24 April 2015
Booth Buddies: Knee Deep - A Swamp Noir in Three Acts
One of the most interesting and rewarding aspects of doing shows is seeing what else is in the works from studios around the world and having the chance to chat with the respective developers. At Rezzed, Friendship Club had one stand in a row of four, with the other three being taken-up by a grand back-board, three computers, two kindly Americans and one game: Knee Deep.
Built by the team at Prologue Games, Knee Deep describes itself as a Swamp Noir in Three Acts. What may on the surface appear to be an adventure game in the vein of the recent and apparently excellent Kentucky Route Zero, is in fact a wildly different experience to most point and click adventures I've played.
The player assumes various characters throughout the game, the first of which is Romana Teague, a young journalist working for a gossip blog who is amongst the first on the scene at the suicide of Tag Kern, a Hollywood star. Interaction comes in the form of dialogue trees and more importantly, doing her job - writing articles, which is a question of framing elements of the story which you have determined through conversations with the town's various characters.
The stage is set.
I don't want to discuss too much about the story, but rather the presentation of ideas and themes that struck me the moment I sat down to play. Whilst ostensibly being set in the Florida swamps, action actually plays out within a grand mechanical theatre, beautifully lit and capable of magical transformations of scene. Whilst providing interesting metaphor this also creates some aesthetic freedoms. For instance the narrative is capable of jumping forwards and backwards in time seamlessly in a single shot, as characters or should that be actors, walk the boards. The technical framework of story presentation here is not cinema, but stage, with all of the storytelling devices associated with that form (and a few thrown in on top). It feels to me that in some respects, Knee Deep is to games a little like Lars Von Trier's Dogville or Alejandro G. Iñárritu's Birdman are to films - works that reveal the inner-mechanisms of their medium through stylistic transposition to another. I also felt that the game had some distant and vague connection to Fellini's 8½, though that might just be me...
Stories and truths
Speaking with lead writer Wes Platt, the themes of Knee Deep became evermore apparent, wrapped-up as they are within his own past-lives as a journalist. Wes has over a decade of experience in the field and has witnessed first-hand the pressures that journalists face in the digital age. For instance, many of the choices I was presented with whilst playing revolved around the tension between delivering a good story to my editor or admitting the lack of information I had gathered. Should I concede to my professional failings or can I fill the gaps in my story with some creative writing?
Delivering a story to your editor.
In our first introduction to Act One's protagonist, Romana, we see her stuck in traffic, petulantly diverting calls from her editor. This is a woman under considerable professional strain and if she doesn't start delivering stories, good stories, then she'll soon be facing unemployment. The game is firmly grounded in the age of the 24-hour news cycle and the bush-fire virality of social media. In such an environment the pressures of delivering your story promptly are matched only by the consequences of getting it wrong*. It is notable that our heroine (anti-heroine?) first hears about the suicide of Kern from the Twitter rumourmill whilst she's stuck in traffic checking her phone.
The game regularly time-skips to a future police interrogation in which Romana finds herself recalling her actions, a stark reminder of the consequences of her job, informing us of her impending fall from grace and inviting us to dig through her interactions to find the moment it began to unravel. With her we travel forwards and backwards simultaneously towards some epicentre, the mistake, the moment you, your character, has made their blunder. Was it fate or did you have a shot at morality and fail? Who have you betrayed and which lives have you trampled underfoot in order to find the truth, or rather, your story?..
The noir influence is obvious.
One last mention should go to the wonderful music, which underscores the drama of the game with cool ambivalence and perfectly evokes slow, Floridian evenings of sun-baked asphalt and Pynchonesque intrigue.
* or not, given that this is also the age of fuck all media culpability. As I write this, the Daily Mail building just passed by my train window... we are doomed. Seriously...