Volume: Mike Bithell discusses the art of stealth, deception & reviving old heroes

By Dave Cook, Tuesday, 11 February 2014 08:49 GMT

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VG247: That’s an interesting set-up and I read that you were originally going to have Sherlock Holmes star before you saw the detective elements in the Batman: Arkham games, and I for one am glad because more stealth is good. I understand there’s a weird, contextual three hour time-frame system at play as well?

Bithell: It’s a story thing so it’s not a literal three hours, as the game’s actually going to be a bit longer than three hours. But in terms of the game’s universe; it’s a story concern, because it’s a story about someone who’s streaming crime. If he’s streaming crime that’s obviously going to piss-off the bad guys and realistically, how long would it take them to find him? It was a limitation of the story; let’s watch the last three hours of this guy’s freedom. That was an interesting idea.

”You can’t kill anyone; That was kind of an early desire, that at no point can you ‘win’ the space. The space is always going to be up for grabs, enemies are always going to be present, they’re always going to be working out what to do next.”

The game opens with a flash-forward; it basically shows you, Locksley, being arrested [laughs]. So you then flash-back three hours to see why. So it’s set in that zone and it means we can do some stuff with real-time; you can tell that they’re catching up with you and you’re seeing all this stuff happened, and it hopefully kind of brings everything nicely together.

VG247: Yeah, so it’s more like narrative cues once a person hits a certain point in the story? It’s interesting seeing as you’re enabling gamers to fill that story with their own levels or stages built by other members of the community. Was that tech quite a nightmare to get running?

Bithell: It’s getting there [laughs]. It’s not quite 100% yet, but honestly my hope is – and I’m building a bunch of levels myself for this game – that most people will want to play the game as designed and play my version of it. But yes; if you’re someone who’s going into the game – maybe you’re playing it for a second time – you want to hear the story again but you want to try new challenges, then it’s this idea of swapping all the levels out for new ones or progressing through the game by playing ‘non-story’ missions. It’s an interesting idea.

We’re still playing with it, but it’s pretty straight-forward. Because it was something we wanted to do from day-one, it’s informed a lot of the choices we’ve made in structuring the game so it kind of works. Hopefully.

VG247: I wanted to ask you about the tone, because I know Danny Wallace is playing the AI, which is probably going to get compared to Portal’s GlaDoS post-launch, but are you going a bit darker with it, or it going to be humorous?

Bithell: I’m a big fan of – I guess – contemporary ‘nerd’ stuff like Doctor Who, Marvel, movies that kind of stuff. That’s the tone, and it’s got a kind of ‘epic-ness’ to it, but hopefully it’s got peril and danger, but also humour. In the traditional legends; Locksley enjoys himself, and this is a cool thing he’s doing. I’m not interested in making a dark, brooding Locksley, and that’s a good reason why he’s being played by [YouTuber Charlie McDonnell].

He’s a fun guy, he has a lot of fun doing what he does. Likewise; Danny Wallace as the AI isn’t going to be an AI. That’s a different kind of character to GlaDoS, and Gisborne… I’ve not said who the actor playing Gisborne is – but he’s a villain so that obviously goes in a different direction.

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VG247: In a previous interview I read that you wanted people to take ownership of Volume, and to not feel like the game was beating them unfairly, like it was their own fault they got beat. As a Dark Souls fan I love that, but how do you enforce that in Volume’s gameplay?

Bithell: I think it comes from a lot of places. I think if you’re fair then that’s what it all comes down to; making sure that the game treats people fairly, that they feel they’re getting treated correctly, and that the game isn’t trying to mess them around. I think that’s good game design more than anything else; I’m sure that’s specific to Volume, I just think that in any game where danger can occur, you want to make sure that feeling is there.

Stealth games are interesting because they’re often about prediction and predictability; ‘Where’s that bad guy going to walk next? What’s that patrol route going to be?’ It becomes a bit more nuanced. In Thomas Was Alone it was easy, as it was about making sure that the jump didn’t make you fall into death too often [laughs]. But with stealth it’s about the player knowing what’s going on and the game not cheating.

VG247: And from your trailer I’ve noticed there are things Locksley can do to confuse the AI enemies patrolling each stage like noise-makers and stunning them. What tools are at the player’s disposal?

Bithell: You can’t kill anyone; That was kind of an early desire, that at no point can you ‘win’ the space. The space is always going to be up for grabs, enemies are always going to be present, they’re always going to be working out what to do next. In most stealth games I clear rooms; I work out, ‘Whose neck do I snap first?’ and that’s how I play those games. That’s fine but I wanted to do something different.

So yeah there’s lots of gadgets. The ones that are in the trailer are – like you say – the noise-maker, that’s the ‘Bugle,’ and then you’ve got the Blackjack, which temporarily knocks out, but only for a few seconds, not forever. There’s nine gadgets, and they’re all focused on indirectly how characters move around the space. There’s the Thunderclap that can deafen enemies.

Trip-wires are an interesting one that can be placed anywhere in the environment; when players walk through them it trips them up and makes a noise, and there’s stuff to do with camouflage and hiding, that kind of thing. There’s lots of stuff but it’s all about tipping the game in slightly different directions without dominating it.

VG247: It’s good to know that you can’t ‘win’ the space because I’m a big fan of Tenchu and while I enjoy methodically mapping patrol routes and working out where to sprint between kills it does get a bit systematic. So I guess you really want to keep things tense in Volume?

Bithell: That’s it; making it feel tense but not – I guess – too dangerous that you become terrified and it’s a real balancing act because yeah; if you get caught and killed you’re instantly respawned. It’s not about making a cruel game, it’s more about making a game that feels fair and that makes you feel clever if you can overcome it. Hopefully players will, but yeah it’s a balancing act. It has to be about empowerment, it has to put them under threat first. It’s a tightrope and I think it’s going in the right direction.

Volume is in development now.

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