After seeing John Wick take down his opponents with everything from a pencil to a book to all manner of weaponry, it’s now your turn to step into his blood-slicked shoes. In John Wick Hex, the new strategy game from Bithell Games and Good Shepherd Entertainment, you will become the Baba Yaga as you maneuver John Wick through a variety of levels, neutralize your opponents, and make a series of tactical choices to ensure that our favorite dog person will live long enough to make another movie.
Serving as a prequel for the fan-favorite action-thriller movies, John Wick Hex gives you a surprisingly fluid system for executing stylish sequences of gun-fu action. As you move John Wick across a hexagonal grid (hence the name), you’ll constantly be bombarded with difficult choices to make. Do I take the shot or do I throw my weapon? Do I parry an incoming blow or push an enemy out of the way? Do I take time to bandage my wounds or drop to a crouching position to pop off a perfect headshot?
As you make these decisions, the world will come screeching to a halt, but in a good way. Time freezes as you give John his marching orders. But choose carefully because your actions, and those of your enemies, will be displayed at the top of the screen in a clever timeline mechanic which will be immediately familiar to anyone who has spent any amount of time editing video. You’ll constantly be weighing the risk of your actions relative to what your opponents are hoping to do to you. It all serves to allow you to weave a grand, murderous tapestry of death and destruction as you stitch together these actions like a director would create one of John Wick’s stunning action sequences.
To go deeper inside the weird, wonderful world of John Wick Hex, I sat down with director Mike Bithell (Thomas Was Alone) to discuss how he approached making our favorite assassin feel as delightfully dangerous as he is on the big screen.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Nerdist: What motivated the decision for the editing video timeline mechanic?
Mike Bithell: It was actually surprisingly late. Obviously, we’ve been working on this with the film studio, and the initial pitch I made to them was, “It’s X-COM, but because John Wick’s such a badass he doesn’t need a squad.” So, you have one character against [the world.] We made that prototype and it sucked. It was really bad because what was happening was, you take your turn, you move, and then you watch as five enemies did their thing and you spent most of the game just watching enemies do their thing in turns.
I wasn’t very comfortable with it. I was a bit worried about where it was going. We’re based in the UK, and we fly out to LA to demo this to Jason Constantine, who’s the executive producer of John Wick franchise across the board at Lionsgate. I demo to him and he’s like, “Mike, why is John Wick waiting his turn to do something? What the hell are you doing? This is ridiculous.” Honestly in that moment I was just like, “Well, it’s the genre, it’s the type of work.”
So I booted up my videos of X-COM, Mario + Rabbids, and he’s like, “No worries, man. You’re the game designer. Looks weird to me, but you do you. I respect you, I know your pedigree, blah, blah, blah. It’s all fine.”
And then I just spend an 11-hour flight home just like “I’m f***ed.”
Nerdist: Oh no!
Mike Bithell: I sat down with the team and we just kind of tried to work out what…we like about turn-based games. We like that it gives you time to make a decision, we like that you make strategic choices. How do you do that while also having that overlapping action stuff? Of being able to interrupt an enemy and then shoot their friend and move your way through. And how do you structure that and build that? The timeline thing just was a really nice solution to that. It’s a way of achieving what we needed: that strategic opportunity of thinking time, which results in something that looks more like a John Wick fight scene.
Nerdist: Do you expect people to fall into a rhythm as they play? Or is it kind of stop-and-start as you assess the scenario?
Mike Bithell: Genuinely, people get fast. When I’m demoing it, I’m really slow because I’m talking it through, or I’m distracted. But when I’m playing it… For me, it’s like a real-time game at this point. I intuitively know how long I’ve got, how it’s working. That’s not me showing off, by the way—I made it. So as you get better and better, it gets faster. What we found is that people kind of don’t remember it being stop-start. You’re going to remember it tomorrow as, “I did this, and I did that.” You know how you go temporarily blind every time you move your eyes? Because of the motion blurring, you’ll never see your eyes move. You’ve done that? When you look in the mirror, and you look at one eye and then you look at the other, and you never see them?
