The most immediately striking aspect of Knights and Bikes, the debut project from indie studio Foam Sword Games, is its art style. In its screenshots and concept art, Knights and Bikes is all bright colors, big eyes and cute characters.
"It conveys that childlike energy," Foam Sword artist Rex Crowle said of his work, over Skype.
Yet, upon a second, closer look, the stylish PlayStation 4 and Windows PC game offers much more than that. Its color palette contains grassy greens and dusky purples in equal measure; the cast balances youthful protagonists with older, more weathered supporting characters.
These illustrative nuances are intentional, Crowle told Polygon. "One thing that was really important to me was making sure that the way [the game] moves is as much a part of how it looks when it's static," he explained, "and to get that kind of scribbly line effect that you have in hand-drawn animation, where each frame is slightly different from the last one.
Crowle's Foam Sword co-partner and programmer Moo Yu also emphasized the importance of capturing childhood wonder in the art design. "We want this blurriness between reality and imagination," he said.
That's clear from the fantastical artwork that drew attention to the crowdfunding project earlier this month. Seemingly out of nowhere, Foam Sword — of which Crowle and Yu are the founders and sole members — announced both its establishment and its first planned release in one fell swoop. A website and campaign page for the co-op adventure game packed with colorful images, at once familiar and distinctive, caught the eyes of both potential backers and the press.
"We're trying to remember [childhood] as it was, but looking at it from the perspective we have today"
The most obvious point of comparison for Knights and Bikes' style is the art of Media Molecule. That's to be expected, considering the studio is an important figure in Foam Sword's history. Though the studio is young, its founders' relationship stretches back far beyond its recent inception.
Crowle served as the creative lead for both Tearaway and the LittleBigPlanet series, "which is where I met Moo," he said. Crowle worked at Media Molecule as an artist; Yu was employed there on the programming side. Both stayed in touch after leaving the company. The duo would often talk about their game ideas, finding each other to be on the same page design-wise. It was over the past year that these discussions finally coalesced into something more concrete.
"It wasn't until the sort of latter half of last year that we started thinking, maybe we could do this and get out on Kickstarter and make it something that can happen," Crowle said.
Combining the skills they'd picked up from working on various games for Media Molecule and other aesthetically inclined studios, Yu and Crowle got to work on their kernel of an adventure game idea. This eventually evolved into Knights and Bikes and its beautiful artwork. But what Yu posits as Knights and Bikes' draw — the thing that convinced them to pursue it for real, and along the independent route — isn't just its unique look.
"The way the art style interacts [with the game] is more of a subtle thing," Yu said, "but one of the key things for us is this is a story told from the perspective of children."
That's the other major selling point of Knights and Bikes: Its story, as pitched on its Kickstarter campaign page, falls somewhere between The Goonies and EarthBound. The bike-riding preteen stars of Foam Sword's game try to make the most of their rural island life by embarking upon their own quest, one that's as reminiscent of these classic '80s adventure tales as it is inspired by them.
Nostalgia plays a major part in Knights and Bikes, which Yu described as both intrinsic to the game's story and its creation.
"It just came about inherently when we were thinking about our childhoods and drawing upon actual stories or actual cultural touchpoints," Yu said of that core theme. "You kind of do get nostalgic. There's no way around it."
Though Knights and Bikes takes place in the '80s, it's the developers who have the benefit of hindsight, not the characters.
"We're trying to remember [childhood] as it was, but looking at it from the perspective we have today and seeing how it informed who we are," Yu said.
"I will always tend to draw monsters and sort of ... hairy men"
"It's based on where I grew up," Crowle said, offering insight into Knights and Bikes' more subtle, grounded setting than one might expect when remembering the '80s, the era of neon. "I know from my own experience living somewhere quite cut off that certain things around you can be from the 1950s and 1960s."
That dissonance comes into play in the narrative, as mismatched elders contend with the town's younger members. But that true-to-life component is also why Knights and Bikes' design is more thoroughly modern, unlike other '80s-inspired games, which take a retro stylistic approach, he continued.
It's their memories of EarthBound and The Goonies that most resonated with the team behind Knights and Bikes. Recreating the experiences of seeing the film or playing the Super Nintendo game for the first time is Foam Sword's primary goal for its first game, which draws heavily from each of those works' serious subject matter tempered by a humorous tone.
Knights and Bikes stars best friends Demelza and Nessa, although it didn't start out that way. Before settling on the female co-leads, Yu and Crowle envisioned a more Goonies-esque gang of playable characters.
"In the early days, a lot of our characters were a bit more cliche archetypes or stereotypes," Yu said. "As we went, we always stuck with the smallest group that was really interesting to us."
Crowle agreed. "We felt these were the ones we cared about the most," he said. "We wanted to tell our story with these two."
Demelza and Nessa represent two of their island's most progressive and excitable inhabitants. Accompanied by Demelza's pet goose, they take off on their bikes to uncover the island's secrets — but also to distract themselves from its paucity of more modern pleasures.
