The Amazing & Astonishing RPS Advent Calendar: Day 18

By RPS on December 18th, 2013 at 10:00 am.

… Who’s there? … The onset of creeping madness who? … AAAAIIIIGGGGGHHHHHH!

It’s Knock Knock!

Jim: There have been a few magical successes squeezed from the golden teat of Kickstarter this year, but it is Knock, Knock which has seized the greater part of my consciousness, and commanded me to write down my feelings about it in an End Of Year List. The people who are responsible for this deep and dark side-scrolling insomnia ‘em up have a back catalogue that looks like a sort of arthouse list of madness, and it is an output unlike that of any other game studio: the utterly bleak and existentially bugged Pathologic, the psychically unpleasant colour-gathering weirdness of The Void, and the cheery fever dream game, Cargo. If these were the only videogames that survived the destruction of humanity, then alien archaeologists would doubtless conclude that we were very complex, unhappy creatures with limited access to QA. Perhaps that’s accurate.

Anyway, Ice Pick have now attempted a sort of hide and seek horror game, and it is a thing of cartoonish glum. The spiky haired chap who roams the randomised house each night, terrorised in equal parts by his own paranoia and “actual” monsters, is forced to battle the passage of time, to conjure the dawn, and furniture, and… yes, it’s hard to explain what an oddity this is. So perhaps instead of describing it I should just outline why games like this are so important: it’s because they reach, through play, the kind of dusty recesses of memory and experience that most things, most media, simply glosses over. The weird thoughts you had when you were sick as a child, the feelings in your skull when you’ve been awake all night, the strange presence of an unfamiliar building in the night. Things like that. Not things that survive under the hard, rational light of day, or the glitzy, bauble-reflected light of our usual attempts at escapism. Not things that it’s a good idea to dwell on.

This is not bleak in the way Pathologic is, not freakish in the way that The Void is. Nor is it as bizarre as Cargo. It is almost cute. It is almost iconic. It is almost remarkable. It is deeply sinister. And it is one of the best games I have played in 2013.

Adam:

I don’t often visit Metacritic but a couple of weeks ago I was checking the average score of a few of our Calendar entries. Knock-Knock was the one that stuck out, with a big yellow ‘58’ at the top of the screen like a drop of mustard or cheesy pus. It surely has the lowest rating of any of the selections in our box and it’s not hard to understand why that might be.

For those who don’t know Icepick Lodge’s previous work, it’s a game that begins in bewildering and stubborn fashion, with little explanation or control given to the player, and it’d be easy to brush it off the mind’s duvet like a crumb of undigested cheese. For those who have prior experience of the Russian developer’s expansive oddities, Knock-Knock might seem a mean little thing, its obscurities hiding a cupboard stripped bare.

When he shared his thoughts, Jim mentioned that he is “a long-term sufferer of insomnia” and I too frequently find myself lost en route to the Land of Nod. From the first moment, Knock-Knock felt like an authentic document of a fragmented night’s terrors. The sounds and visions are rarely startling. They cloud and clog, needling at the edge of vision and picking at the skin. The corner of the eye has become home to all the world’s horrors but the mind is too tired to request an adrenal reaction, forced to fend for itself instead, which it does by flinching and cringing in slow motion.

The exhausted brain can be controlled using strange logic. Don’t think of anything that crawls or could conceivably hide beneath the bedsheet. Don’t open any doors or turn your back on any that are already open. Never look in a mirror. Avoid clocks. Do not be tempted toward hot drinks, either to soothe into sleep or to take the edge off the night, because the sound of the kettle may disguise the dull pitter-patter of footsteps in another room or the scratching of fingernails at the windows. Every sense, submerged as it is, must be as clear as possible.

Knock-Knock begins in the confusion of a night-walker’s cobwebbed world. Sounds are exaggerated or muffled, seemingly at random, and every object and space is heavy with meaning. Or at least heavy with potential meaning. As entrances to the house are checked and the patrol continues, reality disintegrates, like a biscuit in broth, but the logic of the threshold takes the place of everyday rules and restrictions.

In this house, at this time, turning the hands of a clock accelerates the night, pushing the world toward the relief of a new day. Avoiding the worst apparitions – be they motes in the eye or the brain – is essential, but a frightful encounter will only elongate the night rather than ending it, violently or otherwise. Knock-Knock is not an artful abstraction without rules – it places strict limitations on the player and leaves him/her to push at the boundaries until rules are discovered.

Like escaping from a box to find oneself inside a slightly larger box – a puzzling Lament Configuration of a game – it isn’t the most rewarding experience. Knock-Knock doesn’t go for the jugular – it swims in the shadows on the floor so that feet cannot be lowered out of the bed. It’s a game about discomfort as much as fear, and that may (at least partly) explain the shrug that many people greeted it with.

We shrug to dismiss the things that don’t capture our attention. But we also shrug off bad dreams and uncomfortable feelings. Or at least we try to.

Knock-Knock doesn’t explain itself and I can’t quite explain why I still click on its icon sometimes, usually long before bedtime, but it’s unpleasantly interwoven with the unhappy patterns of my sleep. And that’s horribly unnerving and absolutely wonderful.