Nerdist: No, but I will after this!
Mike Bithell: When you go home, look in the mirror. Look at your left eye, then look at your right eye. You will not see your eyes move. And the reason for that is the motion block. You’d be constantly throwing up and falling over. Your brain constantly switches off your eyes every time your eyes move and you never notice it and you’re not even aware it’s happening. It’s not like every freeze frame, you’re going, “What’s up with my eyes?” Your brain just prevents you from that, because you don’t need it.
I think it’s similar with this, just because it’s got that flow to it. People just kind of fill in the gaps. They don’t really pay attention to how long they’ve been in the pause. And then, because it becomes more and more intuitive as you play it for longer, it just becomes almost real-time point.
Nerdist: What appealed to you about making a game in the world of John Wick?
Mike Bithell: I mean, I’m this fanboy. I think I’m like a lot of people; I didn’t see it until DVD. It was not a movie that I saw in cinema on first viewing. And then I became that guy in the group of friends who was introducing people to it and being like, “You gotta see this, man.” That nightclub scene, Jesus. I was showing it to people who had come back to my place after a night out. Weirdly, my father-in-law and his wife were staying with us—and this was before we were working on it—and he loves John Wick and she’d never seen it. He was like, “Let’s put that on,” and she’s like the sweetest lady. My partner and I were like, “She’s not gonna like this!”
Nerdist: She’s in for a surprise!
Mike Bithell: And I was like, “Dad’s about to f*** this up.” And, yeah, she hated it! But, I’ve always been into it. I was into it for two specific reasons, which were: the combat and the way that fight choreography’s done. Just respecting how they put that together that internal logic. When I started thinking about writing the game content…I get excited, ’cause yeah, that internal logic really works for that content. The other thing is that [it’s] kind of dark, almost like a vampire movie with no vampires. Kind of mysterious, conspiracy, fantasy stuff. I love that. I wanted to kind of play with that, and when they came to me to direct, I was just like, “Yeah, I would love to play with John Wick!”
Nerdist: I showed it to my girlfriend for the first time recently and I think right before Alfie Allen and his goons came in, she’s like “Oh my God, is he gonna solve crimes with the dog for the rest of the movie?” I was like, “You could say that…”
Mike Bithell: Oh no! Yeah, he’s gonna solve a crime involving the dog.
Nerdist: Hard to bite my tongue for that one.
Mike Bithell: Oh my God, yeah, there’s this audible kind of shriek when you show that moment to people. I love it.
Nerdist: How did you want to create your own John Wick moments in this? Or do you want the player to become the author of their own John Wick moments?
Mike Bithell: I wanted to give choice. That’s the thing—I think, look to movies and we try to break it down into verbs because with games, obviously, you do have to break it down. What are the verbs of John Wick? You shoot people, you move, you use different melee attacks on them, you push people. You do this, you do that. So, you try to break it down into verbs and then work out ways we could string that together. It was interesting, because you’re always trying to find a way to invent stuff.
We need to figure out like, if I do this then, then this, then this and that’s a badass strategy. And you see them emerging; with the people who play the game long enough, you start seeing specific tactics. They’re like, “I’m the guy who always clings to walls, so I’m covering corners in this group.” “I’m the guy who reloads my gun by throwing it at someone.” If you make the verbs interesting enough and you make them interrelated in an interesting way, then yeah, you get this emerging complexity, which is great.
Nerdist: Resource management is very important in John Wick Hex. You’re counting ammo, making tough choices about conservation of momentum or generation of it. What motived that as the driving factor of gameplay?
