By Philippa Warr on June 30th, 2014 at 7:00 pm.
A Story About My Uncle is actually a story about the narrator’s uncle told as a bedtime story to a small child. Said uncle is a brilliant scientist – a whimsical and even-tempered version of Uncle Quentin from the Famous Five books. A blackboard in his abandoned house reveals that he has built some kind of waste disposal system possibly powered by starlight. The story begins as the child version of the narrator enters the garbage disposal dimension rift thingummy to go looking for him.
The actual game is a first-person platformer set in a world of floating rocks. You trail your uncle through these environments using a fantastical suit that features a magical grappling hook and shock absorbers which stop you hurting yourself on landing. Later on you’ll also find some jet-propelling boots which you can use to boost across greater distances. The controls are intuitive – using the mouse buttons you charge the suit’s jump ability and shoot out grapple beams, and hitting space activates the boots.
Traversing the spaces is the best part of the game – when it works it’s an absolute pleasure to be sailing from grapple spot to grapple spot. At a later point in the story, zapping glowing crystals with your glove will offer extra grapple charges so you can whizz about for even longer without landing. In this you start to see ASAMU as having the makings of a compulsive time trial game. Gone North Games aren’t entirely oblivious to this either and, once you complete the game, the extras menu offers up something of that kind – timed levels stripped of any narrative. Beautiful grapple beam playgrounds, although ones which would benefit from clearer signposting.
When playing the main game you’re not nearly so free to move around. The segments you’ll find in the time trials are still there but now interspersed with exposition and interactions with other characters. The main companion is Maddie; a kind of half-frog, half-child. She’s adventurous and skilled at building technology using the mysterious crystals which litter the world. However, her skills aren’t valued by her village and so she feels like an outsider, especially since her friend – your uncle – has disappeared.
I liked Maddie as a character, and I enjoyed the conclusion to her story arc as she tags along with you. It didn’t stop her from being incredibly annoying along the way, though. For example, there’s a segment which her character dares you to complete without using the hook. I kept messing it up and she delivers the same smug “Told you you couldn’t do it” every time. My fault for messing it up but having a variety of voice lines for that fail state would have made the experience far less grating.
There are other problems with the voice acting – some with delivery, some with sense. The Gone North team is based in Stockholm and the narrator of the game sounds like Sweden’s answer to William Shatner, with all the unexpected syllable stresses that entails. It oscillates between being endearing and annoyingly distracting. In terms of meaning, some of the lines don’t quite make sense or read in ways which weren’t intended. My favourite being when the narrator’s daughter was sympathising with Maddie:
Daughter: “She didn’t have a real father right, if she was born from an egg?”
Narrator: “That’s another thing we had in common.”
But there are also some lovely moments, like when the daughter is telling her dad about her friend who wants to marry a vampire – his stilted response involves just the right level of awkward parental incomprehension.
The story itself is a gentle one, as befits the bedtime story conceit. It’s a journey through a strange land rather than an adrenaline-fueled adventure. You wander a very pretty landscape, occasionally finding objects to investigate so you can pick up backstory. There are pacing issues – the game feels front-loaded in terms of narrative and in terms of varied content. Early on there are different environments to explore and even the threat of a monster in one of the sequences. The later game is mostly about navigating ice caves on your own.
The bedtime story framing does throw up some conceptual oddities though. It works for films because the narrative moves forward constantly. When it’s a game you can get stuck repeating a section over and over and start wondering if your responses to this situation are influencing the tale being told. Perhaps the next morning in my narrator’s household there was the following exchange:
Narrator: “Good morning, is there any orange juice left?”
[Narrator's partner glares]
Narrator: “What’s wrong?”
Narrator’s partner: “While telling our daughter an otherwise charming bedtime story did you insert an angry and repetitive half-hour rant about grappling hook beams and stalactites?”
Narrator: “Err, why do you ask?”
Narrator’s partner: “Because this morning she asked what stalactites were and what the C-word meant.”
The most frustrating thing about needing to repeat any of the sections is the checkpointing. It’s often slightly further back than necessary and so you have to repeatedly navigate an easy chunk before you get to the main section which is giving you trouble. I want to dive back into the challenging bit of the puzzle as easily as possible. Moving the checkpoints slightly or adding more of them would solve that frustration. Another addition which would have been welcome is if Gone North had included a wider selection of routes to explore. The grapple hook and jet boots are a simple-but-cool combination and I’d really like to have seen the developers explore their potential.
Ultimately, A Story About My Uncle is a pleasant but wobbly experience which only takes a few hours to finish. The checkpointing can be a frustration, the voicework is idiosyncratic, the prettiness can tip over into twee-ness and the story’s conclusion lacks punch. In the moments when it finds its feet you get glimpses of a pretty platformer with a great sense of momentum. It’s a shame, then, that the way the action and the other elements of the game are integrated keeps stopping that momentum dead.
A Story About My Uncle is £10 on Steam.