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Uncanny Valley is a game of choices you don't realize you're making. Where you walk, what you do, and who you interact with all help decide where you'll end up by the game's conclusion, dictating which one of several endings you'll receive. That ending may or may not make sense to you when it arrives, either, as this is also a game of acquiring information. Forces are at work in this world that the game won't tell you about unless your detective skills are good enough to find them. Confusion and misdirection abound in Uncanny Valley, and the only way you'll clear the muddied waters is through multiple playthroughs and careful maneuvering against the unseen, unknown forces that want to bring an end to your life.

For unknown reasons, Tom accepts a job as night watchman at the abandoned Melior facility way out in the middle of nowhere. Besides that building and the apartment complex that used to house its staff, there's nothing else for miles. Better get used to talking to the only two people in town, too: Buck, the day guard, and Eve, the maid at your apartment building. Neither of them has a whole lot to say, so you're left to your own devices, exploring the facility at night to make sure nobody is messing with it, and then going home to go to sleep after your shift. Day in, day out. Except there's all these computers lying around. And tapes. And videos. I mean, it's not like you have much else to do during your shift, so you may as well play around with them.

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All of this stuff leads to a natural curiosity. You can interact with a lot of things in the game's world, and all of them give you little voice clips, bits of video, or some text that hint at a greater storyline. You quickly get the impression that something went wrong here, but what? So you keep digging. It's not like your character has anything else to do at night, so you pick at the mystery. You find clues to other bits of the background story. Soon, these clues lead to places you're not supposed to go, and you start spending your evenings figuring out how to break into them. You start obsessing over the questions each new piece of information brings. Cowardly Creations did an excellent job of leaving this trail of crumbs and giving the player just enough information to make them hungry to solve the mystery.

They also did well by making the clues feel a lot more natural than most games. Audio logs can be strange things, with villains, researchers, and workers leaving the equivalent of voiced diaries behind. Audio logs have always felt like clumsy exposition to me, disguised as logs that I can't imagine anyone having much reason to leave behind. The open emails, the research recordings, and small pictures make more sense to me. They reveal things little by little in ways I can imagine an actual human being would communicate them. It feels more like solving a mystery than being spoon-fed bits of pertinent information, relying on our ability to detect something is wrong rather than outright telling us.

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Even if you can't follow the chain of clues, things are happening around you, though. Uncanny Valley does not concern itself over whether the player knows or understands what's happening. If something bad happen at a set time at a set location, it's going to happen. This can feel unfair as you're being assaulted by figures you weren't even aware of, but this also makes the world feel more alive and organic. Why did I get kidnapped? Who were those people who attacked me? You may be dead before you know it with no idea why, and this adds a creeping menace to the game. You don't know when your time will be up, and so you scramble for clues to help you learn about the dangers at Melior and how to get away from them before those dangers come looking for you. Knowledge is your greatest weapon in Uncanny Valley.

You don't have all the time in the world to get that information, either. Again, like the real world, you have a finite amount of time each night to explore the facility, so you need to hurry to find everything. But you also need to slow down, read, and pay attention. These two things conflict with each other, pushing the player to slow down and speed up at the same time. It creates this nervous feeling that your end is coming soon, and leaves the player desperate to avoid it, but you also need to slowly digest what's around you. If you've got quick problem solving skills and can read fast, you will do well here, but others may find a stressful fear settling in as they rush to figure out what's going on. You can push yourself on past the end of your shift, although you will eventually pass out from exhaustion (which carries its own consequences). You need to discover as much as you can within your time limit.

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When you settle in to sleep, you dream, and these dreams give you more hints as to what's happened in your character's background. Your behavior in these dreams also dictates what information you get, as you can easily make some mistakes and end up 'failing' them. Here, it's less of a case of finding the right sources as it is of trial and error. You're often dogged by strange beings in these dreams, and your ability to avoid or interact with them properly decides how much information you get. Most often, I met an unfortunate end, which means waking up prematurely and losing out on some precious clues that might have saved my life later.

Speaking of that, death is handled differently in Uncanny Valley. Instead of dying, the game moves on or shifts the storyline to suit what has just happened. How you'd do that after dying may sound complicated, but it often just means you get a different ending or have only died in a dream. Even when enemies show up, this just means that you get beaten down and the available suite of endings changes. Enemies will also just give you game-changing injuries, such as chest wounds which cut down run time, a broken arm that makes weapon use impossible, or a broken leg that removes your ability to run. The developers were far more interested in making consequences to your failures rather than add in deaths that would require multiple playthroughs of the same area.