Mike Bithell: The movie. It’s a tempo thing. The reload is so important. It’s funny. It’s what a lot of collaboration gets at, [I got to work with director Chad Stahelski on it, and we were literally working on this in the room while he was cutting the movie. He was using me as an excuse to avoid finishing the movie. The stunt guy’s chatting to them. I trained with them a bit. Not well, I’m not physically equipped to be a serious martial artist, but I had fun with it. One of the things [stunt coordinator] Jojo [Eusebio] was really drilling into me is that the thing about martial arts choreography is there’s gotta be pauses. You can’t just have a flurry of things.
In traditional kung-fu movies, the pause is a moment when you cut to a close-up of them looking at each other or getting ready or whatever. In John Wick, that’s where the gun comes into it. So, if they’re devising a fight scene and they know that this guy has nothing to his hands for X amount of time, that’s where they put in a reload or where they put in a shoot. They build from the martial arts up. So, they start with that and then the gun becomes a piece to put into pauses. They build the rhythm around that.
It’s not composing music, it’s arranging music, and finding how those overlaps work. That’s also what we do in games. Everything in the game is designed to put you in a position where it might lead in five different directions. Reloading a gun takes a while, so you don’t do it in the middle of a gunfight. Doing a takedown makes you move, which might put you in a different position than when you started. So, it’s about always trying to mix it up, but to also hit a tempo and a rhythm. The guns are already a part of that. Picking up guns is also a part of that, and shooting. It’s all about trying to make that dance. Learning, looking at the movies, looking at how those events play out, and kind of reverse engineering how you build sets of rules and simulation and the kind of detail that leads the player to play in that way.
Nerdist: John Wick Hex makes me think of a game like Mario Maker, to a degree. You’ve created such a robust toolset here Are there any plans to have the potential for user-generated content down the line?
Mike Bithell: I don’t think we’re going to do that. But you know, maybe there will be ways to be expressive with this.
Nerdist: All I’m saying is this game looks like it has a lot of replay value.
Mike Bithell: It’s cool that you say that. It’s funny; the most complimentary thing that was said to me was [when] the stunt coordinator said to me—and he was half kidding, but he was like, “Can we get a god mode version of this and use it as a toy to start figuring out how we could schedule up a fight scene?” He’s like, “You’ve made a fight choreography toolkit.”
Nerdist: What’s one of the biggest takeaways you got from someone like Chad Stahelski that affected how you approached the design of the game?
Mike Bithell: I think the biggest one from Chad was his sense of geography. The first time I was showing them to him, we had a very rough test level we were using to kind of prototype it. Just a few office rooms and a big warehouse. The office rooms at the start were really fun and interesting, but then the massive warehouse was really boring because the game wasn’t fun with long distance firing. The night before I was meant to show it to Chad, I was like, “This isn’t good enough.” I was just filling the warehouse with boxes and things just to kind of breakup the space. Like columns and pillars and stuff.
Then I showed it to Chad and he was like, “That stuff at the start’s okay, but warehouse, its ridiculous. It doesn’t feel good at all.” I’m like, “Yeah, man, I’ll come back to this because we’re trying to simulate the game and simulate the movies. But something’s wrong, because it’s really, really small- and medium-sized spaces, but big spaces sucks.” And he’s like, “No, that’s how the film was. There’s no big spaces in the John Wick universe.”
They genuinely, when they were designing the geography of scenes, they used children’s maze books to work out winding through tight spaces. They’ll put things in spaces and block things off because John Wick‘s fight style only works in tight spaces. It was actually part of the logic, I think, behind why that fight style is the way it is, specifically because the first movie was made on such a tight budget. They had to use smaller sets. You couldn’t have John do Keanu Reeves’ Matrix s***. You had to keep things tight and have him move relatively slowly, in terms of his progression through big spaces.
But that tightness, that constraint, that’s why when you’re playing, there’s lots of corners and nooks and crannies. That’s a massive part of what makes a John Wick fight scene cool.
John Wick Hex does not yet have a release date, but you can bet your last mysterious gold coin that we’re going to be keeping an eye on it.
Images: Bithell Games/Good Shepherd Entertainment