Several years ago, a friend of mine told me a ghost story. One night, as he was playing on the DS in bed, he caught a glimmer of something reflected in the screen. It was a human torso, he explained, half-extruded from the wall above him. The thing, whatever it really was, was apparently watching him play. Naturally, my friend did what any self-respecting adult would do: he finished the level, saved his game, turned off the machine and quietly went to bed - all without glancing upwards once.
Ice-Pick Lodge's upcoming Knock Knock pivots on a similar idea: that deep-rooted fear of the dark, of the familiar turned hostile. The question it poses is the one that kept our antecedents, too new to the world to understand fire or masonry, awake at night: what kind of hungry things sit just outside of vision? Waiting. Watching. Over the millenniums, that question became diluted by progress. We learned that guns and street lamps were good for chasing away monsters both real and imagined. Still, even though it was diminished, that ancestral fear never went away. It simply changed shape.
What if that creak you heard wasn't the floorboards settling? What if those weren't the curtains but the fluttering, tattered rags worn by something alien? What if someone really is standing behind you right this instant?
(Knock Knock, in case you were wondering, appears to be rather good at being scary. )
"Working on this game, we have come to the conclusion that the two greatest fears are obscurity and inevitability, " Ice-Pick Lodge's Vasily Kashnikov said over e-mail. "With these two, we built the atmosphere of the game."
"Invisibility is the core of any fear." Nikolay Dybowski added. " We found that out at the price of rebuilding the game twice from scratch."
The Guests in Knock Knock certainly play to those anxieties. In the gloom, they're all disproportional limbs and staring eyes, bit and pieces cut out from an asylum's nightmare. Never pointedly menacing. Just .. wrong. Even switching on the lights, which immediately banishes any Guest within the room, isn't enough to make things better because there's the understanding that, some point, the electrical fixtures will give out and the night will always, always return.
"Would we call us that?" Kashnikov repeated, when asked if they would consider themselves connoisseurs of horror, maestros of all things skin-crawling. "Actually, the audience calls us connoisseurs of horror. Perhaps, the point is that we are interested in discovering new, still unknown means to express ourselves. And as we know, everything new terrifies people."
In a manifesto written in 2001, Icepick Lodge wrote that they wanted to make games for and about their country, to make a 'deep game the Russian way', a worthy addition to the world's picture of tomorrow. The world waited, they said. And Icepick Lodge went to meet it, bringing with them demons from their predecessors. "Do you know of any other mythos or fairy tales except for the eerie ones?" Dybowski demanded. "Greek, German, Celtic or Scandinavian .. they are all full of horrors! Just try to re-read the original version of the Brothers Grimm."
"Our fairy tales consist of accidents, chaos and its creations." Kashnikov affirmed. "They don't actually seem that terrifying to us - for they were just manifestations of nature. But of course some elements got demonized - there are the Leshies, or Lesoviks, the Kikimoras and so on and so forth.. But you can always find a way to come to an understanding with these creatures, come to an agreement, finish the quest, get half the kingdom and a beautiful wife. Just don't be afraid."
Were there any fairy tales that were particularly frightening? Kashnikov quipped, "There was a story of a country, where everyone ate only cream of wheat with lumps in it for a breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It is said that those who don't finish their breakfast get sent there."
While Kashnikov was somewhat demure about stating exactly how much European lore had influenced the design of the Guests ("Something influences you latently, we bring something into service knowingly and finally there are things that we just like therefore we kind of like hint at them."), he was notably more forward in regards to the role the 'Sender' played. For those who weren't aware, Knock Knock is purportedly built around a smorgasbord of weird, uncomfortable material sent by a mysterious personality. How true that is, of course, is another enigma.
"The sounds got into the game completely and the player hears them 80% of his time. You may call these sounds background noises. The pictures were partly changed. I.E: some were drawn again and got their finished look. Luckily, the Sender didn't mind it and gave us the permission to do it. As for the text part, it got into the game almost completely."
Videos were something else. Dybowski said, "Vasily insisted on including them too but, in the end, we decided that they will make the main part of the game... less convincing. Less plausible."
With all these factors taken into consideration, what exactly are the principles that Icepick Lodge adhere to when designing antagonistic forces? Kashnikov replied, "The main principle is empathy. Without it, the game loses its point and becomes Tetris."
He continued. "And here is a difference in approaching the game. We are not interested in what a soldier experiences by shooting an enemy, simply because he got the order to do so. If you would like to get such an experience, then you need to play paintball or similar games, which were specifically made for this kind of experience. We strive becoming empathetic with our heroes, a good emotional experience that cannot be experienced unless you play the game. Sometimes, we get the job done right."