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

Thomas Was Alone creator Mike Bithell tells VG247's Dave Cook about how he quit his day job and started adapting the story of Robin Hood for the modern age. Meet Volume; a game about being heard.

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In these days of spiralling living costs and the widening divide between the rich and poor, has there ever existed a more compelling time in recent history to bring the story of Robin Hood into the present? Volume is a game about conservatism and oppression in broken England; the story of one man leading by example, and inspiring a nation to fight back.

"If Volume can do well – and hopefully if it’s good it will – then it provides the funds to go on and make bigger games. Thomas Was Alone paid for two games the size of Volume, so I have two chances to make a game that doesn’t suck.”

Volume is the second of five work-in-progress game concepts created by Mike Bithell; the first being his runaway success Thomas Was Alone. It's a stealth game that places great emphasis on sound, and sees hero Locksley streaming crimes inside a virtual world to show the people how to steal. It's not long before the program's AI - played by Danny Wallace - and villain Gisborne notice him running around the system.

Locksley is then pursued by AI guards while out in the real world, Gisborne's forces are closing in on the source of his livestream. He's a rich guy himself and should be considered a pincushion for hate, but through his act of defiance Locksley becomes something of a folk hero. Along the way you'll be sneaking your way through several stages that resemble Metal Gear Solid's VR missions, using gadgets and subversion to pinch items of value.

You're also able to play through the whole story via stages that come pre-packaged with the game, or you can swap them out for a playlist of your own creations, or those crafted by the community. It's a neat hook and a compelling premise, so I spoke with Bithell over Skype to find out where the concept came from, and how life has changed since his early success.

VG247: Thomas Was Alone is now a success and you've previously confirmed that you have a roadmap of ideas beyond Volume. How far do you plan these things as an indie? Is it always important to have ideas in reserve?

Mike Bithell: To be honest I was massively surprised by Thomas Was Alone doing as well as it did. Success hit on Thomas much, much later after launch and at first it was a game that paid for a nice holiday. I made it in my spare time around my day job in the games industry, I was fine with that, I was happy, it got a couple of good reviews. It was good. But then when it kind of took off it was a situation of, 'Okay I need to quit my day job' because I'd made enough money that I don't have to work for anyone [laughs]; a 'what now?' kind thing.

It was a very weird position to be in and it's obviously incredibly awesome and lucky, and feels fantastic but … yeah, it was one of those things where, 'I'm leaving now to go make a game,' and I said there have been five big ideas in my head for many, many years. I think most game developers have that list of games they'd make if they ever got the chance and I find myself in a position where I had the chance. So yeah, 'Thomas' was the first one; Volume is the second game.

Really it was chosen because I love stealth games, it's my favourite genre and it felt like stealth games were heading in a more 'actiony' direction, and maybe doing a more traditional stealth game would be a more interesting thing to do nowadays. Also, it's the cheapest of the ones left in the bank; the other three are all games that require more people, so the hope is Volume is the gateway to that.

If Volume can do well - and hopefully if it's good it will – then it provides the funds to go on and make bigger games. Thomas Was Alone paid for two games the size of Volume, so I have two chances to make a game that doesn't suck.

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VG247: It sounds to me that although success did find you, that it must have still been quite nerve-racking like, 'Shit; I'm actually going to quit now and make a go of this.' But there are more tools out there today for people to set up solo and we've seen a lot of devs quitting big studios to chase dream projects.

Bithell: So there was the generation in the '80s of the bedroom coders, and those people are now – in many cases – the 'titans' of industry; they're the guys running the massive 200-person studios, the guys maybe working at big publishers, and they created the franchises that generate ridiculous incomes.

”'Thomas' had come out in November, so in the two months it had been out, it was at midnight on New Year's Eve I had stayed in because the numbers were interesting. As the clock struck 12 it had hit my year's salary in terms of the money it made on Steam, and it was this realisation that 'I've got a year in the bank.”

Then what happened was there was a generation in the '90s and then the noughties who didn't have that. If you wanted to make a 'proper' game, you needed 20 people minimum, so we all learned how to make games in teams, and in big teams at that.

So for us, we were specialised; I'm not a coder, I'm a designer and I'm rubbish at programming. But tools like Unity kind of stripped away the challenges of coding to such an extent that I could ship a game, a multi-platform game, which I still don't fully understand and the idea of doing it again terrifies me.

That was the big shift, that those of us who had come up in a time where games couldn't be made in small teams, I think a lot of people saw… you know, for me World of Goo was the game where I was like, 'Oh wow, this is something that's actually achievable now,' and then I think later Braid for a lot of people, or Super Meat Boy – these kind of 'indie hit' games.

I think a lot of people sort of looked at that and went, 'I could do that,' [laughs]. Not to knock the work of the people who did it, but that's something that's achievable. I think we're now in the second or third wave. I hope that somewhere, someone in a dev studio looks at Thomas Was Alone and goes, 'Seriously? Rectangles?' but I think a lot of people look at the success of these games and just try it.

The benefits of doing it on your own, with the freedoms that give you, are awesome. There's also massive risks as well, but it's very appealing. To someone who's worked in a big company all their career; it's a very interesting space.

