[8 January 2014]
PopMatters Multimedia Editor
Despite its surreal images and obscure plotline, as a game, Knock-Knock is built on a simple foundation. The game’s developers, Ice Pick Lodge, have ported a childhood game, Hide and Seek, to the PC. In doing so, they acknowledge the terror that lies in being seen, in being found out.
The protagonist of Knock-Knock is an insomniac known as the Lodger, who is haunted by (and hiding out from) a past that he claims that he doesn’t even remember clearly. Living alone in a house deep within a forest and miles from any kind of civilization, the Lodger spends his nights in a fog of semi-somnambulism, desperately attempting to put his house back in order.
The game itself uses light and darkness as both metaphor for this man whose past he half wishes to illuminate and half wishes to obscure and as mechanics for play itself. The Lodger spends his time just trying to survive the night as something that is haunting him, that exists somewhere in the woods outside his home, keeps knocking at his door and attempting to get inside. The Lodger moves from room to room attempting to screw in light bulbs so that he can make sure that his house is neat and tidy and then dousing them so that if his unwanted guests arrive, they won’t know where he is.
Of course, should the Guests arrive (and they surely will), the Lodger is also able to hide out in various rooms in his house in which furnishings have been made to appear (through the act of illuminating these rooms in preparation for the Guests arrival). These furnishings become hiding places for the Lodger to wait out the Guests who relentlessly seek to find him, to see him.
All of this makes for a pretty good horror game. The Lodger is helpless. He has no way to fight the strange guests that pace the various rooms of his home. But what the horror speaks to is a familiar one, the terror of a game that we all know from our own pasts, Hide and Seek.
The object—in part at least—of Hide and Seek is to not be found. Those who hide well will avoid being made “It.” And hiding, of course, is terrifying.
However, being seen is worse, and Knock-Knock knows this, placing an emphasis on reawakening the childhood terror of hiding out in a closet or under a bed with sequences in which the lodger does so as a huge eye sweeps the room around him, claiming “I SEE YOU.”
Of course, the true object of Hide and Seek is to get home, to be safe, and the real horror that underlies the game is that in order to actually achieve safety, you must put yourself in jeopardy. You must expose yourself in order to “win.” The child with the most excellent ability to hide-out must compromise that skill at some point and stop waiting and get to safety by playing a cat-and-mouse game to make it back home.
Knock-Knock captures this element of Hide and Seek by forcing the player into that same position by playing with time. A clock in the shape of the Lodger’s own head (since it is after all our own head where decisions to wait or go, to remain hidden or show ourselves reside) appears in the left hand corner of the screen, which slowly creeps forward towards sunrise. If the clock completes a full rotation, the Lodger will survive. However, the clock will not move if the Lodger is in hiding. Indeed, the clock moves backwards if he remains in hiding. As I said, even the most skilled “hider” cannot win Hide and Seek by remaining hidden. Exposure, putting one’s self at risk, ironically becomes the only possibility of eventual safety.
Of course, what all of this is really all about connects back to the Lodger’s own psychological burden. His past haunts him. There are things in his house and outside of his house that he doesn’t want to see, but all of his madness and struggles with his memories manifest themselves in his insomnia and mad desire to somehow put his house in order without really seeing any of what might be there for too long.
Ice Pick Lodge seems to be reaching back into childhood to seek a resolution to very adult problems, the problems of memories that we don’t want to confront or that we think that we can simply hide out long enough from.
At some point, the game seems to argue, we need to be brave like children and make a run for it—even if that run might allow us to to be seen, to be found out for what we truly are.