When you first arrive on Penfurzy Island, the fictional Cornish isle that serves as the setting of Knights and Bikes, you’re greeted with the sight of a deserted trailer park and a showering of rain. Penfurzy is a place dependent on two things: tourism and fishing. And recently, neither industry is paying the bills. But our young heroes, the stowaway Nessa and the islander Demelza, have a plan. They’re going to find the legendary lost treasure of Penfurzy and set everything right again.
Though the premise of Knights and Bikes may sound familiar, due to its similarities to the 1985 Richard Donner film The Goonies, I couldn’t help but feel like it had more to offer beyond just retreading old ground. Between the scratchy, childlike art and exuberant gameplay, Knights and Bikes feels like a passionate defense of the power of play against times of austerity.
Penfurzy, the game’s setting, is pretty much the key to this interpretation. A muddle of tiny fishing villages, rural farmland, and Arthurian ruins, it’s a location whose real-world equivalent draws in millions of tourists every year with its natural beauty, but commonly ranks among the poorest regions in northern Europe. Youth unemployment is high and public spaces are often sold off to private companies to cut costs, leaving kids with few prospects and nowhere to go.
It’s this underlying context that informs the setting of Knights and Bikes. Though the game takes place in the 1980s, as signposted by the “Thatcher Out” graffiti located on the harbour and the retro soundtrack, it could just as easily be set today, given the modern day impact of austerity on the region and other similar areas of the UK. Penfurzy, much like the real Cornwall, is a place that is maintained with tourists in mind. That means local kids like Demelza are often seen as an afterthought, left with little room to enjoy themselves beyond playing indoors and escaping into their own imagination.
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Frisbees and Power Gloves
To play outside in this environment feels like an act of rebellion, to loudly stake a claim to a childhood being wrestled away by factors beyond their control. For Demelza, that includes the loss of her mother, her geographical location, and the island’s poor economy. As the game progresses, we see the two kids get into all sorts of trouble to stave off their boredom, from trespassing onto private land, pulling pranks on demolition workers, and playing games of knock-a-door run on the locals.
Even when things start going wrong, with a terrible curse being unleashed upon the town, the girls approach their adventure with a sense of playfulness. Grabbing their bikes, they saddle up and approach the problem head on with the same punk-ish spirit they do everything else, turning everyday objects of play — such as controllers, frisbees, and water balloons — into weapons to fend off an army of possessed souvenirs. And, of course, taking intermittent breaks to challenge each other to races and see who can better operate dangerous machinery.
By situating its play in a real-world context of deprivation and austerity, Knights and Bikes creates a sense of warmth and meaning that many similar period pieces fail to. Demelza and Nessa’s adventure on the island may seem childish and trivial, but it helps them to process their different situations, learning when to fight back and when to accept some of the difficult responsibilities of growing up.