October 8, 2013 3:23 PM | Paul Hack
Knock-Knock is a deeply strange game. This is no surprise, seeing as it's the latest release from Ice-Pick Lodge, the Russian developers responsible for Pathologic and The Void. It's ostensibly based on the unfinished project of a stranger whose work on it drove him mad. Funded by a successful Kickstarter campaign, Knock-Knock arrives as a game at once both simpler and more mysterious than the original concept pitch.
This is probably Ice-Pick Lodge's most accessible release, but it's still bizarre, unintuitive, and hard to grasp. Of course, all of that is entirely deliberate. We are trying to learn the rules to the game and figure out just what the hell is going on right along with the character we control. We receive advice from handwritten diary pages that we may or may not have written ourselves, but can we trust it, let alone interpret it correctly?
There's a lot more going on than the following describes, but the gist is this: A troubled (to put it mildly) insomniac lives alone in a big, old house in the woods. Lately, he's finding it hard to distinguish between his nightmares and waking life, and his house is essentially haunted. Each night, poltergeists make an awful racket and terrible visitors materialize to play a ghastly game of hide-and-seek with him. The rooms of his house rearrange themselves, doors slam of their own accord, and something's wrong with the wiring. His memory is cloudy, but the more we uncover, the more it looks like he may have done something to deserve all of this.
How long does it take to screw in a light bulb? You'll find out the answer to that quite frequently in Knock-Knock. Each night when you awaken (or dream), you go from room to room, checking the house, opening doors, and screwing in light bulbs or fixing busted lighting fixtures. The broken ones that spit sparks are most important, as these seem to create a weak spot in the house which your visitors can easily breach.
You spend a lot of time in the game being still or waiting for an action to complete. You have to hold down the spacebar and wait in order to repair a light fixture or to force open a stuck door. Other times, you cower and hide behind furniture, waiting for a monstrosity to pass by.
When you restore light to a room, you may see your insomniac avatar close his eyes. If you give him a moment, he will remember--or imagine--furniture, room decor, and other things into existence. Furniture is handy because you can hide behind it. Other things can trigger memories or commentary which the main character delivers directly to the player through the fourth wall, in an unintelligible tongue that is thankfully subtitled.
As rooms become more furnished and complete through subsequent levels, the background reveals more about the main character and his state of mind. Subtly terrifying things appear, like a noose hanging from the rafters, a sheet thrown over a lumpy object, and carefully arranged piles of leaves.
Each level in Knock-Knock occurs over one night and takes place in a different arrangement of the house. Familiar rooms show up in new locations and new rooms appear. The basic goal of each level is to survive the night until dawn. To make the time pass more quickly, you can activate odd-looking clocks that appear in various rooms around the house. If you come in contact with an apparition, the clock will run backwards for a bit. You could even end up back in your bedroom, at the beginning of the night.
As stated before, most levels simply require you to get through the night. But there are levels where you end up wandering through a series of long hallways that must exist outside of reality. And there are the levels where the front door is flung open and you exit the house into the night. Outside of the house, you trudge through the forest, past all manner of misshapen trees and ghosts, moving up and down from one path to another, only to end up back at the house--or another incarnation of it.
Also in the woods, you can be granted glimpses of truth, cryptic images that are just as creepy as anything to be found inside the house.
Knock-Knock's sound design is amazing and integral to the game's scare factor. Bumps in the night, banging shutters, breaking glass, distorted voices, and other noises are bone-chilling. The graphics are done in an attractive cartoon style, drawn with clean lines and smoothly animated. The monsters are absolutely horrific, and images like the ghoul with a creaky wheel for a leg may become permanent additions to your personal nightmares.
One of the most frightening moments I had was hearing the front door open and crouching in the dark, waiting for the monster to appear--and seeing myself walk into the room. Another was later in the game, catching a glimpse of motion behind the house and zooming out to see the gigantic thing looming over the trees. Then there are the huge eyes that gaze in on you from another dimension, one which you probably don't want to enter.
Your overall progress is tracked on a spiral-shaped level map which is shown scrawled across the protagonist's head, making it fairly clear that most or all of the game takes place in his mind. I've only seen two endings so far, one of which I'd classify as "bad" and the other as "not good", but there are others waiting... if I can figure out what it is one needs to do to "win", assuming it's even possible. Some answers may lie in these hints from the developers.
Knock-Knock is available on Steam. It's on sale for 15% off its regular $9.99 price until October 11.