Looking for an escape, Tom takes a solitary job out of the city. It’s only human to want to be alone sometimes, but what he finds…isn’t.
The term ‘uncanny valley’ describes the premise that human resemblance, when not entirely authentic, can elicit feelings of creepiness and revulsion. As with an android, perhaps. Or a corpse. In the sphere of videogames, it’s a term many of us will associate more with unconvincing graphical depictions. This indie survival horror from Cowardly Creations leverages both definitions to its benefit.
As an indie project, Uncanny Valley’s 2D pixel-art aesthetic might be the least surprising thing about it. This game revels in the visually primitive, of course. Yet it eschews any cartoonish pretence. Instead, it bears the stylings of an Amiga game that yearns for a fidelity that technology cannot yet realise. Though the animation recalls Delphine’s Another World and Flashback, its sprites are similarly faceless. Even in its sound design, vocal samples are deliberately compressed and degraded to sound almost, but not quite, human.
But let’s not get too caught up with people. Uncanny Valley finds its footing in the absence of humanity, as much as in the representation of it. Its centrepiece location, a facility without purpose that’s at once enigmatic and unremarkable, looms over a neighbouring accommodation block. Amid a snowy wilderness, the dead corridors feel frozen in time, the inert remains of something that once lived. The Overlook Hotel, were it to be found in Pripyat.
It’s here that Tom journeys to start a security job. Working nights, he fleetingly encounters Buck, his opposite number on the dayshift. What they’re protecting, neither one knows. And protecting it from whom? Nobody comes here. They sit in the security office. They pace the floors. They rest in their rooms, on separate floors of the same empty block. That’s fine by Tom. As long as he isn’t found here by whatever it is he’s running from (we’re never really told).
It’s a set-up that is almost hyper-normal and mundane, perversely creating an eerie sense of dread. Through the filter of Uncanny Valley’s pixelated vagueness, it’s hard not to feel uneasy. Tom’s nightmares don’t help: most nights, various terrors are visited upon our protagonist, none of which I want to spoil. Suffice to say that Tom’s working shifts operate on an inescapable timer, at the end of which you have to let him sleep in bed, or wherever he falls. The nightmare will come, regardless.
I also don’t want to spoil what (who?) Tom finds in the facility. Discovered over multiple play-throughs (a single sitting can be completed in less than an hour), its secrets are teased out through discoverable cassettes, video tapes, computer terminals and other objects. Piecing together the clues and choosing your actions brings consequences. You might make a permanent, fatal mistake (and – JESUS CHRIST – I mean that literally). Failure inspires the motivation to see what you could have done differently, but it will also creep the shit out of you.
Despite what it gets right in the pursuit of atmosphere, the spectre of survival horror control schemes looms. The decision to include an action command and object manipulation on separate buttons is a strange one. The inventory system is fine in so far as it’s typical of the genre, so it’s not especially intuitive. Though there is very limited use of firearms (if encountered at all in an entire run), gun controls are needlessly mapped across 3 separate facia buttons.
If we can forgive a survival horror anything, it’s mildly unintuitive controls. With much of the experience predicated upon setting, dialogue and exploration, some rare detours into action tropes do enough to sustain themselves. And while Uncanny Valley doesn’t quite match the narrative brilliance of something like The Fall, the similarities of theme and execution make this a title that sticks in the memory for the right reasons. I just wish I didn’t have to go to bed thinking about it.
Uncanny Valley was provided to us by The developer via a download code for Xbox One.