How John Wick Hex establishes character through action

Regardless of whether it is fair or not, licensed games have received somewhat of a negative reputation over the years. So when Good Shepherd Entertainment and Lionsgate Games contacted Mike Bithell about a potential John Wick project, the idea was to go for a slightly offbeat approach to avoid falling to the same hurdles. 

Rather than trying to slap a license on an existing video game or treat it as a glorified “lunchbox”, they wanted to carve a different path and give players a more bespoke experience. For Bithell and his studio Bithell Games, the idea that immediately came to mind was to make an action-strategy game. 

In John Wick Hex, players can not only act like the Baba-Yaga, but think like them too. Travelling along a hexagonal grid, they are tasked with clearing a room full of targets and reaching the exit. They can fire weapons, throw their gun, strike enemies, and perform takedowns, with all of these actions chaining together in a wonderfully cinematic replay at the end of each level. The reaction this elicits is that players actually feel like they’re controlling John Wick, as opposed to just another generic action protagonist wearing a Keanu Reeves skinsuit. This was a challenge that was important to get right, especially given the lack of the lead actor’s involvement. 

Much like Bithell’s earlier games, such as the indie platformer Thomas Was Alone, the actions of the character in John Wick Hex are inextricably tied to the personality of John Wick.

“I’ve always been obsessed with action movies,” Bithell tells me. “Actually, I used to do a talk years ago about Die Hard. I love how action movies define character through the actions they are doing. And I always was surprised that games didn’t or game creators didn’t talk as much about that. Because while we copy the tropes of the action movies, the idea that you should be able to define a character by what the gameplay verbs are is just something that we don’t really talk about, but it just seems really obvious to me.”

When beginning to work on the game, one of the first steps was to look for reference for the character to define their moveset. But as John Wick wasn’t necessarily intended as a franchise, it didn’t already have an existing style guide to immediately refer to. For that, Bithell recruited Bianca Ansems, a storyboard artist and director. Her job as cinematic analyst was to rewatch all the films and dissect its style to create a bible to be used on the project. This broke down everything from the editing, to the lenses used, and how action scenes were coordinated and filmed.

“She did a fantastic job,” Bithell recalls on stage earlier in the day as part of his talk at Yorkshire Games Festival. “She kind of made us a bible by reverse-engineering the film…She went through and did her own kind of analysis for us and some of that stuff helped with stuff like story and cutscenes, but the stuff that was about the actual analysis of the action scenes was phenomenal, because you can start balancing a game based on those numbers.” 

This incredibly detailed document was used as a basis for how to replicate the pace of the action from the films. It also helped nail down details such as the animations they would use for the lead character, how often John Wick would need to reload, and how many enemies could attack at the same time. 

Bithell Games were also in a privileged position when it came to the hand-to-hand combat too, in that the studio also had access to Chad Stahelski (co-director of John Wick, and sole-director on John Wick 2 and 3) as well as the stunt coordinator Jojo Eusebio. For the game’s push move, for instance, where players can grab a guard and use them as a shield, Bithell didn’t have any reference from the film because the action was never performed onscreen. Instead, he workshopped the move with Eusebio to find something that would fit the character and feel right in the context of the game.

One of the elements of John Wick: Hex that proved slightly controversial at the beginning of the project was the turn-based combat. Bithell created a rough prototype of the game out of free mannequin rigs, with blue characters being the good guys and red characters being the enemies. He showed this very rough version of the game to Lionsgate, but they had concerns over the fact that John Wick was simply standing still and waiting to get shot at. Something the character isn’t exactly known for in the films.

Acting on this feedback, he retooled the game to incorporate real-time element, with each action taking a specific unit of time, indicated by a timeline at the top of the screen. Whenever John Wick makes a move, the enemy will also perform actions, similar to in the popular VR game Superhot

Something they opted to stay away from in the game, though, was prop work; essentially interactions such as picking up items in the environment to throw them. Instead, the team focused on line of sight and using a mixture of cover and the available attacks to provide variety.

“We realized early on, in context, [prop work] isn’t interesting,” Bithell reveals. “Like in a movie, it’s really cool to see someone grab something from their environment and use it as a tool and fight with it. In a game context, if you’re going to make that in a logical gameplay way, you basically make the thing you can pick up or attack with and throw, but then a coffee cup is functionally the same as a bottle of coke. So you get very bored of that mechanic very quickly…The fun wasn’t there in that style.”

One move that they did opt to include, however, was a gun throw, allowing players to launch their weapon at enemies to quickly stagger them and buy themselves enough time to get close to them or escape into cover. This was a move directly taken from the movies, such as in the museum fight scene from John Wick 2, where John Wick throws his weapon at an armed guard to momentarily disorientate them. It was a perfect way to showcase not only the frenetic pace of certain battles, but the fact that John Wick is great at thinking on his feet.

“Guns are interesting,” suggests Bithell. “There’s enough gameplay and interesting differences. A shotgun will feel different to a pistol. So we definitely did that. And yeah, throwing guns, I love it. It’s the John Wick franchise, you have to do it. I’ve seen people who have played through whole levels throwing the gun. You can achieve it in a couple levels, which is great and a hundred percent intentional. We wanted that to be an overpowered skill, because when you are doing this, the internal rule was, the movies are a let’s play of someone playing our game well.”

One of the most popular features in John Wick: Hex ended up being the replay feature that occurs at the end of each level. After finishing a stage, players will be able to view a replay of their actions cut together with a more cinematic overall presentation. How this works is that the developers will track where players and the enemies are and the game will interpolate the perfect shot from a number of available preset cameras. They did this to help players connect to the character in a similar way to how they do when they watch the films.

He explains, “For me, it was about putting that rhythm in, so it makes your actions look cooler because you can go ‘Oh, I behaved like he does in the movie. I strung some stuff together’ …What was surprising was [playtesters] liked it because they could use it show off. They didn’t need it to feel like they were playing as John Wick, because when you were playing the game you don’t remember the pauses.”

He compares this phenomenon to saccadic suppression or more plainly looking in the mirror and switching between looking at your left eye and your right eye. The brain tricks you into ignoring the change, to avoid distracting you or making you feel nauseous. He argues that a similar thing happens with the game, with players forgetting the pauses and only remembering the actions they took as opposed to the time taken making those decisions. 

“One thing that is interesting about John Wick as a protagonist is the audience is very much already used to watching him,” says Bithell. “He’s kind of a video game protagonist in how the movies treat him. He doesn’t talk much. Or at all. You don’t have a favorite John Wick line. You probably couldn’t name one for me. Which is weird when you think about it, because most action heroes have like things they say after punching someone. And you’re also used to him being kind of a mysterious figure, so from a gameplay point of view it’s kind of okay to be a bit further away.”

Obviously not every developer will get the opportunity to mess around with a character as iconic as John Wick, but there are some lessons still to take away from Bithell Games’s approach. Throughout the process, Bithell Games paid respect to the IP and the performance that Keanu Reeves gave, constantly studying the material in order to ensure that they were as faithful as possible. This included breaking down who the character is in great detail and instilling that into other aspects such as their movements and their performance. Something that was equally important, however, was what they did after, with the team also going to great lengths to communicate this concisely to players in between the bone-crunching action through the replay function.