Preview: Knee Deep

Kim uncovers the secrets of Cypress Knee in the first episode of Knee Deep, a theatrical swamp-noir crime-thriller by Prologue Games.

Title overview
Name: Knee Deep
Developer: Prologue Games
Publisher: Prologue Games
Release date: July 2015
PEGI rating: Not listed
Platforms: Linux, Mac, PC
More information: Official website

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Kim says…

A press release sent to us here at 1001Up back in March shortly before this year’s Rezzed event confirmed that Prologue Games would be at the expo with their first release. Advertised as a ‘theatrical adventure set in the swamplands of Florida’, Knee Deep seemed as if it would be right up my street: as someone with a love of both the adventure genre and theatre, how could I resist? I popped along to the stand and spent a lovely thirty minutes with the title before having a quick chat with Founder and Producer Colin Dwan; and after coming away impressed, I decided to make it my pick for ‘best of Rezzed 2015’.

The team at Prologue Games kindly agreed to answer some of our questions and you can read through our interview with Colin, Wes Platt (Writer and Game Designer) and Cory Farris (Scene and Set Designer) here. A big thank you to Tracey Allen (Marketing and Design Input) also for providing us with a review code – and a huge apology for not publishing this article sooner! After devoting an enjoyable couple of hours to the title one Friday evening, I can now bring you our preview of Knee Deep: the first act of which is entitled Wonderland.

You could be forgiven for thinking you’d installed the wrong game after starting up as the player is presented with a stage and an invitation to ‘settle in for a night at the theatre’. This is what makes this release so unique: it’s inspired by the drama of live theatre and the scene becomes a stage on which the story unfolds. Players are initially asked to choose between options to ‘silence phone’, ‘tune the orchestra’ and ‘read the playbill’ before an announcer warns that there should be no videos or flash photography. The curtains then opens on the Wonderland resort tower and a spotlight focuses on the dangling corpse of Tag Kern.

Writer Wes gave an overview of the storyline in our interview: “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 tepee 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 a lot like old tourist traps in Florida that got left behind when the interstate highway system came and shuttled travellers away to the beaches and theme parks in the bigger metropolitan areas of the Sunshine State.”

It’s here that the developers have hit the nail on the head when it comes to atmosphere. Cypress Knee comes across as a place which was once alive and buzzing with people and excitement, but has now faded into obscurity and is full of forgotten memories of the glory days. Mohawk Inn motel, Hungry Chief’s diner and the rundown Leapin’ Lizards Extravaganza tourist attraction really set the backwater-town-scene. It’s full of eccentric characters, each with their own little quirks, and it’s hard to tell whether they’re being completely honest when questioned or if they’re holding back on a few secrets…

Players step into the shoes of three different protagonists in order to uncover these secrets and discover whether Tag jumped – or whether he was pushed. First up is Romana Teague, a ‘cheeky blogger’ who’s stuck in traffic and dodging her editor while hunting for a last chance. Knee Deep handles the use of social media and mobile devices within its storyline in a really interesting way: as Romana reaches for her phone, the camera pans in on a screen dangling from the ceiling displaying what appear to be tweets about the actor’s death. Later on in the game when she receives a text message from an unknown source, a similar screen lowers behind her to display the message itself; and her anonymous contactor can be seen in a spotlight in the distance with their back turned to the audience.

Be warned: the approach to your work will influence how the characters around you react to your questions.

Deciding that the story could save her ass with Fanrage editor Lenny, the blogger decides to head to Cypress Knee to see what she can find out. It’s here that Knee Deep introduces you to one of its core mechanics: the posting of reports. Romana is able to publish blog posts whenever she uncovers something juicy and players are able to ‘choose a spin’. You can go cautious if you don’t want to ruffle any feathers; edgy if you want to pull in the readers; or full-on inflammatory if you really want to get a reaction. Be warned however, because the approach to your work will influence how the characters around you react to your questions.

