Interview: Knee Deep

Following on from Kim’s best of Rezzed pick, the team from Prologue Games kindly raised the curtain by answering our questions about upcoming theatrical swamp-noir adventure Knee Deep.


Title overview

Name: Knee Deep
Developer: Prologue Games
Publisher: Prologue Games
Release date: To be announced
PEGI rating: Not listed
Platforms: Linux, Mac, PC
More information: Official website

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Kim says…

When we received a press release at the beginning of March advertising that Knee Deep would be appearing at this year’s Rezzed event, I immediately added it to the list of games I wanted to check out at the expo. Advertised as a ‘theatrical adventure set in the swamplands of Florida’, it sounded as if it would be right up my street. The story unfolds in the backwater town of Cypress Knee, when a washed-up Hollywood actor is found handing from an iconic tower at the centre of a tourist resort. Players must investigate this mysterious suicide through the eyes of three characters: a blogger, a local newspaper reporter and a private investigator.

From my limited time with the title, I can already tell there are a number of unique things about this adventure including its presentation: it’s inspired by the drama of live theatre and the screen becomes a stage on which the story unfolds. Rather than walking off-screen to the next location as is usually the case in adventure games, characters are instead transported to the next ‘scene’ on a moving platform and set-pieces are guided into place. Conversations evolve based on decisions made and there are consequences to your actions – according to the official website, these could lead to an investigative breakthrough or in someone getting hurt…

Based in the state of North Carolina, Prologue Games started making narrative-focused adventure titles in 2014. The half-dozen strong team has more than forty-years combined experience in making games at places such as Unity, Icarus Studios and Take-Two, and are passionate about creating interactive stories that spotlight people rather than puzzles. A big thank you to the guys for answering our questions about their debut release: Colin Dwan, Founder and Producer; Wes Platt, Writer and Game Designer; Cory Farris, Scene and Set Designer; and Tracy Alan, Marketing and Design Input.

How did the Prologue Games team meet and what made you decide to start making Knee Deep?

Colin: “The majority of the team actually worked together on various projects dating back to the post-apoc MMO Fallen Earth in the mid-2000s. After wandering through various jobs for a few years, Wes and I started talking about the possibility of focusing purely on narrative games and what that might look like. Wes had a great setting for a game like this and after a few months of script revisions, concept art, and planning with Tracy, we were able to raise funding and quit our day jobs to pursue the game. Soon afterwards we were lucky enough to recruit other old co-workers and meet a few new folks to form the team we have today.”

Are any of the team gamers themselves? If so, do they have any favourite titles or preferred genres?

Colin: “I have a split personality when it comes to the games I play. I love anything with a good story so enjoy anything from Tales from the Borderlands to Dear Esther. I also have a secret plan for world domination so regularly practice in the Europa Universalis or Crusader Kings series.”

Wes: “I’ve been playing computer games since the late 1970s, so I’ve got a soft-spot for text adventures like Zork and the Scott Adams games, which ultimately led to my development of OtherSpace – an original-theme space opera MUSH that’s been running for the past seventeen years. My Dad and I played Wizardry together a lot, so it’s a sentimental favorite. All-time favorites have to include Fallout, Knights of the Old Republic, and the original Ultima series. These days, I don’t have as much time as I’d like to play – when I do, it’s often Angry Birds or Words With Friends on my phone, or World of Warcraft on my laptop. Sometimes I enjoy dabbling with games like The Banner Saga, The Stanley Parable, and Sunless Sea.”

Cory: “I’m really into the League of Legends scene right now, and eSports in general. I’m a huge Cloud9 fan, I’ll be interested to see how their shot calling fares now that Hai is moving to a management role.”

We first came across Knee Deep at Rezzed in March. How did you find the event and did you have the opportunity to try any other games whilst there?

Colin: “We were looking for a good venue to show off our game outside of America and Tracy was familiar with the event from previous work. We liked the strong indie focus and slightly smaller, but very passionate crowd. It turned out to be the perfect show for us and had a wonderful time meeting everyone who came. We didn’t get as much time to wander and play but really enjoyed getting to know our neighbours – Force Of Habit with Friendship Club, Zoink with Zombie Vikings, and Ground Shatter with SkyScrappers.”

