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KNEE DEEP: ACT 1 — WONDERLAND Review

Telltale Games have done such a good job of crafting themselves a strange niche in the adventure genre that a Telltale style game has effectively became a genre of its own. While the formula is often emulated, such as in D4: Dark Dreams Don’t Die and the excellent Life Is Strange, it’s rare for a game to exist in a similar genre but feel entirely its own beast.

Enter Knee Deep, an episodic adventure by Prologue Games, set in the murky depths of the Florida bayou. While its initial premise seems to borrow heavily from the likes of True Detective, as a gritty crime drama as much about the humid, festering swamps of America as it is about the filth that lives in them, Knee Deep actually plays very differently.

You take on the role of three different characters, Romana Teaque, Jack Bellet, and K.C Gaddis.  They’ve each with their own approach and motives in investigating the murder of Tag Kern, a famous Hollywood celebrity, short in stature but big in character. Formerly a member of a bizarre religion, Kern decides to hang himself from a vaguely racist tourist attraction one bright and sunny morning in the small backwater (by its own admission) town of Cypress Knee. Naturally, all is not as it seems in the murder, and Tag Kern definitely isn’t supposed to be Tom Cruise.

Teague is a cheeky blogger trying to find a story to stop her losing her job. Jack Bellet is a grizzled newspaper reporter, pestered on all sides by an overbearing boss and a dragon of an ex-wife, and K.C Gaddis is on the verge of eating a bullet before a call comes to investigate Kern’s death.

Wonder-Why-Land

So what causes all this to come together to form such an entirely unique game? We checked out Knee Deep at Egx Rezzed earlier in the year, and what we saw at London’s Tobacco Docks was already impressive, even without adding another layer of sheen and polish. Knee Deep has an entirely novel approach to its storytelling, and doesn’t bother with relatively modern gaming conventions. There’s no voice acting, but it works. The opening of the game pitches it as a stage play in three acts, and everything in the game takes place on this glorified stage. In fact, the first branching options are to read the playbill and turn off your cellphone.

As characters approach rooms and locations, a façade falls away, as if you’re seeing the walls of the set move on a movie lot. A character crosses state lines in just a few steps as they are whisked on and off stage by an invisible hand. Everything is about the story, there are no pointless fetch quests or convoluted attempts at game play that have hampered contemporaries like Life is Strange or Telltale games like The Walking Dead or The Wolf Among Us. Prologue’s Game is entirely about its story, and how you interact with the characters around you.

The stage set up means that you never have to trawl through a room searching for clues or people to talk to. Once you’ve chosen your preferred stance in the conversation, you’re invited to essentially comment, as each character. Teague makes bite size, hispter headlines for the oh-so-trendy blog she works for. Bellet chooses how he wants to spin the story in his newspaper article, and Gaddis essentially writes an expenses statement that comically changes on how you treat the trip. As the game unfolds, you have multiple stories to cover, and there’s a miniature battle between integrity, trying not to offend the victims or locals, and trying to please your boss. A battle not unlike the one most of us experience in our day-to-day lives.

Curtain Call

Cypress Knee is a unique location, brimming with history and character. As the bluegrass music twangs and the chilled out, hillbilly guitar plays out, you’d swear you can feel the oppressive, moist heat in the air, and the festering stench of the swamp lingering in your nostrils. The three main characters are relate able and endearing, while also being just annoying enough to feel like real people.

While Knee Deep can lean heavy on caricatures, it never quite follows through. Sure the detective is grizzled, the young blogger is naive and hipster, and the reporter is cynical, but that doesn’t mean that’s all they can be. You’ve the choice to reply to nearly every dialogue option in a different way.

Do you follow the pattern of behavior your character has laid out, or go for something different? There’s scope to change your opinions and decisions to influence other characters and drive them away, and there’s also scope to play as the version of you that you want to be.

Sometimes this plays off kilter, like Teague’s dialogue options of “Strange Response” (you couldn’t stab a frog with it), your choices can feel a little peculiar. Prologue Games have given you the tools to craft your character’s back story and the events that brought them to where they are. The feel is unique as you get to decide the history of a relationship rather than have it prescribed to you — it’s like a mini act of role-playing, trying to decide who you want your who to be. The problem is, when the identity of each character is malleable, it can be hard to keep track of who you’re talking to and how you should feel about them when you’re in Teague’s Doc Martens versus Gaddis’ well worn loafers. It’s an exercise in imagination and suspension of disbelief, but the stage setting of the game makes it work well.

Besides from a few mini games, the game is entirely about dialogue, choice, and how you want to spin your story, and it’s a wholly unique premise that kind of makes us ache for a really good game where you play as a newspaper reporter or private detective. Knee Deep puts you in the shoes of journalists that stay journalists. You’re not thrown from the comfort of your cushy life into a battle with zombies or space aliens, you are simply a person living their life and doing their respective job. There’s a weird cynicism prevalent throughout the game that makes sense and subverts all the trappings of a genre that is laden with extraordinary situations rather than delving into the extraordinary weirdness of real life.

Overall

Knee Deep feels like the low fi indie title that it is. The lack of dialogue is one of its saving graces and also seems to date it in some ways, even though at the time of writing it hasn’t even been released yet. The locations and environments are unique and steeped in shadows and moody stage lighting.

The faux play trappings and stage movement, fold away locations and cut out props gives it a weirdly unique ethereal feel that allows you to ignore the budget and focus on the game itself. With a script so tight despite a slew of twists, turns, and dialogue trees, Knee Deep succeeds at the one thing it set out to do. Spin a good yarn. While late act cliffhangers turn the whole thing into a bit of a pantomime, it gels with the noir theme. It’s a pulpy novel brought into 2015, a choose your own adventure ripped right from the pages of a dime store novel.

Consider us very excited for Act 2 indeed. Don’t let this gem slip by, sit down, dim the house lights, turn off your cellphone, and wait for the curtain to rise. You won’t be disappointed.

4 out of 5 stars

4 out of 5 stars

 

Cover image via

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  1. Knee Deep Season Ticket now $9.99 | Prologue Games - 07/16/2015

    […] “Don’t let this gem slip by” – Another Castle […]

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