Developer: Ice-Pick Lodge
Publisher: Self-Published via Kickstarter
Release Date: October 4th, 2013
Price: $9.99 USD
For me, horror has always seemed like natural fit for the gaming medium. Where other genres often have to spell out what you should be feeling at any given time (an important character just died, carry that sadness with you while you play another action sequence), fear is something that, for the most part, doesn’t really need to be spelled out for a player. Silent Hill 2, while steeped in extrinsic narrative, relied heavily on the feeling of isolation and occasional terror to provide a backdrop for its story of loss and regret. Amnesia: The Dark Descent invited players to explore a narrative that presented both the immediate danger of being ripped apart by deformed humanoids and the depths of human cruelty. Perhaps the most enticing element of horror, though, is fear of the unknown.
Enter Ice-Pick Lodge’s latest effort, Knock-Knock. Considering the Russian developers are hardly strangers to obtuse narrative, their newest title is quite appropriately dressed in yet another layer of ambiguity and mystery. The studio claims that some time ago they were sent a mysterious email that contained several audio recordings, design documents, and concept art for a new game. They were given complete creative freedom so long as they followed the basic instructions within the 50 some archives that comprised the email. The mysterious author also warned them that they may suffer the same fate he did when trying to complete the game. Like Crowley’s purported muse Aiwass, this mysterious author may be a gimmick or projection of the creative side of Ice-Pick Lodge, and Knock-Knock acknowledges this. “Maybe it was just a mysterious hoax, but it probably wasn’t.” the game states. “You should just treat it like another urban legend.”
While a game like this is difficult to really nail down, the initial premise is at least fairly straightforward (unlike their last game The Void). You play as a lonely young man suffering from an unknown parasomnia. Every night you find yourself awake in the early hours of the morning. To assuage the fear of someone having broken in and to remind yourself that you aren’t going insane, you must travel from room to room replacing the lights. After illuminating a room, you must stand there for several seconds while details of the room appear. These range from furniture to hide behind to clocks with your haircut that make time go forward. There are also ghosts and tumbleweeds that can force time backwards if they catch you. Oh yeah, and sometimes large eyes will break a hole in the side of your house and stay there until you turn the lights on. From a mechanical perspective, Knock-Knock bears some similarity to the studio’s previous efforts. There are some basic puzzle elements and a degree of resource management. Like any Ice-Pick Lodge game, however, the gameplay is clouded in the same degree of uncertainty as the story itself. There were several points where I felt that I was honestly starting to understand what I was doing just to have some new exception to game’s rules thrown at me. It’s an interesting approach as it helps underscore the protagonists fractured and confused perspective.
Knock-Knock’s presentation, while clearly made on a tighter budget than the developers previous titles, still manages to be quite effective. Though dominated mostly by sprites, there are some good lighting effects and the backgrounds shift in a manner reminiscent of the days of ubiquitous Parallax 3D. There is a persistent childish overtone to many of the game’s assets and in any other title, they would come off as the work of angsty teenager who scribbled his ideas for a game in a notebook during class. Knock-Knock manages to make it work though. Nothing in the game feels out of place (there is no asterisk big enough for this statement) from an aesthetic standpoint. The sound design is excellent as well. The creaks and moans of the old mansion/research station reverberate perfectly and really help put you in the space. The titular knocks (though later in the game they start to sound more like someone trying to force a door open with their entire body) are deliberately loud frightening. Where in any other game, these would be ideal jump-scares, Knock-Knock’s random generation and thematic uncertainty remove the scripted corniness normally associated with this tactic. The only thing that stood out to me as poorly designed was the fact that you can’t change a lightbulb from any position in a room. Instead having to walk all the way to the fixture, once you’ve opened a door, you can immediately reach up and start changing a lightbulb even though you’re nowhere near the fixture itself.
As the game progresses, the protagonist begins to reveal more and more details about the nature of his fears and how his life became so dark. Of course everything he says should be taken with a grain of salt. We are after all dealing with the words of a delirious, self-proclaimed “world-ologist” who stars in a game produced by company known for ambiguous storytelling and this time, even they claim that the guidelines for the experience came from a mysterious source. This might come off as a cop-out for those who seek narrative payoff but in a world of storytelling absolutes, it’s good to see a title that invites us to examine how we deal with ambiguity. Sure we get all kinds of excited when we see grey morality or surreal storytelling but these are concepts that we always examine in the light of narrative clarity. They exist within a world where every rule and moral can be accounted for. What Knock-Knock tries to ask us is whether or not these stories, in their pervasive certitude, truly represent reality.