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This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series. You can find the rest by clicking here.
Knights and Bikes follows a pair of young girls on wild, imagined adventures throughout their seaside home town, petting geese, throwing frisbees, and overcoming evil together.
Gamasutra sat down with Moo Yu, Rex Crowle, and Kenny Young of Foam Sword to learn about the feelings of childhood energy that permeated the visual style, the imagination that fueled the sounds and music, and how the game encourages togetherness through cooperative play.
Yu: I’m Moo Yu and I was the programmer on Knights and Bikes.
I’ve been a gameplay programmer for 15 years or so. Most of my known work has been from console games like Ratchet and Clank and LittleBigPlanet during my time at Media Molecule, which is where I met Rex. I’ve also wandered the games industry making Facebook games, mobile games, web games, kids games, and all that kind of stuff. I even was able to program a game called Subsurface Circular during the development of Knights and Bikes.
Crowle: Hello! I’m Rex Crowle, and I juggled a lot of roles, but Art, Level Design and Story took up most of my development time on the game.
I’m from an illustration and animation background, and although it was my dream, I never expected to end up working in games. Luckily, a path via interaction design and TV animation brought me into the industry. First, I was at Lionhead Studios, and then I was helping my pals as they set up Media Molecule to define how the company would stand out and be perceived, along with the pitch for our first game, LittleBigPlanet.
After making a couple of those games, the studio supported me to take on leading a project that became Tearaway on the Vita and then Tearaway Unfolded on PS4. I’ve always enjoyed doing lots of personal-projects outside of studio work to keep things fresh, from making short-films to apps, and Knights And Bikes became by far the biggest of those to date.
Crowle: Myself and Moo had been playing around with the idea of making an experience similar to that classic 1980s film The Goonies. We imagined a game about managing a gang of kids, each with their own abilities which they’d have to use both separately and as a team to have some kind of treasure-hunting adventure. That ultimate quest being a bit of a MacGuffin, because really it would be about friendship and coming-of-age and going on an emotional journey as well as a physically-demanding adventure.
Initially, the player would have been controlling a larger gang of kids and dealing with turn-based battles along the way. The whole package skewed closer to our video game inspirations: Secret of Mana and Earthbound. But with time, it developed more of its own personality. We trimmed back the cast to just our two favorite characters, Nessa and Demelza, so that the story could focus far more on their developing relationship with each other. And while combat remained, it became real-time and a smaller part of the way players interacted with the world. The same player abilities used in battles were given an overhaul so they could be used to solve puzzles, allowing players to be more expressive, and most importantly, collaborate meaningfully with the other player.
All of this felt like a much better overall balance and the game became mostly about being a good friend and bonding with someone else on an emotional journey. Along with a healthy dose of bike-riding, goose-petting and high-fiving each other along the way!
Yu: Knights and Bikes was developed in Unity 3D. We also used tools like Spine for animation and Rewired for controller support. On top of Unity, we built a suite of custom tools that we also used to build the game.
Crowle: Having almost the smallest content-creation team it’s possible to have, we needed to have the shortest possible content pipeline. So, the solution was to paint the “concept art” in Photoshop, save it out as PNGs, and then reposition them in a 3D scene within Unity. And skip all the stages in-between that you’d have on a true 3D title like modeling, texturing, and so forth. This reduced the workload a lot, although using 2D animation in a world you could navigate fully in 3D (on foot and on bikes) mostly added all that saved-time back onto the project again!
Crowle: The concept behind the visual style is that it’s a world you are looking at through the eyes of the characters that are experiencing it. It’s their own unique take on what’s ‘there’. If you’d been playing as an adult in the story, it might have all been rendered in quite a different style, but in this particular tale, you’re playing as a pair of energetic, imaginative kids.
So, the visuals are created in the same materials that our characters might try to document the story themselves: in paint, chalk and pastels. But it’s not a total fantasy environment; it’s based on a real setting. So, it was a case of using those expressive materials to describe a much less fantastical reality. I wanted it to be based on somewhere with lots of very real issues and actually be a little bit bleak, so that this more fantastical interpretation would have a very strong and real foundation underneath it. It’s the kids imagination that elevates the ordinary and turns a rundown seaside resort into the setting for a grand adventure.
