It would be easy to disregard Knee Deep as another choose-your-own-Telltale-like. With so many episodic adventure games that have remodeled the genre into the narrative-heavy, puzzle-lite format we’re so familiar with, Knee Deep could easily have been lost in the mix. These days, games like this ilk are only able to separate themselves from the crowd with excellent writing, like Night School’s Oxenfree, or their unique subject matter like Dontnod’s Life is Strange. Knee Deep manages to wriggle itself free of being just another choose-your-own-dialogue game, but it’s far more for the bizarre nature of the material than it is for the quality.
Knee Deep attempts to replicate the theatrical experience (that’s theatre, not theater) with a live-audience track, shifting scenery, and a curtain that draws between acts. At times it’s impressive to see the game takes steps to keep the illusion alive, like how the dialogue constantly has a faint echo as if you’re listening to actors fill a performance space rather than a recording studio and asking the player what actions they want to take during intermission (intermission is the worst). But this fascination with replicating the magic of the theatre become more trouble that it is worth by the end, and developer Prologue Games seems to agree. At the start of the game they justify actors seamlessly changing locations by using a special platform that rotates with the scenery, by the end of the game this elaborate animation is dealt away with and actors are just nonsensically showing up all over the place.
There’s two big problems with Knee Deep’s theatrical aesthetic. The biggest and most obvious issue is that it’s wildly impractical. The shifting scenery and special effects would make any Broadway producer weak in the knees. I understand Knee Deep is simply trying to allude to the theatrical experience and not actually replicate it, but I still found my suspension of disbelief stretched pretty thin when the whole stage went up in flames and the audience’s only reaction was calm applause. The other problem is that Knee Deep’s fascination with the theatre doesn’t really go anywhere. It’s not entirely clear why this story had to be told in a play within the game. While I like the creativity of the aesthetic, it never felt like it paid off.
Like I said earlier, the quality of Knee Deep’s work isn’t what will draw you in and that is especially true of the writing. The game’s perspective starts with three characters, a blogger named Phaedra, a reporter named Jack Bellet, and a detective named K.C. Gaddis. The writing isn’t ever very strong, but it hinges on the off-kilter town of Cypress Knee, the game’s setting. There’s a very Twin Peaksbizarreness to the narrative and wacky characters that feels intentional. So while you might rarely be interested in how each character forwards the plot, you may find yourself amused at their odd behavior.
Each character you play has their own personality that affects the decisions you make. You’ll usually have two fairly straight-forward dialogue options and one that is a little more unpredictable. For the blogger Phaedra, you’ll always have the option to say something strange, for Jack you can say something belligerent, and for K.C. you can always say something cynical. It’s a little straightforward but it gives you the option to simply let your character’s personality shine and watch what happens.
However, in the third act the game seems to get bored with it’s three characters and starts introducing new characters to make choices for. It’s a strange shift and one that seems a product of a narrative that didn’t jive with the gameplay.
The lack of gameplay can also be part of the problem with Knee Deep. There’s so much dialogue – a lot you don’t have to think about – that there’s not much interaction involved in the story. I could play through most of the game one-handed. Occasionally Prologue will insert a puzzle or two, but they’re always very simple and require little thought. In the opening act there’s a mechanic that forces each character to report on what is happening in Cypress Knee, but this mechanic is abandoned by the third act.
There are considerable problems with Knee Deep, but the charm of the game is something that struggles to come through in a review where we try to quantify the good and the bad of a game. While the theatrical atmosphere doesn’t really go anywhere, it’s a fascinating concept and watching Prologue Games attempt this ambience is equally so. Also, the wacky characters and off-beat world of Cypress Knee is certainly endearing. Knee Deep isn’t a good game, but it certainly isn’t a boring one.