Developer: Ice-Pick Lodge
Publisher: Ice-Pick Lodge
Review Platform: PC (Steam)
Review Copy Provided By: Ice-Pick Lodge
Release Date: October 4, 2013
For years, developers have struggled to make games scary, with mixed results. Off-putting atmospheres, occasionally wonky control schemes, a lack of supplies and defensive means, maybe a little of all three. Studios both big and indie have tried to blend these elements together into a cohesive mixture of tension and fear, with a variety of results. Though it may look simple on the outside, Ice Pick Lodge’s recently crowd-funded Knock-Knock
Knock-Knock puts you in the shoes of a funny-haired scientist referred to only as “The Lodger”, a man who seemingly hasn’t slept in quite some time (you know, kinda like The Machinist) and is starting to feel the effects. As explained to you through the always-off-putting mechanic of The Lodger speaking DIRECTLY TO YOU in a speech that lands halfway between Simlish and the short guy in the Lodge from Twin Peaks, the Lodger is a ‘worldologist’ – a scientist that has to record the events, presumably, of the world around him. The Lodger, as mentioned before, isn’t sleeping well these days and finds himself wandering from empty house to empty house trying to get some shut eye, warding off apparitions that may or may not really be there. That’s where you come in!
Gameplay consists primarily of walking between rooms in these houses, turning on every light you can find to keep away your…unwanted guests. At random points in each…area? Level? (There’s a world map, but other than the occasional romp through what seems to be the forest from right outside the Penguin’s lair in Batman Returns, there isn’t much to connect each house you’re in.) Anyway, sometimes a knock sounds (get it?) and that’s when you find your space invaded. The ‘visitors’ take on all sorts of grisly appearances that remain chilling despite the game’s Courage the Cowardly Dog-esque art style (or perhaps because of) and your only hope for survival is to, in a move we’ve certainly all tried as children, turn on EVERY LIGHT IN THE HOUSE! Because if there’s one thing evil hates, it’s a well-lit abode!
This frantic dash through the house really reminds me of Atari – or NES-era games, where the stakes were high, the instructions simple, and the plots abstract. Instead of a life bar, you’re just trying to run out the clock until daylight and that clock serves as your ‘hit points’. Survive until dawn and you’re all set until the next house. Coming into contact with enemies pushes the clock farther back, and taking too much damage makes you start the night all over again, although there’s some pretty generously placed items to help speed the progression of time to make up for it. This mechanic, combined with your defensive options of “hide” or “run”, make each house awfully tense, occasionally frustrating, and always rewarding.
Many horror games live or die by their presentation and Knock-Knock delivers. The game takes place on a 2D plane (which makes the zoomed-out map view of each level look like the Luigi’s Mansion stage from Smash Bros. Brawl) and every frame is lovingly crafted. Sometimes when you turn on the lights in a room, the Lodger’s eyes “need time to adjust”, and if you hang out in that room long enough, the background reveals new details and the Lodger explains a little more of the creepily vague plot. It’s nice, though, because you don’t have to do this and accordingly you never feel like the game is cramming it down your throat in the way many modern games who think they’re clever do. The monsters, while not particularly varied, are pretty hard to look at (in a good way) and keep with the overall aesthetic. All the animations, combined with the cutaway houses and the stellar lighting effects, give the game something of a paper doll/diorama kind of look, which really suits the story it’s trying to tell. Anyone who appreciates hand-drawn game art will find something to like here.
I won’t try to mince words or get too flowery about it: I really liked Knock-Knock. I thought the presentation was awesome and unique, the gameplay, while simple, boils down the essential elements of a successfully scary game, and I actually gave a crap about The Lodger’s problems and wanted to keep playing just to see what would happen. Isn’t that the point of game plots, horror or not? If you’re a little more indie-minded, don’t mind the occasional wonky translation, and are in the mood for something Halloween-y, grab your favorite pumpkin beer and get psyched to hide behind some tables and chairs.