By John Walker on March 26th, 2014 at 5:00 pm.
Mike Bithell, creator of Thomas Was Alone, knows a lot about Robin Hood. As we sit in a Starbucks five thousand miles from either of our homes, his tank-like laptop greedily drinking electricity from the coffee store’s wall, I find myself scribbling notes not about his upcoming stealth puzzler Volume, but about how it wasn’t until King Henry VIII took a shine to the story that the behooded thiefster became a noble character. In fact, the whole myth was an excuse to see a few fights during the May Games festivities. He didn’t even give to the poor until the 17th century! “So when are you making a Robin Hood game?” I ask him. “This is it,” says Bithell, waving at the screen.
I can be forgiven for not immediately making the connection. Volume is a heavily stylised neon polygonal world of isometric sneakery. It’s a computer simulation in a computer game, visualised online burglary, employing the foibles of stealth gaming at the same time as lampooning them. There are, at first glance, very few green tights and merry men.
At second and third glance too. Bithell’s attempt to create a modern Robin Hood game is esoteric, and indeed in a large part disguised in what he’s revealing so far. Forget the Robin Hood thing, okay. Let’s talk Metal Gear Solid instead. Or perhaps any of many other stealth-led games. The mechanics behind them – sneaking around, ducking behind walls, avoiding cones of sight from guards – it’s all a bit silly, isn’t it? “Stealth doesn’t work in real life,” says Bithell. “It’s a lie.” Volume, he explains, is an attempt to indulge those lies.
The levels, in the game’s fiction, are created by an AI. And via this little narrative device, all excuses are made. That thing in stealth games, where the guard gives up looking for you because you walked around a corner? That’s bad coding by the game’s game’s AI. The game mocks itself for this coding. FEATURE EXCUSED! As such, Volume is attempting to become a sort of purification of the silliness of gaming stealthing, and at the same time a celebration of it.
The goal of each level is to steal gems, and reach the exit. It’s unpretentious in this regard. The methods behind being able to do this are what’s key here, and Bithell is aiming to create a game that’s overtly aware of how people already play games like this. “Players always find the optimal route,” he explains. “This is about removing them.” As such, the game’s plan is to constantly mix up the rules, take what you’ve learned and then change the tools. While there are nine gadgets in the game, none is persistent across levels – you use what each level provides you, rather than pick a favourite trick and do it over and over again.
The first gadget Bithell showed me was the Bugle. This is a bouncing ball of sound, thrown against walls and ricocheting around levels, to distract the AI guards. Then there’s the Oud, a similar device, but the sound is triggered by you, rather than continuously. There’s the Veil, letting you be temporarily invisible, the Masquerade that lets you appear like a guard, and the Folly, that works like a tripwire. They are, it should be noted, all very standard stealth devices. And these are representative of the challenge that lies ahead for Volume – this purification of the genre requires some really stellar puzzle design to keep it interesting.
However, there are two other plans in place to add to the interestingosity. First of all, there’s a story. This is where the Robin Hood factor kicks in, but Bithell is reluctant to reveal too much here – quite where it’s heading, what Volume is going to be about, is deliberately being kept close to his chest, for the player to discover as they play. What we do know is that Danny Wallace and Charlie McDonnell will be providing voices, and it’s going to do something I’ve never heard of a game trying before: the story will work even if the levels change.
And the levels changing is the other big plan. While Volume will ship with Bithell’s collection of challenges, it will also come with an editor that lets you create your own, share them, and download those of others. And here’s the thing – plonk a collection of those levels together, and the game will let you overlay the story. It’s a novel idea, and one that certainly lends itself to replaying.
The level editor looks extremely simple to use, too. “What you lose in fidelity,” explains the creator, “you gain in usability.” Which is to say, he’s created an editor that lets you create puzzles based on AI behaviour, without having to fiddle with AI behaviour. This takes us back to those dumb guards again. A level is far more fun to create, to make into an interesting puzzle, if those stealth idiosyncrasies are effectively used. He shows me, very quickly drawing out floors and walls in the editor, how the guard’s limited abilities can be used to make things interesting. Walking into a guard’s cone of site triggers his attention, but hiding around a corner has him forget about you and return to his routine (again, very simply established paths can be given to guards in the editor).
That’s fine if he’s the only one there, but silly if there’s another guard nearby. But rather than worry the player with how to get one guard to speak to another, having AIs communicate, instead they come pre-built with a knowledge to trigger alarms if they lose you. Mike quickly adds an alarm to the wall, and runs the situation again. This time after hiding, the guard switches on the alarm, which alerts the other guard to be aware of danger too. Then a third time, this time distracting the first guard and disabling the alarm, to avoid it all. Yes, this is all bog-standard stuff for stealth games, but it’s absolutely vital stuff for creating a WYSISYG editor for regular players.
Oh, and you can’t kill anyone. In fact, the most a guard can be incapacitated for is around five seconds. This comes back to Bithell’s desire that the game not be gamed. That it not become about leaving a pile of bodies in the corner and freely wandering around its corridors. Such thinking applies all over, in fact, with deliberate obstacles put in place to prevent the tools at your disposal being subverted to avoid having to solve puzzles. Mike knows what you’re like, essentially, and is attempting to create a game that is aware of you.
That’s where Volume’s biggest potential lies – this desire to take what we already know from stealth games, make it the absolute focus, and then not let us cheat our way around it. It’s going to heavily rely on the puzzles it ships with being interesting enough to get around the familiarity of its mechanics, before players then start releasing their own. The 21st century Robin Hood tale is going to be the cherry on top, but only if the challenge is there to make us want to keep playing to hear it all. For the moment, there’s no reason to assume it won’t be – Bithell’s a smart man, and his passion for this project was obvious. We shall hopefully be finding out later this year.