At this year’s Eurogamer Expo we had a short chat with Thomas Was Alone’s Mike Bithell about his upcoming stealth game Volume and his opinions on the stealth genre.
Gameranx - I do want to talk about Volume, but immediately, how have the last couple years been? It’s a meteoric rise, actually, meteors don’t rise, they crash and burn.
Mike Bithell - I’ve never understood that phrase, yeah.
GR - How about… A Rocket Ship? Taking off?
MB - Nice. It’s been awesome, I was just a dude working in a games company, I made a hobby game and it went ridiculously well. I’m still surprised by that and I don’t fully understand the process. It basically did well enough that I now get to spend years and years and years making whatever I want and the first thing on the list was Volume.
It’s freedom, it’s absolute complete freedom. Freedom costs money, which is a shame, but I’ve been really lucky and I’m now taking advantage of that by using the opportunity to make whatever I want.
GR - Right out of the gate with this freedom you decide: “I like Metal Gear and Lego a lot, so, let’s make a combination”.
MB - I think I decided to make this when I was about 13-14. I was obsessed with Metal Gear Solid as a kid. And like every kid I played the game and immediately was like “Oh it’d be so cool if you could do this or you could do that” or “that thing was rubbish, that should be different, it should work like this.”
That bounced around my head for the intervening 13-14 years, always taking away that I really wanted to make a stealth game. I never got to make one, I always tried to find opportunities because I worked on quite a few games and I was always the guy going “hey we should do a stealth level” and everyone else was like “no”.
GR - Stealth levels get a bad rap for not really working.
MB - No they never work because there’s always people like me who really wish they were making a stealth game trying to squeeze some stealth into a game which makes no sense.
GR - Do you feel like that’s an engine problem? It just not being accounted for?
MB - It’s just not given the time. If your game is about shooting, you spend a lot of time making sure the guns feel good. If your game is about shooting and you want a stealth bit, you’re still spending most of you time trying to make the guns feel good, but you’ve also got to do that stealth bit you’ve been putting off for ages.
GR - What is it about stealth that interests you?
Okay, the whole thing with stealth games is they aren’t action games, they’re puzzle games that are dressed up with men running around with guns to make them feel like action games.
Volume is Pac-Man, in the same way that Metal Gear was Pac-Man. You play with it and you make it feel like action but it’s a puzzle game.
The other thing is that it’s an inversion of puzzle games. In Thomas there was always one solution really, in a few places you could come up with slightly different ways, but generally it was one solution. Stealth games, because of the complexity of AI actions it can go in a million different directions, because of that you get a puzzle game that becomes emergent and you can find different solutions.
When you play a tactical shooter, the vast majority of them you have to make split second decisions and very quickly it becomes a corridor shooter. Whereas with stealth games because you’re being a bit more deliberate in your timing you’re actually constantly working out a plan, trying a plan, seeing if that works, changing it.
GR - You’ve made an attempt to have absolutely no combat whatsoever...
MB - Well, there’s no killing, you can knock someone out but only temporarily
GR - Do you feel that’s an important factor of stealth games?
MB - It allows for variety of action. It’s an interesting thing that a lot of modern stealth games have gone down the route of saying that stealth is an option, so, you can be stealthy or you can be a shooter or you can middle ground.
What I find is that the more options you give a player, basically players will always go toward the optimal path. The easiest way to progress in a game is to shoot everyone around. Even in games where the shooting doesn’t work like that, even in Metal Gear Solid, I go into a room, I identify where the bad guys are, I snap all their necks one-by-one.
GR - That made 3 really interesting.
MB - Oh yeah ‘cause you gotta walk down that river. Yeah. And that’s just how I play those games and it means that I miss out on all the depth because I’m playing the whole game killing people.
I’m actually removing that and making it so that you’re never safe. There’s no way to own the room, there’s no place of a position of power you ever get into.
GR - People had criticism of Dishonored, it just made combat too effective.
MB - Yeah exactly.
GR - If you played Dishonored in a combat-heavy way you could finish that game in three hours. I prefer a stealth game where they make a conscious decision to make it a stealth game. Dishonored felt like they had to allow for a certain amount of player choice. Is that a consideration you have to make? Do you feel like you have to pander to people that may feel like stealth is incidental?
MB - I’m in a very fortunate position where my game costs a lot less to make than Dishonored. Realistically Volume, if that game comes out at $20 and I sell 10,000 of them? I’m okay. And that’s so different to what you have to do with a boxed game with a team of however many people work on the average stealth game. I’m actually really happy going into a niche. I’m confident enough to say “You know what, I’ll just zero in on this”.
GR - I’d bet that the burgeoning relationship that you have with Sony helps that.
MB - Yeah. I’m pretty confident that I’ll find them. I’ll find the players that want to play this game, or they’ll find me.
It’s a challenge. It’s about trying to reduce the choice outside of stealth and increase the choice within stealth.
GR - That’s a good soundbite
MB - Yeah it is isn’t it? I quite like that. It’s the first time I’ve said that, I’ll now use that in every interview.