Knock-Knock encapsulates that experience entirely, and the result is a strategic horror game about playing hide and seek in the dark. I know, “strategic horror”, what does that mean?
Don’t worry; I’ll get to that, but rest assured, the game’s design is superb in how it employs elements borrowed from strategy games to encourage you to be brave to wander through the darkness of your creepy house, even though you’re huddled into a corner, too terrified to move. It’s a great balance of pushing you back in terror and luring you out with hope.
Light and Dark
I wasn’t sure about Knock-Knock at first. The beginning couple of levels seemed a little scattered, and I couldn’t quite nail down what the heart of the game was. I had control of this wild-looking character known as the Lodger, who wakes up in the pre-dawn hours because he heard something bang in his house. His dark red hair stands on end, and he clumsily puts on some slippers and grabs a candle as he gets out of bed. Strangely enough, he often turns to face the camera and talk to you under his breath with an incoherent mutter; there are subtitles supplied at the bottom of the screen.
This guy is a fascinating character, and I’ll get back to him and what he brings to the game. For now, I want to focus on what you do with him around the house. He’s ready as you are to go hunting the various rooms of his house, but each time he wakes up in the night, the layout and contents have been entirely swapped around. This means you don’t know what’s in each room or what direction to head in, so you creep around slowly.
In each room, you’re able to fiddle with the ceiling-mounted light source and fix it. This takes about five seconds. It’s the same with the doors, too. The majority of the doors to the rooms need fiddling with to unlock so you can head on through. The time it takes to fiddle with doors and light bulbs is an important part of what ends up making Knock-Knock intense. At these beginning stages, it’s just creepy, what with the weird stuffed heads, hospital beds and empty boiler rooms. The sound design, too, spot on. Spot on. Whispers, creaks and bangs trigger as you walk around the house, and you’re never sure where they come from, so you feel vulnerable from all sides.
A few levels in, though, and Knock-Knock introduces the idea of hide and seek, and it’s after doing this that all of the small mechanics that it gave you a couple of levels to play around with start to make sense. What I was doing previously to this is going to each room in the house and fixing the light bulb, but with not much clue as to why. But bringing light to a room moves away all uncertainties, and you feel safe, and it also puts the house on your side. Putting a light on in a room sometimes restores furniture that wasn’t there, and you can hide behind this, and soon, you’ll need to.
“If it finds you, or more to the point, if you find it, it will chase you down and corner you in the house and tease you to come out.”
Lightning strikes as I’m wandering around the house at one point. The camera zooms right out, and then right in to a particular dark and empty room. No idea. I didn’t know what that meant. I soon found out. That room is where the thing that wakes the Lodger up at night currently is. You’ll want to avoid it if possible, but sometimes, you can’t.
So let me clarify how Knock-Knock works. You wake up in the pre-dawn hours. Your task is to survive until dawn. There’s a clock in the top-left of the screen that lights up and slowly ticks towards dawn. You could just sit and wait it out, but that would take hours, so you need to wander around the house, turning the lights on in each room, and soon, you discover small clocks that can fast forward the time so dawn is much closer.
However, as I said, there’s this thing in the house. It exists in the darkness. If it finds you, or more to the point, if you find it, it will chase you down and corner you in the house and tease you to come out. There are a couple of creepy straight jacket-wearing beings and creepy, veiled ghosts that I guess are this thing’s minions, and when you see them, you know to run away as coming into contact with them means you’ll have to restart the level. You can only walk slowly, so the chases are pretty slow.
Now, remember when I said about the times of fixing lights and opening doors? When you’re being chased by something, no matter how slow, you don’t really have much time to fix a lightbulb, even though that’s the ONLY thing that will keep your pursuer back. And when it finds you, it will make sure to slam doors behind and in front of you and break the lights all over again. Sometimes, you just become trapped and can’t do anything but wait for them to get you.
One tactic you can employ is to hide, if there’s any furniture to hide behind. When doing this, you’ll see through the creature’s green vision as it scans the room you’re in, totally missing where you are. You’re unable to do anything until it’s stopped looking. This wouldn’t be a problem, but the clock in the top-left starts to slowly rewind as you’re hiding, so if you stay hidden too long and don’t come out and take a risk, you’ll be right back where you started – at the furthest point from dawn.
What I found excellent was that, even though I didn’t find the creatures you can see scary at all, and I wasn’t really scared by this thing hunting me all the time, I found the moments when hiding really intense. I was afraid to come out as I knew this thing was waiting for me. It taps into that childlike nervous-excitement when playing hide-and-seek with friends. I knew I had to come out, though, because I was staring at that clock going backwards. I just really, really didn’t want to.
There’s ways to avoid getting in these situations, which is why I bring up strategy elements mixed in with the horror. You can fix certain lights, but also turn them off so they’re not broken by the creatures in the dark when they come around. You should plan your escape routes if the thing does find and chase you and ensure that no doors are slammed behind you as well as you wander safely around the house. You plan for the worst and hope for the best, trying to outsmart the movements of this relentless haunt.
The Creep Next Door
You’ve probably noticed that the character you control in Knock-Knock is pretty creepy himself. That’s no accident. The Lodger is the most interesting entity in the game, which makes a change as it’s usually the monsters that are chasing you, or some other character you can’t interact with directly as a player that are the most fascinating. As I said, what’s quite odd is that he talks to you, the player, and he explains his state of mind – what he’s currently thinking about, what he just heard or what people have said about his personality in the past.
“His only solace is the rising sun that comes with dawn, but does that bring any clarity to his thoughts in the same way the light bulbs illuminate the dark rooms?”
This creates a slight distance between you and him. You’re not him; you’re a player helping him. You may as well be holding his hand as you both creep around his constantly shifting house in the dark. It’s made clear quite early on that the problem with his house isn’t really the house, or the thing within it at all. It’s him. Whatever it is that’s going to keep this dark entity from pursuing this guy is to be found within him.
You get the impression that what’s waking him up, and what’s haunting him, is not the external threat, but something inside. And it’ll be a light within him that will chase it away too, though I expect this will be represented externally somehow, too.
At the end of some of the levels in Knock-Knock, you end up outside in a forest, with no view of the house in any direction, and so your mission is to find it again. This happens after the front door to the house is swung open, and he goes outside to check there’s nothing out there, to ease his mind. But there’s a gap missing between his going outside and getting lost and emerging in the middle of nowhere, with gnarled trees and ghost girls staring at him.
Is it mental illness? Somnambulist nightmares? It’s hard to tell, but it’s clearly part of the bigger problem with this fascinating character. He’s a loner; you feel like he’s had a lot of hurt in his life and ran away from it all. He’s a little crazy, as you might expect. But he’s human, and fragile. You can see it in him through the dark patches under his eyes and crazy hair.
You never get to see what he gets up to during the day, either. You’re only with him at night, when he’s been disturbed by his dreams and wanders the dark house in fright. What does a man like this do during the day? During the night, he convinces himself that he must have cleaned one of the rooms during the day, when it was previously dirty, indicating that his memory is hazy. He says it must have been him that rearranged the furniture when it’s been switched.
He talks to you, but really, he’s talking to himself, trying to battle with his mind. His only solace is the rising sun that comes with dawn, but does that bring any clarity to his thoughts in the same way the light bulbs illuminate the dark rooms? I don’t think so. Finding what does bring clarity to the Lodger’s mind is what Knock-Knock is really about.