Knee Deep is a multiple choice story game with a rich setting, and self-titled "Swamp Noir" theme. Set in rural Florida, you play as three different investigators (a blogger, a newspaper journalist and a P.I.) of an apparent suicide of a washed-up actor. The story twists and turns, like any good mystery storyline does (think Fargo and any episode of Columbo), and it makes for quite a captivating story. However, there are many brow-furrowing moments, and I came away from Knee Deep a little unsure of what to think overall.
Erm.... well you can press buttons in order to choose responses to what is happening in the story, and you can cycle through choices of what sort of story you are reporting on, but there isn't anything else to do. I wondered about even describing Knee Deep as an interactive TV show - or stage play, as it is presented (more on that later) - rather than a game. However, the presentation, voice acting and atmosphere make it interesting, and able to hold your attention for the duration (around four hours in total).
The first playable character is a blogger called Romana Teague, and thanks to a previous event in her work life (you can choose what this is), she is on thin ice with her boss. She needs to find a juicy story to redeem herself and get as many hits on the site she works for. Similarly, Jack Bellet is a newspaper reporter, grown belligerent from his broken marriage and return to a job he's not proud of. He needs to impress his editor in order to keep his job, and is warned against chasing a story which may actually be more important than the death of the actor. Finally, K.C. Gaddis is a private investigator, cynical of the world after failing in his careers; from a police officer to a security guard in a store. He's ready to give up until he's called back to his hometown to investigate the actor's death on behalf of the studio he was working with. Each of these characters is connected to the others by their past, and the stories are revealed throughout, and as each of them in Knee Deep, you make choices in the way they report on the clues they find. You can choose between the cautious, edgy or inflammatory report for each of these, resulting in different responses from the people you are working for.
There are a few puzzles in which you move objects on the screen to the right place, but you can barely call them puzzles. The objects will glow when you have them in the right place, and a noise will sound to tell you when you've got it the right way round. This makes it too easy, and is countered by overdoing the size of these puzzles. They are boring, and pointless in all honesty, and I would love more of a challenge next time.
This is the most important discussion other than the actual story, as the presentation is what is going to sell the game to you above anything else. It's unique, and executed quite brilliantly. While the graphics are reminiscent of the Sims 2 (yeah, really), it's clear that this small indie studio (Prologue Games) concentrated hard on how to work with these limitations and create the totally seamless interactive story of Knee Deep.
You are seated in the audience at a theatre, and the story plays out on an elaborate moving stage, using the set and moving camera to create the dramatic feeling of "Swamp Noir". There are no visible camera cuts anywhere in the action, even when moving from the story to the main menu and other options, and I only had a couple of moments of lag on my console version. It's rather stunning to see, and I have it on good authority that the VR version is four hours very well spent in an experience not seen before.
Some of the transitions in the action were slow, with the current character moving from one place to another with no input from the player, but there were always things going on in the background to look at, and the option to go back and see what clues you had picked up.
Knee Deep is broken up into three Acts, in a classic play formula that Shakespeare would be proud of. Act I introduces the protagonists, hints to our antagonists, and ends on a cliffhanger, in which everything you may have supposed about the death of the actor is thrown out of the window. Act II sees the mystery deepening, and another investigation opening up for the characters you play as. Subplots and key moments are defined, and we are left with the feeling that the last Act is going to be a thrilling conclusion. Indeed, the last Act wraps things up quite definitely, though the last scene hints to a sequel, set somewhere else, but with the same characters.
For a multiple dialogue choice game, I thought some of my button clicks would really matter. However, it seems that other than a few supporting cast responses to you, the story does not change. You can replay, and see what other dialogue choices will mean in terms of this, and to get those trophies/achievements, but the story won't change. I have to say, this was a little disappointing, and had I known this before, I would have chosen all the "Give Strange Response" buttons.
There were moments, especially in Act I, where I thought there may have been something I had missed; perhaps a prequel game or a prologue even - that would have been really Shakespearean - but apparently not. The characters' confusing and vague backstories unfolded slowly and abruptly at the same time. There would be a long period where I'd be asking why a character had said something about their past, then all of a sudden it would be revealed, over a three sentence phone call mostly, and I'd be left even more confused than before. Some of these subplots seemed out of place and unnecessary, such as the mayoral elections which were not even mentioned until Act II, when another character was introduced. He was the opposition, coming from out of town and ready to make change after the long-standing and rather dumb mayor, only to be mentioned once more - finding out he had actually won the election - and then either leaving the town once stuff hits the fan, or coming to a rather sticky end. That's it. That's a spoiler, but it has zero ties to anything else in the story of Knee Deep.
There is a narrator at the beginning, telling us where we are and who we are about to start the game with, and their voice comes over now and then, but less and less often, to tell us little tidbits and reiterate what we have just seen. However, Act II and III are opened by members of the cast speaking to the audience in rhyme, in order to recount the story before we continue. These are more influences from Shakespeare, and I do love me some Shaky, but surely stick with either one or the other? Have the unseen narrator speak, recounting the story and reminding us where we are, or have the supporting cast do it in rhyme; facing the audience. I felt the narrator became redundant, and would much rather have had a soliloquy, or collection of characters conclude the play - true Romeo and Juliet style. Maybe that's my English Literature/Drama A-Level head talking, but it seemed really choppy and too busy to have two different ways of speaking directly to the audience.
Sound and Music
There is another aspect that makes Knee Deep individual and engaging, and that's in the sound design; which includes the voice acting and music.
As this story is set on a stage, the way sound is produced only adds to the atmosphere. Voices and footsteps echo around the boards, and amplify over the audience. Shocking twists in the story are reacted to by the other audience members around you, and the music comes from the orchestra pit below the stage, covering the action in slide guitar, echoing strings, double bass and heavy acoustic drums, very appropriate for the Florida countryside we find ourselves in. The soundtrack of Knee Deep is fantastic, and I'm considering the purchase, most definitely.
The voice acting is hit and miss. The dark humour is put across most of the time, and I found myself laughing out loud on a few occasions. I liked the drama and moody voices of a lot of the characters, but there were times when the delivery of quirky or double-meaning dialogue was lost. Overall, however, it was an important part of the game that added to the list of things that kept me playing, rather than getting bored.