Knock-Knock Review: A Mechanical Metaphor

What in the hell is Knock-Knock? It’s a game, for one, even if the note Ice-Pick Lodge throws up before the title screen encourages you not to think of it as one. But, no, it really is a game.

At its most basic, Knock-Knock is about a man who wakes up in the middle of the night in a house in which all the lights are broken, and he must fix them — each level carries this same basic premise. Also, ghosts are out to get him, the disembodied voice of a woman is talking to him, and somebody is knocking on doors. All of this is presented in 2.5 dimensions with the sort of astonishing lighting you’d never expect to see from a game that only allows you to move left, right, up and down.

I feel as if saying much about the mechanics of Knock-Knock would be to blurt out spoilers, as the main thrust of the gameplay seems to be to try to discover what the mechanics are. How that, ahem, meta-mechanic — in that it is a game about figuring out its rules as a way of learning to identify with the protagonist, with progression as a goal de-emphasized — came to be is an odd story.

Knock-Knock
Platform: PC, Mac, Linux
Developer: Ice-pick Lodge
Publisher: Ice-Pick Lodge
Release Date: Oct. 17, 2013
MSRP: $9.99
Available: Steam

The legend, according to PR folks handling Knock-Knock, is that Ice Pick Lodge got one of those “please make this game” emails that many developers receive from fans, but this particular project was already in progress. The message included a bunch of assets, and indicated that something terrible happened to whomever produced the bundle of assets (a “calamity”). Knock-Knock was then assembled, allegedly, according to a set of provided instructions. I don’t know if any of that is true.

In addition to that little story, I was given some really vague directions for playing the game, and I’m going to share those with you to give you some idea how I was going into this.

  • Fill in the gaps. The house aids the Lodger (the player character), but must be repaired and maintained.
  • Seek. The Lodger lost something very important. The reason for what is happening is somewhere inside. Everything can be explained, you need only find the key and bring it to light.
  • Wait. In this game, you must watch and listen carefully. Inspect and scrutinize everything. You only need to last until sunrise.
  • Follow the rules of the game! Of course, as you play the game, the game also plays you.

The odd thing about those instructions I listed above is that they don’t exactly help you figure out how to play. Within the game, your character will also provide some hints at what you need to do, and displayed notes will fill some holes in the logic you use to tackle the scenarios. On occasion those two perspectives seemingly contradict each other, though, confusing the issue further. For example: you can hide from that which haunts you in some places, but the meta-instructions within the game say that that may not be necessary.

My own struggle to even understand what I was supposed to be doing and how to progress is the reason I find Knock-Knock to be one of the most fascinating and even endearing gaming experiences I’ve had in ages, even as I found it intensely frustrating trying to complete it. I eventually won that battle after six or so hours, nominally at least in that I completed all the levels, but I don’t know that I came out the other side with a firm grasp on what I just played.

It’s all a metaphor, of course. Our hero is alone in various houses, his own personal backstory constantly changing, trying to get through the rigors of nighttime that seek to, and do, torment him. This man is mentally ill in some significant way, and his struggles each night in these haunted houses are part of his internal struggle with that; hauntings have long been an excellent representation of this sort of battle.

Through it all, the protagonist understands his task, even if you don’t. Whereas I was uncertain about pretty much everything that was going on, he seemed resigned to it. While I was attempting to unravel the mystery, he was simply going about his business. He bought in. I didn’t have the proper perspective to do so had I wanted to. That meta-conflict over the immense disconnect between the character we control and our own inability to see the game world the way he does drives the experience. Knock-Knock is not a game about winning. Getting to the end — “beating it,” as we say — means little in itself.

The real goal is to come out the other side with some sort of meaningful appreciation of our hero’s plight. To understand what tools are required for such a person to even exist while being plagued by these nightmares so often that they become reality itself. To gain the ability to adapt well enough to those circumstances to be able to use those tools effectively. That is Knock-Knock.

Pros:

  • Doesn’t explain to you how to play, which is a refreshing twist
  • Requires actual thought to comprehend it
  • Spurs an uneasy feeling in the gut all the way through
  • Beautiful

Cons:

  • Sometimes feels more like a game you respect for its ambition than truly like
  • Repetitive nature of the stages can be a drag

Final Score: 90/100


Game Front employs a 100-point scale when reviewing games to be as accurate about the experience as possible. Read the full rundown of what our review scores mean.

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