The ethics of journalism aren't exactly a traditional topic for a video game. But Knee Deep, a "swamp-noir" adventure from the Durham-based studio Prologue Games, is no ordinary video game, and its creative leaders, Wes Platt and Colin Dwan, are anything but typical game developers.
Platt, the project's jovial lead writer, has built his career in a space between print journalism and interactive storytelling, which clearly informs Knee Deep. Formerly a news and web editor at Durham's The Herald-Sun, Platt joined Prologue Games in 2013 with the express purpose of making the game.
Dwan, the owner of Prologue Games and producer of Knee Deep, is the Felix to Platt's Oscar. While Platt holds forth with anecdotes from his transient professional life (before moving to North Carolina, he says, he lived in a cabin in the Pacific Northwest, doing little besides playing World of Warcraft), Dwan speaks methodically about the challenges of financing independent games.
The yin-and-yang creative duo first worked together on a 2009 post-apocalyptic online role-playing game, Fallen Earth, produced in Cary by the now-defunct Icarus Studios. Knee Deep is their first collaboration in which they have complete creative control, from conception to release.
Prologue Games leases a cluster of workstations in the American Tobacco Campus office of advertising firm McKinney. Huddled in a glass-walled conference room, I play through the first few scenes of Knee Deep, which was released for Windows and Mac OS on July 6 for $29.99. Like any good mystery, its clues offer no immediate solutions.
"You put together the conspiracy and intrigue that's going on behind the scenes," Platt says. Set in the fictional town of Cypress Knee, a swampy simulacrum of small-town northern Florida, the game opens with the death of a washed-up actor, Tag Kern, who is found hanging from a local landmark. The player takes on the roles of three characters: a cranky print journalist (a clear reflection of his self-effacing creator), a blogger and a detective.
"There are multiple ways you can interpret a character," Platt says. "For example, [the journalist] is down on his luck, so you can play him as defiant, belligerent or passive." Switching between the three main characters, the player hunts for clues by pointing and clicking with a cursor and questions local citizens by navigating dialogue trees, attempting to piece together the mystery of Kern's death.
Knee Deep's unconventional subject matter is partly derived from Platt's experiences as a reporter for the St. Petersburg Times.
"I was keying in on the idea of how strange Florida news is," he says. But it's not just the oddities of the news that inspire Platt. It's how the media shapes our understanding of the events around us. Knee Deep revels in these thorny ethical dilemmas.
"The idea that you trivialize cultural symbols plays into Knee Deep," Platt says, "and the way that media can have a good or bad influence on anything, from riots in Baltimore to overdevelopment."
Knee Deep also stands out for its clever appropriation of stage lighting, which challenges one of the most intransigent conventions of video games.
"We originally had a very cinematic design," Platt explains, referring to the common practice of using cuts, pans and zooms to reinforce narratives in games. "Then it clicked: Why not have multiple sets and light changes? We wanted to make it look like it was happening at DPAC."
Despite its dramatic lighting, atmospheric score and smart dialogue, Knee Deep shows signs of the limited budgets of indie games. Though the cost of game development has fallen significantly in the last decade, this still represents a significant financial risk for Prologue Games.
"We found most of our success with angel investors," Dwan says. "Publishers were also interested but didn't want to get in on the ground floor."
The game's character models are a bit stiff—a consequence of a cost-effective but aging game engine—and the lack of expensive, time-consuming voiceover work neuters some of the dramatic tension. As such, Prologue Games' expectations for Knee Deep are realistically modest.
"We're not looking to sell 50 million copies," Dwan says. Though the game has been praised by gaming publications, its future—and, possibly, that of the studio—depends on whether it connects with gamers' hearts and wallets. Despite the challenges, Platt and Dwan are optimistic, and production of a second act is already underway.
As I uncover new information during my demo, I decide how each character will frame his resultant articles, blog posts or reports, from dutiful journalistic restraint ("Actor Tag Kern Found Dead") to TMZ-style clickbait ("Kern's Last Cliffhanger!"). I'm pondering whether or not to exploit a man's untimely death for page views when Platt chimes in.
"The immediacy of blogging versus the more careful plodding of a print journalist is a major theme in the game," he says. Players must decide what they value. It's not a topic I've often considered while playing a video game. In the end, I choose restraint.This story appeared in print with the headline "Point & Clickbait."