After a successful Kickstarter campaign, developer Ice Pick Lodge set out to make the 2D horror title Knock, knock. Known for its previous work, including Pathologic and The Void, the studio has quite the reputation for making games that are simultaneously cryptic and eerie. Knock, knock continues in this tradition, creating an experience that is sometimes enjoyably horrific, but often frustrating as well.
Knock, knock throws players into the shoes of a nameless protagonist living alone in the middle of your average dark and scary wood. Hell-bent on protecting himself from various paranormal outsiders, he drags his sleep-deprived self out of bed in the hours before dawn. What proceeds after is a ghostly game of hide and seek as he wanders from room to room. The only real interactions you have with the world come in the form of turning on lights and opening doors, both of which take time. Illuminated rooms reveal hiding spots, which will prove necessary when the outsiders come a’knocking.
Exploring rooms is rewarded with the occasional bit of narration or journal entry. These then flesh out the sporadic and often confusing story. When an apparition is found, the only choice is to flee, or hide and hope it doesn’t find you. However, it’s not always as simple as it sounds. Hiding by itself doesn’t always mean the shambling figure won’t discover you, and possibly throw you back to the beginning of the level. In what is possibly the most ingenious part of Knock, knock, each level drops hints via disembodied voices which help you understand that stage’s rules. They let you know when a ghost sees you, and suggest the best ways to avoid them, albeit in abstract terms. The overall goal is to survive until dawn while avoiding the haunting visions. But there’s more to Knock, knock than a simple recreation of a children’s game.
Odd bits of gameplay are strewn throughout Knock, knock, like the occasional meandering stroll through the forest which engulfs the haunted house, or the ceaseless wandering through darkened hallways that I stumbled upon when opening the wrong door. These can lead to scenes which seem to provide information, but would always leave me with more questions than answers. The story of the protagonist and his heritage is given piecemeal, and makes some sense by the game’s end, but there seems to be a bigger picture. I just never had the slightest clue how to step back and see how all the pieces fit together.
Despite its creepy charm and delightfully twisted tone, Knock, knock is often obtuse to a fault. Later levels will reward experimentation with repeated fail-states, forcing players to restart stages with absolutely no sign as to why. I understand the need to be cryptic with a game like this, but if the only reaction to certain acts is instant failure, how does one learn? How does one peel away the layers Knock, knock seems to have with absolutely no guiding hand whatsoever? The horror I felt early on would instead be replaced with frustration. Not the frustration of digging into a complex puzzle, but that of digging into something I’m not even sure is a puzzle.
But keeping the other games from Ice Pick Lodge in mind, I can only assume this is all intentional. The beating heart at the center of Knock, knock is not meant to be found in one playthrough, but to be stumbled upon while endlessly wandering its dark corridors. I just wish there was the faintest glow of a ghostly finger reaching out to guide me. There’s so much to it I want to like, but after spending hours upon hours trying, I feel like I still just don’t get it. And it doesn’t help that the core recreation of hide and seek just isn’t that satisfying, and can become downright boring. New apparitions are introduced as the game progresses, but the gameplay loop itself remains mostly stagnant throughout.
There are a lot of things Knock, knock doesn’t do. It doesn’t necessarily provide the most satisfying puzzle-solving experience. It doesn’t tell the most fleshed out story. Hell, I’m not even sure I’d say I enjoyed my time with the game, if it’s even meant to be enjoyed. What I can say is that, in its own way, Knock, knock is genuinely fascinating. There just wasn’t enough to really pull me into its dark world.