Take me straight to Act 3 - Boomtown!
Act 1 - Wonderland
When I first heard about the episodic Knee Deep, I was very interested to see what Prologue Games would be able to do with their modern murder mystery set in the swampy backwoods of Florida. The story held a lot of promise, and I was more than a little intrigued by the game’s presentation, performed as a live theatrical production, complete with set changes and audience feedback. Fast forward a few months to Act 1 – Wonderland, and I must report that my bar may have been set a little too high. Knee Deep’s first act debut is a quirky but entirely too one-dimensional game that requires minimal player input and waits until the final moments to show potential for something better in store in the two remaining acts of this planned trilogy.
From the very beginning, Knee Deep quite literally sets the stage: you are an audience member, settling in for a performance at the theater, and before the game even begins you’re given the task of handling some last-minute pre-show business, like reading the playbill and silencing your phone. As you advance into the game proper, a spotlight comes on, illuminating a lone figure dangling at the end of a rope from a roadside attraction tower. Below, a janitor sweeping up for the evening glances up and catches sight of the gruesome spectacle. Tag Kern, a once-famous movie star, now resigned to forgettable roles in second-rate films, has apparently chosen the backwater town of Cypress Knee, once a tourist trap but now as washed-up as Kern himself, as the site for his final public appearance.
As word of the apparent suicide gets out, three key individuals find themselves dispatched to Cypress Knee to investigate. During the game, players will take control of Romana Teague, an online blogger always looking for the next hot story; newspaper reporter Jack Bellet, who is struggling to remain relevant in a print-dead world; and K.C. Gaddis, a private investigator hired by Kern’s movie studio to ascertain the details behind his death for their insurance payout.
As each character investigates, they’ll travel to various locales within Cypress Knee and interact with a host of the town’s citizens, all while remaining on the theater stage. The way this is achieved in-game was one of the things that initially attracted me to the look of the game. Individual locations exist more or less in a vacuum, with perhaps three or four visible on-stage at any one time, lit in spotlights and separated by seas of darkness – we understand that in reality they’d be miles apart. Many locations, like the convenience store, motel, and tour bus of the local chapter of a religious group clearly meant to lampoon Scientology, may be on-stage at any time.
When the player approaches a building to enter it, it literally unfolds itself, opening up in a clever way that brings the audience past its brick-and-mortar walls and reveals its insides, then folds back up and is swallowed by darkness when you move to a new location. A sort of gimbal system lets locations be rotated on and off the stage while our cast remains present. In short, much like in a real stage production, rules of space-time don’t exist in this metaphysical representation. Occasionally, characters find themselves in some sort of law enforcement interrogation room, being questioned about the events transpiring in the game, letting us know that the plot, in essence, is a flashback to events that have already taken place.
I quite like the ideas at work in adapting a true-to-life murder investigation with various places into a stage-friendly production. However, the cleverness apparent in the production design is quickly overshadowed by the game’s glaring lack of anything for players to do. To call Knee Deep “linear” would be an understatement; not only do you have zero input on where to go next, you aren’t even in charge of actually getting there. Much like an actual theater audience, you passively watch characters move about on stage, going from place to place and performing their actions. The investigation moves ahead completely on its own, with no input from you. Every once in a while, you may have a choice between which of two possible locations to visit first, though the order has no bearing on the outcome of the story, and once your character has completed the dialog at your chosen location, he or she moves on to the remaining one automatically.
There are only two ways in which players can participate in Knee Deep. The first is fairly commonplace these days: choosing conversation responses. During most conversations, you’ll be given a choice of three responses to the current situation, with one often being “Make a strange response”. While that’s not terribly informative, I often found the other two choices to be just as mystifying. For example, the first time we meet Romana Teague near the game’s outset, she’s sitting in her car stuck in traffic. Suddenly, we’re given three responses to choose from: “Fanrage”, “Cypress Knee”, and “Give a Strange Response”. However, there is no conversation occurring at the moment, and a first-time player will have no idea that Fanrage is, in fact, the blog for which Romana writes. Without further explanation, you’ll pick one and the game moves on.
Then there are times you’re forced to decide between different choices concerning characters’ backstories. For instance, when two particular people cross paths at one point in the game, their reaction to each other is far from friendly, and it’s clear they have some shared history. A moment later, a conversation about their animosity ensues, and players are given some options as to what actually transpired between them, without knowing the background or surrounding circumstances. While this provides a sense that you’re creating your own story details as you see fit, I would have appreciated it more if it felt more vital to the actual story (which it doesn’t) and if I wasn’t again having to choose from two or three cryptically-named choices – I want to be able to choose responses to events in a way that’s consistent to the characters’ motives, but can’t do that when I’m blindly interpreting what a specific choice might refer to. There is one instance near the very end of this first episode where players make a life-and-death choice, which seems like the kind of decision that could impact the game moving forward on a more important level, though whether this has any implications other than cosmetic ones remains to be seen in the next installment.
