Is there a more beloved English legend than Robin Hood and his Merry Men? Perhaps King Arthur, but then I’d argue that Guy Ritchie’s dire ‘King Arthur’ film plunged a sword into the heart of the Arthurian Myth. A sword wedged so deep that it may prove impossible for any future storytellers or filmmakers to remove it. Robin Hood, on the other hand, has managed to weather the storm of subpar films rather well. In fact, it’s a story that has been wowing audiences ever since its conception in the second half of the fourteenth century.
The very first reference to the soon to be legendary character of Robin Hood can be found in ‘The Vision of Piers Plowman’ by William Langland:
“I kan noght parfitly my Paternoster as the preest it syngeth,
But Ikan rymes of Robyn Hood…”
When translated from Middle English, it roughly means: “Although I can’t recite the Lord’s Prayer, I do know the rhymes of Robin Hood,” Suggesting the legends of Robin Hood were already well known amongst the general populace of the time. Over the intervening centuries, new characters, narrative additions, twists, turns and iconic locations have all been mixed into the myth and its many retellings. Through all the changes one theme is consistent; the idea of an outlaw rebelling against the upper classes. The evidence for this could be seen in the 15th Century ballad ‘Robin Hood and the Monk’ and it can be seen in the 21st Century video game HOOD: Outlaws and Legends.
Hood is a PvPvE online game that pits rival bands of Merry Men against the state – and each other – as they combine their skills to pull of an intricate heist that would make even Danny Ocean envious. It’s a game that calls upon the classic tropes of the Robin Hood legends and then slaps them into a modern art form. As such, it was a game that I was eager to learn more about. Fortunately I was lucky enough to have a chat with Andrew Willans and Alan Dickinson of Sumo Digital to chat all things Hood.
“[Hood: Outlaws and Legends] stemmed from a piece of concept art that existed in Sheffield for Robin Hood,” Andrew told me. “It looked like Robin Hood reimagined as one of the Ring Wraiths from Lord of the Rings. It was a really dark vision and it was a proper lean in moment. Straightaway you were thinking all kinds of wonderful things. Who is the character behind the hood? Who was Robin Hood? It tied into all the questions about what is the origin of Robin Hood. Was it Robin of Loxley? Was it Robin the Earl of Huntingdon? There’s so much of this misremembered history and fake history and legends and lore around it. It felt like a great place to build a game from. It gives you creative licence to draw in anything else that you feel would be good for gameplay.”
That creative licence has certainly been applied to the current playable roster of four characters (with, Andrew promising, more to come in DLC). Whilst Robin Hood, Maid Marion, Little John and Friar Tuck are all iconic personalities, there’s been a seismic shift in their portrayal within Hood: Outlaws and Legends. I asked Andrew behind the team’s motivation to shake up the conventional characterisation of the Merry Men.
“The first point with Maid Marion,” he said, “no-one wants to do a damsel in distress. We wanted a character that was empowering, that was just a badass for want of a better word.” It’s okay Andrew, I’m pretty sure there’s no better word than ‘badass’. With perhaps the exception of ‘philtrum’, that word is a winner of a game of Hangman for sure. “We loved the idea that Marion could be this deadly assassin.” Andrew continued, unperturbed by my wittering, “That through events in her life she could become the ultimate hunter.”
“John is modelled on Mad Sweeny from American Gods, he’s quite literally the angry giant. He’s the guy outside the pub smashing people. But even with John, in his back story we were looking for events that could push people to the path of revenge. So we looked at a blacksmith origin story there, what if his family had been killed by the state? He used to forge these tools at the blacksmith and now he’s forging the tools of war. We tried to tie everything together. To bring in a little bit of the established legends but also twist it a little more for our purpose.”
None have been twisted more than Friar Tuck. Whose portrayal in Hood is a country mile away from his standard portrayal as a jovial – and often drunk – monk with a big belly and a well tonsured bonce. “In our legend Tuck was part of the state, he was one of the torturers. He’s seen the inner workings of the state, he’s seen how brutal they are, and he can’t be a part of this system anymore, so disappears into the forest and learns about all sorts of pagan rituals. He travels and learns all religions. He’s like an amalgamation of all religions and that’s given him these amazing Shamanic like abilities.”
Talking of the character’s abilities, are these grounded in historical reality or entirely fantastical? “Some of them are grounded in reality. Robin has this exploding arrow which could be entirely plausible, whereas someone like Marion has this invisibility, which is such a cool ability and it suits who she is and what she plays on the role of a hunter but there’s no way you can justify it. We try to ground it in reality wherever possible, but we also have this element of magic and mystery.”
Let’s talk weapons, items and equipment – everyone’s favourite video game topic after resolution and frame rate – I was interested to know if any limitations were imposed on the selection so they worked historically within Hood’s specific fantastical take on the dark ages? Take the Extraction device that the player teams must bring their captured treasure chest to. How do you design such a complex machine to make it work and look believable in a medieval setting?
Alan this time: “It was a really tricky thing to design. It had to perform a certain role for game design but we had to shoehorn it in so it didn’t look out of place in this medieval world. Eventually we did get it, but we had to go back to something simple like grappling hooks and ropes, rather than over complicating it and overthinking it. I call it the universal extraction device, you can put it in any sort of scenario as a sort of gearbox, but if you look at how it’s constructed you could build that in a medieval world. The wood is all put together with mortise and tenon joints. Every part of it, if you had the knowledge behind it, and applied it to everyday medieval skills, you could make something just like that.”
So, you made the extraction device a historical possibility, were there any ideas for equipment that were too outlandish to be included and had to be vetoed?
“That would be the crossbow” Alan laughed, “It was like ‘we want an automatic crossbow’ and I thought, ‘OK, well I know that the Chinese had a version of that…’ This is where game design gives you the criteria and you’ve got to make it work. I pretty much had the idea all nailed down. I had this crossbow that could fire one, two, three shots. The mechanic that I built would do that and would exist in the real world. Then one day Andy comes over and says, ‘oh yeah, and all three shots have to be fired at once,’ and I’m like, ‘Oh my god, that’s a completely different mechanism!’”
What mechanism did you originally have? “We had it almost like a Gatling gun magazine, but that’s not going to release all three bolts at once. Then we came up with a stacking mechanism where the bolts are held together with bee’s wax in a magazine. That was a lot of fun, I think it’s one of the most fun things I’ve ever designed because it was so challenging.”
“We ended up with something far stronger,” Andrew continued, “because of the way it loads and it isn’t just a chain gun, with a triple shot all at the same time. It works much better mechanically in gameplay. It means you can time your shots when you fire three bolts. You can lead your target with it. Also, because you’ve got that fraction of a second between them it also means you can have a lot of fun with the haptic feedback of the DualSense controller.”
This fusion of fantasy with historical possibility (if not severe accuracy) certainly seems to be positively informing the game design of Hood: Outlaws and Legends. Leading to an interesting array of characters, abilities and equipment that offer a compelling spin on the traditional legends of Robin Hood as well as offering satisfying gameplay and mechanics to boot. I’ll certainly be looking forward to spending a whole lot of time with this reimagined Robin Hood when the game launches in May.
Thanks to Andrew and Alan for taking the time out of their busy schedule to speak with me. Hood: Outlaws and Legends will be released on 10th May, 2021 for PS5, Xbox Series X|S, PS4, Xbox One, and PC.