Knee Deep sets out to do something that I would love to see more games doing: tackle journalism both thematically and mechanically. Prologue Games, the small studio behind Knee Deep calls it “A Swamp Noir in Three Acts”, the first of which has been released with the next two coming soon.
Knee Deep Act I – Wonderland
You are given control of three characters that are, to some extent, in the business of reporting: Romana Teague is a celebrity blogger, Jack Bellet works an old-fashioned newspaper reporter job and K. C. Gaddis is a disgraced cop, turned private investigator, turned mall cop, turned private investigator again. The protagonists are all somehow drawn into the apparent suicide of washed up Hollywood star Tag Kern and a dubious land deal about to go down in and around the backwater Florida town of Cypress Knee. Now, at its core, Knee Deep comes from the Telltale Games school of adventure games, with the player having to navigate through various dialogue trees, uncovering interesting or trivial but colorful details about the protagonists or the inhabitants of Cypress Knee.
There is no failure state, but, as the game tells us from the get go, we can make or break friendships with our words or actions. What sets it apart from the more recent adventure games crafted in this vein is the reporting mechanic. Essentially, at key points in the story, after finding a few clues, you are presented with an interface where you get to choose a source, a fact and, most interestingly, a spin which can be cautious, edgy or inflammatory. Based on your reporting, your employer’s and sometimes affected person’s attitude toward you will change. Regrettably, this only being Act I, there is little proof of this as of yet, but the characters do react to your reporting and attitude, so it definitely remains to be seen.
A Night at the Theater
The central conceit of Knee Deep is that it’s a stage play and you are the director. However, this framing device only lends the game part of its style and aesthetic, and contributes little to the gameplay. This is by no means a flaw, just a strange choice, at first glance. Delving a bit deeper into the game, though, one cannot help but be charmed by the ridiculously gigantic multi-sided stage, the moving props and cross-sectioned buildings. What bothered me, however, was that when a character changes scenes he or she climbs on a rail-mounted platform, is lit up with spotlights and moved to the very foreground while the stage rotates. The effect is certainly a great alternative to a loading screen, but we are given several full seconds to watch the character model stagger awkwardly from the movement, while their dead eyes remain motionless and their faces expressionless.
This brings us to one of the issues I have with Knee Deep: the low quality character models and animations. I feel slightly bad complaining about something like graphics (like one of them “bro gamers” that I think I’m supposed to have a problem with, or something), but having your characters star in such a personal story while rarely taking the time to even emote seems like doing a disservice to the experience. As for the character models themselves, the majority of the game has some excellent composition work, with the character models at just the right distance from the player to look good. That being said, there are some unfortunate moments where we are treated to a close up of a cold lifeless puppet, but these moments when we gaze into the Uncanny Abyss are few and far in between, so it rarely detracts from the important parts.
Another grievance would be the lack of voice acting. We are talking about a game that is nearly all dialogue, with some characters having some very emotional moments, so while the lack of voice does not diminish the experience in any significant way, its addition would have gone a long way to having some really memorable characters. To the sound design’s credit, though, the music is so atmospheric and appropriate that it actually took me a few minutes to become aware of the fact that the characters were silent.
While we’re on downsides, I’ll just get one more minor issue out of the way, namely parts of the UI and the controller support. I played this game, as I tend to do with others of its genre, with an Xbox Controller and I found navigating the reporting interface, as well as the two token puzzles just the slightest bit irritating to use.
The Bright Side of Noir
I’m aware that I came across as overly harsh in the previous few paragraphs over some issues that are either subjective or are caused by budget limitations more than anything else, so let me rave a bit about what I loved. The microverse of Cypress Knee is positively vibrant and full of life. Not in the sense that there are a lot of characters, but rather in the sense that the characters present are so colorful and fleshed out that after just a few conversations you feel like a local. We have Remy, the walking encyclopedia of useless facts that talks about himself in the third person, the city planner that frequently misuses words and idioms, the megalomaniac “Ha ha, totally not Scientology, guys” cult leader and many more.
The protagonists each have their own backstories and baggage (some of which you are allowed to dictate the details of) and their own “suggested personality” with many of Romana’s dialog choices including “Give a strange response”, “Give a belligerent response” for Jack and “cynical” for Gaddis. As a nice little stylistic choice, Gaddis’ segments are showed in a slight sepia monochrome, given the fact that as a private investigator he’s the closest to the Noir theme.
Add into the mix an intriguing mystery involving death, shady land deals, conspiracies and cults and you have something that resembles a humorous version of True Detective and while it may be too soon to tell, I feel Knee Deep does some things better than L.A. Noire. For all its flaws, I had a great time playing through Act I of Knee Deep and I am definitely hooked for Act II.
Disclosure: Game copy was obtained from developer/publisher for review purposes