Prologue Games’ Knee Deep is a twisted tale of treachery, murder, and journalistic intrigue. Although similar, it diverges from Telltale’s tried-and-true formula to provide a stage production-like experience, and interviewer Elijah Beahm enjoyed his journey through the corrupt Florida town of Cypruss Knee for the review. He also got the chance to sit down with the writer behind this wild mystery, Wes Platt, and dug into the mysteries behind the game.
Warning: This interview contains spoilers for the game.
Elijah Beahm: Alright, to start – What inspired you to write a Floridian crime noir?
Wes Platt: I was born and raised in Florida. I grew up reading Travis McGee books, and then got into Carl Hiaasen’s nutty Sunshine State mysteries like Tourist Season and Double Whammy when I was older. Plus, I worked as a journalist at the St. Petersburg Times for more than a decade, covering small-town Florida. It all sort of culminated in the creation of Cypress Knee in my mind.
EB: Is that what inspired you to include a reporting mechanic in the game?
WP: Oh, absolutely. But my journalism professors are probably going tsk-tsk when they look at it, because each story you post is based on one source. The cardinal rule when I went to the University of South Florida was having at least two sources. Of course, in this day and age, it seems like any identifiable source is optional for a bunch of media outlets.
EB: Indeed, and speaking of untrustworthy sources – how hard was it keeping players guessing how big the conspirator circle truly was?
WP: Well, I think Romana sums it up pretty well in the end of Act II: Is anyone not in on the conspiracy? We’ve taken some knocks from critics about the fact that the game doesn’t allow for free movement, but it’s really something that (should) help drive home the sense of inevitability and powerlessness of these people as they work against some pretty insidious forces.
EB: Yeah, you took a big step away from traditional Telltale-style conventions with that as well. No QTEs, no free exploration, and way heavier an emphasis on social dynamics. Were you trying to set the game apart from the pack or just crafting the design that felt right for the story you wished to tell?
WP: Up until very late in the development of Act 1, we did have QTEs planned – for example, you would’ve been able to face the hooded attacker atop the Chief Roadside’s water tower as either Romana, Jack, or Gaddis, and it was going to be this very Telltale-like attack-dodge-attack exercise. And we just felt like it didn’t fit, in the end. For exploration – I think it was Colin Dwan, our producer/CEO at Prologue Games, who commented that you rarely hear about how much people love walking around in a game. I compare it to the scene in Clerks II where Randall snarkily sums up Lord of the Rings as a bunch of guys walking across the world to a volcano. We felt it was more important to explore the characters and the story of this town, embrace the theater aspects, and make our own mark.
EB: That’s interesting, as I did half-expect that to happen after the letter fell down. Which was also a surprising moment, when you threw players a curveball of having to choose who to save, plus the option to save no one. How hard was it designing the rest of the episodes around that big question mark of who survives the incident? The survivor plays a pretty big part in the finale.
WP: It wasn’t all that hard, actually. Plot-wise, at the end of Act 1, you’re picking the person who’s going to screw you over at the end of Act 2 (even if you choose to save no one, one person survives) and then that person has second thoughts about their actions at the end of Act 3. Mechanically, this meant using variables to swap out the characters that show up at key moments and what lines they deliver.
EB: Ah, clever. To go back a step, what drew you to frame the entire story like a stage production? What inspired that decision, and what challenges came with working within that format?
WP: During the development of Act 1, we had group playthroughs as scenes came together. I think it was after a complete run-through of the first act that we looked around the room and reached a consensus that we liked the story, the characters, and the art style but it was very much like a Telltale game, with shifting camera angles, tracking shots, that sort of thing. It was a defining moment for us, because we all had enough comfort working together to be able to say it wasn’t different enough without worrying that a fragile ego might be shattered. We were all eager to make something special. I think it was our environmental artist, Cory Farris, who first sketched the idea of a lazy Susan rotating stage. I worked at Disney World when I was a kid, so it immediately made me think of the Carousel of Progress. Our programmer, Chris Wall, said it was doable in Unity. We were off and running. The decision actually did us a lot of favors, despite the initial challenges of setting things up properly in Unity to make the stage swaps. It compelled us to lock down the idea of player movement, it let us fix on more of an “audience-view” camera most of the time, it let us eliminate loading screens so each act became one long scene, and it gave us some great opportunities to manage lighting and theatrical presentation of sets.
