Knock, Knock, Ice Pick Lodge’s Kickstarted side-scrolling psychological weird-cake, has been released. I have played it. Here’s Wot I Think.
Knock, Knock is a difficult and annoying game to explain or describe, and that’s a wonderful thing to be able to say. It does not meet with any genre conventions, at least not in a way that really makes sense or offers easy shorthand. It’s awkward and brilliant, like sitting down in the cinema to watch something difficult and Modern. While it’s a 2D, side-scrolling game, it doesn’t do much that other side-scrolling games do.
It’s closer to a survival horror game, but it’s also unlike any of those that I have ever played. If we must persist with the failed Venn-diagram of genres, then it sits very close to part where Adventure, Survival Horror, and Side-Scrolling Action meet, but it is outside all of those circles.
And it cannot sleep.
Here’s the scene: the protagonist, a wild-haired, wild-eyed young man, wakes in the night. Again. And again. He’s worried that things might have come into the house. He needs to check the lights in the house, and eventually all the rooms, to make sure everything is in order. When the lights are on, our hero can stand and muse for a moment, which causes furniture to materialise. Furniture is important because the nightmare phantoms that he imagines are invading the house do eventually turn up, and the only way he has to escape them is to get to another room, or to hide. All the time he is talking, sometimes making sense, often not.
And the things do some in, or appear on the dark, or do you cause them? Something happens. If you get caught, well, it’s a bad thing. But the level just restarts. Doesn’t seem all that bad. But it’s awful. And you can’t always hide.
This peculiar routine is repeated over and over, and each night the house is larger and randomised. There’s experimenting to see what the hell is going on. You can occasionally fast-forward time to get the night done, thanks to clocks, but they run out. They break. The horrors come, and hiding winds time back.
Sometimes the front door slams open, and you go down and go outside. When you come back inside again you are able to sleep. Occasionally the camera crash zooms away to another part of the sinister house, to some new and horrible room, to give you an idea of what needs to be done.
And that’s pretty much it: walk around the house with a lamp or flashlight, mutter madness, avoid shambling horrors in the dark. But it escalates. You can’t always hide from these things. And the house is breaking down, with eyes coming through the walls. The entire game is an unreliable narrator: Yes, some of this is a hallucination, but those monsters are still going to get you.
It’s a horrible feeling of a game. You are helplessly ascending an elevator towards an attic full of spiders. The audio screeches and bangs all around you, and the situations in which you might get caught by whatever those things are become all the more nailbiting.
What I can’t articulate adequately is that, despite its limited game-ness, despite it’s weird set up, it is a fascinating and tense experience. It’s not a big game, and the experience does not last more than a few hours, but the atmosphere it creates is singular and skin-crawling. The game blames you for the horrors that are getting into the house, and even though I was never able to figure out exactly what it was I was doing wrong – if anything – I did begin to feel at fault.
Knock, Knock, then is a game that intentionally inspires anxiety. Not jump-scares or threat from simply being vulnerable to monsters, but something that reaches a bit deeper. That’s a mean feat.
As a long-term sufferer of insomnia and the brain mash of unslept nights, I am familiar with the unease of being awake in the late hours, and even as I have grown into a cranky old man, unfearing of much aside from tax and hangovers, I still get glimmers of those childish fears of what the night might really be about. This, perhaps, is what Knock, Knock is about, too. It’s not the game of keeping the horrors out of the house, it is instead an attempt to reach the dark roots from which grow superstition and ritual. It is about the breakdown of reason that underlies so many fears. It is a game as much about horror as it is of horror.
As for the consumer advice part of this article, well, this isn’t a game I can really recommend, but that’s not to say that it’s not brilliant. Eve Online is brilliant, but I would never recommend anyone play that. Likewise – but in an entirely different haunted ballpark – I can say that this is a game that will just alienate and confuse many people. Others, meanwhile, will have their soul tapped, and they’ll never forget it. You need to figure out which of those types you are.
It’s an Ice-Pick Lodge game. And it might be the finest game of theirs since Pathologic. And in some respects better than that masterweird, too.
I can’t tell whether you’ll like it.
But you might.
Knock, Knock is out now.