Developer Interview: Foam Sword

The 80s-themed British romp Knights and Bikes launched in August of 2019, and rarely has the joy, tragedy, and sheer exhilaration of childhood been more perfectly expressed in so perfect a package. London-based studio Foam Sword is responsible for Penfurzy’s magic–a studio composed, rather incredibly, of just two people. Rex Crowle and Moo Yu are the developers behind Nessa and Demelza’s thrilling and heartfelt world, and they were kind enough to tag-team a barrage of questions about their own childhoods, perspectives, and inspirations. For more of the Penfurzy Rebel Bicycle Club, keep a close eye on the growing Knights and Bikes list of swag and media.

Foam Sword Logo

|| What about each other’s vision for video games inspired you two to work together? We hear Rex Crowle and Moo Yu met while developing titles like LittleBigPlanet. What drew you to each other, and how did that ultimately result in Foam Sword and Knights and Bikes? Why the name “Foam Sword”?

Moo Yu: I have a habit of roaming around the office when I’m stuck on a programming problem and one of my favorite desks to roam around when I was at Media Molecule was Rex’s. There was always something brewing and it was drastically different every time. I remember looking at all the cool stickers he had designed, especially once the intro was recorded and we could see them floating out of people’s brains and it made me think that I really wanted to see a game completely in his hand-drawn style. So after a few years of things not quite lining up, we finally had a chat about a story following a gang of kids on an 80s style adventure–which ended up becoming Knights and Bikes.

We went through so many different company names trying to capture the idea of what we wanted to achieve. We knew that at the core of it, we wanted to make games that captured players’ imaginations and took them to worlds they’d never seen before. Eventually we thought back to our childhoods and remembered some of the great role playing adventures we’d had dueling with sticks or foam swords.

|| Do any personal childhood memories feed into the story and characters of Knights and Bikes? The game is described as a “Goonies-inspired tale,” but were there any real-life experiences that contributed to its narrative and sense of childlike wonder? A strong affinity for riding bikes, perhaps? A remarkable friendship?

Moo: My childhood didn’t have much effect on the story, but it definitely influenced a lot of the cooperative elements of the game. I just remembered and longed for the days when video games were something that brought me together with friends or even helped me meet new friends rather than squirreling away for 100 hours collecting the last hidden trinket for a trophy. I remember in particular, I had one friend who I thought of all the time throughout development who I met through video games. When he first moved to our area, he literally just rode around the block all day looking for other kids. When he saw one, he’d ask, “Do you have a Nintendo?” and if you answered no, he’d say goodbye and keep on riding. But luckily, I did have a Nintendo, well, I had a strange Chinese bootleg Nintendo so I said yes, to which he replied, “We can be friends!” and we were. A game that he introduced me to and that was a big inspiration for me on Knights and Bikes was Secret of Mana. I just miss the experience of going through a story-based adventure with a friend by your side.

Rex Crowle: Knights and Bikes is based fairly directly on the region I grew up in, the once separate kingdom of Cornwall, at the south western tip of the UK. It’s a beautiful and stormy place, and that setting meant I could add in all kinds of unusual local references that give the game a lot of its unique flavour. But ultimately it all goes toward creating a fantastical adventure in an environment that’s still grounded in realism. I guess I was pretty similar to one of the kids in the game, with a head full of stories and drawing on everything I could find (no change now tbh!) and I had a bike which was my pride and joy, even if it was too heavy for me to ride it up any of the nearby hills until I got older. A big influence on me as a kid was a nearby castle, jutting out of the clifftops at Tintagel, which is said to be the location of the real King Arthur’s castle (it’s surrounded by cafes called “Merlin’s Tea-Room” or “Lady of The Lake”). But that interest in uncovering ancient legends, hidden under modern tourist traps is really at the core of Knights and Bikes’ treasure-hunting story.

|| Why did Knights and Bikes end up being Nessa and Demelza’s story? You mention elsewhere that a whole gang of kids was originally planned, but you ended up paring it down to your “favourite two characters”—why were these two your favorite? Who or what inspired their unique voices? Were there any challenges with having two heroines instead of two heroes?

Rex: Yes, so in our early prototypes and concept-art we had a larger gang of kids, and the experience might have been more like an traditional RPG, swapping characters in and out of your party, depending on what unique skill they each had. But we found it hard to connect with each kid and their own stories, it felt more like you were ordering this gang around, rather than actually playing as them. So what combat there was became real-time instead of turn-based and the minute-to-minute gameplay became more about co-op interactions and puzzle-solving, and a lot more focus went onto the game’s story.

