Knee Deep wants to put on a show.
For the player, Knee Deep intended to be a performance of choice. Other than a few short puzzles, Knee Deep’s adventure is composed entirely of dialogue options spread across three diverse protagonists. It’s a plot-driven production, the nature of which is presumably under the direction of the player. Knee Deep also supports a keen framing device; it’s presented as a surreal stage play, complete with audience feedback and exotic scene transitions. An ambitious hybrid of theater tropes and film noir style filtered into a videogame sounds like a wonderful idea. Knee Deep’s reality, unfortunately, is quite a bit different.
A grim premise aims for horror and intrigue. Tag Kern, a popular actor on location for a project, hangs himself in a spectacular fashion. His body dangles from a neon sign at Chief Roadside’s Wonderland, right next to the highway in the backwater Florida town of Cypress Knee. This action intersects with a conglomerate’s move to eviscerate and develop sections of the town, a cult’s uncomfortable nearby presence, and the interpersonal dynamics of its citizens.
Cypress Knee’s orchestra of chaos is intended to be driven into order by its three protagonists. Romana Teague is a young gossip blogger who happened to be driving near the scene of Kern’s suicide. K.C. Gaddis, a disgraced detective and former Cypress Knee resident, is hired by Kern’s movie studio to crack the case behind his death. Finally, there’s Jack Bellet, a burned out and aging reporter for the local newspaper. Knee Deep’s three acts shuffle control between its protagonists with considerable efficiency, and uses their presence as a means of controlling pacing.
“Walking simulator” gets kicked around as a pejorative for story-focused games, though Knee Deep sidesteps the label by automating movement. Characters shuffle in and out of on-set locations at a controlled speed. While the player is usually able to select which order to interact with objects or speak to non-playable characters, there is no control over direct action. Knee Deep guides its characters along, either in an effort to make sure the player doesn’t lose focus or to mask the stodgy, stiff animations of its moving parts.
Knee Deep’s signature (and most interesting mechanic) is how it allows the player to frame and develop its plot. Speaking with the denizens of Cypress Knee and asking the right questions churns out juicy pieces of information. Each character is indebted to their employer for new stories, and the player can choose to compose it as cautious, edgy or inflammatory. This calls for a bit of personal role-playing; how would Teague, a young blogger writing for a gossip rag and desperate for legitimacy, report an insurance scandal hacked out of Kern’s computer? What kind of story would Jack write about an escaped gator wreaking havoc on the town?
While its tapestry of information is notable, Knee Deep can’t help but become consumed by its own mechanic. The game is obsessed with letting the player know that a present conversation is the result of a decision made in a past conversation. It’s also quick to tell the player when they’re making a deeper choice that will affect the plot. Seeing these blurbs pop up every time, and the inability to switch them off, spoils Knee Deep’s attempts at creating dramatic tension. I can’t invest myself in fiction if I’m constantly being reminded that it’s all defined by my decisions. I know that already because I’ve been playing the game, and all this process accomplishes is letting me know how clever Knee Deep’s author’s feel about their game.
During my first trip through Knee Deep, I tried to ignore these problems and role-play my characters as best could. I chose to report each of Teague’s stories as “cautious,” hoping her drive for accuracy would push blogging as a legitimate profession and ensure her continued employment. The same could actually be said for Bellet; newspapers are dying, and small-town reporters are not long for this world. Gaddis was a lost cause; he opens Knee Deep with his gun in his mouth and seems to revel in misery, so I pushed inflammatory 100% of the time. I enjoyed the concept of these characters, and I wanted their motivations to stay consistent. I wanted my choices for them to shape who they would become at the end of Knee Deep’s story.
None of it matters. That Knee Deep is fixed to a rail with minor variances isn’t necessarily an issue, Telltale’s The Walking Dead, Oxenfree, and even Firewatch get away with the same thing; my problem is that Knee Deep is thoroughly unconcerned with its own characters. When it comes to dialogue selection, there’s always an inquisitive option to drive the plot, an observation about the environment, and one that is complete transmission-jamming nonsense. Ironically, the latter is far more serving of Knee Deep’s characters.
