Before the game proper starts, a screen of text appears informing you about the mysterious origin of the urban legend that the game Knock Knock is based on and recommends that you play the game in the dark and alone. I did not have access to those conditions at the time of playing. In fact, I had to play the game in the morning on a rather sunny day near a window in a room full of people milling about, including children. The conditions ended up not mattering. The game was effective in creeping me out and even at times caused me to physically react in fear.
Knock Knock comes to us from Russian indie developer Ice-Pick Lodge, whose previous games include Pathologic and The Void. The former is a game about an epidemic in a small isolated town where districts are named after body parts and includes a geometrically impossible building thrown in. While the latter is a surreal journey of a soul managing to survive in the void between life and absolute death. Suffice it to say that we have entered an alien realm here.
Right off the bat, this newest game comes from a studio whose culture and viewpoint is already difficult to comprehend from a western viewpoint. Games from Russia and other former Soviet states tend to lean towards the existentially depressing. The starting point and underlying basis for their art is that it is built on concepts so fundamentally different from the base line expectations of a westerner such as myself that even calling it depressing could simultaneously be underselling it and overstating it. Add to that a studio that deals in the surreal, where symbolism means more than sense, and we are certainly not in Kansas anymore.
You play as the Lodger, a man with crazy red hair who is either in an eternal waking nightmare fueled by paranoia or shifting between different states of dream while bombarded by supernatural threats. Whatever the truth of the matter, you find yourself in a procedurally assembled 2D house viewed from the side. You must survive until morning with your mind intact. Time has frozen and you have to force it forward by activating a magically vanishing clock that appears in a newly attached? discovered? revealed? room of the ever extending house. Then the front door bursts open, and you have to go outside to check out what’s going on. Upon returning to the house, you enter the survival horror stage of the game. A timer appears and you have to avoid all contact with supernatural intruders, while exploring the newly generated house for clocks to speed up the timer and clues as to what is going on.
The light bulbs in the house are temperamental things that need changing and screwing in. This takes time, but the light is comforting. It also reveals where you are to anything outside looking to get in. The rooms are bare, except that in the light they begin to fill with furniture and objects that you can hide behind. Hiding can prevent “guests” from getting at you should they not know where you are, but it also rewinds the clock. Then there are the doors. Some may open with ease, others are locked and must be picked, and others will suddenly slam shut behind you.
The “guests” that enter your house run all along the spectrum of creepy: bush creatures that cannot hurt you so long as you do not look (no, don’t turn around), eyes that watch you from a hole in the wall where a window used to be, the splat, splat, splat sound of foot and handprints appearing on the walls produced by some invisible being, what I can only describe as a sentient hospital gurney, and many more. Unlike most survival horror titles none of these things can harm you. Instead they will reset the timer forcing you to stake out some safe spot until morning all over again. On paper, this may not seem like much of a punishment, but it takes its toll.
The atmosphere is oppressive. The sound design does most of the heavy lifting, but the small glowing circle around the lamp that you carry only emphasizes the encroaching darkness, in which anything can be beyond your sight. Eventually, the real timer is introduced, a white line that slowly disappears as you play the game. The game does not explain what it is, but it seems related to that giant figure looming on the horizon that is getting ever closer. Instinctively, you know you must reach dawn before that line runs out.
Once out of the survival horror sequence, when the sun has risen, the Lodger wakes up? And finds time has frozen again after advancing only a little bit through the night. And so the process begins again, inching every closer to the safety of morning. Each cycle causes the house to become more complex and expansive as its threats become more palpable.
There is almost no text in this game. Everything seems to be some form of subtext. There are diary entries written on torn pages around the house that can be found. Some are mere notes about the rules. Others are more personally driven. The Lodger seems to be a mentally unbalanced individual, and he may or may not realize the extent of the precariousness of his psyche in his situation. He neither remembers tearing these notes out or writing them. Then there are additional written entries that we get to read between cycles that describe games to play, but that can’t really be won. What isn’t real and what is real isn’t clear, and it is possible to reach the end without learning much of what was going on in this man’s head.
By any account Knock Knock is creepy, often reaching levels of terrifying. The obscure nature of nearly everything works to its benefit. Horror is best when the monster is hidden or the curse left unexplained. There is an explanation somewhere in the game, and it does reward those who can piece it together. But the effort to get at it requires playing well and fitting the clues together. It is a taxing experience that manages to retain its striking tone throughout. It’s alien, it’s weird, and I want more.