We talk a lot about the differences between "Eastern" (usually Japanese) and "Western" (usually American or British) games, but there's just as pronounced a difference between these two particular schools of development and the games we see coming out of Eastern Europe.
Eastern European games -- particularly those of Russian origin -- tend to have a palpable sense of bleakness and melancholy about them. And not the sort of bleakness where you know there's going to be a happy ending to make it all better at the end -- more often than not, these are games that wallow and revel in their own sense of self-pity and depression, delving into the very darkest parts of the human psyche, all in the name of making you feel something. These games aren't depressing or emotional in the sense that they'll make you cry, however; they're depressing in the sense that they create an alarmingly accurate depiction of what it feels like to live in a world without hope.
This may sound like the sort of experience you'd never want to touch with a very long pole, and I'd respect your opinion if you felt that way. And yet many of these titles turn out to be fascinating, intelligent experiences that are far more than simply un-fun trudges through weathered landscapes. Much as real-life depression is far more complex than just "feeling a bit sad," so too is the bleakness of Russian games more complex than "this is a world I don't want to live in."
Nowhere was this more apparent than in Ice-Pick Lodge's previous game Pathologic, a fascinating game that was seriously tough to get through for a number of reasons, chief among which was the fact that it wasn't very fun. This wasn't a case of it being designed badly, however; no, instead Ice-Pick Lodge had deliberately made an experience that wasn't fun, intuitive or even particularly fair to the player -- an experience that reflected the desperate struggles of the game's disease-ridden town, and the fact that sometimes, despite your best efforts, things simply don't go as you want them to. And even if you did make it through to the end of the game's story, there were more than a few genuinely surprising curveballs waiting for you at the conclusion.
But enough about past glories. We're here to talk about Ice-Pick Lodge's new game Knock-Knock -- a game that maintains the developer's iconic sense of hopeless Russian bleakness while at the same time creating an experience far more accessible and understandable to newcomers than Pathologic -- and even the studio's subsequent works The Void and Cargo: The Quest for Gravity.
Ice-Pick Lodge maintains that Knock-Knock is the manifestation of a series of mysterious notes and sketches that were sent to them anonymously back in November of 2011. Whether or not this is true is a closely-guarded secret, but the concept was intriguing enough for the developer to be able to run a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund the game, the final results of which are now almost upon us.
Knock-Knock is, like the developer's previous works, somewhat hard to describe in gameplay terms. At its core, it appears to be a side-on perspective 2D adventure, but it's not quite that simple. Or perhaps it's a survival horror -- but again, it's not quite that simple. Or perhaps it's one of those new-fangled "story games" -- but again... you get the idea.
The core concept behind Knock-Knock is that being alone in an empty, dark house at night-time is an inherently scary experience -- particularly when you start hearing things. This is a concept that has been played with by a variety of games over the years, each of which has taken a slightly different angle on it. The Alone in the Dark and Resident Evil series, for example, didn't leave you alone in the house for long -- though it wasn't, for the most part, other humans you'd be coming across in the abandoned hallways. The more recent Gone Home, meanwhile, takes a more real-life approach -- what is it like to come home and discover your family is nowhere to be seen, with only vague clues as to what happened scattered around your house?
Knock-Knock's approach is somewhere between these two ways of thinking, and in fact its exact approach to what on Earth it's trying to say to the player changes and varies as you progress through it, initially alternating between two different worlds, one of which is frozen in time and the other of which randomly rearranges its rooms and challenges the player to survive until morning. Along the way, the nameless protagonist occasionally babbles in a strange, seemingly nonsensical language -- with subtitles, thankfully -- alluding to some sort of greater mystery surrounding why he's alone in the forest, what he does for a living and why on Earth he seems to repeatedly find himself beset by ghosts, monsters or whatever the strange "Visitors" really are. As you progress through the game, a haphazardly-scrawled sketch on the loading screen appears to depict the protagonist getting ever deeper into his own mind with each passing "level" -- with what looks like a very unpleasant monster lurking partway along the path. I'm worried about what happens there.
The manipulation of time is one of the key mechanics in Knock-Knock. When you're in the time-frozen world, you can freely explore the protagonist's house, fixing broken lights and unlocking doors along the way, until you come across a clock -- eerily modelled after the protagonist himself -- that advances time towards the morning. Once time has advanced a little, you'll discover in short order that the front door to the house is open, at which point the protagonist, clearly having never seen a horror movie, inevitably determines that it would be a sensible idea to go outside and have a look around. After walking through an uncomfortably long woodland pathway -- shades of Silent Hill 2's slightly-too-long-to-be-comfortable straight, featureless hallways here -- he seemingly comes back to his house, only to wake up in a bed in a house that is arranged completely differently to what appears to be his "real" home. Here, time advances normally -- but can also be "fast forwarded" with clocks similar to those found in the other world -- and progression is dependent on survival until the morning. Encountering monsters or other phenomena that "hurt" the protagonist or his sanity set the clock back, however, occasionally knocking him right back to the start of the night and having to start again. In other words, there's no "death," but you can find yourself inconvenienced -- sometimes frustratingly, when you can't figure out what it was that "hurt" you.
If this all sounds hopelessly convoluted and difficult to explain, that's because it is -- but that's part of the game's bleak charm. Ice-Pick Lodge provides you with little help or instruction on what you're supposed to be doing beyond the basic key controls needed to interact with the game world, and the rest is up to you. You'll quickly discover that turning lights on allows you to "remember" where items of furniture are after a brief period of standing around with your eyes shut; likewise, you'll quickly discover that hiding behind said items of furniture causes time to run backwards rather than forwards, so you can't simply set up camp underneath your bed and wait the night out. But what to do with the cracks in the wall in which giant eyes appear, watching you? How to deal with the creeping monsters that occasionally slip in, accompanied by strange, seductive whispers? What are you actually trying to achieve beyond simple survival -- or is that all you're trying to achieve?
And it's scary. Not in the jump-scare sense -- though there are a few of those here and there -- but in the same sense of lurking dread found in more cerebral, psychological horror games such as Silent Hill, Home and Lone Survivor. It's a game that's uncomfortable to play -- particularly if you follow its advice and play it alone in the dark -- and one in which it's distressingly unclear whether many of the on-screen notes are written to the protagonist or to you, the player.
I have so many questions about Knock-Knock that are yet to be answered, but the early version I've had the good fortune to play certainly has me very intrigued indeed. This is not a game for those who want concrete answers or to be led by the hand through a linear series of objectives; it's a title for those who enjoy the process of exploration and discovery without someone sitting on their shoulder telling them "you might want to go that way now."
"Follow the rules of the game," says Ice-Pick Lodge on the game's official site. "Of course, you must first understand the game being played with you." Quite.