“We wanted to make a game that made you feel like you were a middle-aged Japanese businessman lined up on a start line with 59 other people,” says Fall Guys lead designer Joe Walsh. He’s talking about the game’s inspirations: obstacle course game shows like Takeshi’s Castle.
“So many games operate on this power fantasy of being the strongest most powerful character and decked out with all these amazing abilities,” he explains. But not Fall Guys’ round, jellybean-bodied softies. “These guys are not designed to compete in this show,” points out art director Rob Jackson.
It particularly sets the game apart from other battle royales — whether you argue the game is a battle royale or not. In fact, that’s not a descriptor the team itself wanted to use at first. But as development continued, the team saw the genre widen, with additions like Tetris 99 that weren’t at all about gunfighting. Plus, everyone labeled Fall Guys that way anyway…
“We were just like, screw it, fine, it’s a battle royale,” laughs Walsh.
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But taking a different inspirational approach also cuts through a lot of the dissonance inherent to battle royale games. The premise is copied from a manga by Kousun Takami and the film directed by Kinji Fukasaku of the same name. It’s ripped from its context. The originals are critiques of a system that would force children to fight; the games are playgrounds that players choose to enter.
Obviously, Fall Guys being the latter makes a lot more sense. “It was important that you see these levels and you instantly are like ‘Oh my god, it’s like that game show I used to love! I’ve always wanted to go on that game show!’” says Walsh.
But its own careful framing also works heavily in its favor — something the game shows themselves often stumble around. For example, when Takeshi’s Castle aired in the U.K., it did away with the overarching narrative of an assault on a fortress. Instead, clips are chopped up to show dramatic moments with a narrator dryly commentating on each fall or success. It loses much of the flow and drama of a crowd being whittled down to one.
Fall Guys has some inherent advantages here. Being a video game, players can all compete at once, whereas in real life that would be a recipe for injuries. It naturally flows from start to finish with mounting drama. And you inherently have someone to root for: yourself. But the developers also made a lot of clever decisions to properly convey the tone of Saturday morning TV.
Take that part about rooting for someone. What would a hero be without a villain? In Fall Guys, that’s the grabbers.
“The grab has been one of those things that we’ve worked on quite a lot because we knew that we wanted there to be some form of shenanigans in the game,” says Walsh. “There’s always that one person on Total Wipeout who is pulling everyone off and gets called out by everybody.”
He adds that it makes the game more than just a race you happen to be doing at the same time as 59 other people. “It became pretty clear that you needed something that would affect the world of other people in a way that was more than just where you are,” Walsh explains. But not something as violent as punching or kicking, just an irritating grab. “It’s always cheeky but you’re never really ruining [anyone’s] day for too long.”
“The best thing is if you grab them back it turns into a hug. So that’s very heartwarming,” adds Jackson. That ties into the game’s overall dedication to goofiness. Unlike the often muddy and wet courses of similar TV shows, Fall Guys is colorful and — some pink slime excepted — clean. Jackson says the overall design was prompted by wondering what a civilization would look like if their entire culture was based around this kind of show. “So this is like the most expensive version of that that’s ever existed… If these companies had infinite resources and money, what would these levels look like?”
It’s bright and chaotic because it doesn’t want to take itself too seriously. “You don’t want to feel bad when something bad happens to you, and the brighter and sillier it is the less bad you’re going to feel.”
And, look, bad things do happen when you play Fall Guys. Villainous grabbers aside, there’s a whole lot of stumbling and falling. Even if you play well you probably have to hurl your little guy onto their face a whole bunch. That, of course, is also deliberate.
“Initially the first thing we really did was sit and watch the shows on repeat for a couple of weeks,” says Walsh. “We also had a rule when someone joined the project that they had to go and find gifs that they thought were classic moments that they would want to happen in Fall Guys…We basically built this backlog, this dictionary of gifs that we used as inspiration for the project.”
His favorites were any jump that was just slightly too big for the contestant to make.
“They always throw themselves forward and catch their front and then sort of windmill backwards and their arms go up in the air,” he describes. From there, the dive mechanic was quickly born. The general physics of the fall guys themselves followed. “A lot of how the character feels, how they rotate, how they pivot back when they get hit by stuff, that was fed by these early gifs.”
By carefully adapting its inspirational material for a new format, Fall Guys nails its tone. Even if you win, there are plenty of comedic stumbles along the way. The unspoken understanding that it requires plenty of luck means it’s not really a chest-puffing achievement. Instead, Fall Guys celebrates something much more down to earth: “the idea of just being a bit useless,” says Walsh.