So I thought long and hard about which game I wanted to review first. I knew I wanted it to be one of my all-time favourites, and one that also left quite a lasting impression on me. I also didn’t want it to be too well known; for it to have a hint of obscurity. With that in mind, I bring you: A Story About My Uncle.
Developed by Gone North Games and published by Coffee Stain Publishing (who have since merged to become Coffee Stain North), ASAMU is literally what it says on the tin. Set in a remote cabin, a man begins to weave a tale from his childhood to his young daughter; a tale that concerns the man’s uncle, Uncle Fred. Fred was always travelling to exotic, far-off parts of the world, but he never failed to send his nephew postcards of the weird and wonderful places he visited. One day, the postcards stop. What follows is a re-enactment of the father’s story, with you thrust into the role of the father as a young boy, trying to find Uncle Fred. The narrative of the story mirrors the player’s actions, and very quickly we’re drawn into the rabbit hole to see what awaits us on the other side.
I’m sucked in from the outset. It’s completely black until the father, asked for a bedtime story from his daughter, begins to tell the story of his uncle. Then our environment fades into view, and I get to explore a little. The level of detail is stunning for a relatively small developer. A handy zoom function allows the player to magnify individual post-it notes and book titles. I’m pretty sure I spent about 10 minutes indulging my inner Sherlock, holding my magnifying glass up to everything, just soaking in the amount of work that went into this. I strongly recommend you do this too, there all all sorts of tidbits and useful pieces of exposition everywhere you look. A few audio cues spur me on and it’s then that I come across the suit. Excitement rapidly increasing, I carry on until arriving at the observatory, which has a slight boss-fight vibe to it. One swift flip of a switch is all it takes to send the player…elsewhere.
Now’s where it starts to get fun. The atmosphere is serene, beautiful, yet mind-boggling as well. With floating rocks and waterfalls with unknown origins, it’s like someone took the floating mountains from Avatar’s Pandora and wedged them underground, but it’s a look that works. Strange symbols that glow with magnesium-like brilliance are embedded in the rock everywhere, which adds to the mystique. A mini-tutorial later, with the accompanying narrative from the father, and it becomes clear that a huge part of this game is focused on movement. We can jump SUPER high. But then we find a power core, which we can charge to jump EVEN HIGHER! And if that isn’t enough, the suit also allows us to grapple, acting as a kind of energy based grapple gun. The character is essentially a badass hybrid of Spiderman, Iron Man and John Carter.
I honestly don’t remember too much of what happens in the next 10 minutes other than a ton of running, jumping and grappling, all the while grinning like a hobbit at 2nd breakfast. The freedom of movement is astounding. After a time, running along rope bridges, hurling your way through the void and grappling onto moving rocks before landing and repeating the process begins to feel like an art-form, almost like parkour. You don’t want to stop, you just want to keep running, it is honestly intoxicating. The sense of freedom alone is worth the price of admission. A mere half-hour after opening the game, I realize that this is something special.
Straight away, the simple premise of a father spinning a tale for his young daughter hits me with a case of the feels. I may very well be biased (my own daughter turns 1 a week from the time of writing) but I could see straight away I was going to become attached. The curiosity, dragging me further into the rabbit-hole is a powerful force, and it’s not difficult to become compelled to find out what has happened to the uncle. As the game progresses, we find new clues and we even meet the indigenous natives of this strange new land, the frog people. A whole backstory arises chronicling the troubled history of these guys. The mystery gets deeper, and as we progress from one chamber to the next the surroundings become darker and more dangerous.
Then it happens: in the deepest crevasse at the conclusion of seemingly endless puzzles and tunnels, and surrounded by hundreds of glowing crystals, we find Uncle Fred. A burst of relief washes over before giving way to anticipation: “I found him, but now what?” It turns out that Uncle Fred inadvertently gave life to the frog people when he brought eggs to this new land, making him a father of sorts, and he doesn’t want to leave them. Throughout the game I knew this could’ve been a possibility, but it’s hard not to feel melancholic when I realize we need to say goodbye. The return pad is only good for one more trip. Begrudgingly I step on to it, we’re flung into space, and the father’s story concludes.
But this is not the end. Though the tale has finished, we end up back at Uncle Fred’s log cabin. The father’s narrative begins again, although it soon becomes clear he’s speaking in the present, and he makes reference to the story he told his daughter being in the past. Subsequently, the log cabin has aged around 20-30 years. Dust has accumulated. Everything is in boxes. But there are two things that hit like a gut punch. A small memorial to Uncle Fred stands on the main table, and the locker in which we found the power suit in the beginning is closed and locked.
The terrible realization is that Uncle Fred may simply have disappeared on one of his adventures, and his young nephew, grief-stricken and heartbroken, merely concocted the entire search for his uncle as a coping mechanism. I wrestle with disbelief and despondence, but it’s only momentary. All the while the father is thanking his uncle for how he taught him not to follow others but to create his own adventures. It concludes with the father proudly claiming how he is starting his greatest adventure yet, as a postcard of himself and his daughter swims into view. The warm-and-fuzzy hits home immediately and I can’t help but smile applaud at the way the father was able to turn his personal tragedy into inspiration to be the best possible father he can be. Powerful stuff. *wipes away tear*.
I said it right at the beginning of this piece: this game is one of my all-time favourites. It’s not particularly long, in fact most players will find it only takes 2-3 hours to complete, playable entirely in one afternoon. I found that this is not a flaw, in my opinion it adds to the charm. How does Vision put it in the first Avengers movie: “…a thing isn’t beautiful because it lasts”? Anyway, the graphics and level of detail are stunning, the parkour-esque gameplay is swift and addictive, and the story packs a punch that only a heart of stone could remain unmoved. At under a tenner on the Steam store, it’s on a par with a new DVD, and has plenty of replayability simply because it’s hard to give up the freedom of running, jumping and grappling. A Story About My Uncle belongs in every serious indie gamer’s library.
Letter Grade: A
Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for a new review soon!