It was one of the biggest expectations of Venice Immersive, with a preview presented in Competition: the virtual reality adaptation of the series PEAKY BLINDERS, a jewel of British audiovisual production that is declined in an interactive video game by the studio Maze Theory, used to the exercise. Discussion with Tim Jones, co-director of PEAKY BLINDER’S: THE KING’S RANSOM.
Maze Theory and the Peaky Blinders universe
Tim Jones – I am the Game Director on PEAKY BLINDERS: THE KING’S RANSOM. I have more than 25 years of experience in video game production, mostly on big AAA titles like ALIEN VS PREDATOR, STAR WARS, HARRY POTTER, JAMES BOND, CALL OF DUTY… I’ve always been passionate about video games and the stories they can tell. The interest of virtual reality and new formats, for me, is a return to childhood and this kind of excitement to be able to experiment, to innovate! And it is still the case, after several projects produced. There is so much to explore in VR, to invent new immersive experiences with more complex characters.
T. J. – PEAKY BLINDERS: THE KING’S RANSOM is a project that we started a long time ago, in close collaboration with the team of the series, and its creator Steven Knight of course. It’s a real chance! This gave us the opportunity to work with the actors of the series: Cillian Murphy, Paul Anderson… My work was especially to be able to propose a coherent universe inside the story of the series, by taking back its codes for a real immersive device. And it’s a real challenge, considering the intensity and the dramaturgy of the 6 seasons.
T. J. – But that’s what motivated us: the original universe, the characters. It’s dark, grimy, violent and it’s set in the streets of Birmingham, a working class city in the West Midlands. There is a real fan base for the series, which is passionate about the design, the costumes, the music. It’s the perfect place to create an immersive virtual reality experience. It’s an opportunity to impose the characters, to work around their presence and bring the viewer closer to the series. Creating a link between the 1920s and today was an idea that guided us through the whole process. We could discuss the situation of the working classes, the political worlds, the effects of the war (World War I), the power of criminals etc.
T. J. – These are the narrative tools we were able to use to build PEAKY BLINDERS: THE KING’S RANSOM, and offer a special episode between seasons 4 and 5. Tommy (Cillian Murphy) is now a congressman, he has a comfortable position in a no less formidable political environment. But he is still minding his own business, the Peaky Blinders, and still suffering the effects of his past as a soldier. The viewer joins the Peaky Blinders clan in the middle of a secret operation against Churchill. He will have to prove himself, survive and find his redemption somewhere.
T. J. – One of the most important tasks when we take over such a franchise is to respect its atmosphere. We worked a lot on the references to the series, the dialogues, the characters to integrate as much as possible what was developed during the seasons produced for television. There’s a whole world that already exists, and it’s up to us not to make mistakes when we produce a new segment. We’re very aware of that, and it’s part of our experience to take that into account.
Imagine opening credits in VR
T. J. – PEAKY BLINDERS is a very inspiring series, especially for the music. It’s totally anachronistic (PJ Harvey…) and at the same time so successful! It’s totally in line with the music and the historical intention. Steven Knight found a unique style for the series, perfectly successful, and it was a real boon for us. There was a real richness to exploit. To propose a first sequence in the form of credits, totally integrated into the gameplay, with the titles, the first information about the world, it was an idea to be able to express oneself quickly enough, to impose the instruments available to the hero. And with fun and music!
T. J. – Moreover, it was necessary to impose a form of discussion with the main character. For the menus and information, it had to be as intuitive as possible. We kept the cigarettes and the lighter accessible, because that’s what would happen in real life. Access to the journal was also obvious, because that’s where the central character documents the world. He is mute, and we needed a solution to access the content and information. So at each stage, we thought about what he could handle, how to communicate information, etc. But also to use the design of the show, by reproducing sets, posters, vehicles. I hope to answer here to the fans without distorting the story for first-time Peaky Blinders spectators.
Violence and VR, a possible marriage?
T. J. – The maturity of the series has raised real questions, especially about violence, alcohol or smoking. But that’s part of the show’s aesthetic! All the characters are involved in these issues, and it would have been difficult and untruthful to ignore these aspects or to play them down. It’s the PEAKY BLINDERS, it’s transgressive! With virtual reality, we let the viewer express himself, with obvious choices. It may seem trivial, but it’s not. There is nothing compulsory, and this is the real possibility of a video game in VR. There is the viewer’s presence in the world on one side, and what he can do in it on the other.
T. J. – There are also, of course, action sequences during the game’s story. But this is not the main quest of its story. It’s primarily a character-driven narrative experience. Using guns, weapons, it can’t be easy. Yes, the characters in PEAKY BLINDERS use them often, but that’s a choice too. We found in testing with the game demo that users have real questions when they access a weapon – and that was a real issue. Interaction is about that kind of exploration, making choices. Are you going to kill the other characters or not? You get some interesting results, and not at all real actually. In a game, you can interact in a different way, with an attitude that you wouldn’t have in real life at all. As we say, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.”