It has been an exciting decade for games. The landscape has completely changed from an almost exclusive dominance of adrenaline fueled escapades to a far more rich kaleidoscope of experiences. Not only have the lines between genres within the medium become blurred and insignificant but also the definitions of those mediums themselves. Today we see an outbreak of ‘real-life’ gaming events, augmented reality adventures and interactive theatre excursions. Knee Deep is an interesting, if rather flawed, attempt at bringing the theatre to the sofa, a show where the player controls the lines of the characters and the flow of the story.
It is not a wholly original concept, of course. There are Telltale signs we have seen this form of storytelling before and indeed Knee Deep follows an extremely similar route to the successful Walking Dead games or The Wolf Among Us episodes or much of the Telltale’s back catalogue. Set in the small swampside town of Cypress Knee (a clanking pun that foretells the rather odd humour for the rest of the game), the players will follow an investigation into the mysterious suicide of a down-and-out actor through the eyes of three central characters: a failing blogger, a grumpy reporter and a discredited private investigator.
The curtains rise on a dark scene, jangling steel-strung Americana guitars set the tone. With the deft tap of a button, we chose to sip our drink loudly in the audience, and settle in for the first of three acts that slowly play out the story of the death of the actor and continue into a vast conspiracy involving government and religious cults.
Every choice in Knee Deep is made with a tap of a button, usually out of four options to satisfy the standard controller layout. The gameplay, what there is, comes from selecting a choice, sitting back and listening to the conversation that plays out because of your selection. Certain choices have substantial repercussions further down the line, altering the overall plot, but despite this being an investigation there is no deduction to be done or mysteries to be solved, just the progression of the story. There are a few mini-games made up of logic and jigsaw puzzles to pad out the time, but they're few and hilarious simplistic to be nothing more than a distraction. The result is that Knee Deep lives and dies on its story because that is all it really has. A big risk, and one that it does not entirely pull off.
To its credit, the tone of the piece somehow works rather well. The constant jangling on steel guitars, the wonky voice acting and even more wonky models all mangle up into a bizarre ball that keeps the game rolling on. It’s this broken - almost comedy - strangeness, that same flow you feel from watching Twin Peaks, that keeps the player intrigued. Indeed the Lynchian vibe is perhaps Knee Deep’s saving grace, because everything else feels rather flat.
Much of this is down to the game’s pacing. Conversations feel stilted because every single sentence has a pause as it waits for the player’s input and it is clear that the actors struggled to read their lines to fit every response, as if after every pause they have had a sleep and just been prodded awake to read the next choice. Which I guess, in a way, they have. But this all makes it feel unnatural and in the end the characters never break out of being caricatures of themselves and it is hard for the players to empathise or even really care about them at all. It does not help that the whole thing is underlined by this rather odd humour (hinted at in the title) that feels forced and too often repetitive. One character in particular, the mayor, has an issue with words that sound the same. It brings up a laugh the first time he speaks, but literally every single time he opens his mouth it is that joke, and by the end you’re not laughing you’re crying.
Meanwhile the clever plot device which involves seeing the events through the eyes of the three protagonists actually causes more harm than good, particularly in the first act where each character investigates the murder in their own way and ends up speaking to the same people and having very similar conversations. There is a neat little mechanic that involves submitting a blog, or a newspaper article or a report (depending on who is in charge at the time) giving you a chance to pore over the evidence and choose a piece of writing to publish. Yet, even this feels rather forced and while the game claims that your choices affect the plot later (which it informs you constantly in the corner of the screen) all it really means is that some lines will be marginally altered.
Perhaps all this is rather harsh though, since given all of its problems Knee Deep manages to be quite an enjoyable experience. Like bad theatre there is something really quite entertaining about watching the models prance about on stage and spouting nonsensical lines. Once you’re through the trudging first couple of hours and into the second act things begin to take off. You get used to the issues and begin to appreciate all the silly little things that the developers have decided to add, from the way the stage spins around to change scene or walls slide to open out buildings just like the theatre. Despite itself, it is actually quite clever and charming.
The plot accelerates too. There are twists you didn’t see coming, people start dying, and some choices that actually do seem to alter the overall plot.The protagonists join together so there is less repetition and it sheds itself of some of the more unnecessary mechanics, such as submitting those reports, and as a result the whole experience becomes much more fluid. If you can make it through that rather sticky swamp-ridden first act and out the other side there is a lot more joy to be had in the last two. And then it all concludes in a most ridiculous manner that seems completely at odds with the way the whole thing began, but better for it.
Knee Deep is an interesting experiment, if not one that is entirely successful.The way it recreates the theatre with an announcer, moving walls and scenes built out of flat panels is rather brilliant, but it does not excuse the awkward bumpy script, the confused voice acting and ugly amorphous models that make up the cast. Yet its vibe, those jangling guitar lines underlining every scene change and that awkward Lynchian or Coen brothers back-water American feeling that pervades the whole thing, holds it all together. In a way Knee Deep is almost so bad that it is good, but sadly only reaches an experience that will interest those looking at the fringes of gaming narrative and not the mainstream.