TL; DR(eview) - Knee Deep uses the framing device of presenting its story as an incredibly grandiose stage play to full effect, using heightened theatricality to tell its mysterious tale. But it also highlights the issues inherent in video games where actors are recording lines alone in a sound studio instead of responding naturally in real time to fellow performers.
Knee Deep is a game I first saw at PAX South 2015. As with pretty much every game I saw there at my first PAX I didn’t actually go hands on with the title but I made note of it, followed it on social media, and kept an eye out for news. At the time, the game was in the middle of bringing its episodic story to Steam with part of the game already available but the conclusion not yet released to the world. Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago when I saw it was getting a console release and I tuned back in, picking it up on the PlayStation Network as I continue exploring titles somewhat off the beaten path while I wait for the my 2017 gaming calendar to really kick into full gear.
I didn’t quite know what to expect from the game. I knew it was a narrative-driven experience a la a Telltale story and remembered the “swamp noir in three acts” tagline that they were selling the game as but I really hadn’t done too much more digging than that. Knee Deep opens with a body hanging from a Florida water tower in a grim scene. The body is identified as a waning movie star who was in town on business who had notable ties to the Scientology stand-in: the Church of Us. You alternate between the three main characters: celebrity gossip blogger Romana Teague, local newspaper reporter Jack Bellet, and K.C. Gaddis, a private investigator who went off to Hollywood but fell on hard times and returns here to investigate the situation on behalf of the movie studio. The characters all certainly have their own unique stories but, as is the standard of this genre, a lot of your mileage may come from the specific choices you make for them. These choices will not only dictate the story as it plays out, but you'll also define certain elements of the backstory that other characters will refer to later on. For example, Romana the blogger is on thin ice with her website but you get to decide if it was because she hacked a competitor, got paid to insert product placement into her articles, or outed a famous television celebrity.
As the mystery surrounding this death and the town’s larger secrets unfold, you walk these characters through a series of conversations with the local townsfolk, collecting key story details that you will occasionally be prompted to turn into a news story or report. In every case, you can present a story one of three ways: cautious, edgy, or inflammatory. The way you present your findings will affect how other characters respond moving forward.
The story is mostly straightforward and lacking a lot of the “big” choices you might find throughout a Telltale game. There are a couple moments that will affect who you might encounter for the remainder of the game but even in these cases, the overall outcome of the story will wind up the same, just with different characters standing in for one another. Choice in Knee Deep is much more about flavoring your characters and the small details of the story, while the overall arc remains unchanged.
Outside of these dialogue choices, the gameplay is largely confined to a handful of simple puzzles scattered throughout the four-hour story. You won’t even have freeform control to walk around a scene, with the game instead scripting you along your track. As for the puzzles, one example has you needing to hack the local police department to receive press credentials that will allow you into a crime scene. This puzzle involves positioning and rotating six or seven pieces of a QR code. Very straightforward and never challenging, these moments just help break up the potential monotony of a dialogue-only game.
The real standout element of the game for me is how it is presented. The entire story is framed as a stage play on a grand scale (your first dialogue options even include silencing your cell phone, flipping through the playbill, or tuning the orchestra). The “stage” is an enormous circular turntable broken out into three parts that rotate to reveal scene changes and new locations.The “reality” of these scenes starts fairly faithful to something you could actually conceivably produce with a giant budget: walls that might flip up to allow character to enter an interior or set pieces coming out of the floor. Characters will even walk onto a platform that will transport them to the front of the stage (with a realistic little animation of the “actor’s” balance shifting with the speed of the change), the stage will rotate behind them, and the platform will thrust them back into the middle of the stage for the next scene. As the story progresses though, this pretense gets drops in favor of moving the story along at a brisker pace (so a character will end on scene, the stage will rotate, and that same character will have magically teleported the hundreds of feet to the new scene).
There is still a lot of theatricality strewn throughout the story though. Characters are constantly in a spotlight to focus attention, with new characters or set pieces being highlighted as they are introduced. Text conversations between characters are shown with a screen flying in from above with the texts projected onto it (while the other character stands below, back facing the audience, in mood lighting). Even occasionally audience reactions and shuffling make its way into the game’s soundscape. The entire presentation left me interested in the ways that theatre as a medium itself could evolve into a digital frontier. There’s no theatre in the world that would be able to afford the enormous sets presented here (which includes a foot pursuit over multiple rooftops), but portrayed in this digital format, they don’t need to physically exist.
Now the big gripe that such a medium would need to overcome is keeping it feeling like a live performance. And unfortunately, what would likely be overlooked in any other narrative choice-driven game has a light shining on the flaws here. In the pretense of a stage play, it becomes painfully obvious that the characters aren’t actually talking to one another. I touched on this in my Final Fantasy XV review as well, but the core issue of voiceover work is often that an actor is recording alone in a studio without any actual reference to the performances around them.
Most of acting is reacting and there’s nothing to actually react against. This rears its ugly head when one character punches a word in one sentence but the response punches a completely different point. For example, if somebody said, “I really love ham AND eggs” and I responded, “yeah, HAM and eggs are great,” it is immediately apparent that I wasn’t listening to recognize that this person is saying they appreciate the combination of items with “and” being the operative word. You also see this when, regardless of the choice you make, the other character’s response is going to be identical with no variation. For example: I could say “I’ll just have toast” or “Can I get toast but I want the crust cut off and then I’d like the remainder sliced into four strips” or “I’ve heard the toast here is phenomenal so I’ll have that thank you.” Realistically, even if there’s a single response line of “Ok I’ll get that right away” an actor can have wildly different intonation in response of each of those setups. Instead, the performance leans too far into a singular neutral response that can sort of work for each one.
This is likely far more nitpicky than most people playing the game will ever care about, but the part of me that spent a decade onstage will always want these performances to overcome these issues and feel more natural and in the moment (which we CAN see in performances that utilize something like performance capture with a couple of actors on a soundstage and the CGI dots all over their faces and bodies). This is especially true if, as Prologue Games has done here with Knee Deep, the story is being presented as a live stage play.
Overall, the story of Knee Deep is an interesting murder mystery, conspiracy thriller of sorts. And despite my personal nitpicks, I ultimately still found the use of theatre and a play an interesting and effective method for telling this story that does manage to set it apart from something like the standard Telltale formula.
Knee Deep is available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, Mac, and Linux now.