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VG247: I think so too, and it does seem that these games have triggered many people to go on and pursue things. So at what point did you decide, 'Volume is going ahead?' You always had the idea, but when did you get serious about it?

”It is essentially set in the near-future, successive governments have pulled England into a very conservative state, Scotland’s gone, Wales is gone, everyone’s moved on, but England’s just gone back to being England. The ‘UK’ and ‘Great Britain’ are now history, the people are upset about this and a revolution happens.”

Bithell: Basically; it's weird and no-one's ever going to believe me because it's too poetic, but it was New Year's Eve 2013 at midnight. Thomas had come out in November, so in the two months it had been out, it was at midnight on New Year’s Eve I had stayed in because the numbers were interesting.

As the clock struck 12 it had hit my year’s salary in terms of the money it made on Steam, and it was this realisation that ‘I’ve got a year in the bank. I don't have to work for a year.' It was at that point I decided to go and do my own thing, 'Let's do this.'

Then the next morning Total Biscuit did his video of Thomas Was Alone, which was very complimentary, and by the end of that week I had about two or three years in the bank.

It just became ridiculous, so I walked into the office and said, 'Look; I kind of have to go and do this now because this is the only opportunity in my life I'm going to have to go and do this. I can either buy a house or become an indie.' And – bless them – my bosses were like, 'We're surprised it took this long. Good luck.'

I gave them my notice and I remember I quit on the Friday, went to Ikea, and bought myself a desk [laughs], and I was working by Sunday, I started making Volume. I knew it was a stealth game so I started making the building blocks of that, and then over the coming months it took form and became a thing.

VG247: That's an incredible story, and I'm glad you're doing a stealth game as it's my favourite genre as well. I agree that it has become action-orientated as well, but you've also got this cool angle about 'streaming' and that you compare that side of the game to 'Let's Plays.' Is it – in any way - a statement about how we simply have to capture everything in our lives for all to see?

Bithell: I think Volume – in terms of its theme – is about heroism first and foremost as a game, and certainly a very masculine sense of heroism of, 'if a tree commits a heroic act in the woods and no-one's around to see it; was he a hero?' kind of thing. There's a definite sense of the way that we propagate heroism and good deeds that it becomes almost a social currency, and it becomes about showing-off.

There's this idea of; if you take the Robin Hood myth and you transplant that to the modern day... this is a guy showing off basically, pretending to be a hero, and then becomes a hero as a side effect of that. What is that in the modern day?

If he was around in the modern day and wanted to be known, he'd probably use YouTube. That's probably the context it would happen in nowadays. I'm surprised more people don't 'Let's Play' crime, it seems like something there'd be an audience for.

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VG247: Like that recent Derren Brown art heist show?

Bithell: Yeah, exactly. There's definitely a voyeuristic aspect to any idea of heroism, because there's a vicarious thrill you get from these stories like 'You won't believe what this mother from Antigua did for her children.' There's a pornographic element to it; a pretension to it, and the idea is, can we play with these old legends? Can we do a story that acknowledges how heroes work today Maybe we can point out some of the issues; because if you look back at Robin Hood; for hundreds of years that's been the story of a rich man saving poor people.

What's that? How does that work nowadays? How does that work in a post-financial crash world? Do we like rich people? Can rich people be heroes? Are they allowed to be heroes? Do we want them to smugly think they can solve all of our problems? There's a lot of stuff that interested me around that theme and that adaptation, and the idea of what you do with it.

VG247: I don't know how far you go into this throughout Volume's plot, but how would you describe the world-state outside the virtual crimes Locksley is streaming to the masses?

Bithell: Yeah, it's one of those things that's brilliant to adapting that side of Robin Hood; just as a process it's a story that's existed since the Middle Ages, and a lot of talented writers have tried to fix its problems over the years.

A lot of the time you find that the solutions to problems quite easily by doing your research, so an example of this was; I wanted it to be kind of futuristic. That was a big part of what I wanted to achieve with the game, so I wanted it either modern day or near-future to do the hologram stuff.

”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.”

How do I get Britain into a feudal, kind of Medieval society? Because we don't live in Medieval times; this doesn't make a whole lot of sense, this idea of the knights and the deposed king and all this stuff. It doesn't really work in a traditional context, and I was struggling with that for a couple of weeks thinking, 'Well what's the solution here?' Then I watched the Errol Flynn movie, and that had the same problem. They had to explain to Americans what Medieval England was, and the way they did it was to have [Robin Hood's rival] Gisborne stage a coup.

You actually saw the country being taken from the people so they actually had something to fight against, and that's what this game is. It is essentially set in the near-future, successive governments have pulled England into a very conservative state, Scotland's gone, Wales is gone, everyone's moved on, but England's just gone back to being England. The 'UK' and 'Great Britain' are now history, the people are upset about this and a revolution happens. But like as happens with a lot of revolutions; the wrong person gets power, and that's Gisborne.

He's not a nice man, he's a businessman, and he starts dividing the country up amongst his friends and basically he is the catalyst for England returning to a very feudal scenario. Obviously our plucky young hero is less than keen on that.

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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.

About the Author

Dave Cook avatar

Dave Cook

Contributor

Living in Edinburgh, Scotland. Writing a game called Jettison and a book called Seventh Circle. Loves spicy food.

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