If you suddenly found yourself living inside a haunted house with no way of escaping it, how well do you think you’d take it? Do you think you’d be able to figure out how the supernatural inhabitants of the house worked? Would you be willing to face them head on, or would you hide yourself away and pray for dawn to break? Would each second crawl along so slow it felt like the clock had stopped? Do you think the sleepless nights spent dogged by horrors would wear at your sanity, making you forget simple things like the layout of your house or what was in each room? Ice-Pick Lodge has asked players to find the answers to these questions the hard way in its new game, Knock Knock.
Get comfortable with the idea that you’re going to die. You may play smarter than I ever did, but you’re still going to get ganked at some point. It will feel unfair. You will be so close to winning when one of the monsters grabs you that you’ll scream and want to smash things. You won’t even know why you lost or what happened. You will become angry with this game. You won’t understand what it’s doing or how you’re even supposed to play it. You’ll want to give up in frustration because nothing seems to be working, and you just can’t figure out what to do.
Don’t. Do not give up on this game. The single most important aspect of Knock Knock is that it is about figuring out the rules of the game. This is well beyond messing around with a few buttons in an NES game to figure out what they do. The game’s entire set of internal mechanics are purposely left as a mystery for players to figure out, to the point where there is an entire message board on its Steam page dedicated to the game rules that players think they understand. I have completed the game with almost no understanding of what to do about the ghosts or what most of the noises and effects mean. This means this can be a very frustrating type of game for some players, even the ones who like it. I got extremely mad at it when I died about a dozen times in the second level, but I didn’t realize that those deaths were slowly teaching me things I needed to know about the game to continue.
I’m not saying that most of its basic mechanics aren’t explained. You start off being placed inside of a house, one that grows and warps each time you go to a new level or if you just die and have to restart. From there, you are told that you can hit a button to go into hiding, and hit another button if you need to interact with an environmental object like a light or door. Also, there are invisible objects in the environment that will appear when you stop for a moment, and these are indicated by your character closing his eyes. If you’re lucky, one of the objects that appears will be a clock that you can click on to speed up time. That’s incredibly important, as the only way to beat each level is to survive until dawn, something that gets brutally hard in a hurry.
Getting to dawn has its own set of rules, too. The clock moves forward at a fairly brisk pace when you’re walking around fiddling with doors and lights. After a point (One I’m still not clear on even though I’ve finished the game), entities will enter the house and wander around, and there’s nothing you can do to fight them — forcing players to hide. The challenge is that hiding makes the clock turn backwards, admittedly much slower than it moves forward. So, you don’t want to hide for long, or else you’ll end up wasting all of your progress. Then again, if you jump out too soon and the entity touches you, you’ll lose a huge chunk of your advanced time. If you don’t have enough time to survive it, you’ll be sent right back to the start of the level. The beauty of this for those who like being scared is that it forces you to wait until the last possible instant to dive into your hiding spot in order to save as much of your accrued time as possible.
Taking that risk means a lot of death, though, as it’s still unclear for me when the monsters actually see you. I could swear that I’ve been directly ahead of one that was clearly looking at me, plunging into my hiding spot knowing full well it wouldn’t work, only to find the creature charging past me and out of the room. My heart was pounding from the intensity of that moment, but then again, it usually did when these things caught me in a hiding spot. It’s miserable while you’re hiding, as the game shows this single eye looking over the room, often passing over my hiding spot multiple times. Did it see me enough to catch me? Sometimes it would and sometimes it wouldn’t. I could never tell if I blew it this time and pushed my luck too hard, and that made every attempt to hide feel frightening. There was no knowing if I had gotten into it in time until the enemy walked away, so I just had to wait and cross my fingers. Waiting in those spots, expecting to be discovered at any second, is absolutely nerve-wracking in the best of ways.
Other confusing aspects of the game kept me on my toes. The game starts off pretty dark, with your character wandering around with his lantern. Even with his light, he will tiptoe through a room that doesn’t have an overhead light on, so you need to try to turn on the lights. It takes time to turn on a light (just as it does to open an unlocked door), leaving the player defenseless for a few seconds while activating it. Now, I know the light has to be on in order for the character to make invisible objects appear (by standing still when your character closes his eyes), but does it do anything to the entities? I found my best runs had me turning on as many lights in as many rooms as I could as fast as I could manage, but was I doing better because that increased the opportunity for invisible clocks to appear? The creatures always popped the light off if they entered a room so the light couldn’t completely keep them at bay, but it did seem to slow them down and keep them from appearing. Was it as simple as turning on the lights, or was I doing something I didn’t even know I was doing right? Again, the game isn’t clear on what its rules are, or if you’re helping or hindering yourself.
