“All the world’s a stage” is an intriguing monologue from the pen of William Shakespeare which comes to mind every once in a while. Yet, except in a few instances, it’s hard to recall all that many video games which attempt to straddle the line between presenting a narrative both as “real” and as a play outright. Knee Deep, Act 1: Wonderland (and presumably the rest of its chapters) depend on a play-like presentation. And how does this play begin? As with so many classics, it starts off with a suicide.
The dead man in question is Tag Kern. Apparently, he’s some sort of big shot Hollywood actor, or at least was. For reasons unknown he ended up hanging himself from a tower in a podunk little town. This death draws out the media, law enforcement, and the locals into a swirl of activity. Players get to experience this same storyline from three different angles. First, there is the tabloid blogger name Romana looking to get her big break off this hot story — and make up for past, misguided articles. After speaking with the locals, players determine what kind of articles for her to write. Should they be totally reserved and fact-based or should they be accusatory and edgy? The latter may be more fun, but those insulted by the writing may prove entirely unhelpful witnesses when the time comes to seek their help.
Next is the local newspaper reporter Jack. Given the dullness of this tiny Florida town, well, suffice it to say that his writing gig isn’t all that great. As with Romana, players also influence what he writes for the paper. However, he seems a bit too disappointed with himself to be nearly as sharp as the blogger. Finally, players assume the role of private eye K.C. Gaddis. Along with his pet dog, the two have been hired to scope out Kern’s death and hopefully make a bit of bank in the process. The same choices for writing also crop up with him as Gaddis needs to file evidence reports. Players can stretch the truth for greater payout, but it all depends on how they want to play the game.
Player choice is what Knee Deep, Act 1 excels at. Throughout the around two hour playtime of this first game, there are tons of points at which you decide what characters say or how they’ll write. Basically, any time there’s a discussion there’s the expectation of informing the character with your own choices for them. If that’s something you love most about Telltale or Bioware games then you’re going to be obsessed here. If, however, dialogue and action choices are something you hate then stay far away from this title. Beyond making choices there is basically no other interaction with the game.
Although in screenshots it may appear something like a point and click adventure game, you basically sit back for the ride. There’s no point at which you directly move a character around the screen. Even when you select between characters to talk to, they’ll typically talk to the initially unselected choice afterward anyhow. It’s not a bad thing in and of itself, just an aspect that potential players need to be made aware of before plunking down money. Story is 100% the focus in Knee Deep, Act 1 and will presumably continue to gather steam in later acts.
So, how does the story actually hold up? It starts off more than a little confusing as characters go rambling off names of people we’re totally unfamiliar with. Not only that, but they all have inbuilt relationships which we must discover and remember through play. Once you start to grasp who’s who and their relationships, though, the story finally begins to draw you in. The only issue in my mind is references to real life famous folk. Even with cell phones, online tabloids, and other modern aspects, Knee Deep, Act 1 feels like a timeless tale until those contemporary famous people crop up. Although the story may struggle to get its footing, I’m hopeful that later acts will cement this as a more intriguing small town conspiracy storyline.
Knee Deep, Act 1 might not be ideal from a storytelling perspective but from a visual perspective it’s already totally on point. The noir-style storyline is paired with an awesome, shadowy-heavy aesthetic. Not only that but scene framing and camera angles are given a good dose of style to keep things from feeling normal and safe. Character models seem a bit antiquated, but backdrops themselves are gorgeous. They also help feel this town feel completely out of time. For example, the motel with a teepee motif makes it appear as if the town never moved forward from the 50s which seems a realistic look at many small towns across the country.
Those looking for a narrative video game with distinctly slick presentation will no doubt look at Knee Deep, Act 1: Wonderland with excitement. It does not quite live up to expectations, but then again, this is just the start of a larger series. With a surprise reveal at the very end of Act 1, there’s room for much more to happen in Act 2 and 3. Here’s hoping we just don’t have to wait terribly long between releases to finally get to the bottom of this mystery.