Aside from the painting style, the key ingredient was environmental animation. The visuals needed to be alive and with lots of movement, suggesting both the stormy island setting that the game takes place on, but most importantly, that it’s a representation of the endless energy that kids have. It tries to depict not just their physical energy, but also the power of their imagination. So, everything on screen is shimmering and “wobbling” like a stop-motion animation to suggest that everything is in play. It’s like their molecules are struggling to stay in one form. Nothing is certain and everything has the potential to be warped and changed by the character's imagination.
As we continued development, this aspect was one that players were particularly enjoying. Juxtaposing the reality and the fantasy was something we leaned into more and more. Before long, rusty chicken-wire fences were warping into castle-battlements and a bike race might be given extra drama as a shower of shimmering chalk arrows rained down around the players.
Crowle: All that movement meant a lot of painting! Most “static” items are painted multiple times so they could shimmer in that stop-motion style, and that was time-consuming. Placing objects in the 3D scenes was also extremely painstaking as there were often thousands of individual animated 2D paintings on screen at any one time. Each object was individually hand placed and tinted to make sure it created a cohesive and attractive composition, and there was a huge amount of pinging back and forth between Edit and Play modes in Unity to nudge a tuft of grass a few pixels this way or that.
Having said that, character animation was probably the biggest challenge. Visually, it needed to still have that stop-motion feel, but with hundreds of animations required and with many viewed from multiple angles, it would have to use a bone-based animation solution, for which we chose Spine 2D. Much of the actual work was just the slog of animating and maintaining a huge library of movements, as well as setting up all the triggers in the game-world, cut-scenes and dialogue to trigger them all and keep the characters feeling alive and engaged in the story at all times.
But the bike-riding was the trickiest single task, as it required a combination of character animations, bike animations, plus extra overlaid animations, and all created in many more compass directions than the regular on-foot movements. There was obviously a huge amount of code to control all this and a lot of tweaking by Moo to get it feeling good. I struggled a bit with no preview of how well the player animations were matching up with the bike animation without running the game, but with a lot of guesswork, collaboration, and experimentation, I think we got something that feels both smooth to control while still matching the style of the rest of the game, and hopefully making you feel like you’re 8-years old again, freewheeling carefree down a mountainside on a bike with dodgy brakes!
Yu: One of the challenges that I found myself facing was just making sure everything played together nicely. Knights and Bikes is a grab bag of different methods to create its distinctive look. There are tons of sprites, some animated frame-by-frame and others animated using Unity’s legacy or MechAnim tools. But it also has 3D meshes (some authored in Maya, some dynamically created with custom tools, and others created at runtime with code), particle effects, Spine animations, and I’m sure I’m forgetting some other bits.
Yu: I thought a lot about what my fondest moments playing video games were, and they all had one thing in common: bringing friends together to enjoy the medium. So, I was just hoping to capture that feeling again of getting together with your friends, not knowing what the future holds, and plunging forth into adventure. It’s something that I missed living such a structured adult life, but also something I’m looking forward to now that I have a 1-year-old child.
Yu: One of the main things that was really important to us was that each girl was her own person. From a gameplay perspective, they couldn’t just be the same character with different costumes on. Each girl needed to have her own personality and abilities, and it was necessary for them to work together to find their way through this journey.
Crowle: Yep! And in designing each kid's abilities, it was important that they felt quite improvised and centered around them and their own world-view. They’re going on this Arthurian quest to find their Holy Grail, but there aren’t any ladies in lakes gifting them with magical swords.They are using the everyday objects that they find along the way, like Frisbees and toilet-plungers. And even though it’s kinda silly, it also takes a lot more courage to go into battle with the ancients armed only with pair of rubber rain boots and pack of water-balloons.
