Environment, setting, location, world; regardless of the word used to describe it, the place in which a game occurs is hugely important. A game can be defined by its place, like Rapture defines BioShock and like the USG Ishimura defines Dead Space, or a place can drag a game through the mud of boredom, like how the Hinterlands drags down Dragon Age: Inquisition and the dullness of Mordor weighs on Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor.
A game’s setting usually falls somewhere along this spectrum: The better the setting the more it improves the game, the worse the setting the more it hurts the game. Makes sense. It’s rare that you find an interesting setting that still somehow hurts the game. Knee Deep is that rare, unfortunate game.
The whole game takes place on a huge, elaborate, physical stage. It’s a stage big enough to hold several sets at once — a water tower, a restaurant, a motel, a swamp, and more — various locations all built next to each other on the giant platform. When a scene ends the main character walks from the location of the current scene to the location of the next scene, literally walking from scene to scene, and a spotlight above dims and brightens to focus our attention on where, exactly, a scene is occurring.
Each little set may be close to each other upon the stage, but this onstage proximity doesn’t necessarily translate one-to-one within the fiction. The stage is abstract, so when a character walks between sets they cease to be a character and become an actor. They’re removing themselves from the fiction in order to reinsert themselves elsewhere. The elaborate stage isn’t meant to convey a sense of spatial reality, it’s really just a mechanism for cool scene transitions. And boy are they cool.
Rather than having a curtain fall as unseen stage hands change the backdrop, the curtain is gone, and all the backdrops exist side-by-side. The sets assemble themselves as the actors cross the darkened stage; walls descend into an unseen trap room, exposing the inner sets, as ceilings descend from catwalks above. Afterwards, when the actor leaves, the spotlight dims and the walls and ceilings ascend, the whole set folding in on itself like an origami toy to be pocketed and saved for later. It’s pretty damn cool.
It’s also a god awful gimmick that only highlights the flaws in the already poor writing.
Knee Deep seems to assume that having a character physically walk from one location to another is an effective way to establish that new location. It’s not. Just because I watch my avatar walk across the stage and into the set of a diner doesn’t mean I know where that diner is, or why I’m even in that diner in the first place. Characters leave and appear in locations without any clear motivation or reasoning.
Sure, watching the set construct itself means I’ll always know where I am, but I’ll rarely know why I’m there. I guess my investigator is just exploring the town, asking questions, but that’s me filling the blanks of the game. It also doesn’t seem very likely given how bad everyone is at investigations.
You play as three characters over the course of the game, each of them investigating the suicide (or murder?) of a washed up actor. There’s Romana Tegue, a blogger for a celebrity gossip website; Jack Bellet, an old and grizzled newspaper journalist who would much rather dig into a local corruption scandal then tawdry gossip; and K.C. Gaddis, a private detective hired by a movie studio that wants the actor’s death ruled a murder so it can collect on the insurance money. A blogger, a journalist, and a detective — people who have built careers on asking questions and digging into the details of a subject. Unfortunately, these investigators never get the chance to actually do their job.
Scenes feel painfully short. Conversations often end when it feels like there’s more left to be said. For example, when Jack Bellet catches a local politician in a compromising situation at a motel, the politician begs “This isn’t news.” Jack says it is news, and rather than discuss it further the politician just walks out of the scene. It feels like both men should have more to say about this potential blackmail and corruption, but nope.
Or when Romana goes to a motel to examine the dead actor’s room, as she leaves she meets another woman, Tina Grey, the actor’s girlfriend. Never mind the obvious question of “why is Tina sitting on a bench outside her dead boyfriend’s motel” (are we even outside the motel, the abstraction of space makes me wonder), but then you talk with her for all of 30 seconds about how the suicide might be a murder… and then you literally walk away from the conversation. There’s so much more to be said and discussed. The sudden ending betrays both characters.
It becomes clear that these are not people, they’re just pawns of the plot. They’re not acting on any logical or realistic motivations, they’re just moving where the story demands, with no care towards nuance or realism or natural human interaction. These people are supposed to be investigators of one kind or another, yet I’m constantly watching them screw up their job, walking away early, not pressing questions, not asking questions, and just in general being horrible at their supposed jobs.
It’s as if the game is so enamored with its scene transitions that it constantly rushes through the scenes to get back to the transitions.
The abstracted spatial awareness isn’t a problem at first, but it becomes problematic once the story begins hinting at a real estate conspiracy. The game hypes up this conspiracy as a massive case of corruption, and it certainly sounds bad: You’ve got a big movie studio and the local government conspiring to illegally take land from citizens. However, in reality they’re conspiring to steal land from just one person, a hermit who lives in the swamps who’s gone kinda nuts chasing the “white gator” that ate his family. Oh, and the land is going to be used to prop up the economy of the little town, benefitting everyone who lives there.
When the story explicitly deals with land management, it helps for an audience to understand the layout of that land. The staging here, with its abstract transitions, hides that layout from us to the point where I feel duped. I spent the whole game thinking this was a corruption case on the level of Chinatown, turns out it’s not even on the level of Rango.
Knee Deep sets itself on an elaborate and cleverly designed stage. Alas, it’s a striking and memorable setting that ruins everything it touches.