Mike Bithell's stealth game, Volume, looks like a very different prospect to Thomas Was Alone, even if there might be some similarities in the audio department. A retelling of the Robin Hood story, Volume takes place in a Britain laced with political dissent, rebellion and fancy volumetric display devices. Upon discovering such a device, Robert Locksley sets out to livestream heists and infiltrations, teaching the poor to steal from the rich rather than doing the job himself. I sat down with Mr Bithell at the Bradford Animation Festival to talk about the game, politics, ethics, Mini Coopers and Russell Brand.
RPS: We haven’t spoken to you about Volume since you revealed that it is a retelling of the Robin Hood story. You revealed that in a castle in Nottingham.
Bithell: It’s the silliest and best thing I’ve ever done.
RPS: What interested me about the story announcement was less the Robin Hood angle and more the livestreaming element. It seems like you’ve approached a problem of storytelling – how do I talk about heists and break-ins within a virtual environment? – and found an unusual but sensible solution. The heists are streams, from a large database of 3d building blueprints. Did you come to that idea quite quickly?
Bithell: It took a long to fix on the livestreaming aspect. I knew it was a stealth game, that was the first thing, and I knew it was a stealth game in a virtual environment, so I could reuse the same space. Initially I was considering doing a Sherlock Holmes game and in the earliest version, you were Holmes re-enacting crimes in order to work them out. But that sort of mechanic started cropping up in too many games, like in Batman, and I thought my version would be better but I didn’t want to be told I was cloning Batman.
So then I started doing the research and Robin Hood made sense. But then why would he be running around in a virtual space? So I had to work out how that space connected with the outside world and for a brief while, the protagonist stopped being Robin Hood altogether and became a heist specialist. He was designing heists on a computer and then the actual heist would happen off camera, but that felt kind of lame.
But at the time, I was watching a lot of Let’s Players, and I thought – ‘oh my god! He’s let’s playing.’ He’s the TotalBiscuit of crime! (laughs)
Once that was in place, I asked why he was in this virtual environment. Did he make it? No. I decided that he found it and it was the machine used to stage the uprising that had put the current rulers in power. Sometimes things start to click into place once you’ve got that one key piece. Originally he was the narrator of his own story but I thought that might be a bit boring, a bit too much like Thomas, so I decided to have dialogue. But who is he talking to? An AI. It all falls into place.
RPS: And the villain speaks as well?
Bithell: Yeah, Gisborne. Robert finds this device and in the narrative of the game there are hundreds of them around the country and Gisborne is trying to work out which one you’re using so that he can send his people to arrest you. The AI works out very early on that the process of triangulation will take around three hours.
They’re not searching for you straight away. There’s this brief moment of naivety where Robert decides to share the streams with the world, thinking it’ll be fine, and then a half hour or hour into the game, Gisborne’s voice comes in – “Why the fuck are you playing with my toys?” – that sort of thing (laughs). And then a relationship starts up between Gisbourne and Robin, with Gisbourne taunting and trying to work out where you are, and Robert taunting Gisbourne. He’s an arrogant character, Robert, and thinks he’s invincible.
So that’s how it all started to make sense. Gisbourne is watching a stream. You can tell from the way the story goes that he is sitting in his office, watching what you’re doing, and he’s increasingly frustrated. He’s used to getting what he wants and hates to have that power being slowly carved away from him, but when he realises he can locate Robert, he’s incredibly pleased and the tables have turned. That dynamic plays out across the three hours that he’s hunting for Robert and then something happens that I’m not going to talk about! But I hope there’s a satisfying arc across those hours, as Locksley learns a few things about himself.
RPS: One thing that seems entirely new – and somebody will no doubt point out that it’s been done before – is that the story is told in certain beats and moments, taking place across a timeframe rather than in specific locations. So you can take user-made content and still experience the story in those areas.
Bithell: It’s not a timeframe exactly. Every map you have in the game has a certain number of points it’ll reward you. Some are for finishing it, some for completing it in a certain time, some for never being seen – that kind of stuff. Let’s say a map gives you five points in total – within the game I’m going to ship, you have 100 levels, and you have to get within the ballpark of 200 points. The point when you hit 200 points, the story ends.
So the nature of the levels that you play does matter. If somebody has made a very difficult map and you download it, it will become available later in the game. I’m still working out the details of that system. But the way the plotting works is that instead of being time-based, it’s based on how many points you have. So at a 100 points, it knows you’re half-way through the game and that’s when it’s going to start triggering certain story beats.
RPS: But you can slot in a user-generated level and the story will be told over the top of that level?
Bithell: Exactly. And there’s a narrative reason as to why you can continue to play levels when the story ends.
RPS: And I can tell by your expression that you’re not going to tell me what that is! You did mention in your talk that there’s a reason that ‘a character’ can continue…
Bithell: That’s my little tease.
RPS: The story is quite compact, in terms of the time that it takes to happen in the game world. Do you have the chance in that timeframe to question the possible social impact of somebody streaming crimes? Robert is teaching people to rebel against power and wealth, but his methods seem irresponsible.
