Written by T. Blake Braddy, @blakebraddy
Knock-Knock is a flat-out weird experience, from the opening frames, when players first see its spiky-haired protagonist, to the last few surreal moments, and digging into the history of its conception reveals a story almost as bizarre as the game’s own narrative.
In November 2011, the crew at Ice Pick Lodge, the game’s developer, received an anonymous email containing an attachment called “letsplay.rar,” which turned out to be an archive of 19 various media files, including small pieces of text, audio, and video.
The cryptic email urged them to make a game based on the files, though it warned ominously that collecting them together would have a potentially unsettling outcome.
It should be noted that emails of this type are sent with numbing frequency, especially to games companies. Both aspiring creatives and devious pranksters find video game producers to be particularly apt targets for their desperate communiques, so most of them go straight into the trash.
Alexandra Golubeva, a writer and designer at the company, says that they kind of blew off this email, too, at first. She said, “We thought it might be some kind of prank, that someone was trying to scare us, maybe even intimidate us.”
Yet, something was different about this one. The files seemed mostly unconnected in a strict narrative sense, but they all shared a similar sense of odd, atmospheric creepiness, a confluence of factors that made it stand out.
According to a press release from Ice Pick Lodge, “The surface examination did not reveal anything did not reveal anything straightforwardly terrifying, yet we could not escape the feeling that something truly sinister was lurking underneath.”
And the longer they thought about it, the more they became transfixed, not necessarily in a direct sense, in the messages themselves, but what they said about the sender. Golubeva said, “It dawned on us: what if this archive is not a carefully constructed message, but rather bits and pieces seen ‘through the eyes’ of a person in a certain situation?” It occurred to them that the best course of action would be to make a game that re-imagined the situation of the message’s creator.
They decided to contact the person responsible for “letsplay.rar,” but they received nothing in return. Not another file. Not another video. Not even another email. Nothing.
Combined with the nature of the original message, this idea became oddly unsettling for all of the members within the studio.
So they took that idea and ran with it.
They decided to make a game about unanswered messages, about lost communication, and there began the idea for Knock-Knock. Originally, they had no genre, so the idea to make it a horror game was not extant at the game’s outset. To them, the idea was what was important, not the genre. “What was important was…catching the sender’s tune and answering their plea,” said Golubeva.
Since they couldn’t reach the person behind the mysterious “letsplay.rar,” they thought it would be interesting to capture that feeling of isolation and transmit it to the world. Maybe it would reach the original emailer, and maybe it wouldn’t, but the potential was what gave them the initial intellectual spark.
It’s kind of a strange and beautiful idea, especially in today’s world of hyperkinetic and continual communication. To make a game based on the idea that you cannot get in touch with someone, for whatever reason, can itself be a comment on the state of the world.
So they began work.
Rather than use “letsplay.rar” as a literal document for designing the game, they decided to rely on it as a sort of central inspiration, to combine the fact of their own experience with the aforementioned recreation of the sender’s circumstances. Golubeva even hinted at the possibility that the game’s artist included some of the original .rar materials within the game, though it isn’t entirely clear if the Easter eggs actually exist in there or not.
The most obvious connection to the “letsplay.rar” email comes in the form of the main character, a sort of badger-y protagonist named The Lodger. Players guide him through a randomly generated home to fix and turn on lights to keep the surreal images from his nightmares from driving him insane.
The disconnected nature of the messages themselves became the inspiration for The Lodger’s clippy monologues interspersed throughout Knock-Knock. His pronouncements seem at first to be completely random and without connection to the outside world but take on a strange philosophical cohesiveness over the course of this admittedly brief game. They come to represent who he is, even if what he says makes no sense to anyone but himself.
And that was part of the design aesthetic, according to Golubeva. “The Lodger refuses to wonder why [the supernatural events are happening around him],” she said, “and we were hoping that this fact itself would be enough to nudge the player to oppose his character and ask the question.”
Which, it seems, is the source of the tension players experience while traipsing around The Lodger’s confusing, dilapidated, and altogether menacing abode. At the outset of the game, they are given no real indication of the game’s rules or expectations, and The Lodger’s solipsism doesn’t help in that regard, so the player has to uncover the game’s purpose as s/he progresses, sometimes to his or her own detriment.
Golubeva is convinced that helps to create the distinctly unnerving mood within the world of Knock-Knock. “That’s kind of the point of feeling scared, no?” she said. “You know you’re playing a game, but what game is it? How do you play it effectively?”
As you move around and reconnect the lights and open doors, though, the game’s purpose becomes less opaque, but the randomness of events makes it difficult to ever feel on firm footing within the game. The configuration of the rooms changes night to night, and other variables give the impression that the true logic of the game cannot be entirely known.
Luckily, the experience is brief – only about 3-4 hours – so happening upon an undesirable ending isn’t too much of a penalty. It adds some replay value to the experience, if you enjoyed your first go-round, of course.
Golubeva said the writers and designers at Ice Pick Lodge made a less story-driven experience this time but instead made something more contingent upon mood and environment, and that is where the terror comes from. Not only does it arise out of the seeming randomness of the nightmares but also from the feeling of being toyed with.
The game is continually unpredictable, which adds to the feeling of unease. Golubeva said, “We balanced and rebalanced the variables, but the story? It’s there, just in case. You are in the cabin. There are guests. That’s the story, and I don’t think you can exactly balance what it means.” The result is a cyclical, unnerving experience, kind of like a David Lynch flick animated by Adult Swim.
And the mysterious “letsplay.rar” emailer? Still no contact, says Golubeva. It’s as though the message was sent and then the email address erased. The game, she said, was yet another attempt for them to reach out to this person, to maybe make that last connection, at least for the sake of closure.
In the end, they both returned the message and transmitted one of their own, and they have at least received responses from the community on their end. Through Kickstarter and Steam, they managed to facilitate communication but also still make a game that was also still distinctly theirs.