Back to the Calendar!

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15 Comments »

  1. G-Lord says:

    I’m so glad that I backed this on Kickstarter. Receiving the final game regardless of any reviews helped me to stick with it. I still have a hard time recommending it to many people, but it’s worth trying for the atmosphere alone.

    • Oozo says:

      I share that feeling. Well, I’m not only glad that I backed it and contributed to its funding. I’m also glad that I experienced it as a Kickstarter project in a different way.

      Like, usually, I do buy games only after I have read lots about them. With that do come certain expectations, and even though I think our time’s obsession with spoilers is terrible and sad (because they speak for an unhealthy obsession with plot most of the time), it was refreshing to play a game that I knew virtually nothing about. Nada.

      The rules were obscure, the story was arcane… it was a total mystery, and all the better for it, in a way which, say, “Pathologic” can’t be anymore to me, because I have read Quinns’ texts.

      And the devs really were aware of that, it seems, with the meta-fiction of the game as an “objét trouvé”, and the updates bordering on the non-sensical. I surely wouldn’t work for any game, but for “Knock Knock”, Kickstarter was a perfect platform, not only for financial reasons. A wonderful oddity, indeed.

  2. AADA7A says:

    I didn’t even realize they had a kickstarter going for Knock-Knock until it was release time! This is why this time around I won’t be missing the crowdfunding for the Pathologic remake.

    I love how playful Knock-Knock is by the way.

  3. Lambchops says:

    It is really atmospheric. I still have only a vague clue what the hell was going on and that’s the point I guess, I kept wondering whether I was doing it wrong but it seems (thus far at least) to not matter too much (unlike in The Void, where you can lose the game easily because you don’t understand it – something which put me off it massively, just went too far into obfuscation for my liking).

    That’s fine though and I really need to go and finish it at some stage. Plus I’m intrigued to try out the mysterious Kickstarter bonus . . . thing . . . I duno what it is or how it changes things.

  4. strangeloup says:

    I bought this straight away because, well, Ice-Pick Lodge. However, I’ve only managed to play about 15 minutes so far, on account of how it hits my freaking-the-hell-out buttons more than anything else has since Silent Hill 2.

  5. Meat Circus says:

    The relatively limited scope of Knock Knock was good for Ice Pick Lodge. This was the first game they released that wasn’t broken in some fairly fundamental ways.

    It’s still as inscrutably brilliant as their previous creations, however.

  6. Imaginary Llamas says:

    I kinda liked Knock Knock when I first played it, but I ended up with a rather anticlimactic bad ending and I would have needed to restart the whole game to try and get a better ending. As I felt the gameplay mechanics were either a tad too shallow or obscure, I couldn’t be bothered to replay the game and my final thoughts were rather meh.

    • DrollRemark says:

      I feel much the same.

      Whilst I loved the atmosphere it generates at the time, I hit a wall late on, where the opaque mechanics rendered me completely unable to progress. I was a good few minutes into the levels, and I just couldn’t work out what I was doing wrong. So trying to get past involved dull repetition of the previous moments, just to reach the same point, try something different, and fail once again. There was only so long I could keep doing that before I gave up.

      Thus, my overriding memory of the game is now simply frustration, and unrealised potential.

  7. The Random One says:

    Knock-knock is beautiful. It’s meditation that unsettles.

  8. mouton says:

    Metacritic *spits*

    • Vandelay says:

      It really is a disgrace that something as original and well crafted as Knock-Knock has such a low rating. Reading that line just reminds me how immature much of the gaming press is. Compare it to the film industry, where trash like Transformers gets rightfully ridiculed, but the CoDs get praised year on year out. I can accept that the general public who probably only buy a couple of games a year lap that sort of thing up, but those that consume a vast number of games who still get won over by flashy set pieces and don’t reward originality saddens me.

      At least we have the likes of RPS. Coincidentally, it was Quinn’s marvelous piece on Ice Pick Lodge’s Pathological that initially brought me to this site. A game I since played and discovered was the same game I had seen a trailer for on the cover disc of PC Gamer many years previously, which simultaneously filled a much younger me with dread and wonder at the sight of some bizarre figures. I hadn’t heard of the game again until Quinn’s articles, but I still distinctly remembered the strange man in a mask that seemed to haunt the character in the trailer, as he wandered this town on the edge of insanity.

      Which is all a very long way of saying yay RPS and yay Ice Pick Lodge.

    • Uninteresting Curse File Implement says:

      I’m pretty sure this game’s Metacritic was like 8.4-ish? Which is pretty good?

      • Uninteresting Curse File Implement says:

        I guess what I’m saying is, people get it, it’s just the journos who are clueless.

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  10. Maphis says:

    Is it too late to say that I hope Reus gets a spot in the calendar? I feel like there’s been an amazing lack of coverage of a game that… while it passed briefly under the spotlight has made me return to it mentally on more than one occasion and I find myself thinking “I really want to get back to that.”