Knee Deep

Knee Deep: Q/A with Prologue Games

Writer/Designer Wes Platt brings his experience as a journalism to bear on the game
Writer/Designer Wes Platt  is also a journalist

If there’s anything that games such as House of the Dead and Left 4 Dead 2 have taught us, it’s that swamp settings are great and underused. Knee Deep is going one further and trying to make ‘swamp noir’ a thing. Developed by Prologue Games, Knee Deep is conversation driven mystery adventure focusing on the death of a famous actor in the Florida town of Cypress Knee.

Colin Dwan, owner of Prologue Games
Colin Dwan, owner of Prologue Games

As one of three different protagonists, you must seek out clues and leads, as well as the confidence of various factions as you hunt for the truth about the actor’s demise. You are constantly impacted by your decisions, whether through your dialogue choices or your public actions, which will affect how certain people will react to you. Set against the aesthetic of a shifting theatre backdrop, Knee Deep is an ever evolving organic script of a game, intertwining player decisions with a growing mystery that incorporates lies, deceit, and Scientology references.

With Knee Deep being so story driven, a number of questions become apparent. Even compared to monumental story-lines such as those in Mass Effect, Knee Deep lives and dies on its plot. Every player may have a different experience based on their decisions, and of course there is a great amount of replay value as a result. Keeping these things in mind, Ready-Up was eager to converse with writer and designer, Wes Platt, and studio owner, Colin Dwan, in order to get an idea of what goes into making such a story-focused experience.

The evocative setting of Cypress Knee is presented like a theatrical set
The evocative setting of Cypress Knee is presented like a theatrical set

Ready Up: Knee Deep is a ‘swamp noir’ – how did you come up with this theme and how did it evolve?

Colin Dwan: The label “swamp noir” came as a very organic exploration of the original script by Wes, Tracy, and myself. We had spent a few months during the spring of 2014 kicking around high level themes and style options for the murder in Cypress Knee and eventually locked in on the noir aspect of it. So often “noir” is limited to classic LA detective stories but the idea of marrying that smooth style with the thick atmosphere of a swampland mystery was just a perfect match. I think it was Tracy who first proposed the label “swamp noir” and it just stuck.

Wes Platt: We started with the concept of a mystery in a Florida tourist trap. Then we explored different approaches to the material – from graphic novels to cinematic before setting our sights on a theatrical design. The story’s mood, the dark tone, the shady characters all lent themselves to a variant on the film noir genre.

RU: Can you tell us a bit more about the writing of the game and describe the creative process for implementing the story?

Wes: The writing process started with a focus on the three playable characters and what makes them tick. Then I dropped them into interactions with the unusual collection of people at Chief Roadside’s Wonderland and followed where the narrative led. Internally, we played early iterations of the game and gathered feedback, then expanded some threads while trimming others.

RU: You describe the game as a ‘melodrama’, and the game evolves as a stage play. Was this a deliberate attempt to emulate stage drama and why did you decide to go down this route?

Colin: Theatrical stage design was a huge inspiration as we started the project but originally we thought we’d want more cinematic techniques as well. As we went through several rounds of content implementation, we found the most compelling designs were based more heavily on the theater themes. Eventually we gave ourselves the freedom to try a literal stage set and realized it was the pivotal design element we wanted to use as the foundation for our style.

The game uses a system, not unlike Telltale's, for making your narrative choices matter
The game uses a system, not unlike Telltale’s, for making your narrative choices matter

RU: More broadly, what do you think makes a good story in a video game and how do you design the game mechanics to facilitate the narrative?

Wes: I grew up playing heavily scripted text adventure games, such as Infocom’s Planetfall, which could milk tears (of sadness or rage) from the eyes of players like me with their endings. So, I don’t put a lot of stock in the idea that a game needs a dozen cutscenes or a huge budget for voice acting to make a connection with players. For Knee Deep, our primary mechanics come in the form of fairly standard conversation choices and consequences, while we amp it up with a “journalism simulator” that lets the player shape the overall narrative and get reactions from other characters in the game based on their chosen spin.

RU: Videogames have always struggled to realise detective stories and make the player feel like they are solving a mystery. How have approached this challenge?

Wes: For Knee Deep, the mystery’s a Macguffin. It gets the ball rolling and drives the narrative action, but it’s really just a gimmick to drop the player into this strange town, surrounded by shady people with dubious agendas. We want players to try their hand at figuring out what’s really going on beyond the obvious.

RU: Were there any specific influences? I’m getting vibes of Twin Peaks and Lars Von Trier’s Dogville

Wes: Theatrically, we’re inspired by everything from The Phantom of the Opera to Urinetown. From a narrative standpoint, I’m definitely inspired by the quirky inhabitants of TV shows such as Twin Peaks and Northern Exposure, but equally by the daily news headlines that come from the bizarre news factory that is my native Florida.

RU: With conversation branches being so central to the game, how much variety can a player expect from choosing different paths and how will this work over the course of the episodes?

Wes: Most critical choices – and certainly the climactic choice in Act 1’s finale – will reverberate heavily through subsequent acts. Some choices only change how people think about your character and may open or close certain avenues of inquiry, meaning you won’t necessarily get every clue and might not see that particular content except on a later playthrough.

Getting that Twin Peaks vibe from this diner...
Getting that Twin Peaks vibe from this diner…

RU: Where does the game sit with regard to the modern adventure game genre?

Colin: We love the nostalgic adventure games in our library but really tried to lean forward into the narrative space with this game. While many traditional adventure games are about pondering how to progress past a certain puzzle, we shift the focus onto the personality of the actors in the scene. Our closest touch-points would be the Telltale games like The Wolf Among Us but with aesthetic inspiration from games like Kentucky Route Zero. We carefully planned the structure so you’ll never get stuck or see a “game over” screen. If we provide a conversation option, you can feel confident that the game will support that response and give you a fun, dramatic experience no matter what.

RU: What kind of gamers will Knee Deep appeal to most? Do you think the heavy focus on story will put anyone off?

Colin: We’re optimistic that Knee Deep will appeal to a wide range of gamers. The benefit of the episodic format means that this is not a game that demands you to commit heavily to learning or mastering the systems. You can probably finish an episode in an hour and a half to two hours. There is a large group of gamers who enjoy dramatic entertainment in movies or TV shows but also enjoy the interactive participation that games can give them. We’ve set up Knee Deep to sit nicely in this space – giving you a chance to participate in a fun, dramatic space but also knowing that you’re participating in a scripted piece of entertainment.

RU: This is your first game as a studio, are you looking to continue creating adventure games with a strong story component? What’s next for Prologue games?

Colin: Knee Deep is just getting started. With Act 1 about to release, we’re excited to get Acts 2 and 3 in players’ hands as fast as possible and allow everyone to participate in this great story arc. Beyond Knee Deep, Prologue Games is dedicated to creating story driven entertainment. We have a number of scripts that are sitting on the back burner just waiting for us to bring them to life. We look forward to telling great stories as long as there’s an audience to hear them!

Episode one of Knee Deep is available on July 6th and early adopters get 15 percent off.  



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