Returning to the safe bastion of childhood is something many of us do when our lives get too frenzied. It's always a safe place to return to if things get rough – all our favorite things are there, after all!
Indie developer Foam Sword's Knights and Bikes is a great way to tap into those hallowed days, as it explores a world inspired by The Goonies and Secret of Mana that follows two spunky girls named Demelza and Nessa on their quest to seek the "truth" behind the legends of the island of Penfurzy. Now that it's on the Switch, we though it'd be a great opportunity to chat with Foam Sword's Rex Crowle and Moo You about everything Knights and Bikes.
Without further ado, enjoy our chat with Foam Sword, and get ready to enter a fun new fantasy world!
Shacknews: How did you decide to opt for two female heroines instead of the "typical" two boy or one boy, one girl storyline?
RC In our early plans and prototypes for the game we actually had a larger group of kids. At that stage the game was more about controlling a whole gang, with lots of swapping back and forth and managing them all. But that didn’t really capture our goal of creating a coming-of-age adventure experienced through the eyes of the kids having it. This prototype was more like being their gym teacher and ordering them about!
So we pared things back to our favourite two characters, the two characters that had the most personality and felt the furthest from the usual stereotypical groups of jocks, nerds, etc. Those characters were Nessa and Demelza, both girls. Maybe it was a riskier move because it’s weirdly unusual but it felt the right thing to do especially as it would be interesting to write for them. Foam Sword might be a couple of guys making video games, but we want to encourage new audiences to both play games and ultimately tell their stories by making their own ones. And just sticking to the same hero characters isn’t really going to help with that.
I think that decision worked out, especially as the game has expanded into a range of novels and has now been optioned for a TV series, which I’m not sure would have happened if we’d gone for with more “typical” game characters.
Shacknews: The game is inspired by your childhood, I've read when researching it. What are some of the most special moments you added to Knights and Bikes that feel the most nostalgic to you?
RC: Although it’s got lots of universal themes from childhood, along with the pop culture influence from movies like The Goonies, there are a lot of personal recollections in there too. The rugged island of Penfurzy is based on the area where I grew up, on the south-westerly tip of the UK in a region called Cornwall. It’s a beautiful region but also one of the deprived in Europe, as all traditional industries have been wiped out over the past 50 years. So there’s a lot in there about rising above the circumstances you find yourself in, both through imaginative play and through bonding and sharing what you have with a good friend.
There’s a moment in the game where you are searching an office for clues, it’s the classic setting of somewhere kids shouldn’t be and are worried about getting caught, but they just have to look. And through a series of mishaps all the files are deleted off a computer and the printer goes haywire, spewing paper out everywhere while a bunch of other stuff gets broken. That’s directly based on a time I sneaked into an office as a kid and tried to work out how a computers mouse worked by taking it apart (I’d never seen one before) and it led to a very similar outcome. I’ve become marginally better with technology since then.
It’s fun to recreate moments like that, but ultimately the most special thing is trying to craft an adventure that both surprises players with its unusual setting but also gives them a very warm and heartwarming experience that they can fully connect themselves with. Especially if they can share the journey with an actual friend or family member.
Shacknews: What is it about Knights and Bikes that you feel makes it the perfect game for Switch?
MY: With a new tiny human in my life, I understand now more than ever how hard it is to find a few hours to get together with friends to play a game. As soon as I had the Switch version running the first time, it felt a bit magical. Not only could you bring the world of Penfurzy around with you and play anywhere you wanted for whatever amount of time you had available, but you could also just peel off the controllers and you were immediately playing online co-op with anyone within arm’s reach. It’s so much more convenient to enjoy the experience with friends wherever and whenever you want.
Shacknews: Are there any titles that you feel influenced the game in a big way?
MY: The game that I found myself thinking back to the most was Secret of Mana. It wasn’t any particular set of features, but just the feeling of being on an adventure with friends and going on a journey together. I love playing games with other people, but so many of the local multiplayer games I played were either competitive or round-based or formats that weren’t conducive to diving deep into a world and having lots to discuss in between play sessions. So that feeling I had from when I played Secret of Mana with my friends was something I really wanted to capture in Knights and Bikes.
Shacknews: How did you come up with the improvisational nature of the girls' weapons?
MY: It was pretty different for each weapon, but the three aspects we’d always need to figure out where the theme, the combat ability, and the puzzle opportunities. Sometimes it would start with a theme and I’d struggle to find ways to differentiate in combat. Sometimes we’d know exactly how it would work for puzzles, but couldn’t figure out what the theme would be. The one I definitely struggled with the most was the sink plunger. I knew I wanted mines as a weapon, but couldn’t think of a theme that would make sense for the imagination of either of the girls. It wasn’t until I thought about those weird popper toys from the 80s that it dawned on me that the top of a sink plunger was very similar to one of those, which solved the theme, but then also helped me figure out the puzzle and charged up abilities of pulling down shields and enemies.
