At PAX East 2016, I was expecting greatness from Tooth & Tail and The Banner Saga 2. They’re big name indie games that, quite honestly, have lived up to their hype. However, there was one game that I saw at PAX East which blew me away, pretty much out of nowhere.
Knee Deep is one of the most fantastic narrative games I’ve ever had the pleasure to experience. It’s not perfect, but it is gloriously weird, fantastically eccentric, and akin to Twin Peaks in its characterization and narrative progression.
There will be no spoilers for Episode 1, Episode 2 or Episode 3 of Knee Deep in this Review.
Knee Deep is an episodic narrative game that takes place in the Northern Florida, revolving around the death of has-been action movie star Tag Kearn. The game is told in three acts through three different protagonists; FanRage Blogger Romana Teage, local Newspaper reporter Jack Bellet and Private Investigator K.C. Gaddis.
Acts is an important word to focus on here: Knee Deep is actually a stageplay of the event of the game.
You’re assuming the role of a pseudo-director, and making choices for these three characters as the stage changes and actors come in and out of the story. It’s an initially strange choice that makes the entire game feel very surreal, particularly once characters are established and you get into Acts 2 and 3. However, this direction lets Knee Deep frame events in very particular ways, play with location and lighting, and highlight character action in a way that a standard narrative game wouldn’t be able to do.
In many ways, Knee Deep succeeds in some places other similar narrative games (Such As Telltales’ The Walking Dead….or Telltales The Wolf Among Us…..or Telltales…) misstep. Many of the choices you make for these characters are relatively minor, but shape the way further information and events are relayed to you, and change the way you experience the story. Sure, there are still major important decision to be made that change the course of the entire story, but there are many more subtle choices that will change the way you interact with other characters and events. This keeps your choices from feeling unimportant in the larger narrative, even if they feel important at the time, which is a fault I have personally found in many Telltale games.
A lot of this is done through the Submit a Report mechanic. As you uncover information and witness events in the story, you’ll have a chance to report one bit of information as a Blog Post, Newspaper Article or Update Email, depending on if you are paying as Romana, Jack or K. C. at the time respectively. At times, you’ll have a half dozen or more piece of information to report on, and only a chance to choose one of them, so this feels fairly significant.
Additionaly, you’re able to put a spin on the piece. These reports can be Cautious, Edgy or Inflammatory, and people will react as such to these reports. Write an inflammatory piece and the widow of Tag Kearn might not be interested in talking to you later. Play things cautious, and your editor might send you a demeaning text. These aren’t story-changing choices, but they do invest you in the characters and lay a solid foundation to hook you in to the rest of the plot.
This mechanic works PHENOMENALLY well for the character of Romana, though it feels a little bit forced for K.C. and even a little out of place for Jack. Yet, I still agonized over every one of these decisions as they came down to me, unsure of how they’d affect the outcome of the lives in the town of Cypress Knee.
Graphically, Knee Deep isn’t anything to write home about, but it does sell the aesthetic of a surreal stage play incredibly well. It’s important to make that distinction between graphics and aesthetics, because while the character and environmental models themselves might be a little bit rough, the way they are used to enhance the story is fantastic. Characters slide between sets on small platforms shown to be running on tracks, allowing the game to seamlessly, and quite contextually, move between scenes and locations.
The sets in Knee Deep are incredible, with pieces of buildings or cars being cut away as character walk into them. It’s an incredibly unique way to present this kind of narrative experience, and is utterly unlike anything else in the genre as far as I am aware.
Additionally, this stage aesthetic lends itself perfectly to the bizarre narrative, and the even more bizarre characters taking part in it. Like I mentioned earlier, there’s a very Twin Peaks vibe to Knee Deep; There are characters that clearly know what’s going on in this small town, but who are masked by a veil of madness. The setting of the entire game as a stageplay helps to cut any feeling that these characters are out of place or over exaggerated: Because they are on stage, we are quick to accept their oddity and larger than life responses. Combine this with superb voice acting and fantastic music and you have a very cohesive aesthetic that lends itself perfectly to the eccentric noir story being told.
A perfect game Knee Deep is not, but it is a game that will change the way you think about other narrative games. In many ways Knee Deep is a superb example of what it is to be an Indie Game: It’s risky and unique; innovative and bold. Sure, it missteps in a coupe places, but the experience as a whole is fantastic and will leave you hungry for more. Somewhat lower end graphics don’t hinder a compelling and engrossing story, and in many ways the aesthetic choices that the game makes enhance the surreal tone of the narrative.