Updated: Dec 23, 2018
What did I just play? I have no idea.
The truth is that after roughly five hours with Knock-Knock, I am no wiser in the end than I was at the beginning. But I will tell you what I do know…
Knock-Knock is a single-player horror survival game by Russian developer/publisher Ice-Pick Lodge. It was first released for Steam in 2013, then later ported to Windows, iOS, GooglePlay, and PS4. I’m reviewing the most recent port (for the Nintendo Switch), which fittingly released on Halloween day, 2018.
According to Ice-Pick’s crowdfunding site, Knock-Knock is the result of a mysterious email the team received in 2011. They state:
The attachment contained a set of 19 files added to an archive titled “lestplay”. The files (snippets of text, scraps of audio recording, video footage fragments) as well as the style and wording of the message itself appeared to be rather disturbing.
The team decided to take the stranger’s dare to make a game using the ideas he’d sent.
A strange cabin sits in a clearing in a strange forest. For three generations, Lodgers have lived in the cabin, studying the forest and writing down their findings. But for the current Lodger, things are quickly unraveling.
The forest is dying. Suffering from migraines and unable to sleep, the Lodger obsessively wanders the rooms of the cabin, fixing broken light bulbs so that he can turn on the light to make sure everything is in order. And sometimes it’s not, because there are Visitors in the house.
Or are there? Is the Lodger awake or asleep? Is he completely bonkers or does he see more clearly than anyone? “I don’t want to think about the past,” he mutters. “It’s less troubling to live in the dark.” Perhaps, but it’s the daylight that brings salvation from the Visitors. That is, if the Lodger can remain sane until the sun comes up.
How To Play
Knock-Knock is composed of two alternating styles of levels: hiding levels and seeking levels.
In the hiding levels, your goal is to survive until sunrise. A clock in the top left corner (helpfully adorned with the Lodger’s hair) shows the time left until daybreak. The clock moves slowly forward on its own, but there is a way to make time go faster: spread throughout the cabin are figures of the Lodger that have clocks for faces. Find these, and they will fast-forward time for a bit.
The hiding part comes in when the Visitors arrive. Should one of the ghostly Visitors touch you, time will rewind. If you lose too much time, you must start the level over.
In the seeking levels, you are tasked with finding the clock-faced figure somewhere in the house. However, the game shows you where it is, so it’s not much of a challenge. Once you’ve found it, the front door opens, inviting you outside. Then the Lodger wanders through the dark forest until he finds his cabin again, I guess.
Unfortunately there’s a bit more to it that I didn’t understand until it was too late, and I’ll get to that part later. But the controls are simple (joystick to move, A or B to interact with items, L to zoom out for a full view of the house), which means the game probably plays equally well on mobile devices as it does full gaming PCs.
Clues & Cluelessness
After briefly introducing the mechanics, Knock-Knock requires you to figure out how to play through trial and error. The problem is that it never really gives you feedback on whether or not you’ve done the right thing. If you survive until morning, you assume (reasonably enough) that you’ve done things correctly. But oh no, things are not nearly so simple.
The game seems as though it’s giving you clues along the way. For example, at one point, the Lodger says that if he doesn’t want to see something, he simply doesn’t look at it, and then it’s not really there. When I read that, I thought, “Oh, maybe the next time I see a Visitor, if I turn away from it, I will be safe.” Nope, that was wrong. It totally caught me.
Once the Visitors arrive for the night, they talk to you. In one level, I was fixing a light bulb, and an unseen Visitor said, “Don’t do this.” Okay, what happens if I don’t? Nothing really changed as far as I could tell. The Visitors still got me, and I had to start the level over.
The next time the Visitor said, “Don’t do this,” I did it anyway. Still nothing happened that I could see. The Visitors got me again.
I took notes as I was playing Knock-Knock, and I have literally dozens of examples of things that appeared to be clues but lead absolutely nowhere (or whose effects were so far removed from the action that it’s impossible to link the two).
Endless Forests & Eternal Hallways
Two of the most bewildering aspects of Knock-Knock are the forest and the hallways. As I explained earlier, after you find the clock-faced figure in the seeking levels, you exit the cabin and head into the forest. There you can move left, right, forwards, and backwards, but as far as I can tell, there seem to be no hints on where you’re supposed to be going or what you’re supposed to be doing. The forest just stretches on forever — literally. Once I got so lost that I decided to simply walk in a straight line until the game stopped me. It never did, and after a full five minutes, I gave up trying.
