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As the latest title from London-based game company Foam Sword, Knights and Bikes is a story and character-driven, hand-painted action-adventure created by programmer Moo Yu and artist Rex Crowle (LittleBigPlanet). The Kickstarter-funded game, which is inspired by films like The Goonies and games like Secret of Mana, involves female protagonists, cooperative puzzles and low-stakes combat mixed with story elements embedded into the mechanics.
“I think the only way we could do this was in a small studio, [since] there are so many parts of it that are very personal,” Yu tells The Hollywood Reporter, noting that a larger team and larger budget, with more decision-making and more approvals, wouldn’t have yielded the desired result: something personal that reinforced the idea that gameplay that isn’t focused on “destructive competitiveness” or “destructive cooperation” can be valid and fulfilling.
Ahead of the game’s Aug. 27 launch on Playstation 4, THR caught up with Yu and Crowle to discuss their visual influences, experiences in gaming that led them to this moment — Yu describes “two eras of video games” in his life, while Crowle explains that video games really weren’t part of his childhood — and the appeal of gameplay that isn’t brutal and doesn’t take 100 hours of commitment.
You’ve said that Knights and Bikes is inspired by coming-of-age movies like The Goonies and also personal childhood experiences. What kind of feelings and themes did you want to capture and inject into the game?
Crowle: We both had slightly different focuses. I was probably more focused on the environment and the characters; so the story takes place on a fictitious island called Penfurzy, but it’s actually based on an area where I grew up in Cornwall at the very bottom of the U.K. It’s quite a stormy place — very beautiful — but it has a lot of history and it’s quite economically challenged. A lot of the traditional industries have gone away, things like tin mining and fishing have been replaced with tourism. I grew up on a farm there and actually sold my sheep to buy my first computer, that’s how I got into all this… [And] when you were talking just now about The Goonies, that’s a huge influence on us all, but I didn’t feel that I could particularly add something new to a similar there because I haven’t grown up in Oregon and don’t know what that’s like. It felt like I could probably surprise players more by actually basing the game in a part of the world they’re less familiar with. A lot of references to the locations are based on real places, and then the fact that in Cornwall we have a town and a castle called Tintagel, which is where — well, it depends who you listen to, but anyone in Cornwall will say — King Arthur is from. There were a lot of Arthurian legends in the air as a kid, so I was always getting on my bike and cycling around the farm trying to make my own lancing sticks and things like that. I didn’t really have computer games as a child, so that aspect wasn’t so much for me.
Yu: Mechanically, I was really curious about how we could enforce certain themes. One of the biggest themes of the game is friendship, and it exists within the story about the two girls having friends. But also, I sort of had two eras of video games in my life: When I was very young, video games were very social. You would go over to people’s houses and play, and [often] there would be a big band of kids arguing over what game you would rent over the weekend. You’d sit together [playing] for three or four days, a mix of boys and girls, a mix of our parents jumping in, and I really love that. When I went to University, it was when a lot of these AAA single-player, 100-hour games started happening, and that’s what I was playing, but I felt myself getting more and more distant with people. I was making the choice: Do I want to play more video games or do I want to have more friends? So, I really wanted to make a game where we brought those things back together: It’s a story-based game that you can play on your own, but even if you did, you’d always have this thought on your mind of like, ‘I would really love to have somebody next to me to play it with.’
What games were significant to you growing up?
Yu: One of them was Tetris, because it was a game that I played most with my mom. It’s funny, because I do all kinds of tech support for my mom, but one of the things that happens is every time she gets a new computer, she asks me to get her another copy of Tetris. The other was Secret of Mana. It’s a very similar game [to Knights and Bikes] mechanically, an action-adventure with three kids who are trying to save the world, and the thing I loved about that is, unlike other multi-player games, it was very round-based, very repetitive, all the joy was made outside of the game with the people you were playing with. It was one of the few story games that I really enjoyed playing with other people and it was such a key part within my group of friends that we played it every year from when I was 13 until I moved out to the U.K. Every year we got together for eight to nine hours and played Secret of Mana and it really stuck with me as an experience you could share with people and remember and reminisce about. You could almost talk about the adventure like you were actually there together in the game. It was one of the big inspirations for why we wanted to add online co-op to the game — now that I live in the U.K., I’m still pretty close with those friends and I was thinking how sad it [would be] if I couldn’t play this game with them because of the geographical distance.
How did you develop the storybook-like art style?