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All of these things might make the game needlessly confusing and unfair, except that the game is very short. An hour or two is often all you need to play through it, so if you screw up and get a lousy ending, you can get right back at it with the knowledge you gained on the last run. After a few tries, I knew exactly where to go and what to pick up to make subsequent runs easier, and because of that I could solve more of the puzzle. One run at the game may only take a little while, but as you play through it over and over, you peel back more layers of the mystery, hopefully getting more and more varied endings each time.

This system, while interesting in many ways, drove me crazy as well. When you know what you're doing, the first half of the game where you work your night watch job becomes really redundant, but you still have to play through it each time to get to the game's more challenging second half. This can waste up to a half hour of your time on stuff you've already done, and it gets old real quick. This might not be a big issue on its own, but when enemies show up in the second half, things get worse. This is because a single run-in with the enemies can give you a game-changing injury, so a simple screw-up can put you on the road to the exact same ending you got last time, and now you'll have to replay the whole game again for another attempt. Also, you can only run for a limited amount of time, so unless you're extremely careful, you will make that screw-up, eventually. You can try reloading an old save to make another attempt, but the autosave system often makes that impossible, and even goes so far as to delete your save when you get an ending. So, something that was meant to remove the annoying repetition of death in games actually has consequences that make you repeat the ENTIRE GAME instead, which is a whole lot worse than just repeating a small section.


EDIT: Cowardly Creations has added an option to skip days instantly after the first day (by going to sleep). They are also working to patch in an option to skip the intro.

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Also, for a game about choice, there are still some buggy consequences for not doing what you're told. In the beginning of the game when Buck tells you to go home and change into your uniform, if you try to go to the wrong floor, the game flips out in ways that aren't immediately obvious. Taking other steps when you're not supposed to, or even ignoring speaking characters to hurry things along, often results in future things not loading correctly. My previous screw-up removed Buck from the game entirely, so in a game about being free to make your own choices, there are still some terrible bugs resultant from those choices I made. It's nothing that I couldn't avoid by behaving myself better, listening to all the dialogue and doing what I was told in some places, but you never know when you've screwed something up just through normal curiosity or by rushing until it's too late. The devs are hard at work removing bugs as we speak, but this is still an issue at this point.

Despite having large problems with those two issues, I stuck around for the game's sound design. The music makes an excellent companion for lonely exploring, playing quietly while enhancing the feeling that something is wrong. When you finally know for sure what's up and there's enemies about, it changes to a much heavier, more aggressive set of tracks that pound and howl through your speakers. This is also followed by some voice acting for the game's enemies, and if the music doesn't have you running from these monsters, their cries will. The monster voices are extremely unsettling, and their screams just make those monster designs work.

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The look of the creatures helps a lot, too. Without revealing much, they're an unnerving mixture, and their ability to tear through doors as they chase you, especially in the various states you find these creatures in, never stops being frightening. The pixel art only enhances some of the other gruesome occurrences and things you find, too, with sickening sights all over the place. Like Lone Survivor and The Last Door, the artwork is just vague enough that you can't quite tell what something is at times, and that type of visual communication brings the imagination into play. You can't quite tell what that smear is on the walls, but your imagination tells you it's something frightening. It's used to powerful effect in this game, and creates some wonderful, stomach-churning images.

If it wasn't so content to waste so much of your time, I would have enjoyed Uncanny Valley a lot more. I really liked that events occurred without your knowledge, giving an actual sense of urgency in solving its puzzles. There's no dawdling because the game would only move the plot forward when the player was ready, but an actual feeling that I was unraveling a dangerous mystery in real time. It was neat that the game worked death in as more of a failure, weaving it into the story. Getting injured by the enemy also made run-ins with them more tense, as did the inability to run for long, and these things were enhanced even further with great sound and visual design. With the large consequences for failure and the lack of manual saves for me to make another attempt when I wanted to, it just wastes too much of my time on needless multiple playthroughs at the moment. I love the game and would really like to explore it more, but I can't justify playing through another hour of it only to get the same ending again. Uncanny Valley is an interesting game with many great ideas, but without some saves to pull from, I just can't bring myself to keep trying for the other endings.

Uncanny Valley is available for $9.99 on Steam and the Humble Store. For more information on it and Cowardly Creations, you can head to the developer's site or follow them on Facebook, YouTube, Tumblr, IndieDB, and Twitter.