Indie episodic adventure games rarely seem to get past their first edition. What chance has post-apocalyptic robotic tale, The Uncertain [official site]? Here’s wot I think:
Having gone in completely cold to The Uncertain (oftentimes I’ll browse through the Steam new releases, grabbing something that catches my eye, and give it a go without reading into it), I was surprised to discover it was a point and click adventure. In 3D, third-person, with direct control of the player robot. Built in Unity, and very pretty too, this seemed an assured start to a post-human tale of robotic life.
And then I tried moving. Oh heavens, what a mess. Horrible ocean liner controls mean RT-217NP (let’s call him Arty) inelegantly arses about, banging into walls and doorways, runs on the spot into invisible barriers, and is about as much fun to control as an aeroplane with all its engines on fire. Which makes absolutely no sense when you’ve also got a mouse cursor and they could far more sensibly just let you click to move.
However, as I’ve often maintained, annoying controls are something one can learn to cope with if there’s a motivation to persist. And The Uncertain offers a world that really looks as though it will offer this. Sadly, it absolutely doesn’t. But it sure looked like it could have.
It’s years after the humans wiped themselves out, leaving behind a vestigial race of sentient robotic AI. A purported utopia develops, and like all purported utopia, it’s anything but. This first episode introduces the meritocratic society from the perspective of an engineer robot who seems to be rather under a cloud. Having disabled updates on his charging station, he seems to be slightly different from the others, for reasons that become apparent in this first episode’s big twist. He spends his days scavenging human machinery and technology to build commissions for other robots, living in a small wooden house in the woods, with a seeming affection of the idiosyncratic remains of humankind.
See, that sounds splendid, right! It also sounds like a first-person open world survival game I’d love to play, living a gentle life in a post-apocalyptic world, using my skills to maintain a living. But anyway, it’s a very stilted adventure game in which you laboriously look at and press on things around your house in the order you’re told to, until Events Happen. Dialogue can’t be skipped, so accidentally looking at the same object twice becomes an exercise in torture as the glum bot monotones his gloomy opinions at great length while controls are taken away. And your goals are things as thrilling as finding a second battery to put into a radio that Arty doesn’t think will work.
And this is the real issue here, one of interpretation. How much of this is a poor translation by the Russian developers, and how much can be attributed simply to horrible writing in the first place, is unclear, but everything is so weirdly contradictory. The radio, you’re told, is very unlikely to be worth bothering with, so remote is the possibility of there being a signal, yet it’s literally the only thing your character will pursue. Get that second battery, turn it on, and discover a signal, a pre-recorded human message about recruiting soldiers for war, and all he nonchalantly says is, basically, “Bleep bloop why humans so illogical?”
This is ever the case. It’s so anal about your doing things in its preferred order that you can’t even explore a location freely, Arty demanding that you go to the prescribed room first. Objects you try to pick up at one point are described as broken or useless, but later become the vital item you need to progress. Other times absolutely obvious solutions to puzzles are rejected as if stupidity on the part of the player (I need a heavy thing, he sneers at me for wanting to pick up a heavy block of concrete). Spoken words can be enormously different from the subtitles, even down the subject matter of the conversation. And after the game’s notional twist, the story makes an enormous leap forward referencing things you haven’t seen, characters you’ve never previously heard of nor mentioned, and a whole core plot that’s delivered as exposition.
This oh-so-simple-and-wise robot sighs his confusion at humanity, how illogical they were, how foolish and emotionally driven. But it’s done without any apparent understanding of a point: rather than musing on the futility of geographic wars or conflict over differences, he declares he cannot fathom why humans wore materials over the bodies. He is a robot apparently so poorly programmed that he doesn’t understand about the vulnerability of skin, the issues of human temperature regulation, nor have any ability to perceive or access information about historical cultural norms. He describes paper as “obsolete” before going on in the same sentence to express how vitally important it is. And most unfathomable of all, he was a robot built decades in the future without any wireless access to the internet. This isn’t my supposition for why this extraordinarily complex computer needs to use a PC to access information – this is literally stated by the character.
As the shoulder-width corridor of the plot advances, things unravel into the completely unintelligible, both in terms of plot and interaction. In one scene you find yourself handcuffed to a hospital trolley, and you’re asked to hammer the F key until a circle fills. But in doing so, ol’ Arty doesn’t visibly increase his attempts to break free, but just gently rattles his arm at a steady pace, until on completion of the meter another robot tells you to stop doing that. What? What was my hammering at a key supposed to represent or achieve there? I blammed away at my keyboard to complete the lying still QTE. And it does this again later on!
And let me tell you about my absolute least favourite moment. You’re trying to break into an apartment, and to do so you need to hook down an external ladder (a ladder Arty won’t even look at until you’ve gone inside and been unable to open the door). You go back inside and discover that there’s now a pipe on the wall with which you can interact – but, only looking at it, you’re told you’ll need a heavy object to get it. Right, heavy objects. There are two bicycles in the two floors of apartment you can reach, but he won’t pick up either. There are heavy canisters, but he’ll only prattle on at great length about how he doesn’t need them.
Oh, but outside, below the ladder, there was a concrete block – he’d told me off for using the hand icon it offered me before, but maybe now? Back outside (and understand, all movement is achingly frustrating) and into the alley, and still no. No, he sneers at the notion of wanting a heavy object. Huh. I try every other object available, and nothing. So I go back to the pipe and use it again. Huh, this time he grabs it, and I get the old ‘F’ key QTE. Hammer away at F, successfully fill the circular meter, and… it’s too strong and I need something heavy to break it off. WHAT THE HELL? Yet again going back to the alley, a brick has magically appeared on the ground. WHO WOULD DESIGN A GAME THIS WAY? WHY?!!?!
Oh, this is a bummer. What a lovely setting for a game, and a potentially intriguing society, as AI develops and perhaps the flaws of humanity begin to be revealed in robotic kind. It could have been a fascinating exploration of the human condition, or just a really nice sci-fi tale. And perhaps it is, somewhere underneath the ghastly sluggish controls and barely comprehensible writing/translation. But this is disastrous, and at £10 for a single episode (it is, at least, not too short, although I think that’s mostly due to how idiotically slowly you move), not a sensible investment. It seems highly unlikely this will make enough to keep going for further instalments, and to be brutal, on the evidence of this first chunk, doesn’t merit the effort.
The Uncertain: Episode 1 is out now on Windows via Steam for £9.89/€13.49/$13.49.