The Uncle Who Works For Nintendo is a text-based horror game, created by writer Michael Lutz and artist Kimberly Parker. Released on October 15, 2014 to minor fanfare and coverage on websites like Kotaku, it tells a poignant horror story about growing up in the 1990s and the violence that people who love games commit upon each other.
Video games are one of the archetypical boys’ clubs amongst boys’ clubs. The exclusion of women, people of color, queer people, and any combination of the former has been a long ingrained problem within the community. And frequently, these minority people are pitted against each other to prove who is the “truest” fan of video games. Any woman who has even a passing interest in gaming will be familiar with the threat of not being considered a “true gamer”. Women are constantly being forced to prove the simple reality that they consume video games like their male peers.
When women are forced to constantly prove their love of games, it frequently forces them to start questioning other women’s credentials about video games. Women who proclaim themselves to be “not like other girls” and as “one of the boys” frequently exhibit a deep internalized misogyny, thinking that they are better than other women for having somehow successfully proven how much like a man they are. When women start fighting with other women on who gets to play video games, the only winners are the men who dictate them to fight against each other for their approval.
The Uncle Who Works For Nintendo is about this kind of in-fighting.
In The Uncle Who Works For Nintendo, you play as a young child attending your best friend’s sleepover, an evening to be spent playing video games and hanging out together. Your friend (whom you can pick the gender of at the start, but for reasons discussed later, is a girl for the purpose of this article) lives with her well-to-do family and always has the best new video games. She places her amazing possessions on her mysterious, unseen uncle, who gifts her with the latest and greatest video gaming technology before anyone else can get them.
The game itself is one of the more impressive Twine games we’ve played, for a lot of reasons more than just story.
The first thing you’re greeted with as you play is the gorgeously-designed backgrounds designed by Kimberly Parker. More than just visual noise, the backgrounds serve the important purpose of setting up the tone and the mood of the story while not drawing the eyes away from the text. From the monochromatic tones of the bathroom and kitchen to the dark and warm den, the images are memorable but not intrusive.
The sound design is one of the best aspects of the game, with oppressive rain and thunder highlighting the secluded nature of you and your friend’s sleepover. The changing of time is marked with the loud bong of a grandfather’s clock chime, which starts out as a welcome sound, but quickly becomes anxiety-inducing as the night goes on.
Of special notice are the sounds heard in the den, where most of the game takes place. The sound design completely evades the Arcade Sounds trope by choosing to use sound effects from Nintendo 64 games for the games that your friend is playing, which evokes a feeling of familiarity instead of detachment.
The writing is chilling and well-executed, and each of the game’s five endings were satisfying.
Our favorite parts involved the friend’s stories, and how realistic they sounded – in the scenes involving her mysteriously-obtained Mew, her explanations for how it was so much better than your Mew reminded us of real-life lies we’ve heard as children.
The game is filled with little secrets and had a huge amount of replay value. It was lots of fun discovering the little changes between areas depending on time and context. Talking to our friend led to a huge variety of conversational paths that kept us going back to hear them all. With five different endings to discover, each replay was unique and interesting in its own right.
One of the gripes we had about the game was actually relating to its author. Michael Lutz is a man writing about women’s issues. Despite the game’s positive content, we felt a little uncertain about his credentials to write about such a topic.
The most jarring example is the issue of the best friend character. At the start of the game, you are asked what the name of your best friend is, and given a list of names. All of these names are clearly gendered as either “male” or “female”, and indeed, choosing one name determines the gender of the character.
This is a bad choice for a lot of reasons, the first one being that there is dialogue that you can only see if the best friend is a girl. If you are in the right place at the right time and ask your best friend about how she feels about video games, she will ask you if it’s okay for girls to be gamers.
We found the dialogue in this scene a little stilted – in our experience as marginalized groups who liked video games when we were children, we rarely questioned if it was okay for us to like games or not when we were with our friends. In fact, spending time with friends became the only environment where we didn’t feel threatened in this way.
We understand that this moment in the game was intended to highlight our friend’s internalized misogyny and her own lack of self-confidence towards video games, but it felt a little out of place and awkward. It was more than mildly worrying to see, in a society that fetishizes and obsesses over the pain of marginalized groups.
Keeping in mind that the author’s notes happen to focus very much on the fact that he has not experienced these things himself, it’s clear that good intentions were at heart. However, while the message of the scene is strong and reasonably well executed, it comes off as detached and clinical.
The author has written stating that the difference between the boy and girl best friend was intended to be a deliberate design decision, presumably intending that male players would first play through having chosen a male friend, and then done it again with a female friend on their second playthrough and seen the different stresses girls must go through.
However, this just cheapens the emotional impact and obfuscates the true message, because changing the gender of the main character requires completely restarting the game and losing your progress. Forcing the player to have a girl as a friend from the start would have maintained a much greater emotional impact.
It’s not like hard-enforcing characters as marginalized identities is unheard of. The 2013 survival game Rust attracted quite a lot of attention for pulling something similar: your character’s race was determined by a random variable, which was completely fixed and could not be changed. Though a vast majority of that attention was negative, it highlighted biases in players who would have otherwise not complained about being forcibly assigned a white male character.
In this vein, it would have been nice for the character to be introduced as a girl, and then for you to be given a box to fill her name in (something which Twine is entirely capable of).
The other issue is that the game only gives you the two options of your best friend either being a cisgender girl, or a cisgender boy. Choosing a ‘male name’ for your friend and being locked out of the oppression-related dialogue felt completely inane, given that the gaming scene is one of the most hostile places for young trans girls in the world. Compounding this is the fact that the only reference to homosexuality is in the cis girl-only dialogue, wherein your best friend remembers being asked if she’s a lesbian for playing video games.
This kind of “it’s not relevant” approach to minority issues misses the point entirely in what is otherwise an extremely real tale about being a gamer growing up in the 90s. Keeping the best friend fixed as a cis girl at least eliminates the binary of “cis, heterosexual female” and “cis, heterosexual male”.
4 out of 5
Although the game’s themes are well-presented and immersive, they still held onto many typical hetero- and cis-normative ideas that could’ve been handled a little better.
All of that said, however, it was only when viewed from an outside perspective that we saw the flaws in the game. In the heat of the moment, we found ourselves plunged into a deep and immersive story that kept us gripped until the end. We found ourselves replaying the game over and over until we had seen the full story and everything it had to offer. We could really emphasize with our friend’s struggle while we played, and worked our hardest to give her the best ending that she deserved.
The final message of the game was simple, but heartfelt: friendship conquers hatred, and coming together will always be stronger than dividing apart. A simple message, but an overwhelmingly powerful and relevant one in our time. With hordes of people trying to divide and conquer between minorities who love video games, one thing stands above all else: if we do not join together and fight those who hold us down, we will destroy each other.