'Peaky Blinders: Mastermind:' How a Small Studio Adapted the Shelby Family Story Into a Puzzle Game

Peaky Blinders: Mastermind game- Publicity - H 2020
Courtesy of FuturLab
The game, set to debut later this summer, is based on a quote from the BBC crime drama about "the soldier's minute."

“The one minute. The soldier’s minute. In a battle, that’s all you get. One minute of everything at once. And anything before is nothing. Everything after, nothing. Nothing in comparison to that one minute.”

The final episode of Peaky Blinders’ first season includes that quote from lead character Tommy Shelby. It’s a window into his mind, a peek into just how cerebral and tactical the head of the gang, portrayed by Cillian Murphy, can be. It’s also the quote that inspired Peaky Blinders: Mastermind, the upcoming video game based in the BBC drama’s universe. 

Developed by FuturLab, a small studio in southern England, in collaboration with show creators Caryn Mandabach Productions, Mastermind looks to bring the action and drama of the 19th century crime series to a new arena — and a new audience. Peaky Blinders EPJamie Glazebrook and FuturLab owner James Marsden tell THR that this could be a new beginning for the gang. “It’s all falling into place,” Marsden says, “just like Tommy’s plans.”

The Peaky Pitch

The partnership began when publisher Curve Digital approached FuturLab with the opportunity to develop a Peaky Blinders game. FuturLab began forming its pitch, though Marsden admits cultivating the idea for a video game that fit this particular source wasn’t easy.

“We were obviously very excited about the opportunity,” he says, “but we sort of scratched our head as to what would make sense for a video game.”Looking at the source material, one might expect a sprawling action game with gunshots and explosions taking place across all of London, but the team wanted to try something different. After a third screening of the entire series, they zeroed in on “the soldier’s minute,”and everything snapped into place: Peaky Blinders: Mastermind would be a puzzle adventure game. 

Marsden had an idea, a mechanic that he’d been cooking in his mind for nearly a decade, that would fit perfectly with that quote: “We’re inspired by choreography and dance, and we’ve had this idea to ‘choreograph’ characters for a long time,” he explains. “The fact that Peaky Blinders has this great ensemble cast and it’s Tommy managing the tasks of his family without them necessarily knowing why or without the audience knowing why — all paying off at the end of each season — it just seemed to fit perfectly with the mechanic we had.”

There’s an inherent risk in pitching something that strays from what a fanbase might expect, but after hearing the idea, Glazebrook and his team were over the moon. “This was music to our ears,” he says. “Although it’s really good fun when there’s all this running and shooting and stuff, there’s actually the other bit, the core of the show, which is what the characters are doing, thinking and feeling. There are other ways you could have gone with a game related to Peaky Blinders, this could have gone a slightly more basic route, but the fact they were looking at those tactical values was perfect for us.”

FuturLab is a small studio — its past titles include Tiny Trax and Mini-Mech Mayhem for the PlayStation VR, as well as 2014 critical hit Velocity 2x — but for the creators of the show, size didn’t matter. “[Caryn Mandabach Productions is] a small independent company as well,” Glazebrook says. “We know what it’s like to be a smaller company in this big world, and we know if you’re a small company you really can give the value of a personal touch, it’s not an effort to give everything the love that the project deserves and the viewers appreciate.”

Since FuturLab had never worked with pre-existing IP before, the team wasn’t entirely sure what to expect at first. “We came into this thinking we need to be ultra-professional, as if this was going to be a more rigorous process, but actually it’s been a breeze,” Marsden says. “I think because we showed we had some insight into what makes the show tick in that initial meeting, we earned [the creators’] trust, and we could just get on with it.” 

A Story Worthy of a Mastermind

Peaky Blinders has told five seasons worth of Shelby storylines, so figuring out a new narrative — one that would predate the events of the series — was no simple task. But once again, the idea came to the FuturLab team via a line in the show, this time from the very first episode. “Within about 30 seconds of the first episode of the first season, they mention ‘you don’t mess with the Chinese,’” says Marsden. “We thought, okay, something’s happened there, we can flesh that out, and that was the starting point.”

The fifth season of the show was still in development when FuturLab made its pitch. In a twist of fate, the show was already planning to expand on that material. “In the first episode of season five, they go to London’s Chinatown, which is a part of the fabric of U.K. society that isn’t visited very often but is definitely there, so what was intriguing about James’s story breakdown is that it had a Chinatown element to it,” says Glazebrook. “James was a bit psychic in picking up that particular one.”

At the point that FuturLab was fleshing out Mastermind’s story, the Chinese faction had not yet been seen in the show. Marsden and his crew had no idea Chinatown would feature in the new season. “We didn’t want to step on the toes of the show obviously,” he says, revealing the idea of using it instead came to the team innocently. “We thought, if it’s going to be a game set before the events of season one, while Tommy is finding his feet to challenge his brother Arthur for leadership, what happens in the first episode of the first season that we can take some inspiration from?” But within thirty seconds of that first episode, Marsden and his team had their focus.  

A Peaky Puzzler

Marsden’s idea of choreography in gameplay centers around controlling characters one at a time, but using a “rewind” feature to make multiple characters perform their actions all at once. The selected actions are the choreography, and rewinding to watch everyone perform those actions at the same time is the dance. 

“Each character has a specific set of attributes that allow them to get through the world in a particular way, and each one has a challenge they have to complete,” Marsden says. These tasks are typically minor puzzles that are easily solved, but inevitably the character’s progress will be blocked and another character will have to come to the rescue. “At that point you can review your actions on the timeline, ‘rewind’ essentially, and as you’re controlling the second character the actions you took with the first character play back in parallel.” 

He continues, “You’re building up layers of gameplay. You’re playing against both your past and your future self when you’re playing the game. You really are becoming a mastermind as you’re playing your way through this game. We feel that’s a pretty strong analogy for what’s happening in Tommy’s head.”

The team strove to flesh out those character-specific attributes so that the game would be about more than just blowing things up or shooting things. Tommy originally would use a gun as his special ability, but it left the team feeling like something was lacking. “Tommy is a master manipulator, so when we had this idea that Tommy just intimidates people, then the player gets to control whom Tommy just intimidated, that felt like a much more natural game mechanic,” Marsden explains.

Mastermind isn’t an obvious Peaky Blinders adaptation, but Marsden says he hopes the thought behind the game shines through with viewers when the title launches later this summer for Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch: “We genuinely feel that people who understand the show and know what makes it work, they are going to appreciate what we’ve attempted here.”