There are plenty of game developers whose work is predicated on strangeness, but it is perhaps Ice Pick Lodge who have most successfully defined themselves by making weird games and making games weird. That's not to say all (or even any) of their games are particularly successful, just that Pathologic*, The Void and Cargo are each singular and deeply peculiar experiences. The same is true for Knock, Knock, their Kickstarted side-scrolling psycho-horror game. Yes, frustrated and worried Kickstarter backers, you can breathe a sigh of relief. Knock, Knock is a very strange, and - judging by this preview version - rather brilliant.
The premise feels like a sort of folkloric cartoon: like those disturbing Eastern European versions of Pinoccio or Snow White. You play a boy (or stunted man) in a nightgown and scarf, in a mansion in some spooky woods. The spiky-haired protagonist gibbers to the camera as he moves about the mansion, unsure if he is awake, certain that things are trying to get into the house, desperate to make it to daybreak. The protagonist moves from room to room, often guided by 2D crash zooms to different parts of the house, showing what's there (or not there) as he explores other rooms.
Your character carries a candle or oil lamp, which dimly illuminates each room. He can also fix the light in each room, switching it on and allowing him to banish visions, or to close his eyes and "summon" the furniture of each room...
(Okay, it's already not straightforward to describe, but this is Ice Pick's most minimalistic production yet.)
...and this furniture can be used to hide when the apparitions do come for him. Hide successfully, and they won't get you.
And it's completely terrifying.
I mean just horrible brain-curdling sort of thing. I shouldn't have found a 2D game with cartoon graphics more affecting than Amnesia, but I absolutely did, because it is so markedly weird in both theme and mechanics.
At points in the game, the front door will swing open, and your character will announce that you have to go out into the woods to "check" what might be out there. I've not yet played all the way through, so I suspect the surprise is still waiting for me, but usually my circuit brings me back to the house, and the level ends. Doesn't sound all that weird, more just insane. Perhaps that's what it is.
When the boy wakes again, the house is bigger, and has been rearranged. There is more stuff in there. Things have changed, and his disturbed and disturbing narration continues. What is going on?
As you'd expect from a horror title, sound plays a huge role in the atmosphere, you are bombarded with noises, particularly with what sounds like someone loudly banging on doors, and horrible whispers about things you might have thought. It does create a weird tension, even though there doesn't seem to be any immediate threat from the things that make sounds. What there is a threat from is the loping, shambling things which appear in the dark rooms and then come for you. What are they? Horrible, that's what.
I've not quite figured out the rules of their appearance (or, indeed, if there are any rules) but I've found it genuinely horrifying. They're not particularly gruesome to look at or anything, but the sheer Otherness of their appearance in the empty house is the kind of skin-crawling event that horror games wish they could make routine.
All that matters is getting through to daybreak - and you can do that by busying yourself with going through the rooms or occasionally, fortunately, finding weird clock things which push time forward. If you are a hiding from monsters, however, time goes back. So finding the triggers that keep them at bay is presumably going to be crucial to any end game. It's a weird setup, but one that is extremely evocative of something. Insomnia, bad dreams, childhood, madness. It reminds me of both older games, from a weirder era of 16-bit and 8-bit experiments, while at the same time carrying the sort of polish that the higher tier of indie games boast these days.
And it has me gripped. I want to know more. As we move between levels we see the player's caricature move along a scribbled path threading over a sketched cranium. There is a big bad looking monster a little further up the thread. I dread/anticipate that reveal.
Knock, Knock has been a long time coming. Kickstarter backers have been rightly worried by Ice Pick's apparent procrastination and gibberish-heavy updates, but it does seem like the wait will soon be over, but more importantly, that it will have been worth it. My initial feeling from a first encounter with an early version of the game is that Ice Pick Lodge have made their most accessible game yet, while losing none of their edge.
But, well. You'll have to excuse me.
There's something at the door.
[*That game spawned one of the best pieces of writing ever to appear on RPS.]