EB: Yeah, the way the stage itself was so animated and lively gave the setting a very distinct tone and quality. Plus you seemed to have a lot of fun with the 4th wall breaking moments where the player makes choices as an audience member before each act starts. Another defining attribute of Knee Deep are the moments where two or all three protagonists interact together. How was it, making conversations where the player could control multiple people?
WP: I loved those moments. Of course, they become more frequent in Act 3. At those points, my hope was for players to really feel less like “Hey, I’m playing this character” and more like “Hey, I’m putting on this show.” The player becomes the ultimate conspirator in the swamp noir.
EB: Indeed, especially with the bits where you control Monroe, and Jack’s son. Speaking of Act 3, was the resurrection element always there, or did you ever have a different twist planned?
WP: It’s no accident that there’s a favorable answer in the Opto Test for Romana where you say “Immortality is the only option” in Act 1. The crazy church resurrection tech twist – and the obliteration of the town – were always part of the story. Stephen King meets Carl Hiaasen in Twin Peaks. That part’s also been one of the most controversial elements, and I get it. Serious noir fans play the first two acts and it plays out about like they expect. They get to Act 3 and we wheel out science so dubious that even our mindless church thugs question the legitimacy of it in-game. But I stand by it. We wanted to set up this whole Chinatown-like scheme that seems like it’s all about a land development plan, but it turns out to be something else entirely. A radical zealot with crazy technology he wants to abuse, destroying the local environment in the process. It’s a weird Florida story writ large.
EB: Sort of like how Hot Fuzz seems like it’s about a land deal gone wrong when really it’s about a cult of old folks wanting to maintain things for “the greater good”?
WP: Exactly! Loved Hot Fuzz. I never saw that weird town cult coming, and when it did, it was fantastic. And in Knee Deep, different people have different motivations for why they’re backing the Church of Us – and some of them are misled. Buckingham thinks this is all going to help the local economy, but (depending how you play the game) at a certain point it’s revealed that Golden Cypress would never happen. It was all about the tech Cordray wanted.
EB: And it all comes crashing down around his ears, in no small part due to a character some players likely underestimated early on in the story. I wonder, do we get to know anything more about the spirit possessing Robert? Right before the end, it’s indicated something metaphysical might actually be at play, or perhaps something else entirely.
WP: It’s left open for interpretation, to a certain extent. Woodstep just seems like a disgruntled ex-employee in Act 1. In Act 2, his personality changes and Gaddis calls him out on it. Woodstep reveals that the church thugs knocked him around behind the RV and now this native spirit called Rabbit speaks through him. Does he really? Or does Woodstep just have a concussion and needs medical attention? In the end, of course, we see “Rabbit” and Monroe walking past a gas station in Kentucky. What’s that all about? Fair question. But earlier in Act 3 we see some things that suggest Monroe may be more than what meets the eye. For my part, I see them as agents of change and action. Maybe not exactly a native spirit, but certainly a couple of forces of nature and influence.
EB: So less traditional angels and demons, more like a morally ambiguous but arguably well-intentioned spirit you’d see in a piece of folklore?
WP: Right. That sounds close to what we were going for.
EB: Ambiguous morality and darker subject matter is something your team really didn’t shy away from. Your game handles a lot of mature themes, from drug abuse and murder all the way to interacting with a character who committed statutory rape. Were there any story beats you were worried might upset players?
WP: Honestly, no. Of course, I wouldn’t recommend the game for kids – I cringed plenty of times when a child grabbed the controller to demo the game at PAX and I had to explain to their mom or dad that they might hear or see some unsavory things. But nothing we put into the game was any worse than what shows up in the nightly news or on the internet every hour of the day and night. We ran into trigger moments, though. We’ve had at least one person who set out to review the game but back off because it starts with the premise of a suicide – and when we first meet Gaddis, he’s putting a gun to his head. The reviewer had just lost a friend to suicide. I respect the decision not to go through with reviewing the game under those circumstances.
