Who Pressed Mute on Uncle Marcus? is a horror game. If you’ve looked at the screenshots, and you’re thinking “What are you talking about?”, let me set it up for you. You’re trapped in a mandatory ‘family fun’ Zoom call with half a dozen horrible relatives, for the purposes of appeasing your overbearing mother. If that doesn’t sound like a horror story to you, then consider yourself lucky.
It’s an FMV game – a pretty niche genre best known for, ironically, the worst of its kind. Things like Night Trap and The 7th Guest, full of cheesy acting, low production values and questionable content. But that’s only if you haven’t been paying attention, because for quite some time now, publisher Wales Interactive has been releasing a slew of modern FMV titles with a focus on making them of at least an acceptable quality.
Uncle Marcus is the latest valiant attempt to bring some respect back to the genre. It’s clearly, and cleverly been made over the pandemic lockdown, utilising the relatable ‘group video chat’ socialising that many of us had to lean on over the last couple of years. The context, setup and concept are all stellar. A family quiz night for our main character’s mom’s birthday goes dramatically awry when Uncle Marcus, played by serial American actor Andy Buckley, reveals there’s been a murder.
And it’s (dun dun DUN!) him.
During a tumultuous family meeting in which our protagonist Abby wasn’t present, someone slipped an unknown poison into Uncle Marcus’ system. His doctors have advised that somebody, namely you, will have to find out which poison was used in order to administer the right antidote.
It’s contrived and convenient, but an undeniably classic murder mystery setup and if they weren’t this convoluted, we’d never have things like Columbo, so it’s fine.
Your job is to play through the unconventional ‘quiz’ and take every opportunity to grill your awful, awful family for clues and answers, while Marcus’ completely arbitrary ‘health bar’ ticks down every so often in the corner of the screen.
I’d love to tell you that there’s a robust interrogation system that you’re going to engage in, but once you get into your investigations, the tools at your disposal – and I swear I’m not oversimplifying – are ‘pick one of two options’. The concept and setup are absolutely stellar. The execution though is more like watching Netflix’s Black Mirror: Bandersnatch but somehow with even less to meaningfully do.
I feel like I should just copy and paste the above paragraph again because there genuinely isn’t anything else to tell you about the â€˜gameplay’. This isn’t like 2015’s superb FMV detective mystery Contradiction, where you assemble evidence (well you do, but we’ll get to that), move around suspects for interrogation and piece together the mystery yourself. It’s just branching passive paths with options that sometimes seem incredibly counter-intuitive, and no room for player ingenuity or deduction at all.
As an example, part of the conclusion comes from you, as Abby, actively accusing one of your family members of the crime. But you can’t, at first, because to do that, you need to collect ‘evidence’ on each family member to unlock the ability to accuse them. Except it isn’t ‘evidence’, it’s just things other people tell you when you pick different dialogue options. Again, out of just two, at a time.
I could be wrong, but I don’t think there’s any way on your first playthrough to gather enough evidence to ‘unlock’ accusing anybody, which means the dramatic flow and sting of the story is lost when you get to a big yellow screen with red text saying “You don’t have enough evidence to accuse anybody,” and it all just ends.
You might’ve noticed, I said ‘first’ playthrough. The idea is that you go back and start a new game, picking different options, to add to your gradually accumulating evidence. It’s a mechanic you see quite a lot in visual novels like Steins;gate, except not done as well at all.
There is, supposedly, a ‘skip’ function for scenes you’ve already seen. This is only half true because what the game classes as ‘different’ options often have the same information and sometimes literally the same dialogue in, except because you came to it from a different branch, it’s technically ‘different’ and, therefore, won’t let you skip. This happens a lot and adds to the tedium of what effectively just becomes a ‘trial and error’ movie. What makes this worse is that, unlike in a modern visual novel, the game won’t track or tell you which options you’ve already chosen before. Like a real detective, you might need a notebook, but not for any deductive reasoning, just to figure out which DVD menu option you’ve already selected.
The practical conclusion of all of this is that by the time you’ve gathered enough evidence to accuse anyone, it’s probably not the person that you, as the player, have now figured out is most likely the culprit, so you end up doing it just because you can and get no sense of achievement or satisfaction at all. There’s no system for simply going back to various branches in the story to pick a different option and having to redo everything over and over again while marvelling at how some of the choices just don’t make sense (for reasons I can’t really go into, due to spoilers) is incredibly tedious.
I suppose in a way, the game does an excellent job of making you feel the reality of being trapped in an endless Zoom call with relatives you don’t like.
There are also problems with the performance, both in the acting and how the game runs. This might get patched out for release day, but for quite some time at the start of the game, the video ran about half a second out of sync with the audio. If you’ve experienced this before, you’ll know is absolutely maddening.
The cast is a mixed bag. Andy Buckley puts in some real work as Uncle Marcus and Abby’s mom Felicity is superbly played by seasoned British actor Gabrielle Glaister, who I spent the entire time asking myself “Where do I know her from?”, only to just now discover (thanks, IMDB) that she played Bob/Kate in an iconic episode of Blackadder. Some of the other performances, though, come across in a way that I would best describe as ‘First-year end of term University drama project’, and I think the visible contrast in experience makes this stand out worse than if there were only relative unknown actors making up the whole game.
The writing has some genuinely hilarious moments, and whoever wrote the actual dialogue did a largely brilliant job but the drama and suspense are all lost once you get past your first playthrough and the intrigue and investment you might start out with can sadly never be recovered. Especially when your job from then on is less about investigating and more about trying to remember which options you haven’t picked yet.
It’s missing a lot of ‘quality of life’ features like a consistent ‘skip’ or some kind of easy navigation of the branching paths, and forcing the player to be so hands-off in terms of the actual investigating quickly erodes any reason you had to care. Ironically, I’d have had more meaningful interactivity at a family quiz night on a Zoom call, where I imagine some of the performances would’ve been more believable. Probably still just as tedious, though.
Who Pressed Mute on Uncle Marcus? Is out 18th March on all formats.