Bithell: That is kind of interesting, isn’t it? It’s definitely something I want to explore. What do the consequences of his actions do to Robert’s perception of heroism? You just summarised the entire ethical quandary of the game there. That’s good (laughs)!
RPS: Is the desire to make a non-violent game an ethical choice for you as a designer? You said that it’s a design-driven choice, because you find that violence and stealth games don’t play well together.
Bithell: You’re making a statement by removing guns though, yes.
RPS: But if Robert is teaching people how to commit crimes, there’s no reason they wouldn’t add guns to the mix. Imagine somebody watching a non-violent playthrough of Dishonored or a section of Metal Gear Solid – they might well sit there yelling at the screen – “JUST SHOOT THEM, STAB THEM IN THE NECK”.
Bithell: It’s actually really cool that you’re talking about this. If I look smug [he doesn’t], I apologise, but that’s precisely what I want people to consider and I’m really glad it’s come into your mind already. What happens when you broadcast a robbery, a break-in? Robert presents it as morally good but is he right?
RPS: You mentioned Russell Brand’s comments about democratic action, or lack of, as being timely, in regards to what your approach is to the politics of the game. I’ve read some criticism of Brand that suggests an instruction not to vote is a suggestion toward violence as a means of change.
Bithell: Brand’s a good example of this, but I had written it before he even sat down on Newsnight. What is the efficacy of an armchair revolution? Locksley isn’t doing anything other than playing a game, sitting in a room. He’s creating scenarios and asking other people to take on the risk of carrying out the plans. He’s not the traditional Robin Hood. I play with what that means and question what that makes Locksley.
It’s very easy to go on a TV show and say these things, that people shouldn’t vote, but then what if the BNP get more seats in the next election? Was Brand right to say what he did? What’s interesting is that I was writing this a few months back as a reaction to the banking crisis and the situation internationally, things that were interesting to me, and I guess I’m keyed into something because there’s a national debate around this stuff.
RPS: A change of topic from storytelling – you mentioned The West Wing’s ‘walk and talk’ as a rhythm that you’d like to adopt. First of all, ‘walk and talk’ immediately makes me think of Larry David’s ‘stop and chat’. But more importantly, the idea of ‘walk and talk’ in a game, allowing the player to continue with the flow while conversation continues, reminds me of Portal. Portal 2 more so actually. A huge story, with villains and allies changing roles and character, all told while the player solves puzzles.
Bithell: I hadn’t made the connection but you’re right, yeah!
RPS: You said you never want to stop people from interacting with the game. Thomas Was Alone did that to an extent as well, kept things moving even while telling its story, but Volume seems like a much more systemic game.
Bithell: It is. There’s an argument that in Thomas Was Alone, the gameplay is busy-work while you listen to a quite good audiobook. That’s a fair criticism of the game. This is more involved and stealth games have their own rhythms. In Thomas, there are very few points where you can’t just stand still and wait for the game to carry on telling its story. With a stealth game, it’s interesting because you can’t do that. There are moments when it would be problematic for a narrative chunk to trigger.
We’re playing with that and there will be certain rules that prevent dialogue from happening, like if you’re under fire. We’re considering a ‘shut up’ button, where you can stop the dialogue if you’re busy or need to concentrate on something else. It’s still being played with but the dialogue fits and it’s a good way to tell the story want to tell, which is very authored, without getting in the way of the game.
It’s also interesting because we can do procedural stuff, having dialogue triggered by events in the game. So while we don’t have specific levels that have specific moments of dialogue, we can say that if you’re hiding in a locker for more than ten seconds, somebody will comment on it.
RPS: A bizarre connection, but I’m reminded of Deadly Premonition. Have you played it?
RPS: When you’re driving, the main character will talk about pop culture, mostly movies, and if you stop and get out of the car, he says “We’ll continue this conversation later”. Unfortunately, in my experience, he usually starts from the beginning again every sodding time.
Bithell: The problem of interruptions is a big challenge. This is the stuff I have to work out in the coming months and I know what my objective is. It’s a question of how involved you make these kind of situations. GTA does it very well – GTA V, in one of the rare moments that the story does work well in that game, has these moments when you crash your car, where the characters stop talking, address what happened, and then return to the last natural break in the conversation when you start driving again.
If I wanted to do that, I’d have to pay someone to go through and timestamp every single piece of dialogue in the game, because I don’t want to do that myself! (laughs) I don’t know how it’ll work, is the honest answer, until I get it in the game.
RPS: A lot of the challenge here seems to be ‘how do I make a stealth game?’, which is very hard in itself, but then also ‘how do I tell this story at the same time?’ Is there any concern of a disconnect between story and game?
Bithell: The stealth game was always the other game, after Thomas. Well, there are five games that I want to make, that I have mapped out to an extent. Thomas was the first because it was the cheapest. Volume is the second cheapest, so that’s next (laughs). It was always a stealth game but the story is kind of a reaction to how well the story of Thomas was received.
I thought I was writing a competent story with an amazing platform game. It turned out it was the other way around! I didn’t realise it would get the attention it did, which is lovely. But odd.
