Robo-Handyman To The Rescue!
HIGH Finally figuring a way past those damn sentry guns!
LOW The puzzle which expects me identify musical notes by ear.
WTF Wow, this robot sure likes to talk to himself, doesn’t he?
After humans are gone, robots will persevere by living a simulacrum of bygone civilization while doing jobs and exploring their world more out of habit than anything else. This is the melancholy premise that The Uncertain uses as a jumping-off point.
Players take on the role of an android handyman who’s set up shop in a house abandoned during some kind of unexplained cataclysm. He pokes through drawers looking for spare parts, examines books and posters without any real understanding of what purpose art serves, and generally focuses on his own minute-to-minute goals as he stands in the tomb of the species that created him.
The developers’ concept of a post-human world is attractive and interesting in equal measure. The robots have continued using streets and living inside buildings — after all, recharging stations don’t do too well in the rain — so most of the infrastructure has been maintained. The specific areas meant for human use, however, have been left to rot and result in wrecked areas within various locations. This environmental storytelling expands on all the subtle ways that a robot-run future would be different from human society.
The first half hour of The Uncertain has a decent amount of weight and emotion behind it. It’s not unusual for interactive movies built in the Telltale mold to focus more on story and character than action or puzzles, but it manages to surprise with the amount of texture in the emotionless main character. The developers have fully committed to the concept of robots as strictly functional entities, so they all speak with minimal inflection in their voices, talking to one another with refreshing forthrightness — these machines aren’t designed to deceive or create, they just do jobs and are all the more fascinating for it.
I can’t discuss the story any further without spoiling the reveals that come at the end of the first half hour, but I can say that The Uncertain comes up with intriguing ways of exploring its themes, the most important being the nature of free will.
With a cast made up entirely of artificial beings, the player is in a world of metacommentary about game design — the main character is assigned a task, and the rest of the game follows its attempts to complete that task. While that could describe many other games at their core, the key difference here is that normal narratives attempt to build characters who will believably perform those actions. In general, players enjoy watching them make choices based on their experiences, obeying or violating their personal codes, even while those players are following a proscribed course set out for them with no possible deviation.
The Uncertain‘s protagonist, however, does things because it’s ordered to do so. Since following orders is what robots are for, the devs explore the theoretical differences between human consciousness and AI, and somehow manage to contain these big questions within a satisfying adventure game.
The puzzles are handled in fairly standard point-and-click style. The player walks the robot around an area, picks up items, and finds places to use them. There’s nothing innovative about it, but the challenges fit well within the game’s world — there are plenty of machines to repair and computers to unlock.
A couple of action sequences are considerably less effective. I’ve previously derided scenes where players are asked to run towards the camera and expected to dodge things they can’t see, and The Uncertain offers perhaps the worst iteration of this I’ve ever encountered — it’s a sequence where the player must wrestle with a hovercar’s floaty controls while being chased by a laser-firing drone and avoiding trees with next to no warning.
…Then they have to do it again.
Putting its misguided action aside, The Uncertain is one of the most promising first chapters of an episodic game I’ve seen in ages. Nearly everything about it is polished to a fine sheen, and in its two-hour running time, it manages to tell a compelling story while setting up the pieces for a more epic tale still to come. I eagerly await the next installment, and would encourage anyone with an interest in sober and thoughtful sci-fi to give this first chapter a look.
Disclosures: This game is developed and published by CommonGames. It is currently available on PC. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PC. Approximately 3 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: This game was not reviewed by the ESRB, but it contains Violence. This title is going to be a little on the bleak side since it takes place in a post-human world, but even younger teens should be able to play and understand its messages. You’ll probably want to play it with them so you can explain some of the nuances, but there’s nothing too objectionable.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: There’s one puzzle based on identifying a series of notes that are only heard. Luckily, if you wait long enough, the game will just tell you the solution. It’s terrible, but there are no other audio cues, and all dialogue is subtitled.
Remappable Controls: No, this game’s controls are not remappable.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.