How Knights & Bikes is Aiming to Capture Childhood

By Edge on at

Developers often talk about their cultural influences, and when you’ve been doing this job as long as we have, you notice the same handful of names cropping up. The Goonies, it’s fair to say, is rarely one of them – which makes a pitch that name-checks it all the more intriguing. Not that you’d immediately recognise the inspiration from a first glance at Knights & Bikes. Its heroes are two young girls, a seaweed-obsessed goose, and the sentient decapitated head of a legendary knight, and they’re exploring an island just off the coast of Cornwall, throwing Frisbees and angrily pecking at the bewitched creatures that cross their paths. Our memories aren’t what they used to be, but that’s not quite how we remember it.

Of course, Media Molecule’s Rex Crowle and LittleBigPlanet programmer Moo Yu aren’t interested in direct pastiche or homage – they’re aiming to capture the adventuring spirit of Richard Donner’s 1980s favourite. It’s a concept the pair have been kicking around for a while, having discussed their mutual affection for the film over a few drinks. “I was busy on Tearaway so we didn’t really do a lot with it,” Crowle tells us, “but I remember Moo and I felt we could do something really interesting by taking RPG-style mechanics and blending that with a Goonies-style story, with multiple kids, each with their own personalities.”

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Orphan Nessa is the quieter of the pair – as a mainlander, she’s treated with a degree of suspicion by most of Penfurzy’s residents, the energetic Demelza being the notable exception

The two spent the best part of 12 months mulling the idea over before starting production last year, setting up under the name Foam Sword just as development on Tearaway Unfolded was wrapping up. Crowle is still working two days a week on Dreams, but the rest of his time is now being spent on Knights & Bikes. By the time its crowdfunding campaign was ready to launch (“a friend from Double Fine warned me that it’s like announcing a game and shipping it all in one month,” Crowle laughs), Foam Sword had a very firm vision of what the game was going to be, which is illustrated by one of the most distinctive Kickstarter projects to date.

“We’re going for very universal memories... treating the world like an adventure”

Characters were a key focus during the early discussions. “We had a group of kids that were much more generic,” Crowle tells us. “We had the nerd and the jock, and we were both trying to mash them up and upset all the stereotypes.” Over time, potential protagonists were gradually excised, with none of the boys making the final cut. The two that remained were outsider Nessa and the hyperactive, video-game-obsessed Demelza. If they’re hardly archetypes, their relationship has that classic odd-couple dynamic; what the two girls share is a restless desire to spread their wings.

“We’re going for very universal memories of childhood,” Crowle explains. “Of getting on your bike and cycling around and treating the world like it really is an adventure. Where you’re trying to deal with all these mysteries and questions. Like that locked-up concrete bunker in the middle of the woods – what’s happening in there?”

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There is, too, an element of nostalgia for a time when games were an important part of the early lives of both developers. Through Demelza in particular, Knights & Bikes will explore the way in which games can become a way for kids to interpret the world around them; there are direct references to Nintendo’s SNES and other consoles of that era, though you won’t see much in the way of meta-commentary. “Video games have always been a big part of our lives,” Yu says. “It’s a game about childhood and imagination, and both of us used video games when we were kids to sometimes escape the real world but also occasionally to just find a character that we loved living in. There will be a bit of a celebration of video games, and what it was like growing up with them.”

This idea of forging bonds through shared experiences means that while solo players will always have an AI ally to accompany them, Yu suggests it’s ideally played with someone alongside you. “It’s set at a time where these kids are trying to figure out who they are and how they fit together to become better individuals, and we thought co-op was a really nice way to better mirror that kind of theme.” Experience comes in a more tangible form, too: as the two girls find hidden treasure and rescue islanders, they’ll earn upgrades for their bikes to reach new areas, adding thicker tyres to negotiate patches of slippery mud, for example.

A knight, of course, needs an appropriate weapon, and you’ll be able to mount a medieval lance on the front of your two-wheeled steed. You’ll have plenty of jousting practice, too, though combat is mostly conducted on foot. “There’s an uneasy relationship between making a really beautiful game and then having combat in it,” Crowle concedes. “So we’re trying to make sure the combat is part of the ethos of the game, where you’ve got that kid-like feeling of having loads of energy, loads of imagination, and dealing with all these situations in a slightly scrappy way.”

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Demelza’s pet goose, Captain Honkers, has a keen sense of smell, which serves as a useful navigational aid. The island’s menagerie tends towards the avian: as well as geese, you’ll come across woodpeckers and puffins.

There will be plenty of interplay between the two leads: Nessa, for example, can throw water balloons onto the ground to make puddles which Demelza can jump into with her wellies in order to splash everyone with mud – which, naturally, may well make ancient knights a little rusty.

Crowle was raised in Cornwall, but the game won’t be too autobiographical. He has, however, recently been revisiting his old stomping grounds, and spent a weekend sketching at a scrapyard down in the south west. “I think in order to capture this element of magical realism it’s important to accurately represent locations a little more than you sometimes see in games...” This only goes so far, though. “When I joined the industry I had a much stronger Cornish accent, and I’ve had to kind of lose that because no one took me seriously,” he says. “I want to make sure the characters are fully rounded, that they’re not just standing there in smocks, chewing on a bit of straw.”

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“We wondered if the appeal was just in our heads,” Yu says, “but people have gotten incredibly excited about it, which is exactly what we were hoping for”

Knights & Bikes’ freewheeling, unique, experimental spirit, together with its blend of humour and melancholia strongly recall Foam Sword’s other big influence, EarthBound. No game since has quite captured that same nervy excitement of expanding one’s boundaries, tinged with the sadness of saying farewell to a part of your life. Not that it’ll be too heavy-going: there are moments of introspection, sure, but this is a celebration.

“We’re trying to capture the joyfulness of childhood,” Crowle says. “Of careening down a slope on a bike with no brakes.” A shift away from the comfort of a larger studio marks new territory for Foam Sword, but this thrillingly singular adventure is clear evidence that Yu and Crowle are more than happy to let go of the handlebars, screaming at the top of their lungs all the way down.


edge logoThis feature originally appeared in Edge, the world’s most respected games magazine, which has been running for over 20 years. Issue 291 is out now.