I don’t know how Ice-Pick Lodge do it, but they have this phenomenal ability to make games that nobody else on Earth could make. Games like Pathologic, and The Void, and Cargo! The Quest for Gravity. Games that make you feel uncomfortable. Games that run on an inscrutable logic that makes half-sense in the tired hours before dawn. Games that give you a glimpse into some other impossible world that you’ll never quite understand but that nonetheless make you feel like you do – subconsciously, in some strange way – understand them.
And now, with Knock-Knock, they’ve done it again.
Knock-Knock, as a game, is as difficult to describe as… one of those things. You know the ones; they’re sort of… red, but also blue. Reddy-blue. And they’re quite hard, except when they aren’t. You know? Right. As such, you’re going to have to forgive the scattered nature of this preview, because I have a suspicion I know a lot less about the game than I think I do.
The easiest way to explain it is to say that it’s sort of like a horror version of Chuckie Egg, or Burger Time. You play a guy living in a cabin out in the middle of some deep dark woods, and once night approaches, you’re harassed by “Guests” and have to survive until dawn. What this means is running around the house, repairing lights, closing cracks in the house, and running and hiding from ghosts until time runs out and dawn arrives.
Which sounds simple, and easy to describe. The problem is that I’m pretty sure this isn’t actually the way the game really works. I suppose we’ll get to that shortly.
Things are complicated somewhat by the fact that time doesn’t actually run in real-time, and everything is ruled by dream logic. Hiding, for instance, usually keeps you safe but also causes time to start rewinding, so you really don’t want to do that unless you absolutely have to. Getting caught by a ghostie or seeing something horrible impacts your sanity, which also seems to reverse time; if the clock goes back to the start of the night, then you “lose” and the level restarts. By the same token, though, little clocks that resemble the protagonist will occasionally fade into existence in parts of the house, and these let you fast-forward time to move the dawn a little closer.
Which, again, sounds fairly simple. But there’s more to it than that, and – more crucially – I don’t know if that’s correct. The game doesn’t really offer a tutorial, nor does it give you concrete guidelines on how to “win.” It gives you cryptic suggestions and couched ideas. Sometimes you’ll reach the dawn and manage to progress. Other times you won’t… but you won’t necessarily have “failed”.
As an example: on one of my latest attempts to defend my home from the hideous beasties (which may or may not be a sign of the protagonist being asleep or insane), there was a CRASH ZOOM to another part of the house, where the light briefly flickered on. Because I’m stupid, I wandered on over there, dodging a ghost on the way. I walked in and started repairing the light… and a big crack faded into existence in the wall, with a giant eye looking through it, staring at me.
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I think that these cracks (and, indeed, the CRASH ZOOMS) indicate places where the ghosts are getting in; repair the light to seal the crack. I think. Except that doing this gives you a hit to your sanity, which rewinds time and makes the level last longer. But there’s also an alternative, which is to walk through the crack.
Doing this led me to a pitch-black corridor lined with what I think were doors. I wandered around for awhile, finding absolutely nothing. I went through one of the doors, and was rewarded with a ridiculous graphic showing trees growing out of clouds, and a huge horn, which may or may not be a hint as to what’s really going on. Then I was back in the corridor, and the next door I entered took me back to the start of the level.
I have no idea what the fuck is going on in this game, but playing it lends this constant uneasy sense that I actually do know, deep down, in some instinctive way. Which is exactly what Pathologic and The Void did to me, only – as a game – this actually makes a bit more sense.
Let’s stop talking about the gameplay for now, because I’m not getting anywhere with that. Let’s talk about the horror.
Looking at the screenshots, it might be a bit hard to believe that Knock-Knock is at all scary; the aesthetic is dark but cartoony, like… oh, I don’t know. Courage the Cowardly Dog, or The Real Ghostbusters, or The Nightmare Before Christmas, or possibly – in its darker moments – Edward Gorey. None of which should really be all that scary. It feels like it should be faux-scary, or comedy-horror.
But bloody hell, it’s creepy, in much the same reality-turned-90-degrees way as the movie adaptation of Coraline. Ghosts are barely-glimpsed things out of the side of the screen. There’s no music – just echoing footsteps, creaks, bangs, and ghostly whisperings from around the house. The absolute worst kind of ambient noise if you’re trying to sleep, basically.
The default view is zoomed so far in you can’t see much more than your character, and although you can zoom out while stationary, the view returns to normal when moving… so if you’re running from something, you can’t get a nice overview of the map. Making it considerably worse is that, unless the lights in a room are on (and appearances by ghosts tend to short them out) your character tiptoes carefully through the area, with a candle barely illuminating whatever’s around him.
This, combined with the generally unclear game mechanics, means that Knock-Knock is a game that plunges you into an ice-cold sea of uncertainty and fear. I’m not quite sure what I’m meant to be doing or how I’m meant to be surviving. I’m not sure what’s a good idea and what isn’t. I’m not quite sure what, exactly, is going on. I just know that there are Things out there, chasing me through my dark house which keeps rearranging itself, and I don’t know where they are but they’re looking for me. Hide-and-seek, where hiding is an absolute last resort. If you ever got really caught up in children’s games when younger, and there was genuine fear and excitement and adrenaline and tension coursing through your tiny body as you ran and hid from the friends chasing you – despite there being no genuine threat – you’ve got a fair idea of what Knock-Knock‘s early levels have done to me.
But it’s the uncertainty that’s king, and it’s the uncertainty that really seems to define Knock-Knock as something quite out-of-the-ordinary. I had a discussion with a friend of mine about this while playing it: I asked, not expecting a response, how Ice-Pick Lodge keep creating games that feel like they make sense – somehow – in your subconscious. She replied: “They write in their sleep.” I unthinkingly responded: “It’s worse than that. They write in YOUR sleep.”
Which makes no sense, at all. But in a frightening, weird way, that taps into the deep-down animal part of you that still remembers sleeping in trees and hiding from things with more teeth than brain cells, it sort of does – or at least, it feels like it should. That, in a nutshell, is Knock-Knock.