Interview: Mike Bithell Talks “Volume”

Last month, Thomas Was Alone creator Mike Bithell announced his newest game named Volume. Volume is a hardcore stealth game with major influences drawing from the Metal Gear Solid franchise and I had the opportunity to sit down with Mike at this year’s Eurogamer Expo to talk all about the game and how it was received during its first time out in the open among other things.

The Eurogamer Expo was the first public debut for Volume, so if you wanted to play the game first then the expo was the place to be. As the years have moved on from the original Metal Gear Solid, stealth has evolved or as some would claim, has “gotten easier” and as video game fans are known to be very vocal about what they like, I quizzed Bithell on just how people were reacting to his new stealth game now it’s out in the wild. Beforehand, those fortunate enough to play Volume first were testers and no-one “out of the industry” so to speak.

“This is the first time we’ve got it out in an open setting,” Bithell told me. “It’s a big stream of people coming through [at the expo] and it’s awesome…but also extremely terrifying.”

There are no two ways about it, Volume’s hard…but that’s the point. With the afore mentioned “streamlining” of modern stealth titles, some could argue this would throw the modern player off simply due to its difficulty. Volume doesn’t allow you to harm your enemies either by killing them or knocking them out so avoidance and distraction are your tools here.

However, Volume has proven this isn’t necessarily the case. I checked Volume out a few times before meeting with Bithell and the wait to play the game was longer than you might expect for an indie title sharing an expo with some of the big guns. Sure, it could have been the fact people were indeed finding the game hard to play but from what I could tell, and from what its creator told me, the queue was long because people were really enjoying Volume.

“I think most people love it,” explained Bithell, “it’s been surprising how positive the feedback’s been. People have been having a good time with it but there’s always that fear that when you put something out there that people playing it are going to find it frustrating or might not like it, but I’m happy. Sometimes these things seem harder at events because you’re not in quiet room working away slowly but I think we’re alright.”

The fact people seemed to be enjoying the game is even more evident when I asked Bithell if the impressive crowd was made up of people who had played Thomas Was Alone first or if Volume’s attracting a new audience. As it stands, it looks to be a bit of both.

“Some of them are ‘Thomas’ fans,” Bithell notes, “and some of them appear to be big stealth game fans. My hope is that both [groups] will be satisfied by the game.”

Bithell’s last game, Thomas Was Alone was a former flash powered browser based game rebuilt for a proper release and it took critics by surprise when it was released on Windows and Mac last year with the PS3 and Vita versions following suit this year. The two titles are very different games which is immediately apparent, but with the announcement of a game after it’s predecessor was so popular is a tough thing to follow up. However, Bithell seems prepared for this by making sure he’s aware of what’s ahead.

“There’s always a pressure that your next game is going awful so it’s all about getting it right.”

Volume’s creator explained to me how the game includes a chaos theory of sorts. Although characters will always spawn in the same place in a level, your actions have a cause and effect in the world. You won’t always get the same outcome from your levels. A few modern games now tend to hold the players hand somewhat through missions or levels to the point where some (not all) are simply about finding the right path instead of path. This something Volume tries to avoid. Though your enemy may be in the same place and your path may also be the same, they’re not going to necessarily react the same way twice. It’s up to you as the player to make sure you don’t get caught obviously, but there are other ways of doing it. You may be able to find that same path when you replay a level but Bithell explained to me that you’ll be able to find ways to improve upon that.

With Volume’s almost brutal AI, it seems as if Bithell has a desire to bring back stealth to its hardcore grassroots. When asking him if this was the case, he explained to me how Volume is rather a case of him making a game he wants to play instead of catering to a specific cause.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a reaction,” he said, “I love a lot of stealth games. I love what they’re doing with Splinter Cell and I’m a fan of the Assassin’s Creed series but I’m not aggressively reacting to anything like that, but yeah, I guess I’m nostalgic for the kind of games I loved as a kid.”

On the topic of some of the bigger stealth games as they are today, Volume’s creator tells how he “wants to do something different. There are already enough people making those kinds of games and that’s fine, but I wanted to try something a little bit different.”

“But I do intend to steal a few things from Hitman,” Bithell joked when speaking about different costumes in Volume.

At the Eurogamer Expo, I checked out Volume a bit more than I did other games. After playing just a few minutes into my ten minute demo with the game before it got the better of me and I subsequently threw in the towel (Mike 1 – George 0), it was apparent just how back to roots Mike Bithell has taken Volume. Stealth audiences have grown along with the genre but Volume proved last weekend that there’s still room for a hardcore stealth genre and audience.

Volume releases “unexpectedly” in 2014 and it’s definitely worth checking out.