And that thematic imbalance between the challenge ahead and the player's tools to deal with it hopefully creates more dramatic juxtapositions and more bonding between players. Which then leads to more invention on how to combine those skills together, and a few more surprising outcomes as well. In comparison, it’s kinda hard to design anything particularly surprising to do with a sword or a gun, so this was a lot more fun to make! We ended up with a spreadsheet cross-referencing how each of these more improvised abilities could be combined by players together. There are some very obscure combinations possible, particularly with the late-game powers that allow players to get pretty playful if they just want to take a bit of time out from the story and creatively mess around, just like any pair of kids would!
Young: Daniel Pemberton’s score is probably best summarized as nostalgic, but with more of an emphasis on childhood than the game’s 1980's setting. The opening song ‘I Wanna Ride My Bike’ has a late-70's punk vibe that a rebel like Nessa might very well have had on her mix tape, but it primarily serves to score the girls’ youthful spirits and energy, not least because it is sung by an eleven year old girl! It’s also quite deliberately not very gamey, and breaking with tradition sets the tone for the audio experience from the get go.
The score has quite a broad palette, and I love how Daniel reuses the main theme in various different guises but always serves the purpose of reminding us of the lost treasure and Demelza’s mum. So, sometimes it is quite exposed and vulnerable (the melodica phrases), other times mysterious and mystical (the Gregorian chant), but even manages to be gritty and galvanizing (the synth version used during the Laser Kingdom sequence). There’s a lighter side to the music experience, too – the percussive pieces used during racing and combat score the frenetic energy of the girls and the situations they find themselves in, and the kazoo is a fun nod to the naivety of childhood.
For the sound, there was a definite attempt and intention to further blur the distinction between what is real and what is imagined by Nessa and Demelza. For the most part, that means that everything is taken at face value irrespective of how outlandish it might be, which gives a consistency to the experience – everything is very real for the girls. But some of the more interesting examples take the form of naturalistic sounds we hear in the environment, such as the distant horses whinnying when they get on their bikes, the source of which is ambiguous, and other times, it is sounds made by the girls themselves that offers a more overt insight into their imaginations, such as the vehicle sounds they make with their mouths whilst running or racing.
Another big focus was the ambient sound world of Penfurzy itself; exploring the island is a significant aspect of the game, and we wanted players to be immersed in that experience. It’s common for games to rely on music or abstract sound design to differentiate between areas on a map and signify to players what they should be feeling at all times. So, I think we took a bit of a risk in asking players to form their own emotional response to uncovering the island. But once players accept that this is how it’s going to be, hopefully it offers a refreshing experience that gives the game a unique tone.
The intention is that this acts as an invitation to players to revisit those feelings of exploring and discovering their environment as a kid. I don’t know how close we got to pulling that off, but what I do know is that it’s rare for a game to expect players to truly listen to it, and I’d like to think that Knights and Bikes rewards those that do.
A big upside of breaking with tradition and emphasizing the environmental audio is that when we do use music, it has a much bigger impact and really helps to heighten the experience during challenges, combat, and the game’s more emotional moments of exposition. As with all powerful substances, overusing music dulls its effects
Crowle: Although the game is often silly and playful and loud, under the surface it’s definitely a game about deeper emotions and feelings. It’s quite a personal story for me, but it also deals with lots of universal themes, too, and it’s good to know that it’s been connecting with players. Lots of reviews have used the word “Heartfelt” which I’m very happy about. Although it sometimes felt very “Heart-Wrung” to me in that I’ve really squeezed myself out into a video game. But I’m glad it’s out there and we all managed to deliver on the thing that we originally promised our Kickstarter backers.
And of all the player reviews and messages we get, it’s the ones where people say “I played this together with my wife/husband/partner/kids” and you know they shared this particular story together, and you wonder about all those specific little moments of bonding and friendship they had snuggled up on the couch together, when it became their story instead of ours.
This game, an IGF 2020 honoree, is featured as part of the Independent Games Festival ceremony, which will be free to stream virtually starting at 5pm PT (8pm ET) Wednesday, March 18 on GDC’s Twitch channel.