November 23, 2015 3:00 PM | John Bridgman
The way a game presents its narrative can be just as compelling as the narrative itself. Many different devices have been used to marry mechanics and storyline together in such a way as to keep a game moving forward to its inevitable conclusion. Knee Deep, an ongoing adventure "swamp noir" series from Prologue Games, uses stage performance techniques and presentation as its framing device, while still letting the player make critical choices to develop the story and characters as it progresses.
Set in a small swamp town, Knee Deep tells the story of a washed up celebrity who appears to have hanged himself during the filming of a new movie. From there, you follow around the cast of characters from act to act as you work out what really happened. As you have conversations and learn more about the area and its history, you'll be able to interpret events as you see fit, and this in turn helps mold the story and carve out the role the characters play in this mystery.
The framing device of a stage is a bit odd, and maybe a little heavy-handed, but if you give it a chance it can definitely work. It provides context for some of the tutorializing the game requires, as well as an explanation for a bit of the more stilted, exposition-heavy dialogue that adventure game characters have a tendency to engage in. As a possible drawback, it does leave you somewhat detached from the story, but that is not necessarily a dealbreaker for everyone.
Visually, the set designs are good at coming across as sets. Backdrops are minimal but effective, and objects that appear tend to be present only when necessary. This really enhances the stage feel of the game, without making it look too bland. The character models though, do leave a bit to be desired, as well as the stage-style lighting used doesn't always come across well on the models, which is unfortunate.
What it may lack visually it makes up for in audio. The game has a twangy, southern-style soundtrack with banjos and drums accompanying the transitions from set to set, and I really enjoyed it. The sound design overall is good too, with fitting foley effects and background noise that is appropriate within the realm of a stage production. The voice acting is generally pretty decent as well, though some characters can come across a bit overdone, albeit possibly in effort again to create that stage feel.
The story itself is a little cliché, but I think it works overall. The characters help bring it to life as the actors on a stage would, though at times the framing device gets in the way. Some larger-scale transitions that occur have a really peculiar stage-rotating effect to them, along with a podium that I think the actor supposedly has trouble keeping balance on. It's possibly the most jarring thing about the way the game presents itself.
Other than that, however, by using stage techniques, Knee Deep manages to be an enjoyable experience. I think its presentation might be a bit polarizing, but if it works for you, I think it will really make it a lot more engaging. Giving a plausible reason for characters commenting loudly to themselves or engaging in stilted expository conversation is interesting, and might help keep some folks from being pulled out of the narrative from those common adventure game elements. Give it a shot if you're into conversation-heavy adventure games, or visual novels. It's something different for its genre, and I am interested to see how the story plays out with the final act's release next year.