The plot centres around the apparent suicide of washed-up actor Tag Kern. Is there anything else you’re able to reveal about this character and his death, or the backwater town of Cypress Knee?

Wes: “I don’t want to give too much away, of course. But what I can tell you about Tag is that he’s a middle-aged actor, years past his prime and apparently trying to make a comeback when he’s found dangling from the teepee tower at Chief Roadside’s Wonderland. He’s also been heavily involved – and financially invested – in a cult organization called The Church of Us. The town of Cypress Knee is like a lot of old tourist traps in Florida that got left behind when the interstate highway system came and shuttled travellers away to beaches and theme parks in the bigger metropolitan areas of the Sunshine State.”

Players investigate the suicide through the eyes of three characters in separate episodes: blogger Romana Teague, reporter Jack Bellet and private investigator KC Gaddis. How do their individual stories intersect and will they have any direct interaction?

Wes: “During Act 1 of Knee Deep, players explore the narrative through each of our main characters in various scenes as the theatrical show unfolds. Gaddis, it turns out, exposed a scandalous Hollywood affair involving Romana’s mother about twenty years ago. Both Gaddis and Bellet grew up in Cypress Knee – they even went to high school together. Gaddis left and didn’t come back often. Bellet left to work as a metropolitan journalist, but returned to his small-town paper after his career crumbled. They all cross paths at one time or another during Act 1.”

Knee Deep caught our eye at Rezzed as it has a very unique visual style: it’s as if the story is unfolding on a stage within a theatre. What made you decide to go in this direction and has the theatre-presentation created any challenges in terms of storyline or design?

Colin: “After listening to a GDC talk by one of the Kentucky Route Zero guys, it started to sink in how unique and under-explored theatrical level design was in gaming. We are working in a digital space where we can represent whatever we want, why be tied to representing a town in true-to-life space? In addition to just looking distinct, we hope it eases our players into a specific frame of mind. Knee Deep isn’t a game where you are 100% in the driver’s seat. Instead we drop you into a larger story and ask you to participate in it. You are choosing how to manifest the actor’s personalities and affect the emotional tone on stage. By setting everything in a theater rather than a traditional, map-driven space, we hope the player will sit back and trust that there is a great script ahead of them and just enjoy the dramatic opportunities as they come up.”

Cory: “The environments of Knee Deep had to feel like a theatre representation of a tourist trap past its prime. I think the most interesting challenge was to establish a texture style that felt both hand painted and time worn. Striking that balance with moving set pieces which assemble themselves on the fly proved to be both elusive and challenging. I think the result is a visual style which carefully complements our narrative structure.”

The official website reveals that conversations evolve based on players’ choices, and could lead to an investigative breakthrough or someone getting hurt. Will such decisions ultimately affect the outcome of the game?

Wes: “Players make all kinds of choices in Knee Deep that mostly affect how other characters react to them. The broader narrative behind the death investigation doesn’t shift much. We don’t have any dead ends and you can’t exactly ‘lose’ the game – mostly you just get to survive it! But we do have some key moments in which you’ll make a choice that reverberates through the later acts.”

We played the ‘Romana’ section of Knee Deep and loved that we had to publish a blog post each time the character uncovered something juicy. What effect do these have on gameplay and will the same mechanic be used for the other primary characters in their episodes?

Wes: “Glad you enjoyed it, because that feature’s of supreme importance to Knee Deep’s narrative! The blog posts for Romana, news articles for Bellet, and investigative reports for Gaddis are vital for shaping the player’s personal story and affecting how characters react. As a former reporter, I’m excited to include what amounts to a ‘journalism simulator’ in Knee Deep, complete with an archive of stories in your journal. Post something inflammatory and it might bring the hits to your blog, but it may rile people you’re talking about in the story. What you post as Romana and Bellet, for example, can influence what you learn as Gaddis.”