Because our kids had been created with a core ability each, they tended to drift more toward child/school stereotypes – the jock, the geek and so on. Nessa and Demelza appealed to us because they were least categorizable like that – they felt like characters rather than units. Although it didn’t particularly influence our selection process, the fact that they were both heroines made them more interesting to create. There are far fewer games about female friendships and creating one ourselves meant more of a creative stretch and more listening to stories from others. And we’re so happy Nessa and Demelza have now gone on to have a load of extra adventures in the tie-in books written by Gabrielle Kent.

|| Do you find yourselves relating more with the adults in Knights and Bikes or the young heroines? Is the perspective of youth something we lose forever as we age, or do you find that childhood magic is still possible to conjure up, even as our childhood drifts into the foggier part of our memories?

Moo: Of course, the kids! There are many different contrasts that we draw between the kids and adults in Knights and Bikes, but the one that stands out to me–and that I see constantly expressed in my son–is that kids don’t have a concept of the impossible. If they want something, they’ll try whatever they can think of to get it. I feel like as an adult, I spend so much of my energy choosing battles and evaluating where best to invest my energy, and the down side of that is that there are so many possibilities that I leave behind because the odds are bad or it’s a lot more work than I’m willing to put forth. But I do constantly try to remind myself that some things are just worth fighting for and you really have to cast caution to the wind and keep trying whatever crazy idea your mind can think of to get there.

|| What was your philosophy behind balancing Nessa and Demelza’s thrilling romp with the poignant and darker details of the story? Knights and Bikes is as fun as it is thought-provoking. Why did you choose this particular fusion, and how did you go about weighing the exciting against the serious? Was one more important than the other?

Rex: It’s an interesting experience creating a childhood-themed game from an adult’s perspective. There’s a fair bit of sadness and poignancy in the story and that comes from looking back on childhood from an adult perspective. As a kid everything is very polarised and simple – you want to have adventures, your parents seem to want to stop your fun, the school bully is always out to get you. But looking back from years later, you can understand your parents’ worries and the hardships they might have been dealing with, and similarly you also start to wonder what psychologically made the school bully act like they did.

The game itself tries to represent both of those points of view, it’s a hyperactive action adventure for kids, but there’s also more hidden emotions and nostalgia for older players. We get a lot of messages from parents that have played it co-op with their kids, and hearing about those little family bonding moments are just the best!

|| What’s next for Foam Sword? Knights and Bikes was a tremendous first game for the studio. Can fans look forward to more titles from Foam Sword? If so, do you plan to do more in the vein of Knights and Bikes, and where would you recommend people go to watch for news?

Rex: Thanks! As there’s only two of us, the post-launch period has been super busy with the other things that are happening with the IP, there’s been 3 novels and an animated series is in the early stages of development (fingers-crossed it makes it all the way through to airing on TV!). On top of that, we were funded by a gang of very patient Kickstarter backers, and there’s been a large stack of physical rewards we initially promised to them and we’re in the late stages of designing those, but they take a lot of care and attention to get right. I’m currently just putting the final touches on a 200-page “Art Of Knights And Bikes” book which will be exciting to get back from the printers!

|| If you could remake three games that have adult characters to feature children and their perspectives instead, which games would you pick, and why? Telling the story from Nessa and Demelza’s eyes was important to the Knights and Bikes narrative. What other games would you like to see get this treatment?

Rex: I love this question! Wow. Hmmm. Yoshi’s Island has always been quite an influence on me from an early age because of its expressive visual style. So I’d quite like to know how that game would work if you played as Baby Mario and needed to keep saving grown-up Mario and how that gameplay might differ from the original. And I think it being played from the kid’s perspective would mean you could take that hand-drawn art style even further.

I’m also wondering what a remake of a brawler might be like if you were playing the kids of the original main character and you’re just trying to keep them from resorting to using their fists again. Like a Streets of Rage, but you’ve got to get your retired street-fighting father to his anger management course, and keep him from beating up anyone on the way.

And finally I guess it would just be interesting to play as the son or daughter of any of the big hero characters in games and see their personality reflected in their offspring. We’ve played as Atreus in God of War, but I wonder what it would be like to play as Solid Snake’s daughter for example, and experience what effect their parenting (or lack of it) might have had on your character.