Crowle: Knowing that we were going to be such a small team, just two of us most of the time, it needed to be a style that took the concept pieces and then literally cut around them to bring them into the game world. It’s a 3D world, but everything you see is made up of these [hand-drawn] paintings. There’s a slightly naïve style to it and we played around quite a lot with the perspective. Some of the influence comes from untrained local artists like Alfred Wallis, who was a fisherman back in the early part of the 20th century, and he used the paint he had for his boat to paint pictures of the harbor. There’s a very naïve style with no perspective at all, and I found those interesting to look at. Some elements come from children’s TV animation, which is where I started out before I got involved in video games. A lot of the visual style is about the movement. It’s trying to suggest that sort of endless well of energy that kids are able to draw from. They can never sit still, always on the move. That was something we wanted to convey in the visual. Everything is constantly shifting, like their own bodies, but also like their own imagination. An element we add to the game is that what the kids imagine starts to transform the environment on the island.
How do the gameplay mechanics work as far as shifting between the story and the various battles and quests?
Yu: We do mix-and-match the gameplay and the story, whether they’re going on an adventure to unlock their bikes or if they’re in a combat situation. They could be in the middle of a battle and jump to a conversation they’re having either with each other or a wooden stump or a large rock. It’s very much like what you have with a child; their attention jumps around everywhere. And then a lot of levels are made up of cooperative puzzles with the two girls having to work together to overcome problems. The story elements are embedded into the other gameplay mechanics.
Crowle: I think something that works well for two players is, when we were thinking back to our own childhoods, you are cooperating but you want to have a good time together, and suddenly one of you will challenge another and you’re in a race. So although you’re helping each other all the time, there’s these little moments where the most important thing in the world is that you cycle your bike to the top of the hill before the other one does. That helps with the pacing.
When the characters experience their first taste of grown-up freedom, what kinds of conflict and enemies do they encounter that test their stamina and resilience? Are these a metaphor for the real difficulties of the human experience?
Crowle: There’s an element of that. We play around a lot with the fact that you’re not sure what’s real and what’s not real. With the enemies they beat, they turn back into an everyday object afterwards. And the legend of the island is that there is ancient lost treasure and the treasure is cursed, so the girls think it’s the curse that’s doing this. You’re never quite sure: Is it the curse, or it that just what they’re imagining? I think that gives a more satisfying feel to the combat, because it’s not a brutal game — it’s a game about imagination and empathy — we want there still to be drama and excitement. We had a weasel character as an enemy in the game, but it was never so satisfying because you’re just hurting an animal. There isn’t a satisfying moment where you want to high-five each other because you beat it. So, that character didn’t make it into the game. The ones that we do have; there’s a theme park on the island which has these papier-mâché giant heads — a bit like a Disneyland, the Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck heads that employees would wear — but because it’s out of season, all these costumes are just laying around and they come to life and start chasing the girls around. We have little night gauntlets that scuttle around, like from The Addams Family. It gives that satisfying conclusion without feeling like you’re harming anything really.
How did you collaborate with the sound designer and composer to create a score that complements the storytelling and gameplay?
Crowle: We have two collaborators on the audio side. We have Kenny Young, he worked with us on LittleBigPlanet before, he’s got an amazing set of ears. He can tell if a pin is dropped and he can tell you which factory the pin came from. He’s incredibly precise and worries about the details, so with the audio design he added nice touches, like when you get a new bike, you hear a horse distantly neighing in the background. It gives that feel that you’re mounting up on your horse to ride out even though you’re on a little bike with training wheels. Then, the score by Daniel Pemberton is so catchy. There were points in development where we could have gone more ‘80s with the styling, because it does take place in the 1980s, and as we’ve been working on it things like Stranger Things have come out which have been very popular. We’re in a similar territory to that, but when Daniel started working on it, he didn’t want to go super ‘80s. My initial direction would have been to go full on John Carpenter, and he wanted to do something a lot more classical and nuanced.
One of the characters is described as being obsessed with video games and comic books. Was the decision to make her female intended to be a comment about gender norms?
Crowle: Because of our initial thought of making it more Goonies-esque and a larger team of kids, there was a time that we did trim back our cast to the two characters that we liked the most. We liked them the most because they weren’t stereotypical and we were worried that we were going into the territory of, you have the sports jock and the nerd — we felt it would be much more interesting to not be able to describe the characters so easily. The two girls are strong, resourceful characters; they’ve got twigs in their hair and mud on their knees — they’re very, “get up and go and get out there.”
What lessons did you take away from LittleBigPlanet that you directly incorporated into Knights and Bikes?
Yu: One is the idea of playing together positively. I remember one of the most exciting times I had working on LittleBigPlanet was when I played with one of the editors and game designers and we actually created a level together. There are so many games I’ve worked on that were focused on destructive competitiveness or destructive cooperation, but the idea of being together in a positive way was a reminder that it’s a valid form of playing games together. Playing together towards positivity is fulfilling in a renewable way that I really was inspired by.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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