EB: Yeah, there a few moments where I wondered if a turn of events or something a character said might upset someone, and I’m glad to hear everything was cool with the one reviewer needing to back off. Coincidentally, you even have that opening scene with Jack and his son at the scene where a man accidentally shot himself, making the player themselves have to choose how to present such a harsh moment to a child. There are several points in the game where you force players to choose between a set of hard choices like that, but you don’t often put them on a countdown timer. Do you think there’s reason to give players breathing room, even when they’re faced with a no-win scenario?
WP: I think we use the timer once – when you choose who to save at the tower at the end of Act 1, and that’s just to give a real sense of urgency to that moment. The rest of the time: Yeah, I wanted players to be able to ponder as much as they want – or, you know, answer a phone call, make a sandwich, check Twitter – and then make the decision at their leisure. Some people breeze right past those choices without thinking much about them.
EB: Speaking of something that kind of breezes right past the player, was that bit at the end with the Church leaders a hint at more troubles to come for our three heroes?
WP: We do leave them hanging at the end, in custody of what appears to be the Church of Us and its minions. I’m not sure about a sequel at this point – really depends on how much traction the game gets on consoles and in VR, I think. But I certainly see some possibilities in exploring what happens next, either for our three wayward investigators or the two forces of change that got away from the disaster at Cypress Knee. Never say never!
EB: Indeed! Presuming you explore a different direction though, what’s another game genre you’d like to explore or a storytelling genre you’d like to adapt to games in the future?
WP: We’ve been tinkering with a science fiction game that incorporates musical elements, as just one example. I’m also keeping busy with OtherSpace at www.jointhesaga.com – using Slack to collaborate on improvisational space opera stories.
EB: A writer’s mind never rests, eh?
WP: Indeed! Well, OtherSpace has been around for almost 19 years now. Started as a Telnet MUSH (and that is still around), but I’m trying to evolve it into a more web-friendly/mobile-friendly format.
EB: Interesting, and speaking of transitioning to new formats – your team brought an adventure game to VR. You even incorporated Tobii EyeX peripherals into the PC version. How was that, trying to take a traditional birdseye view genre and integrate it with brand new technology?
WP: Knee Deep in VR was something I floated to Colin before Rift and Vive launched. He wasn’t sure it would work or, if it could work, it might be more effort than it was worth. Then we got our hands on VR ourselves. Started playing different things, started working on new projects, and I kept coming back to Knee Deep. We already had this full-fledged and finished game! What would it take to make a tech demo and see how it played in the VR space? Eventually, Colin agreed. And we loved what we saw. We had to make some adjustments to the presentation, but VR really opened the experience up in ways that were astonishing. The PC and console versions offer a fixed-camera view – you’re always looking at where we want you to look. But in VR, in that first scene where you get a look at the body hanging from the tower, you are WAY UP HIGH and you can look up, down, all around at the different parts of the stage. Just breathtaking.
EB: Sounds like it. It’s fascinating how VR’s been having success with third-person experiences, something that once sounded like a dubious prospect (as you said, even Colin expressed that). Would you ever consider working with it again in the future?
WP: In a heartbeat. From a commercial standpoint, it’s not going to move a huge number of units given the current install base for VR – but you’re also not competing with thousands and thousands of games on Steam.
EB: You certainly can’t beat that. Alright, now this one’s more of a personal question – how many of Romana’s “weird response” lines were too weird to make it into the final script? Because you guys have her say some really out there things, but hide nuggets of genuine response and even clues to what she’s thinking within them. Seems like quite a bit of work to make them all fit.
