... 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.
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.