Whilst speaking to Colin I mentioned that the atmosphere reminded me of Twin Peaks, and he revealed that Wes is a fan. Have any other shows or video games influenced your project?

Colin: “Absolutely. We take a lot of inspiration from the interactive drama that Telltale Games has created (our favorites being The Wolf Among Us and Tales from the Borderlands). The team will also tell you that I talk way too much about Kentucky Route Zero. Their presentation was the first nudge that led us down the path to such a strong emphasis on a theatrical presentation.”

Wes: “I’ve enjoyed Telltale’s colourful and creative approach to their projects, such as The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us, and Tales from the Borderlands. And I can’t deny a certain fondness for the quirky, flowing narrative of Kentucky Route Zero. But Knee Deep draws from all kinds of sources, ranging from the crazy headlines from Florida’s newspapers – including stories I covered as a reporter years ago – to the surrealistic tales of Twin Peaks and the odd ensemble of characters in Northern Exposure to major Broadway shows such as The Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables.”

Cory: “I’ve been watching a lot of strange murder mysteries lately, most notably Twin Peaks. I really like the feel that David Lynch was able to craft with that show. I also like the dark character study that is House of Cards. Morally ambiguous, and sometimes downright evil, characters moving to secure their own ends usually makes for an interesting story.”

Can you tell us which component of Knee Deep is currently being worked on? How are you feeling about the game’s release?

Colin: “The team is hard at work at polishing up Act 1 – performing lots of internal playtests, hooking up audio, tweaking lights, conversations, and locking down content before intensive QA until launch. We’re extremely excited to finally share this game with the world and can’t wait to put it in player’s hands. As part of that process, we recently launched our Greenlight campaign so we can be available on their platform on day one. So please find us on Greenlight or visit our website and vote YES!”

Cory: “The final component of Act 1 to come into place art-wise is making sure that every single light in every single scene is doing exactly what it is supposed to, when it’s supposed to. Since our characters move from prop to prop, shifting focus between each is the primary focus of the lighting within our world, so getting that aspect just perfect is paramount.”

Is there any advice you’d give to someone who’s thinking of making an indie game?

Colin: “Ask me again in a month after we’ve launched! (Just kidding.) Being an indie developer is simultaneously the hardest and most fun job I’ve ever had. Being able to chart our own course means that we have an incredible level of freedom but at the same time, it also means there’s no safety net. If I had to give one piece of advice, it would be to find an inexhaustible source of determination. That may not mean your first idea is going to work – I went through countless bad or incomplete concepts before reconnecting with Wes and settling on Knee Deep. But there is no shortage of hurdles to clear once you set yourself in motion. A wise person once told me that you will hear ‘no’ so many times it will start to sound like ‘yes’. Whether it’s external challenges or just internal doubt and uncertainty, you need to be ready to keep putting one foot in front of the other even when it feels like you may have lost the way. Also, things ALWAYS take longer than expected. Even when you expect it.”

Cory: “If I were to advise someone in creating their own independent project within the games industry, I would say to keep your files and file structures organized. You will improve your workflow tenfold by making sure you can find what you need, when you need it.”

What does the future hold for Knee Deep and Prologue Games?

Colin: “We’re just getting started on Knee Deep! Even before Act 1 releases, we’ll be spinning up Act 2 and starting pre-production on Act 3. As a company, Prologue Games is dedicated to making story-driven games and hope to continue releasing episodic content on a regular schedule for as long as there is an audience to enjoy it. We have several entirely new scripts sitting on the back burner and are excited to tell more stories and explore more personalities!”

Knee Deep is about characters, nuanced storytelling and the melodrama of swampland Florida, and you’ll have to pull back the curtain and reveal the true story behind this backwater community. Act 1 is due to be released later this year and we’ll bring you further updates as we receive them. In the meantime, why not head over to the official website where you can pre-order a discounted season pass for all instalments – and make sure you give Knee Deep the thumbs-up on its Steam Greenlight page.

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