One of the things that I’ve noticed recently is that in the games industry today, as a rule, there’s precious little originality. Almost every game that is released, if it’s not a numbered sequel, owes a debt or has a cheeky head nod to a game that has come before it. Well, Knock-Knock bucks that trend by being unlike anything I’ve played before. Not since Okami on the PS2 have I been so completely baffled by a game, and spent quite so long scratching my head and saying “What am I supposed to do now?!”.
The story behind the games development doesn’t make things any clearer. Apparently, way back in November 2011, the developers, Ice-Pick Lodge, received an email from a mysterious stranger that challenged them to make a game. Not just any game, mind you, a game that included an attached archive of 19 files entitled “lestplay”. The files were bits of text, audio snippets and fragments of video footage and had to all be shoehorned into the game, or “else everything would be futile”. Rather than doing the sensible thing and throwing the email into the bin, along with the files, the developers decided to run with the idea and Knock-Knock is the result. With my cynical, serious games reviewer head on, I’d say that this is clearly nonsense, but my heart kind of wants it to be true. Having been out on Steam and PS4 for a while, it’s now our turn to try and figure out what is going on. So come with me to the dark, dark woods and lets explore…
You are the Lodger, the third generation of Lodger to live in a creepy cabin deep in the woods. The Lodger, and his father before him, and so on ad infinitum, are Worldologists, in that they study the world around their cabin, recording what they see. The cabin has been home and a laboratory for all the Lodgers, but lately something is off. The cabin itself seems to be changing: things aren’t where they should be, creepy noises and rattles can be heard in the dead of night. Every night it appears that something is coming out of the woods, invading the Lodgers home, and hiding in the vast, dark house. These visitors awaken the Lodger, and it is then up to you to keep him awake, and sane, until dawn. So far, so simple, right? Well, it only gets weirder from here on out.
On awakening the first time, you have to explore your house. You’ll need to enter the rooms, turn on the lights and have a look around, trying to ignore the impending feeling of doom that the game engenders, until you find a clock. Not just any clock, a kind of grandfather looking clock with the same hairstyle as the Lodger. These clocks are scattered around the rooms that you explore, and have the effect of advancing time, bringing dawn and sanity a little closer to your character. After finding the clock, you will generally hear a banging on the front door, and if you zoom out to see more of the house, the front door is now standing wide open, despite being barred and locked only moments before… The only thing to do now is to go out of the door into the forest, and have a look around to convince yourself that all is well.
The forest is a dark and frightening place, with spooky looking trees and dark bushes all silhouetted against the sky. The path through the forest is a rough circle around the Lodgers house, and if you walk far enough you’ll wind up back at the door you left through. As well as being able to move left and right, the Lodger can also move into and out of the screen, opening up new avenues to explore. There are things to find in the forest, but in the interests of maintaining the mystery that his game works so hard to create, I won’t be telling you what to look for!
Making it back to the house is the goal of our forest stroll, but upon entering, the Lodger wakes up again in his bed, and thinks that the proceeding sections were only a dream. The difference this time is that the layout of the house has changed, and you are no longer alone. Something has come out of the forest, and is now in your house! The home invaders are known, in the game, as Guests. Now, where I come from, if someone comes into your house in the middle of the night without so much as a by your leave, they aren’t called Guests. Especially if coming into contact with them pushes you that bit further towards the cliff edge of sanity.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. As you explore, turning on lights and generally poking about into the dark corners of your changed residence, then you’ll hear the lights fuse and go out in rooms you have visited. If you go to these rooms, you will see spectral apparitions floating about the place. There are two types; Seekers, who actively pursue you from room to room, and Hiders, that stay motionless, and will only punish you if you turn on the light in a room when they are there.
The Seekers look like something straight out of Silent Hill, shuffling around in straitjackets with only one arm and other forms which are even more disturbing. If they touch the Lodger, his sanity takes a hit, and more importantly the clock that you have been building up towards dawn has a chunk of time taken off it, making the night that much longer and scarier. The only thing you can do to combat Seekers is to hide, and luckily as you explore, the Lodger will remember the layout of the seemingly blank room – if you stand still for a while when he closes his eyes, he will remember that there was a bed, or a boiler or several other things that should be in the room, and they’ll appear. If you stand in front of the items, a white outline appears around them and with a single tap of the “B” button – or up on the left analogue stick – the Lodger will hide behind the item and the Seeker will then try and find you. This is a weird kind of mini game, where you see the room from the Seekers point of view, as they attempt to hunt you down. If they do, the usual sanity and time penalty will be applied, but if they don’t, then they will disappear and you’ll have a bit of breathing room to explore. Another thing to be aware of is that the clock that counts down towards dawn runs in reverse when you hide, so it isn’t possible to stay hidden forever.
Hiders take some weird forms too – my personal favourite being a pile of leaves, with legs sticking out of the bottom, that stands in a room and then gradually fades away if you leave the light off. Obviously, the light being off makes them harder to see, but you can usually hear them talking and muttering to themselves. The Seekers vocalise too, but their murmur is more along the lines of “I know where you are now!”. If the lights go out, hide! Fortunately the Lodger can walk faster than the Seekers, and they don’t seem to follow you upstairs or downstairs, so changing floor can be a viable escape mechanism.
The last thing to watch out for are “breaches”. As you explore, the game will, every now and then, zoom into a particular room and show the light fusing. If you enter the room, the back wall will disappear and a giant eye will appear, looking at you. If you manage to turn the light on before the breach fully forms, you’ll abort it with a minor cost to the time. If you fail, usually the Seekers aren’t far behind, so a clean pair of heels is required.
This then is the pattern for the levels; wake up, explore the house, hit the dark and creepy forest and then head back for more house exploration with added spooks. The controls are simplicity itself, with only the directions on the left stick used to go left and right, and up and down the staircases in the houses. “A” is the button to interact with the house, used to turn on the lights or unlock doors, and “B” is used to interact with objects, like hiding spots and the clocks you need to activate. With a simple mission – to stay alive and sane until morning – the atmosphere that Knock-Knock creates is genuinely tense and spooky – the appearance of a Seeker when you only have 30 seconds left until dawn can ruin an entire level.
The story of the game is explained through cut scenes, and is as weird as the rest of the game, seeing the Lodger, who regularly breaks the fourth wall to talk directly to the camera, struggle with his sanity to wonder what’s happening. You’d have to have a heart of stone to not be affected. With a hand drawn art style, and very minimal sounds except the noises of the Guests and the Lodger speaking to you, the whole ambience is very much on the spooky end of the spectrum.
In conclusion then, Knock-Knock is completely unlike anything I’ve played before, and earns my respect for being something new. The simple gameplay is quite compelling, and with Seekers on your tail and only a bed to hide behind, the tension can be ramped up quite high. If you are looking for a different gaming experience, and are willing to invest the time into finding out the story, then Knock-Knock could well be the strangest game you’ll ever play.