WP: We never really hit a wall like that. She’s a vehicle for strange things I’ve heard people say over the years. She’s also an outlet for the occasional weird Easter egg – like when she says “Pineapple!” for no apparent reason in the diner in Act 1. That line’s a shout-out to my co-workers on Fallen Earth. We were out to lunch one day and passed a minivan that was covered with graffiti like you see when a kid’s graduating – and it said, seriously, “HI, I’M WES!” and, for no obvious reason, “PINEAPPLE!” So that became our office meme.
WP: Yep. Wish I had a photo now, but this was before I had an iPhone, I think.
EB: That is remarkable. Well, branching off from just Romana, how did the protagonists change over time? Were there ever any big shifts in how they were written? Were there any different leads that didn’t make the cut?
WP: Well, when I first pitched the idea of Knee Deep to Colin, there was one protagonist – Jack Bellet, the grumpy local reporter. Perfect fit for me to write about, right? But Colin pushed to offer some other viewpoints, and I felt compelled to bring in a professional foil (a blogger, of course, the bane of print media) and an estranged personal connection (K.C. Gaddis, who grew up in Cypress Knee but got away). And, in the end, Romana really kind of took over the story. We didn’t cut any leads, but we did eliminate a handful of side characters or combined them into others.
EB: So even in the fiction, the blogger superseded the print journalist.
EB: Fate loves its cruel twists, something Knee Deep is full of. So, what was the most challenging scene or sequence to write in Knee Deep?
WP: Writing was, honestly, the easiest part. I can’t say that any of the narrative material made me break a sweat. But I wasn’t working in a vacuum here. Our small team included one animator, a couple of environmental artists, and a world builder who had to take what I wrote and make it work. So, the most difficult sequences to pull off turned out to be the rooftop chase in Act 2, the showdown on Mad Science Island with all the action and then the giant sinkhole sequence in Act 3. Easy to put on paper, but really had our team working late hours to make them look good.
EB: Indeed, game development is a team effort. I imagine getting the timing right for the chase to still allow for dialogue choices must have taken quite a bit of work.
WP: The trick there was everybody telling me NO CONVERSATION CHOICES UNTIL THE CHASE IS MOSTLY OVER. I think the conversation is on autopilot until Jack and K.C. are down the vent after Remy. When I first wrote that scene, it did include some variable conversations, but reality and development schedules can be very sobering.
EB: Yes they can, but in spite of those struggles, a great game can be born… just after the lead designer and producer figure out what features get to live.
EB: Finally, looking back on things now, out of the cast line up, who is your favorite character and why?
WP: Oh, I have to pick a favorite? Well, Romana definitely won out for me among the three leads, even though Jack was my original protagonist. He was easy. He was just an unfiltered, darker version of me. Romana, though, was this absolute alien dropped into the realm of Cypress Knee. I had the most fun toying with her responses and her worldview. Beyond the leads, though, Jefferson Dean Gallant was my favorite supporting character – a traumatized ex-mayor living in exile in the Florida swamp. My homage to Skink in Hiaasen’s books, crossed with Quint in Jaws and Ahab in Moby Dick.
EB: It’s always amazing when a character you weren’t even betting on becoming the big surprise while writing just suddenly grips the story, isn’t it? I can also definitely see the Ahab and Quint inspiration, and it was nice to see that in the end, Gallant was far more than just a grumpy old man in the swamp. It was sad to see him go, but at least he died with a relieved heart.
WP: Glad he was appreciated. His arc in the story, for me, was about as important as the main characters. In the end, they became the means for him to achieve an end that had eluded him for a very long time. I was so happy when our artists hit on the idea to stylize that scene with silhouettes, to really make it stand out and declare how special it was when it happened.
EB: Plus it totally fit for a theater scene. It both added to the emotion and grounded the whole format as being right in front of you.
EB: Alright, well, thank you Wes for sitting down with me today. It’s been a pleasure talking with you.
WP: Glad to do it! Thanks for taking the time. Great questions. If you need anything else, you know how to find me!
Infinite thanks to Wes Platt for the time he took to chat with us, and congratulations to Prologue Games as a whole on their work. Knee Deep is currently available on PS4, Xbox One, and PC. You can learn more about it here.