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Game review: Knee Deep – enthralling Southern Gothic murder mystery

A blogger, a news junkie and a hard-bitten private detective try to solve a down-and-out actor’s suicide in this gripping and imaginative game

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 16 February, 2017, 8:03pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 16 February, 2017, 8:03pm

Knee Deep

Prologue Games

3.5/5 stars

Southern Gothic is a noirish genre that’s strangely appealing, one in which world-weary detectives, inbred villains and run-down small towns all combine to create a fascinating blend of uniquely American flavours.

William Faulkner, Cormac McCarthy, True Detective and even The Walking Dead to a certain extent – the genre spans various media, but I can’t say I have ever seen a video game taking on the themes.

Knee Deep (for PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4) is a strange, surreal beast, an indie release that draws on various elements from Southern Gothic, but makes it uniquely its own. Deep-fried in the southern murder mystery, the entire game is actually set on a theatrical stage, one that’s constantly rotating and evolving as we follow our three lead characters: a blogger, a news junkie and our hard-bitten private detective.

Each is out to solve a down-and-out actor’s suicide, and through mechanics made famous by Telltale Games in its Walking Dead series, you make choices, listen to conversations and follow the story through to its logical conclusion. It’s a walking simulator to a certain extent, but one grounded strongly in its story.

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And that’s part of the problem with the game: at the beginning, we’re told that everything is set, and we can’t change its outcome, no matter the choice. The concept is certainly a creative one, the idea that everything beyond the structured narrative is outside our control, and it makes sense considering what we’re actually watching is a stage production that plays out night after night.

But the feeling that it’s all preordained removes the freedom usually found in video games, removing any possible challenge or circumstance that allows us to truly interact. That can be frustrating at times, especially when the plot pulls you out of the setting. But it helps that the story is very good, aided by an ambitious on-screen “production” that embraces theatricality.

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Knee Deep’s concept is wonderfully imaginative – a video game masquerading as a theatre production masquerading as a murder mystery – and like much of the Southern Gothic genre, it’s incredibly smart.

But it’s also a little too smart for its own good. While I’d love to see more games take on its layered approach, I can’t say this one completely succeeds.