Here, the story came afterwards. The game is about sneaking around and stealing stuff, so I picked a story that suited that. The biggest issue is the deeper qualities of the game and how they can clash with the story – if it was about infiltrating a military installation, for example, you wouldn’t want a story like this because the pace would be so fast. You’d have to pause the world just to listen to the dialogue. And there’s the fact that here, if you die in the game, you don’t die. So if you’re talking, and you get killed, you can continue with your conversation as you restore yourself back into the virtual environment.
RPS: I was going to ask about fail states.
Bithell: It’s always soft and you can always get back to the same point very quickly.
RPS: If a player is struggling to pass a certain map, can they return to a database and pick a new one?
Bithell: Yeah. You unlock levels as you progress. You can always go back to earlier levels to try and get more points if you hit a bottleneck, but I’m trying to get a good balance and I can’t say for sure how well it works until all the levels are in. It is a performance skill-based game and there will be people who find it difficult. That’s OK.
RPS: The visual feedback that you see during play – the arcs of objects being thrown and how far sound travels – is that always displayed.
Bithell: It is. It’s far clearer than in the videos already. One of the key things about stealth games is that level of situational awareness. It’s always a challenge to choose how much you tell the player – if they know everything about the game, they’re going to feel empowered and awesome. If they know nothing, they’ll feel out of their depth.
In this game it’s about being awesome so it swings toward knowing everything. There are still things that will surprise people but it’s very predictable, the way the AI functions and the way vision cones are, because I never want the player to feel that the game beat them, I want them to take ownership of their own defeat. I know everyone says things like that but in this game it’s very true.
RPS: There are several recent approaches to stealth that struck a chord with me. Dishonored was a very kinetic stealth game, about use of environment and empowerment through abilities. Volume reminds me of Mark of the Ninja, which is about empowerment through knowledge as much as gadgets. You can see your effect on the world and thereby control it. It’s not something I associate with the stealth games I grew up with – Thief has a light gem and that’s about it.
Bithell: Thief is a game you’re meant to be scared of.
Bithell: I’m going back to Metal Gear really. The interesting thing about Metal Gear Solid is that you end up playing it on the radar. That’s where the visual feedback exists. That’s what everyone looks at so I take those vision cones from the radar and stick them in the main screen. I’m sure I’m not the first person to do that.
RPS: Well, Mark of the Ninja is the closest I can think of, with the sound ripples from footsteps…
Bithell: Oh, it does, doesn’t it? I’ve totally ripped them off! (laughs)
RPS: When I first played it, I felt distracted by all of the feedback. But then you realise that you, as a player, need to see all of this because it’s reflecting your character’s traits.
Bithell: The more you empower a gamer with knowledge, the more you can empower the enemy weaponry. You can have one-hit kills and as long as the player has situational awareness, that’s completely fair. It’s one of the problems that I have with The Last of Us, that monster that can kill you instantly. So often you don’t have any awareness that they are around. If you were playing from a zoomed out camera and could see from three rooms away, it’d feel very empowering and it’d be a very different game.
RPS: Is the only fail-state death, or can a triggered alarm end a stream?
Bithell: The only hard fail is death. There are alarms but they don’t cause failure. If an enemy sees you, it might run to an alarm to trigger it, which then triggers all the other alarms in a level, and any enemy within hearing distance of one of those alarms will run to your last position. If you don’t work out a way to get around that or to use it to your advantage, you will get killed.
RPS: Do you think the virtual environments mean that you lose some of the joy of exploration?
Bithell: It’s totally a risk, yeah. Levels do look very different now, compared to the video, and now that I’m working with PS4, everything has gone upwards in terms of fidelity. There’s a limit to what I can do with them but I’m introducing a lot of variety in terms of palette. They are more varied than they look in the video but, sure, there’s only so much I can do with them. That’s something I’m OK with because I’m not making a twenty hour game here – it’s a short game and hopefully there’ll be enough variety to be interesting across that time.
RPS: It’s quite refreshing to hear a realistic approach to limitations. Does some of that come from your experience in the industry or are you just a sensible chap?
Bithell: Limitations are design. That’s where a lot of people go wrong. The reason the Mini Cooper is a design classic is all down to the limitations of the day, of automobile engineering, of resources and pricing in the UK. Local skills in the area – all of that. That is design.
If you had a world without physics or cost restrictions, you’d build shit cars. I think that’s one of the reasons why people are so drawn to indie games. The limitations create the design.
RPS: How hard is it to control a project, personally? Do you have to be quite strict with yourself in terms of feature-creep and production time?
Bithell: My taste tends toward precise things. I’ll always remove a button press if I can. That might come from my graphic design background. Simplify, simplify, simplify. Minimalism is my thing. I’m not one of these people with huge crazy ideas. That’s totally valid but I’m a refiner rather than a revolutionary. Volume won’t redefine what games are, but it’ll hopefully be a solid game that I’ve worked hard on. It’s a different kind of objective. I like polish, making something feel really wonderful and great, and I’m less about pushing the boundaries. At some point I will.
RPS: Is that one of the six games?
Bithell: Five! Of the five, at least two of the three remaining are revolutionary in a way. I need money first though.
RPS: Thanks for your time!
For more information about Volume, check the official site.