Occasionally, you might find a Visitor out in the forest. A page in the Lodger’s diary suggested going out and confronting his nightmares, so I walked right up to the Visitors. Guess what happened? They touched me, and I got my first Game Over for going insane in the forest. Fortunately I got to start the level over, and from then on, I stayed as far away from the Visitors as possible.
In the hiding levels, one of the Visitors is a giant eyeball that sits in the wall. It says, “I want to see you!” So I thought, what the heck? Guess I’ll go visit the talking eyeball. When I touched it, instead of rewinding time, it transported me to a hallway with various doors in it.
Like the forest, you can continue walking in the hallway for as long as you can stand it, and the game will not stop you. But I’m not sure what you’re meant to do once you get there. I tried a random door, but nope, the map showed I had somehow done something wrong and had to start the level over (your progress in the game is shown on a drawing that spirals inward into the Lodger’s head).
I kept going back and trying to decipher the hallway, but no matter what doors I picked, I couldn’t figure it out. Most made me fail the level, though I have no idea why they were an incorrect choice. Every once in a while, I’d find a door that took me to another, identical hallway (or maybe restarted me in the same hallway?), but I never did find out what was the right thing to do. Eventually I concluded that the only way to beat the hallway was to not go there at all.
After a few hours, I’d nearly made it to the center of the map’s spiral. I was playing a seeking level, and as usual, I found the clock-faced figure and exited the cabin. But this time, I was greeted with an immediate Game Over. I replayed the level about 15 times trying to figure out a way around it, but to no avail. Game Over, Game Over, Game Over.
I have a hunch about what I did wrong, but the infuriating part is that I was doing this thing “incorrectly” for the entire game. At no point does Knock-Knock give any indication that this specific aspect is important, and by the time I figured it out, it was way too late. The only thing left to do was start over, and after five hours of fixing light bulbs and wandering endless hallways, I just didn’t feel motivated for a replay.
But Is It Scary?
The short answer is no. Not in the least. Which is unfortunate because the game starts out with the potential to be terrifying. I mean, come on! The player is stuck with the psychotic-looking Lodger in his creepy house, ghostly creatures wander the rooms, and something or someone keeps banging on the walls. What could go wrong?
But after awhile, frustration takes over everything. The banging and the voices cease to be even the slightest bit scary because you quickly learn that they don’t matter. The levels are so monotonous (hide, seek, hide, seek, hide, seek, ∞) that you feel there MUST be something else to the game. But whatever that something else is (if it does exist) is so abstract that it went completely over my head.
The tone quickly becomes monotonous, as well. Rather than having the scares gradually escalate, or having the enemies evolve, or having the task of surviving until dawn slowly get more difficult, Knock-Knock is exactly the same in the final level as it is in the first.
To be fair, about halfway through the game, a crack appears in the top of the screen, and occasionally among the Visitors, you’ll find a weeping figure that just sits in a corner. But what these signify or what you’re supposed to do about them, I have no idea. They definitely do not add to the atmosphere (other than a fervent wish that the weeping figure would shut the heck up).
The Tip & The Top
I must, however, give Knock-Knock props for trying something completely different. I can truly say I have never played anything like this. The artwork is engaging, and hiding from the Visitors was marginally fun (though I would like to see the concept explored differently in another game). If the story about the mysterious email is true, that would make Knock-Knock about the most unique game I’ve ever seen.
The Flip & The Flop
If I had to narrow it down to one thing, I’d say Knock-Knock’s biggest flaw is that it feels so terribly unfair. In addition to the things I’ve already detailed, a great deal of the time, you’ll fail the level for reasons known only to the game (and I’m not just talking about the hallway).
It’s one thing to challenge players to figure out how to play, but it’s another to withhold the answers from them until hours later (especially when that answer is, “Surprise! You fail! Better luck next time!”). It has the effect of feeling not like you’re playing the game, but like the game is playing you. Perhaps that’s intended, but it’s not very fun.
Final Grade: D
In the end, there are really only two conclusions I can draw about Knock-Knock:
Ice-Pick Lodge never tested the game on anyone who didn’t already know how to play, or…
Knock-Knock is for the 1% of people who think the same way the developers think, and they don’t particularly care if everyone else is left behind
I was willing to follow Knock-Knock’s mystery to the bitter end, but the game needed to meet me halfway.