Knack II Deserves To Happen – The Original Was A Masterclass in Kids Game Design

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Knack might not have excited the adults, but it certainly deserves a sequel because kids loved it. Here’s why;

“The Order 1886 doesn’t get a sequel but Knack does? Wat?”
“Knack was terrible. Why are they making a second?”
“Nobody wants Knack 2”

I’ve read comments like this quite a lot over the past few months and, to some degree, I understand them. I do wholeheartedly disagree with them, however. The narrative surrounding the PS4 launch title Knack is that it is a “bad game”. It got lambasted by critics, leaving it with a poultry Metacritic score of 54. While it has sold more than 1.5m units, it’s still regarded as one of the most disappointing games on the PS4. The general consensus is that nobody wants Knack II and it’s being marched out to flop on the same day as Destiny 2. The thing with the “narratives” surrounding games is that they’re dictated by the critics, journalists and “influencers”. Unfortunately for Knack and it’s sequel, those dictating the narratives are 20 years outside of the target age demographic.

Knack was designed for kids. Little kids. Kids who are just getting their heads around what games are and what they can do. You only have to sit a 7 year old down with Knack for an hour or so to see that – something I’ve done with my own tribe of young ones many, many times over the past 3 years. When my kids have their friends over, they play Knack together and, I kid you not, they love it. This isn’t an “excuse” for the aspects of Knack that are considered “poor”. It is the reason they exist, however.

Take the combat, for example. Polygon reviewer Philip Kollar described it as a “simplistic and overused system” and y’know, he’s absolutely right – except if you’re a 7 year old, that is. To a child, learning how to deal with an enemy and then executing it time and time again never gets old. Knack is designed around this knowledge. Every foe that Knack comes up against telegraphs their attacks before they do so – goblins swing their arms back a second before attacking and tanks charge up or pause before firing. Learning those patterns and only having a few button presses to use in order to defeat them makes Knack exciting for children. Watching my step-son’s legs tense up as he dodges a swipe from a goblin to counter with his own haymaker for the eleventyhundreth time is testament to that.

During parts of Knack, the titular hero grows and shrinks in size as he picks up more “relics”. Kotaku reviewer Stephen Totilo saidI wanted Knack’s own visual detail, his body of floating relics, to amount to more than a special effect. Too infrequently, that’s all it is. Mostly, Knack just gets bigger as you stomp through a level and collect loose relics. Enemies get bigger, too, which diminishes the effect of becoming so large.” and, again, he’s absolutely right – except if you’re a kid. If you’re a kid, size becomes a very easy numerator to understand. It doesn’t need health bars or dials or HUD displays. The bigger Knack is, the more powerful he is. The smaller he is, the more fragile he is. As Knack grows, my 5 year old understands that he can now take on a tank that would have otherwise smashed “tiny Knack”. As Knack shrinks, my 5 year old also knows that he has to be more careful now. Size is something that kids inherintly understand. It’s something they have to deal with on a daily basis. It’s a base instinct that they develop that’s leverage here. There are more than a few moments in Knack when he becomes bigger than the enemies he’s facing and just steamrolls everything in front of him. The smiles my kids give off during these moments is priceless.

Then there’s the storyline. Steve Butts at IGN saidWe might be willing to give games of this genre a pass on the thin narrative, but Knack continually seems to want to tell a story that just keeps falling apart. You start off fighting the goblins, who were kicked out of the cities by the humans, but it’s never really established that the humans deserve to be spared from the goblins’ revenge. You just beat the crap out of them because that’s what the plot demands. Knack is full of these sorts of assumptions.” which, as an adult, I wholeheartedly agree with. My kid’s on the other hand? Nah. They couldn’t give a damn. They understand the broad strokes – Goblins attacked, Knack fights back, Knack’s friend goes rogue, Knack takes them out – but this is window dressing to the colourful world in which they get to stomp around in so they can beat up robots. Wanting a nuanced plot in a game designed to appeal to 5 year olds is like handing a child the board game Operation and asking them not to just stick the tweezers in the holes to watch the whole thing shake. They just want the easy to understand fun bits.

Lastly, the co-op. Yes, Knack had co-op. Not many reviews mentioned it but those that did seemed to miss the point. David Jenkins of The Metro wrote “there is a co-op mode but it’s only sharing the pain” and this, I feel, is exactly the opposite of what Knack’s co-op mode accomplished. Knack’s co-op was designed for adults to play with young kids. When you’re playing as a pair, there are 2 Knack’s on screen – Normal Knack and Metal Knack. While Normal Knack follows the same pattern as he would in single player (growing with relics, restarting at checkpoints if he dies), Metal Knack is entirely different. Metal Knack grows after he defeats enemies and if he dies, it doesn’t matter. He just respawns after a short wait. This means that younger kids can either play as Metal Knack and it doesn’t really matter if they constantly die because the adult can still progress as Normal Knack or they can play as Normal Knack and hold back while the Metal Knack controlled by the adult does all the combat grunt work. My kids and I have played tens of hours of co-op together like this, my younger children opting for Metal Knack while my eldest is proficient with Normal Knack and lets me take point with Metal Knack during boss fights.

And so, we come to my point. Knack has a certain narrative surrounding it but it still has its fans – the difficulty being that these fans are all too young to be writing op-eds and recording YouTube vlogs. When you’ve spent enough time with kids playing Knack, you start to see the pretty incredible design choices that were made to accommodate them (much like Matt Martin @ VG247 touched on). The aspects of Knack that my critical brain sees as a flaw shine through as a masterclass in kids game design under enough scrutiny. Knack is the “In The Night Garden” of video games. Kids adore it and adults have no idea why. We can’t fathom it. It just works for them. So, there are people out there desperate for Knack II. Small people. Little people who wear Paw Patrol trainers and still regularly play Knack years after release. There are 5 of them under my roof alone.

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