Last week I talked about Knack, and how it feels like a throwback to a bygone age. That’s absolutely true of the gameplay, but it’s also true of the game’s plot. Knack tells a fun, light adventure story in a uniquely old-school sort of way, with broad, arch characters and some surprisingly intricate lore that doesn’t make much sense if you think about it too hard. It’s also kind of politically insensitive when you do – which was definitely a lot easier to sneak under the radar back in the day.
Now, that’s a weighty accusation to throw around, and I don’t want to imply for a second that Knack is in any way malicious or intentionally harmful. This is, at its core, a fun, simple story. I just get the distinct impression that the people writing it didn’t think as hard as they could about certain elements; more specifically, the Goblins.
A lot of that meandering, unclear backstory I mentioned revolves around the animosity between goblins and humans. Long ago, the two species clashed in an event called the “crystal wars,” and mankind came out on top. Since then, the goblins have lived in squalor and misery out in the sticks. Given this, you might make some connections to the state of Native Americans today, and you wouldn’t be entirely off the mark given how a lot of the goblins are dressed and equipped. However, that’s not the most politically charged part of the goblin subplot by a long shot.
Goblins in Knack live largely in and around caves and mountains (and desert ruins, which Ryder, the game’s manly adventurer, is quick to note as very stereotypical goblin behavior). More specifically, they congregate around relic mines, which are effectively the world’s oil wells. They tend to engage humans with hit-and-run guerilla tactics, causing particular trouble by disrupting fuel supplies. The entire reason the humans are striking back at them is because they’ve acquired weapons that man has deemed too advanced. There are a lot of parallels that can be drawn here with situations in the Middle East.
None of that is inherently awful. Good fantasy writers draw inspiration from real world events and cultural phenomena all the time, and they turn that around and use their world to say something about ours. Knack isn’t interested in doing that, or if it is, it’s saying something pretty freakin’ atrocious. The Goblins are every bit as bad as the humans perceive them to be – savage, bloodthirsty, and obsessed with revenge. The goblin leader Gundahar’s “we’re not so different” speech to Knack hinges on the argument “we’re both not human, and we like smashing shit. Join me.”
Sure, later Gundahar talks about the oppression of his people and his noble fight for justice (which he believes he can only accomplish through total genocide), but the damage to his credibility is done. He’s clearly a monster, and the game gives no reason to think otherwise of any of his species. The goblins are barely cartoon villains, which suits the tone of the game, but makes it hard not to feel a casual disrespect for the cultures that inspired their design. It’s really hard not to notice that Knack is basically leading a war of extermination.
Knack is a kids’ story, it’s not meant to be given this level of scrutiny. And for what it is, it’s very enjoyable. The characters have a simple, cartoony charm to them, and the scale and stakes of the adventure feel suitably big. The problems I’m talking about don’t get in the way of that, but they do spring from it. This isn’t the sort of thing you absolutely have to think about when writing a game – most sane people won’t assume malice – but thinking about it can improve the appeal of your story. Heck, if you’re really good, it can even lend it a deeper meaning.
This is interesting to talk about in regards to Knack, because it has so much DNA from older games. In a way, it’s a marker of how far games have come, and how far they have to go. On the one hand, there are a lot of story elements that seem casually tossed in that seem more than a little insensitive (I’ve tried not to read too much into the fact that the only human villains happen to be the least white). On the other hand, there’s nothing here that’s even remotely as offensive as, say, Aku Aku from Crash Bandicoot. It’s still kind of thoughtless, but there’s been a marked improvement over the years in what we’ll thoughtlessly tolerate.
I had a damn good time with Knack. It really made me feel like a kid again, which is something rare and worthwhile. But it also made me grateful for what we have now. Designers who do think about this sort of thing – and who are trying to tell meaningful stories – have really risen to the fore. I adore deep, thoughtful stories, but I hope that light, thoughtless ones never lose their place. They serve as a good marker of where we are subconsciously as a culture, but more importantly… they’re fun. It’s interesting to think about their implications – I certainly enjoyed writing this – but at the end of the day, not every game has to be a treatise on politics.