Wes told us: “That feature is of supreme importance to Knee Deep’s narrative! The blog posts for Romana, news articles for [local newspaper reporter Jack Bellet], and investigative reports for [private investigator K.C. 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.”

It’s good to see a mechanic used that’s personal to each of the protagonists and their backgrounds. I found myself torn between not wanting to upset the community of Cypress Knee, exposing what I’d found out, and getting as many hits (or money in the case of the Gaddis) for my material as possible. The feeling of being part of an audience in front of a stage gives a certain sense of detachment from the story. It would be interesting to hear whether this encouraged other players to be more ‘aggressive’ with their choices, as the consequences can seem as if they’re appearing to somebody else… it’s an intriguing concept.

Knee Deep, video game, Mohawk Inn, motel room, bedroom, Gary Buckingham, Jack Bellet, evidence, cover-up, bed

Speaking of choices, the press release we received stated that Knee Deep is inspired by works such as Kentucky Route Zero and The Wolf Among Us. The emphasis here is on dialogue rather than traditional adventure puzzles and every now and again you’ll see a ‘critical choice’ exclamation mark appear onscreen; conversations evolve based on the decisions made and there are consequences to your actions. Something I did during my playthrough (you can watch the video below) resulted in a character’s death and so every choice feels as if it has weight. I’m looking forward to seeing whether the effects are far-reaching and have an impact in later episodes.

In our interview, Colin told us: “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 theatre 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.”

There are however a couple of puzzles and these were a welcome addition. At one point it’s necessary for Romana to obtain authorisation from the Cypress Knee Police Department in order to gain access to Tag’s motel room, by (underhandedly) completing a jigsaw of a QR code; and later on she has to reconnect an electrical circuit to bring back up the lights on the Wonderland tower, so she can investigate. I wouldn’t say that these challenges were difficult but they provided a nice break away from sections of dialogue, and I’d perhaps like to see additional puzzles in the next acts also.

As mentioned above, there are a number of places to be visited within Knee Deep and the transitions between these are rather unique. Instead than walking off-screen to the next location as is usually the case in adventure games, the protagonists are transported to the next ‘scene’ on a moving platform and set-pieces are guided into place. For example, when Bellet spies an official town car he decides to listen in at the motel room window; and after knocking at the door, the scene pans around and the walls rise up, so the audience can see the occupants of both the bedroom and bathroom. I’m unable to say for certain just yet whether the ‘theatre’ presentation has any meaning other than being a style choice, but it certainly adds to the theatrical feel and is an original approach to a video game.

Overall I’ve enjoyed my time with Knee Deep so far, despite some small negatives. The rate at which characters are introduced during the beginning of the game can be a little overwhelming as you try to get to grips with their names and backstories; but it’s hard to resist digging deeper into their answers to uncover their stories and grudges against each other. Some reviewers have criticised the visual style by claiming that it’s outdated; but what better way to portray a backwater town far past its heyday than to use an artistic style which evokes the same feeling? Unfortunately there’s no voice-acting, which seems strange considering this is a game based on a theatre stage, but this is easy to overlook once you become engrossed in the world of Cypress Knee.

If you’re not a fan of releases in the same vein as Telltale Games’ titles, it’s likely that Knee Deep’s gameplay style won’t be for you. But if you love a crime-thriller full of twists and turns and colourful characters, there’s plenty here to keep you occupied for a couple of hours. The creepy Church of Us is a highlight and I can’t wait to see how they make their ominous presence felt in upcoming acts… but there’s no way I’d want them coming near me with their freaky Opto Levels test.

We’ll make sure to stop by the stand at EGX to check out the next act of Knee Deep.

Prologue Games are due to be at the EGX event at the end of the month so you can be sure we’ll make a point of stopping by their stand to check out the next act of Knee Deep. You can sign up to the mailing list on the official website to keep up-to-date with all the news, and we’ll bring you a full review of the title once all episodes have been released.

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