Apart from clicking through dialog and making (sometimes) random conversation guesses, the only other real piece of gameplay occurs when the protagonists have to submit written updates to their bosses, usually right before the game switches to the next character, which happens about six times during the course of the episode. In the cases of Romana and Jack, you will need to choose a story blurb to send to their editors, while K.C. Gaddis submits an update on his investigation to the movie studio execs. Regardless of who you’re controlling at the moment, this system works the same for everyone: you’ll select a new development in the case from your journal, based on your conversations with others, typically whichever seems the most relevant. Then you’ll select how it should be worded, choosing between “cautious”, “edgy”, and “inflammatory” styles, which all include the same information but with varying degrees of acridity. Depending on which you choose (much like your dialog options), certain townsfolk may feel friendlier or more alienated toward you.
This is pretty much the extent of the player’s role in Knee Deep, and it definitely won’t be for everyone. There are no inventory items to gather and use whatsoever, nor do you control the actions of the characters. Late in the game there are two bog-standard puzzles to solve – one to reassemble scraps into a coherent picture, the other to place tiles in a fuse box in a way that connects all same-colored wires together – but by that point in the experience they feel like the odd exception awkwardly shoehorned in rather than a welcome change in direction that makes up for the lack of interactivity up ‘til then.
Looking past the limited amount of player interaction, I found it hard to get truly sucked into Knee Deep’s murder plot. I think, for one thing, the developers are taking on more than they can handle by introducing a small town’s worth of one-dimensional characters in rapid-fire succession. It’s hard enough to distinguish between three separate protagonists (none of whom are overwhelmingly interesting), each revisiting the same locations and interacting with the same people. You’ve barely understood who the current protagonist is by the time you’re interrogating the townsfolk. As each conversation ends, it is quickly replaced by the next one, with another person to meet.
And so it goes, one after another, and soon you’ll have completely lost track of who is who. It can be fairly difficult to recall enough about a character when they’re mentioned in later conversations, and to keep track of the number of dots you’re asked to connect. Add to this the fact that the plot keeps pulling away from the actual murder angle (political small-town machinations, corporate greed, environmental activism) and the forced attempts at humor (like the town councilman who’s always getting his homophones mixed up, or the assessment you can take to see how fit you are for the local religious cult), and the whole experience becomes rather dull.
The journal you’re given does keep track of the characters you’ve met and discoveries made during the game, but on the whole I found it a bother to attempt to slog through its poorly-designed interface. Only two of its three tabs, “Clues” and “Lore”, contain any information you may need (the third being “Achievements”). But each tab is then further split up into sections, either by playable character or by townsperson who provided the clue. Wading through these various submenus just to find a one-sentence description of a person was often more trouble than my already-tepid interest level was willing to endure. In the end, possessing a clear understanding of Cypress Knee’s inner workings seemed only marginally important at best, as the story takes an abrupt left turn near its conclusion. Perhaps I’ll be motivated to refresh my memory during a future episode?
I’ve talked about the inventive set designs used in Knee Deep, but that’s really saying nothing about its actual graphics, which, much like its musical score, fail to impress on a basic level. In short, there’s not much to look at. The sets are understandably minimalist, and with their larger-than-life pastel designs they work in the context of a stage show about a decaying Florida swamp town. But the actual people inhabiting Cypress Knee are decidedly less excusable; one and all look like vaguely human blobs stuffed into clothing, with odd shapes and padded curves in all the wrong places. Between grey skin tones, wooden mannerisms, and lack of any distinguishing marks or features, it all exacerbates the problem of telling one apart from the rest. But if the characters are bland, the soundtrack is nearly nonexistent during large portions of the game. Never a good sign, the sound of crickets chirping (or is it cicadas?) is often the only thing you’ll hear, with occasional plucked strings and the treat of a more fully formed song on rare occasions. I guess it fits in with the overall themes of dilapidation and isolation, but it’s certainly not pleasant or fun to listen to.
And so we have a first episode with a uniquely creative premise, which in practice gives short shrift to any actual fun, limiting the player on all fronts. Clocking in somewhere between 2-3 hours with a minimum of actual gameplay, a disposable supporting cast, and unimpressive graphics and sound, there’s not much cause to look forward to future episodes. There’s some obvious promise here, with a clever design aesthetic and some hints at what could develop into an interesting plot, and perhaps the team will give us a much more tightly focused narrative in the next installment, but Act 1 - Wonderland fires too little on too few cylinders to leave much of a lasting impression.Continued on the next page...