Shacknews: What was the most important part of development that helped you truly capture the nature of childhood for the game?
MY: I think the feature that we added (and then went back and added more and more of) was the chalk drawings over the world. In particular, the moment that Rex drew the wizard onto the crane logo, I realized there was something really magical there. We had always had the idea of infusing a non-literal perspective on the world, but I had always assumed it’d be the vector world from Demelza’s video game. But when we started putting the chalk drawings into the Scrapyard, everything clicked into place for me.
Shacknews: How did you decide on a handpainted aesthetic?
RC: There’s two parts to that answer, the slightly dull but practical part and the more artistic reason. So much of game development is balancing those two aspects!
So the practical reason was that it would have been impossible to make a full 3D world with such a tiny team, with so much else to do. But we still wanted it to be a world you could really explore as a pair of inquisitive kids and have a lot of freedom of movement, particularly on your bikes. So the compromise was to build the environments by layering up 2D paintings into a 3D world - like a giant theatre stage. That would give players plenty of agency when moving around but with the flat painted artwork creating a more stylised depiction of the stormy ancient island where the game takes place.
The actual style of the painted scenery is an attempt to represent the world as seen through the eyes of our two stars. It’s painted in the kind of materials they would use to tell the story themselves, like chalk, pastels and paint. I didn’t want it to look like the very simple stereotypical “kids painting style” because it’s representing a real believable place, and there was a balance to be struck between reality and the kids interpretations. I think it mostly works. Things are skewed and exaggerated based on what would be more important to them, or how they are feeling. For instance, in places they feel more safe the kids are larger compared to the environment. But as they continue on their hazardous quest they’ll start to get smaller compared to their setting to enhance those feelings, and hopefully make players feel the need to support each other even more.
The “kids-eye-view” became a much larger aspect as development went on, as players really responded to moments where the kids imagination started to warp or directly draw onto the environment. It became quite a fun task to juxtapose the reality of the run-down seaside resort with how our imaginative heroines were perceiving it and how the adults were oblivious to their visions. In Nessa and Demelza’s eyes rusty chain-link fences transformed into castle battlements and even the everyday junk they collected became desirable loot once it had been stuffed into their bulging pockets, ready for when they wanted to buy a new upgrade for their bikes.
Shacknews: Why knights? Why bikes? How do they go hand and hand in your mind?
RC: Knights are a theme because I think when you’re a kid, time is very important to you. You’re always boasting that your “Seven and three-quarter years old” because you’ve not experienced many years and every single day is a big deal. So anything from 500 years ago or a 1000 years ago is just so mind-bogglingly long ago that it’s massively exciting and cool. I grew up near a place called Tintagel which is a ruined castle up on the clifftops, that is said to be the site of the real Camelot (depending on who you listen to!) but that place just filled my imagination as a kid. I’d try to imagine what the castle would have looked like from the moss-covered ruins that still stand, as well as leaping off walls and generally terrorising tourists with my battle cries.
And similarly the theme of bikes was a big one for us as getting your first bicycle as a kid is a fairly universal moment of increased freedom. For the first time you have the means to explore the world on your own without your parents, it's your own personal transporter, but you can team up with other friends that have theirs too. And then the adventures really start.
To bring those two themes together, we treat the bikes in the game a like your loyal knightly steeds. Kenny, our sound designer, did a lovely thing where each time you jump on your bike, very subtly you’ll hear a horse whinny in the distance. It really helps to make that connection between the ancient history of the island, and your part in it, as modern-day knights searching for treasure and protecting the island.
Shacknews: Where did Demelza and Nessa's names come from?
RC: I went to a very tiny village school where most of the girls were called Demelza. It was a very popular name at the time, because of the popularity of the Poldark novels which featured a character of the same name. It’s also the name of a nearby village and I’ve always liked the way the word looks and sounds. It’s a pretty name but also has a bit of an edge with the “ZA” at the end and that felt like a good fit for the personality of that character.
And then Nessa in the Cornish language means “Second” because well, she’s player two! And we both really loved the sound of it. Something we hadn’t thought of it how much it’s like “Ness”, the hero of Earthbound, the Nintendo game that was also a big influence on us. So even though there’s comments online about how unsubtle that name is in referencing an influence it honestly wasn’t something we had even thought about!
Shacknews: What did you learn from Knights and Bikes that you'd take with you into sessions for future development?
MY: You always learn so much from every project. My biggest surprise from Knights and Bikes was about Kickstarter. I always thought that running a Kickstarter campaign would be a good way to raise money, but also add a bunch of wasted time to the project doing things like backer updates, community support, and making physical rewards. But I quickly came to realize that I absolutely loved doing all those extra bits and they helped keep me motivated throughout the project. So I think if I get the chance again, I’ll make sure I have a community active during development again to keep me honest and happy.
Brittany Vincent posted a new article, Knights and Bikes interview: Capturing the nature of childhood
Gives me some "Costume Quest" vibes.