Teague always has the option to say something strange, usually in the form of non-sequiturs only vaguely related to the matter at hand. Bellet’s third option is always belligerence, which seems to be far more characteristic of his apparent failure as a father and husband. Gaddis has the choice of remaining hard and cynical, which is at least consistent with Knee Deep’s on-again, off-again relationship with film noir. All of these options basically ignore the plot, but are the only way to keep characters Knee Deep respects and acknowledges. Characters aren’t allowed to escape their archetypes, and no matter their path they all end in the same place they began.
Any style of play drives toward the same conclusion. Decisions that seem important and consequential on the first round are revealed as trite and expendable on the second. Even Knee Deep’s signature mechanic, the ability of its protagonists to accept and spin information, is completely abandoned by the time the third act rolls around. You can almost see its ambition die on the vine; the first act is a long, complex setup of eccentric characters and obtuse mystery while the third is content to desert its plot and vanquish characters and ideas it doesn’t know how to handle. The game just gives up as it spirals toward an obtuse resolution.
An inability to focus on one specific style is the center of Knee Deep’s problems. A small town with a dark history suggests an allegiance to Twin Peaks, as do outlandish characters with unreadable motivations and figurative, casually weird dialogue. Floridian bogs and swamps with rampant gator issues, however, are no match for the ethereal splendor of the Pacific Northwest. Further, games like Virginia and Kentucky Route Zero understand that they can’t just be weird for the sake of being weird or rely on the peculiarity of their setting to create supernatural tension. These facets are fun to indulge in, but ultimately operate as a support system for a greater narrative. Knee Deep, on the other hand, is entirely devoid of subtlety, and its surreal elements fail to leave an impression inside of a subconscious mind.
Knee Deep‘s voice has no consistent tone. It repeatedly issues burns on Canada, abandons an early parallel with Scientology’s hold on Clearwater, occasionally submits to film noir tropes, dabbles in swamp mysticism, identifies with the plight of residents geographically displaced by large corporations, and occasionally time jumps to a pointless epilogue. Twice it brings up the topic of local elections and even introduces a challenger to the incumbent, only to do absolutely nothing with the character. It’s as if no one was willing to cut anything from the narrative and assumed each disposable plot thread was absolutely essential.
The only portion of Knee Deep that works as intended is its presentation as a stage play. Sequences meant to be shocking or surprising are met with audible gasps from the audience. Intermissions come complete with player selection options of how to handle a minute or two of free time. Applause is delivered at the conclusion of every act. Like Puppeteer, it really feels like you’re watching a show.
Knee Deep’s stage play presentation, however, isn’t limited to basic theater etiquette. When characters transition between scenes, they freeze in time and are transported by a system of visible rails to the next location. When someone enters a building, walls transform out of view in neat and tidy transitions. All of this looks pretty slick, and its mechanical style suits Cypress Knee’s architecture much better than its residents.
Perhaps this is why I am unable to connect with Knee Deep’s accumulation of disparate ideas. I don’t understand why characters don’t react to grievous scenes of death, or why foreshadowing isn’t necessary when confronted with demands of the plot. Maybe I can’t distinguish between intended or incidental camp. It’s possible that I didn’t recognize Knee Deep winking at me to indicate I shouldn’t be taking any of this seriously. Keen Deep’s devotion to its aesthetic waves a hand and disappears some of these questions, although whether that was intended or by pure happenstance is a mystery.
All I have left are questions. Is Knee Deep a pulpy tribute to noir cinema? An afternoon dalliance at the theater? A grim commentary on modern reporting? A critical look at cults, corporations, and corruption? I have no idea, and Knee Deep’s wandering procession of plot and characters suggests it doesn’t, either.