People call Knightmare a game show out of convenience. Its creator considered it an adventure show with elements of gameplay. Chris Ballard explores the tensions between 'adventuring' and 'gaming'.
- Adventure: an exciting or extraordinary event or series of events; a bold undertaking involving uncertainty and risk.
- Game: A sporting or other competitive activity in which players compete against each other by following a fixed set of rules.
Justice is blind
Hugo Myatt said something very interesting in a 2012 interview with gameological.com:
You'd get real nerds who were, unfortunately, lousy television. So we used to throw in a few googlies - if they put [the Corridor of Blades] in when they had a really dull team, they hoped it would slice their heads off. The problem is, it wouldn't. That's the kind of thing they were probably good at. And then things would go back to them being dull as hell afterwards.
My initial reaction was that this was a terrible revelation. Surely a game concerned with the pursuit of justice would adhere to the principles of fair play and all teams would receive the same treatment? This got me thinking: to what extent was Knightmare designed to be an adventure game and to what extent was it simply supposed to be good television?
Having watched the repeats on Challenge over the past year it's clear to me that one of the recurring themes, in the early episodes at least, is the manipulation of quest length by the producers and the fact that some teams appear to receive harsher treatment than others. Before I start exploring the reasons for this, let's take a quick look at an example or two.
Consider Team 5 of Series 1. They get two out of three riddles right in the level one clue room, take both the correct objects and deploy them in the right places, gaining the magic they need to progress. They then get killed off for going left instead of right - an action which, while technically a violation of the adventurers' code, often had no adverse consequences, let alone death. Why so harsh? Perhaps for the sake of variety it was considered time for a level one death? Perhaps this particular team weren't deemed 'good television'? Whatever the reason, they were punished for a minor aberration despite playing the technical aspects of the game well. Was Treguard's statement that 'the spell can only reveal a well, not create one' the producers basically saying to the team 'go away, we don't like the cut of your jib'?
As far as series pacing is concerned, it can't be denied that this premature death contrasts nicely with the subsequent quest where the team become the first to reach level three and die just as the series ends (becoming 'season champions' in the process). A convenient end to the season or an engineered one? Regardless, variety -in Knightmare's case at least - appears to be the spice of death.
There are more examples of what may be termed 'undeserved deaths' and several have been covered in SpectralScorpion's article (as an aside, one I would add to this list is Team 9 of Series 2 where the automatum chase is rather unfair; arguably there are many more examples).
But if some teams were apparently killed off harshly by the production team, did others have their quests prolonged?
There's a Knightmare urban myth about a team dying in the very first room. This is testament to the fact that the show was notoriously hard and unforgiving; if a team fell off the spindizzy in Series 4's Place of Choice it's reasonable to assume that the producers would simply shout "Next!"
Tom Hunt was the floor manager on the show for the first four series and, via his son Charlie, was kind enough to email a response to some questions I had. On the first room, he had this to say:
No team would ever have failed in the opening room - the first challenge for us (and them) was to get the team communicating and directing their Dungeoneer. It also helped the recording schedule to achieve some material, even if they were to have a limited life!
In fact, Giles, the dungeoneer from the last team of Series 4, visited the Knightmare.com forum in February 2006 and posted the following fascinating anecdote:
I fell off the turn table in the first room. It was nerves really. I stepped on, lost my footing and went off. We went back into the "green room" area and as you can imagine the rest of the team weren't too happy with me. Then the director came in and told us everyone got a second chance and it wouldn't be good viewing if everyone died on the first level!
So not only did no dungeoneer ever die in the first room, they wouldn't have been able to. Why? Because it wouldn't have been good television and, perhaps even more importantly, it wouldn't have been an efficient use of the production schedule.
Another quick example from the Series 3 Teams section of Knightmare.com. In June 2001 [the then-webmaster Nicholas Lam] received an e-mail from Gavin Gillespie, the dungeoneer in this team [the first of Series 3]. He said that they actually died on the Serpent's Tongue but were allowed to carry on because the next team had not yet arrived at the studios!