The sounds threw me off as well, keeping up the pressure so it was hard to concentrate. The game tosses music pretty much out the window, instead leaving you with the player’s footsteps and a few sound effects. When the only sound is your own feet in a game, though, you pay very close attention to any change in what you’re hearing. A sudden bang from a door closing or the popping of a light bulb in the distance was more than enough to have me jumping in my seat, and that’s all before the ghosts show up. Once they’re around, they’ll start speaking in the distance, muttering things like “I can see you” and “Come out, come out” in different voices.
One is that of a little girl with an echoing effect, which makes the voice very clear when it tells you something. It was so clear that I couldn’t tell if it was helpful or not, as it was telling me things like “They can see you” and “Don’t move”, and following the instructions helped…sometimes. Other times it put me in line to be killed, followed by the same voice laughing. The other voice is creepiness defined – an almost robotic, trembling male voice that mutters terrible things just loud enough to hear. I still shake just from thinking about that voice saying “I can see you” just before a ghost comes barging through a locked door.
As you can tell, I never really knew what was going on beyond a couple of sets of basic instructions, and it made most of the levels a lot scarier. I didn’t know what triggered the ghosts or when they showed up, so I just blazed through rooms as fast as I could. I didn’t know whether they looked for me or just wandered at random, and even then, what distance they could see or notice me from. I could hear a bang in the next room from a door shutting, but should I try to open it or run away? I’ve opened them and escaped a ghost that was just wandering in, and other times I’ve blundered right into a monster. I’ve had ghosts appear right on top of me and kill me, some disappear when I make contact with them with no effect, and others just stare right at me.
As far as gameplay goes, this all should have annoyed me to death, and at times it did. What it set out to do was form the perfect simulation of what a haunted house should be: confusing and terrifying. I never knew what the right thing to do was, or whether I was going to die any time a ghost made contact. I didn’t know if one was just going to barge out of the wall and kill me or if it would just come out of nowhere and do the same. It made every moment of life feel precious, but it also made every moment one of near-panic. You really don’t know what to do, as I doubt anyone would if they somehow found themselves in this situation in real life, so you just turn on the lights in every room and run, praying for daylight. It makes for some frustrating gameplay if you’re looking for pure entertainment, but if you want to simulate the experience of being beset by otherworldly forces while you’re losing your mind, this game is incredible.
The visuals are unique for the game, looking like a cartoon with something very off about it. It likes to bounce between being extremely detailed and then plain, drawing attention to specific things as the game needs you to notice them. The main character just looks like a head coming out from a sleeping gown, with the gown showing no detail at all, but that head is looking pretty wild. The character’s eyes are bugged out, bloodshot, and have red bags under them. You’ll become very familiar with those eyes from watching them to see if he shuts them, indicating an invisible item is in the room. Having to watch his eyes was a little creepy, as his unblinking, unhinged stare is pretty hard to keep looking at. It gives this sensation that you’re both staring at each other, something that gets worse when he starts addressing the player directly. Overall, the balance between detail and plain space was a nice design idea, as I felt like my eyes were constantly drifting to certain things, making it easy to notice important changes or if I should maybe pay attention to something.
The rest of the rooms are drawn in an animated style, but they move really nicely along with the player. They have a depth to them that simulates 3D without really trying to, and it just looks great in motion. When you move from room to room, which happens on a 2D plane, you can see the wall moving around as if you were someone from the outside looking in. The shadows move across the wall as you walk past light sources, another thing that can make for some creepy visuals when your shadow crawls up the wall. It was a really simple effect, but it made it fun to watch the game as I played it.
Knock Knock is a hard sell if you don’t understand that learning its mechanics is part of the game. It’s even harder when you factor in how confusing and challenging it makes the game seem to be, especially in unfair ways. Being tossed into a haunting and attacked by ghosts is not a fair situation to be in, and the seemingly-random, cruel nature of the haunting just makes for some great horror moments. Cowering in the dark while hearing awful voices calling out to you is scary, but having to do it without a comfortable understanding of the game’s rules makes it petrifying. Did he see you before you hid? Do his cries of “I know where you’re hiding” mean anything? It all results in an odd game that puts a lot of terrified pressure on its players. If you’re willing to give yourself over to the game and try something that’s widely different from almost any horror game I’ve ever played, it’s definitely a must-play. It’s a true simulation of the confusion and lack of understanding you’d feel if you somehow found yourself in a true haunting, and I don’t think you could aspire to anything higher in a horror game.