When you think of longstanding franchises that have stood the test of time, few would imagine as humble an origin as a WiiWare series. BIT.TRIP is an overarching brand of several wildly experimental yet interconnected arcade games, starring the walking TV-remote shaped hero CommanderVideo and his many allies. The series has spanned almost as many consoles as it has sequels and spin-offs, most notably the RUNNER saga.
Reflecting on how far Choice Provisions’ has come, co-founder Mike Roush says, “It’s super humbling. We’ve had fans tell us that they’ve been playing RUNNER since they were 9, now are 21, and still loving the series. Parents tell us they’re playing with their children and that they played back when they were 16. To us, CommanderVideo feels like he’s become part of gaming history. He’s 15 years old! With the games industry still being fairly young, this warms our souls. And the fact that our games can appeal to several generations of players is truly special.” It is indeed, which is why I was so eager to sit down with Roush to discuss BIT.TRIP’s latest, the double-feature RERUNNER + RUNNER MAKER, billed as a “RUNNER 1.5”.
“The path to the release of RERUNNER is kind of a long, weird one!” Roush recalls with a laugh, “We set a few studio mandates, which in retrospect were highly loose and hardly mandates. The first was that we were not going to make another BIT.TRIP game and by no means another RUNNER.” Weapons-grade irony, to be sure. “The second was that we would not self-fund/publish another game due to the risk factors.” However, with the studio eager to learn the latest iterations of Unreal Engine, they challenged themselves to take 3 months to get to grips, remaking the original BIT.TRIP Runner, “… in 4 months” Roush mirthfully admits. “The same amount of time it took us to make the original game!” Even two cut abilities have since been reincluded, the VOID ability that can absorb beats, and “skip BLAST” that harnesses CommanderVideo’s laser eye.
What was once a learning exercise steadily saw the team falling in love again with the RUNNER series, evolving into a user-friendly level editor that gave birth to RUNNER MAKER. Like LittleBig Planet and Super Mario Maker before it, MAKER exploded from internal design techniques through intuitive utility. “And, well, here we are! BIT.TRIP RERUNNER!” Roush proclaims. That begs the question though – why RUNNER? BIT.TRIP’s original run of games were wildly diverse, from rail-shooter bullet hells to rhythm action titles.
Considering his answer, Roush says, “There’s depth to the narrative, but the execution of the storytelling is as simple as it gets. The cutscenes have no words, minimal movements, but the story hits just right, and the gameplay reflects it. At first glance, it looks like a colorful game about this dude who bleeps and bloops over and through obstacles. Yet there’s depth and complexity here. The main trick for us is to have some great music that builds up as you progress. This gives a beat that the user can react to and interpret, almost like freestyle jazz. And the gameplay needs to be a bit challenging. Without this, there is no risk or consequences.”
He expands further, saying, “The player needs to feel like they could !@#$% it all up with a misstep. This risk leads to the reward. The player also needs to be taught by the game to read the world and the required actions before they need to act (this is the reflex state). They also need to have played long enough to get a bit of muscle memory, which is required to attain that crucial flow state.”
He adds, “And when the awesome soundtrack layers overtop it all, the experience is incredibly cool! The result is a great game that people just instinctively love.” Those well-honed instincts have served the studio since, delving into not only a license tie-in project but also a legacy sequel to a franchise in dire need of coherent vision. Between co-creating League of Legends’ spin-off Hextech Mayhem and reviving the platforming mascot Bubsy with Bubsy: Paws on Fire, Choice Provisions dove in headfirst, with benefits beyond initial release.
“Working with Riot/Forge really taught us how to tighten up our production,” Roush says, “It was a great learning experience, like a AAA boot camp in a way. I don’t think RERUNNER would have been as solid without our relationship with Forge.” As for Bubsy, “It was a very unique project, kind of born as an internal joke. Every year, our producer gave away Bubsy’s games for birthday gifts. Once he ran out, he made us make Bubsy!”
The reimagining harnesses years of experience, revamping everything from the art assets and score to new campaign and EP levels. “We also have a Community Zone, with a fun meta-game where you can decorate your ‘Frame,’ which is basically your user ID placard,” Roush explains. “Here, you can unlock backgrounds, ‘mode up’ and get animated borders, unlock emoji, and share your favorite Flavors, Mood, and Familiar. You can even unlock new cape colors that change CommanderVideo’s cape in game.” Yet of all the community features, it’s MAKER’s level editor that Roush is most proud of. Most surprisingly, where most level editors have struggled to translate smoothly to console controllers, Roush insists it’s “best with a controller, which makes for amazing ease of use!” Further polishing away any interference, the team at Choice Provisions has made cross-platform sharing a priority, ensuring that future ports will enjoy the same growing library of user-made levels.
“We think this is an amazing trifecta that delivers a little bit of fun for all,” Roush says, “whether you enjoy just gaming, level creation, and/or sharing.” He quickly adds, “People want to be creative! There’s a lot of people who dream of becoming game developers, or just want to express themselves somehow in games. When there are easy to use tools, it makes for a fun and rewarding experience that you can truly share with others.” The staff have not only joined in sharing levels, but continue to marvel at what the BIT.TRIP fans have created since launch this September.
“We set rules for ourselves as game makers, “ Roush explains. “We do this to make a product that has cohesion and craft. All of that is out the door with RUNNER MAKER, which is super thrilling for the team. We have already seen levels that have blown our minds, have made us laugh, and have made us say ‘You can do that?!’”
The key to a successful Maker game, according to Roush, “Make it intuitively simple and understand that the act of making a level needs to be fun in of itself. It’s another game within the game. That’s why we chose to make RUNNER MAKER extremely controller-friendly. Granted, we’re also lucky enough that the game is simple enough to be grid and tile-friendly, but the fact remains – the process of creating a level needs to be as much fun as playing it. We want to see things that we could only dream of!”
After their successful revitalization, “We want to make more of these remakes!” Roush enthusiastically replies at the notion of more BIT.TRIP titles receiving the same treatment. “We’ve honestly gone a bit further than just a ‘remake’. It’s a full revamping of every aspect of the original game. Plus we have BIT.TRIP RUNNER as a playable game within RERUNNER!”
And with all this running, before we parted ways, I had to ask… how does CommanderVideo avoid getting leg cramps?
“We talked to him about this once,” Roush replies with a cheeky grin. “This is what he said:”
- Stay Hydrated
- Proper Ergonomics
- Take Breaks
- Balanced Diet
- Proper Footwear
Words to live by.
BIT.TRIP RERUNNER + RUNNER MAKER is available on Steam now.
With over ten of writing years in the industry, Elijah’s your guy for all things strange, obscure, and spooky in gaming. When not writing articles here or elsewhere, he’s tinkering away at indie games and fiction of his own.