Demelza and Nessa are rebellious spirits, Foam Sword said; they like space, video games and solving mysteries. They're also adorable, in no small part because of their age-appropriate ambition. That the game stars a pair of girls was a natural progression, not a conscious decision, but for Crowle — who cut his teeth on creating the oddball cast of games like LittleBigPlanet — coming up with these characters was a self-imposed artistic challenge.
"For me, it was a way of stretching myself a little bit," he explained, "because I will always tend to draw monsters and sort of ... hairy men," a term he arrived upon after a considerable pause.
"We have twice as many cats as we do employees"
Demelza and Nessa are far from that. And though they differ in gender from the heroes of Foam Sword's inspirations, the elements borrowed from boy-centric '80s adventures are clear in these characters. That bleeds into the gameplay, which coheres around bipedal island exploration, a quest meant to be taken on by a pair of players cooperatively.
That players are encouraged not to choose between Demelza and Nessa but instead bring along a friend for the ride is integral to the game: Yu and Crowle felt strongly about their first game being a cooperative experience. Multiplayer sessions with friends comprise many of their best gaming memories, they said, with one game in particular bearing a direct impact on their own work.
Square's Secret of Mana might have debuted on Super Nintendo just after the time period central to Knights and Bikes' 1980s — it came out in 1993 — but the fantastical role-playing game's co-op mechanic played heavily into Foam Sword's desires for its first project.
"It was a game that brought me and my friends together," Yu said. "Three of us played Secret of Mana once a year from the time we were 12."
"It's hard to find your weak spots when someone's there to cover for you"
Bringing people together is a big reason why the pair sprang for Kickstarter with the project, too: Community is important to all facets of this game, but talking about the game is meaningless if there's no funding to back the project up, of course. As an indie studio made up of just two people, turning to Kickstarter made sense on a financial level for Foam Sword. But what most excited Yu and Crowle about the crowdfunding platform was its body of passionate creators and fans.
"We wanted to think about what is the best way to see if people like the idea we're putting out there," Yu said, "but how do we find the most passionate people to get them on board?
"The more we thought about that, the more it seemed like Kickstarter was that great balance of finding the right community and sort of nurturing that."
Another reason to go with crowdfunding was because the designers wanted to seriously challenge themselves. Working with bigger studios on games for PlayStation, iOS and Facebook led Crowle and Yu to become, by their own admission, complacent. Their work had become less taxing, less methodical than they'd like. Going indie was a way to push themselves, and that comes through in a number of ways — with the female characters, the outside reliance on funding and the diminished resources available to them.
"I spent a lot of time in big studios, and it's really great because you have that support," Yu said. "But it's hard to find your weak spots and where you need to strengthen when you have someone, especially [with] Insomniac [Games, where Yu worked on Ratchet and Clank] and Media Molecule always there to cover basics for you."
"I think we were both keen to work on something we could be really hands-on with," Crowle added. "We work at each other's houses. We have twice as many cats as we do employees.
"It's a very hyper but relaxed way of working."
As we spoke, the pair was still hard at work: Crowle was designing the game's box art, which he recognized might sound strange, considering the crowdfunding period is still ongoing. But for an indie game making the transition from concept to development, these sorts of touches help make the project feel all the more real.
It's what Crowle calls a "compressed" way of working, but working on things like box art or other physical rewards for Knights and Bikes' growing fan base helps him and Yu understand their own project better, too.
"It helps define all of the characters and the story and makes it really clear and focused," Crowle said. "Back at [Media] Molecule whenever I was working on a game and would cut the first trailer, that's when I felt the game really came together.
"It's not until you put the whole thing together in a trailer, make the music choices and bring out the atmosphere that it actually sort of coalesces."
Working under the constraints of crowdfunding has been a boon for the development process, ultimately. But Knights and Bikes is still far off. The game remains mostly in the bits and pieces phase; there's no demo in the works yet, Yu explained, but the trailer shared on the Kickstarter page is primarily of gameplay captured in-engine.
The campaign page suggests a spring 2017 release, which Yu called "the best guess" as of now. Until then, the team splits its time between Foam Sword and pitching in on other studios' projects; to supplement the $143,000 requested of backers, both Crowle and Yu have continued to do freelance work to build funds for Knights and Bikes.
Foam Sword is primarily focused on its debut project, however — the team's only game in development is Knights and Bikes for now — and the process of crowdfunding has only inspired the studio further. The positive response from backers and others to the game's unique combination of aesthetic and nostalgia has affirmed the studio veterans' decision to go indie, they explained.
"The experience I've had over the last week of Kickstarter directly engaging the community has been incredible," Yu said.
"When you're in a studio, you're a bit insulated from that. Sometimes it gets nasty and you don't have to worry about it. But luckily anyone who's taken an interest in our game has been incredibly kind and wonderful."
Crowle shared Yu's appreciation for Knights and Bikes' reception thus far, as the end of the crowdfunding period looms closer; funding closes March 3. "If you put all of your heart and soul into something, it does hopefully transfer," he said.
And Foam Sword has already put in a major amount of both of those ingredients thus far. The Knights and Bikes Kickstarter hit its funding goal today. There are still stretch goals offering online co-op and voice acting for backers to rally behind until the end of the campaign, however. In the meantime, Yu and Crowle will continue to do what they do best: work tirelessly on their dream project.