So we can see how the rules of the game can be bent to increase the entertainment value for the viewer and to get broadcastable material. But so what? This is probably the same with even traditional gameshows. The producers of Countdown would never allow a rude four-letter word to creep into the letters round - they'd cut and start again.
But how far did the Knightmare producers go? Extending the life of poor teams in order to get usable material is one thing, but were teams allowed to continue for other reasons? Would they be allowed (whisper it) *to win* for the sake of good television?
I personally feel there's no doubt that the producers could (and did) turn the difficulty dial up or down as they pleased; in theory, if they wanted to increase the chances of a team dying then they could throw them into a bomb room or make them tackle yet another causeway or give them really difficult riddles or... whatever. Crucially, this meant that not all teams got the same treatment and while it would be boring and repetitive if all teams got the same challenges, it's fun to ponder to what extent this ability to manipulate quests on the hoof was used.
A browse on the Knightmare.com forum will show you that the first ever winning team is generally thought to have been given an easy ride. There's no doubt that they're sharp cookies but if you analyse their quest (and surely the producers never suspected anyone would be picking apart quests over 25 years later) you'll see that from level two onwards there isn't actually that much for them to do - it's a highly entertaining quest but not a particularly difficult one. Interestingly, the forum members also tend to agree that they deserved to win; they always quickly work out what needs to be done and the dungeoneer interacts well with the characters they meet. This leads to the question of what exactly Knightmare rewards; when I was a child I assumed it was the ability to solve puzzles, navigate traps and answer riddles. It actually might be that smart, articulate and likeable teams were sometimes rewarded regardless of the actual difficulty of some of the challenges.
As a TV producer of a children's show, entertainment has to be the number one priority and a team's contribution to the nebulous term 'good television' was perhaps key in determining their success.
"But wait a minute!" you cry (I imagine). For every likeable team that seemed to be pushed towards the finishing line wasn't there another who was treated harshly? What about Series 3 which denied victory to all challengers, including some excellent teams? Perhaps the truth is that the production team were painfully aware of the need to balance fairness, entertainment value and the production schedule and sometimes compensated too much in one direction or another. (Or perhaps they were subject to pressure from further up the TV hierarchy: a subject that was touched upon during the 2014 Knightmare Convention Q&As.) Given how well loved the show was over its eight years (and still is) it seems that, in general, they got the balance spot on.
Any discussion about how 'fair' Knightmare was as a 'game' ultimately leads to difficult questions. It wouldn't be good television to have several very short quests in a row or, conversely, to have several winning quests in a row. In fact, an average of one a series sounds about right doesn't it? There are also narrative considerations - Barry's winning quest was part of a wider story arc involving Lord Fear's plot to use a troll to attack Knightmare Castle. Although this team was generally superb, could they really have been allowed to lose? Or would they get away with coming face to face with goblins and getting nicked by spinning blades - mistakes 'lesser' teams would have been punished for?
I'm certainly not suggesting that the whole thing was a fix but one has to look at the tools the producers deployed with a healthy amount of cynicism. Is it a coincidence that the last two teams to win Knightmare did so on the very last episode of their respective series after being presented with 'short cuts'? Hey, maybe it is.
The illusion of choice
Another interesting quote from Hugo (from the same interview):
Progressively we realized - whether they turned left or right, we could use the same scenario.
This of course makes perfect sense; in order to make a TV show successful, producers have to run a very tight ship both financially and operationally - the less time and money wasted the better. That's obvious, right? And yet, when I was a kid, I thought about Knightmare as a sort of live action Fighting Fantasy adventure gamebook; at each point in the quest the players would have to make choices about which path to take and this would determine what challenges they would encounter down the line. It seems I was wrong!
