We Need More Kid-Friendly Video Games Like Knack

I like to pretend Knack is made of the remains of all the sentient bricks Mario destroys in his games
I like to pretend Knack is made of the remains of all the sentient bricks Mario destroys in his games Screencap from Knack
Knack is one of those games that we never seem to talk about despite it being a launch title for the PS4. It was a giant critical “meh” when it came out, and its 300,000 units sold had a lot to do with the fact that it came packaged with some versions of the console. The sequel received slightly better review scores, but sold a measly 2,000 units when it debuted

I was one of those buyers this Christmas, even paying full price for a physical copy when I could have picked it up for less than $10 on the PlayStation Store. The reason I bought it was because the original is my daughter’s favorite game of all time. Not only that, it was the first game she ever finished all on her own with no help from me.

If you haven’t played either game – and judging by the numbers you probably haven’t – here are the basics. Knack is an artificial being made of eldritchly-powered relics. These relics of an ancient civilization are used as energy, but they also cause a great deal of conflict with the goblin tribes that live alongside humans in a more primitive society. Knack is the creation of Doctor Vargas, a benevolent adventurer-scientist right out of an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel. He, Knack and a small cast of characters proceed to explore and fight their way through the game using Knack’s abilities to incorporate different elements into his sentient matrix of relics.

Neither game is particularly noteworthy from a play standpoint regarding third-person behind-the-protagonist action titles. They’re better than Crash Bandicoot, not as good as God of War, and the second one has something of an existential crisis where it tries just a little too hard to be other games with mechanics borrowed from flashier titles. Still, it’s solid. It’s just good little platformer in a lush, well-developed world.

That’s not what makes Knack special, though. The fact is there just aren’t a lot of family-friendly single-player games with good cinematic playthroughs. Games like Rayman and Super Mario Odyssey are fairly minimalist in their storytelling, giving just enough framework to make play meaningful. Breath of the Wild is as lore-heavy as any Zelda game, but the story-telling always seems to happen around Link, not through him.

Knack is the video game equivalent of a movie like Home. It’s not meant to redefine the genre or break any new ground, but it works for its audience. The script and acting are there, and it has a linear gameplay that mixes narrative with play seamlessly. PlayStation is famous for these types of games. Tomb Raider, The Last of Us, Soul Reaver and the previously mentioned God of War embodied that style of play’s ideal.

They aren’t kids games, though. They’re too violent or too dark or too Shakespearean or have nudity. You can’t pass along the gift of interactive narrative through them to a grade-school audience.

But you can with Knack. I got used to hearing my daughter play in the other room while I worked, and hearing her react to the game as it evolved story-wise was amazing. She would breathlessly come running into my office to tell me about plot twists no matter how many times I explained to her I beat the game before. She actively fan ficced the sequel as she waited to see if it came for Christmas, and was damn-near intolerable as she strutted about saying “I told you Gundahar would be back” despite no one ever arguing with her that the goblin warlord wouldn’t return.

Gaming has grown up, and I’m glad for that. No longer seen as a toy, the medium gets celebrated in art exhibits. I spend a lot of my time talking about things that can be done with interactive media and how it can tackle big world issues like homophobia and child abuse and grief.

However, in the push forward I wonder if we’re leaving fully-formed narrative gaming behind for the under 12 crowd. I get excited for stuff like Never Alone in part because games like it are increasingly rare. I’m glad we’ve carried gaming into adulthood, but my library of titles from current-generation systems that are appropriate to share with my daughter is spare. There’s nothing wrong with Mario Kart, but it is lacking in a story that she can become a part of.

Judging by the numbers, there probably won’t ever be a Knack III, and that makes me sad. Kids deserve to fall into a story in a game the way adults do.
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Jef Rouner is a contributing writer who covers politics, pop culture, social justice, video games, and online behavior. He is often a professional annoyance to the ignorant and hurtful.
Contact: Jef Rouner