apartment building and get some rest. It’s a boring life, but a perfect means of escape or retreat.

For the player, Tom’s duties translate to a seven minute timer that begins as soon as Tom wakes up. He can go to work on schedule or he can gallivant around the apartment building and waste everyone’s time. Assuming Tom shows up to work, he can scour five different floors, read old emails at some of the work stations, and collect six different cassette tapes. After seven minutes Tom will start getting tired, and you’re encouraged to return him to bed. You don’t have to do this, but, after few more minutes Tom will pass out wherever he’s standing like Jimmy from Bully.

When Tom goes to sleep is where Uncanny Valley starts getting weird. His dreams are haunting remnants of a past life, real or imagined, where social situations are interrupted by shadowy demons or animated corpses. Tom’s back story isn’t especially well fleshed out—it boils down to Tom skipping town to avoid repercussions from some former business associates—so it’s not entirely clear why he’s tormented by outtakes from Jacob’s Ladder. Is it the ghoulish influence of the isolated town, or is Tom merely a regular guy incapable of snuffing out the devil? This kind of ambiguity (or the absence of proper character development, I have no idea) is intriguing and drives interest in Tom on your first trip through Uncanny Valley.

After a handful of days, something inevitably happens to Tom. If Tom does practically nothing, some old acquaintances will catch up to him and do something mean. This follows through to an unpredictable situation that, while solvable, can end in a profoundly disturbing manner. Uncanny Valley’s macabre carnage went there in a way I wasn’t prepared for, widening my eyes and leaving my mouth hanging open. This, I presumed, was one of the game’s bad endings.

It can play out differently in Tom is diligent in his duties. Prowling through the office building reveals the nature of the work there and why it was abruptly shut down. By figuring out how to get ahold of two keycards, Tom can access the foreboding red-striped elevator in the lobby and descend to the depths of the facility. This, simultaneously, is where Uncanny Valley becomes interesting and annoying.

Indulging in the deeper conspiracy is intended to drive the player forward. At this point, Uncanny Valley transforms from an unsettling but leisurely investigation to a strict 2D stealth game. Tom must stay out of sight of prowling horrors, usually by walking behind bookshelves or desks. If one catches up to Tom it will maim a body part before briefly shutting down. If whole mob is present Tom is probably going to die and Uncanny Valley will come to an end.

Permanent death is a formidable risk in a game that isn’t a roguelike, and it’s one that Uncanny Valley accepts without hesitation. If you’re dead, you’re dead and you start the whole game over. A couple of minor things—an errand for Buck, showing up for work on time, casual automobile theft—can go a bit differently, but the first half of Uncanny Valley is largely the same every time. All of the items are in the same place, and access to the basement isn’t permitted until day three.

It’s demoralizing to know this and to still push through twenty minutes of Uncanny Valley before you can take another crack at actions in the basement that didn’t go as planned. Mechanics that Uncanny Valley wears on its sleeve—firing a gun, injuring different body parts—are transitory distractions and feel like they don’t matter. I applaud the intention of consequence, and that Uncanny Valley wants strong consideration to power player agency. I just can’t get over the divergence between its first half and its second, and its inability to sew the two together.

Uncanny Valley also isn’t especially adept at communicating what it wants the player to do. Access to the entire second half of the game is gated by acquiring and using a seemingly random object Tom can pick up. You’re not told it can be used to cave in a door (or commit appalling and unjustified murder, which is fantastic), and Uncanny Valley’s cumbersome, mouse-based dragging mechanic is a bad fit on a console. Trying to heal Tom’s injuries or drag an object over to combat a flailing aggressor is clumsy and frustrating, and it’s hard to believe a better controller solution couldn’t be developed in Uncanny Valley’s transition from the PC platform.

Vague adventure game elements and a vital but burdensome commitment to consequence create an experience where failure isn’t compatible with either agency or responsibility. Certain pieces of Uncanny Valley demand trial-and-error, and punish experimentation with a complete reset. There are two solutions to this; you can presumably sleep through you first three days at work and get to the second half slight quicker than normal, or you can game the system. It’s possible to quit out as soon as your fortunes go south and, assuming you didn’t move after the next scene transition, Uncanny Valley won’t autosave.

Glitches and bugs compound Uncanny Valley tremulous grasp of patience. One morning when I woke up, the screen was completely back and refused to revert back to normal. This play-through had to be abandoned. Another time, during an ending, Buck was invisible and starting barking out commands from the ether. There was also another instance where Tom, despite being tired, refused to go to sleep, although I can’t quite be sure if that one was some intended variant of the normal Uncanny Valley process. “Invisible Buck,” in particular, was a glitch present in the PC version of Uncanny Valley, and it’s disappointing to see it carried through to the console port.

Ambition is ineffective without execution. Uncanny Valley’s look is valuable; chunky pixels and abstract violence, when processed, did more for me than the generic gore unleashed by AAA peers. Similarly, Uncanny Valley’s audio, with its distorted voice samples and clanging footsteps, neatly reinforces its style. “Consequence,” as a third pillar should have created a strong foundation, but it all collapses when consequence can’t be balanced with compromise. Uncanny Valley actually encourages and punishes replays, which is a choice I can’t understand.

In the end, Uncanny Valley thrives in the unknown and dies in the familiar. Playing is a push and pull between two opposing conditions, and in time perseveration shoves mystery over the edge and becomes a dominating force. Consequence, the commanding authority of Uncanny Valley, is resistible when it’s ultimately undermined by routine.

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Eric Layman is available to resolve all perceived conflicts by 1v1'ing in Virtual On through the Sega Saturn's state-of-the-art NetLink modem.