I find it slightly surprising that, considering such understandable production practicalities, Tim Child has compared Knightmare to Commedia dell'arte, a 16th century form of theatre built around scenario based improvisation. This suggests that, Dungeons and Dragons style, almost anything could happen and quests could develop along any number of trajectories depending on how teams interact with the characters they meet.
Knightmare was of course far more linear than this - in fact it was incredibly linear. There were almost always correct objects to take and their necessity would be encountered whichever door out of the clue room was chosen. In any other form of gaming such linearity would be completely unacceptable but Knightmare got away with it because it wasn't strictly a game, it was an entertaining TV adventure show. Part of its success was down to the fact that it created such an effective illusion of choice; viewers either didn't know or didn't care that the 'labyrinth of fear' was actually the linear pathway of fear (the eyeshield created a more obviously linear experience in later series, with teams often robbed of basic decisions like which door to take).
In short, deviation from the quest 'script' (i.e. taking the wrong objects or saying the wrong thing to a character) was only really rewarded with death and character improvisation was largely confined to the realm of comic relief.
Life Force critical
Watching the show as a child, nothing made me squirm with tension as much as seeing a dungeoneer fumble around with food when life force status was critical. In hindsight, it's slightly suspicious just how often a plastic chicken turned up just in the nick of time!
In an interview with Bother's Bar, Tim Child talked about the original, iconic life force animation:
It was just a linear cgi animation sequence... It looked great but the trouble is it was always too short and there were not enough frames in it to slow it down and make it longer. Life Force is really what we call a hurry-up, but starvation makes for a rather boring death, so if a team were really slow, we'd summon up a monster and kill them with that instead.
Some kind of energy bar is a gaming staple. But the truth is that, despite being associated with an extremely memorable indicator, Knightmare didn't really have one at all. What isn't readily apparent to viewers is that the contestants didn't even see the life force - it was added in post production. Sorry to spoil the magic, but when a dungeoneer is frantically trying to put a pie in their knapsack before the second eyeball rolls off the screen, it's just edited that way to add some excitement. All the team got is Treguard giving them abstract life force warnings. (It's actually quite fun to watch episodes back with this in mind. Situations such as Barry's near miss with the water droplet are seen in a whole new light - the advisors clearly having no concept that they're theoretically about to perish).
Tim's comments on the limitation of the original animation are interesting in this context as there was no real need to slow it down or make it longer; it only ever made a symbolic appearance at key moments i.e. death, life force damage or replenishment. Similarly, although the later lifeforce designs may have enabled energy to be taken off in discreet units (rather than constantly dripping away in an animation) this wasn't really reflected in any changes to gameplay.
So despite it being a standard gaming trope, the principal aim of life force was to increase the show's pace and create drama and tension for the viewer. It was not there to support boring gameplay mechanics.
Firstly, well done for getting this far! Reading through these ramblings it seems that I should probably clarify a couple of things. I'm a massive Knightmare fan - I'm not trying to demystify the show in any way and, to reiterate, I certainly don't want to suggest that the winning teams have nothing to be proud of other than good luck. I'm only trying to understand how the programme worked and ultimately why it meant, and means, so much to me. After all, knowing how a magic trick works only makes me appreciate a well presented version of the effect all the more.
Looking back, I don't think I'd have done very well as a Knightmare contestant (is that even the right word? Perhaps 'player' would be better) - not (only) because I didn't know my left from my right or because I was useless at riddles - but because I was a very shy, quiet child who would have found it difficult to 'perform' on camera in a hot studio full of strangers. It is perhaps that realisation more than any other which makes me appreciate that the answer to Treguard's oft-asked question is no - Knightmare wasn't "only a game" but an artful balance of production logistics, variety, contestant intelligence and charisma, clever post-production techniques, scripted narrative drama, unscripted one-liners and rule-based gameplay.
You could say it was all a trick - a wonderful magic trick that I watched week after week, open mouthed, perched on the very edge of my seat.