The lack of thematic tension and thematic horror stems from the fact that Knock Knock presents itself as an intellectual puzzle instead of as an emotional story.
Knock Knock purports to be game about hide-and-seek. The player controls The Lodger, a solitary man haunted by insomnia and ghosts. Every night he wakes up several hours before dawn, and you must guide him through his house, turning on lights to make sure everything is still in order while also turning off lights to stay hidden from malevolent spirits. If you find a Lodger-shaped clock, you can speed up time, bringing you closer to the safety of dawn. If a ghost finds you however, the time is set back several hours, extending the night and the game.
Those are the mechanics, in brief. The story, or even any semblance of a story, is purposefully vague at first, but over time, specific mysteries start to take center stage: Who is this lonely Lodger in a cabin in the woods? Who or what are the ghosts? Are they real or imagined? Where did The Lodger’s diary go? Is it even his diary? What can’t he remember? And why/how did he forget it? Who is the little ghost girl? Why are the spirits haunting/hunting him? What is going on here?
These mysteries make for a compelling game initially because we believe they will be answered. Mysteries make for a great narrative hook in general because they’re all about delayed gratification -- a mystery that’s solved too soon is no mystery at all -- and they force us to give the story the benefit of the doubt, encouraging us to look for some deeper meaning in objects, images, and mechanics. These mysteries are puzzle, and like all puzzles, we assume an answer lies at the end. Knock Knock takes advantage of this assumption, teasing us with symbolism for as long as it can before its empty core is finally revealed.
The game starts well enough. Its art and atmosphere are successfully creepy, and the diary pages that you find describing “games” to play with “guests” (i.e. ghosts) are truly spooky in the best ghostly campfire story sort of way. The lack of difficulty in the first half of the game allows the player to be absorbed into this atmosphere of setting, music, art, and written imagery. The ease of play also allows our minds to wander and consider the deeper implications of its story.
The game is split into two types of levels that can be summarized as “danger” levels and “safe” levels. I assumed The Lodger’s missing diary pages would be hidden in the “danger” levels, forcing me to reconcile my fear of ghosts with my desire for knowledge, thus commenting on our weird, hypocritical attraction to horror. The mechanics seemed to support this as the game is pretty easy in its early stages. You don’t have to explore the house to survive. You can just hang out in your room and wait. And indeed, the game constantly tells you, “If you don’t see it, it’s not there,” as if encouraging you not to play it. Instead, as it turns out, the diary pages are actually hidden in the “safe” levels, and they’re all hidden in one spot, thus robbing both the “danger” levels and the “safe” levels of any thematic tension. That’s Knock Knock in a nutshell: a game that seems to be about something, but isn’t.
At about the halfway point, the game starts to get challenging and everything about it falls apart. You can no longer hide in your room and wait for dawn since there are too many ghosts spawning around your house. You’re forced to hunt for Lodger-clocks, you’re forced embrace the hide-and-seek mechanics, which means you’re forced to approach Knock Knock as a puzzle game, and this newly demanding approach ruins all the mood and atmosphere the game has previously established because Knock Knock is a poorly designed puzzle game.
It pays a lot of lip service to hide-and-seek, but it doesn’t really play like hide-and-seek. It’s really more about dumb luck than hiding. Ghosts will often spawn on top of me or float through a wall so fast that I can’t get out of the way. Since you’re severely punished for any ghostly contact, those unlucky moments are enough to end my game.
I’m not saying it’s wrong to screw over the player. In fact, the best horror games will habitually fuck you over. But there’s a good way to do this and a bad way to do this. Homesick is a game built around a single jump scare, so when it screws me over I know it does so with the express purpose of scaring me. When The Walking Dead kills off a beloved character, purposefully ignoring my choices in the matter, it does so in order to express how frighteningly helpless one man is in the face of a world gone to hell (i.e. to scare me). When I get blindsided and crushed by a meat cleaver in Dark Souls, it teaches me about its cruel and uncaring world (i.e. to scare me). These good examples screw me over for a reason. They’re blatantly unfair at times, but that’s the point. These games have a specific message about horror, helplessness, and player agency.
Knock Knock doesn’t send a clear message about horror, helplessness, or player agency, so when it screws me over, I don’t get the satisfaction of being scared, just the frustration of being screwed over. That lack of thematic tension and thematic horror stems from the fact that Knock Knock presents itself as an intellectual puzzle instead of as an emotional story.
Horror is emotional. At its most basic, it requires us to have an emotional investment in what’s on screen. We have to care about a character so we worry about him and fear for him. Horror without emotion is a joke, literally. That’s why people laugh and clap at bad horror movies -- or even good horror movies that they’ve seen dozens of times before.
From the very beginning, Knock Knock wants us to consider it intellectually rather than emotionally. Before the main menu even appears, a message from the developer is displayed that describes the game as an “interactive meditation,” purposefully distancing itself from “traditional video games.” It asks us to consider it abstractly, not logically, which is kind of all it has going for it. The story of the Ghost Girl isn’t developed enough to describe Knock Knock as plot-driven, and the Lodger isn’t developed enough as a character to consider it character-driven. The only thing fueling our investment in anything -- the character, the world, the mystery, the mechanics -- is our desire to interpret it. Playing Knock Knock is primarily an intellectual experience not an emotional one, which already makes it a poor horror game, but then it also fails to express anything intellectual because its central means of communication, the hide and seek puzzle mechanics, are awful.
Sure, the game might still have something to say, something different than what I had initially believed, something that might actually be intellectually interesting or emotionally engaging, but Knock Knock is saying it through such distorted and awkward language that the message becomes indecipherable. It wants to be a horror game and it wants to be a puzzle game, but it fails at both because it doesn’t understand the qualities that make either genre good.
Puzzles can be scary, whether they be mechanics-driven puzzles or narrative puzzles, but that requires a tricky balance between tone and mechanics, and balance is something that Knock Knock lacks in every area of its design.