EGX: Volume's Stealth and Stealing

EGX: Volume's Stealth and Stealing

Mike Bithell on his first post-Thomas Was Alone project, and how he briefly felt like Hideo Kojima.

Mike Bithell's not there when I arrive at his Eurogamer Expo booth for our appointment; Wayne Peters, the game's environment artist, gestures for me to have a seat and take the game's demo build for a spin while I wait.

I pop on the expensive-looking headphones, grasp the peculiarly asymmetrical mouse that all the indie developers tucked away in the corner of the show floor seem to be using, and begin my adventure as the mysterious character who is still only known as "Redacted."

Bithell explains the game in his own words.

The first two levels are tutorials explaining how the game and its controls work; they're simple but entertaining, since the tutorial text is written in the same kind of tone as the narration from Thomas Was Alone. It's not difficult to imagine Thomas' narrator Danny Wallace patiently praising the player for successfully figuring out by themselves that in order to move, you need to use the W,S, A and D keys, or explaining that the full game will have more things to hide in than just lockers. There's no speech in the game as yet, though; Bithell is yet to reveal details of the game's narrative, including who is playing the part of the protagonist -- that's something he's saving for a few weeks' time at the GameCity event in Nottingham, UK.

Once the tutorials are over and done with, I'm into the game proper. The tutorials equipped me with the knowledge that completing each level is a simple matter of collecting enough valuable items to fill a meter in the corner of the screen, then making my way to the exit. Doing so in the tutorials was easy; figuring out how to apply that knowledge in the context of an actual level is more of a puzzle -- particularly since you have to do so without lethal abilities or sometimes even without a means of temporarily incapacitating guards.

Volume has a very distinct aesthetic that is deliberately reminiscent of '80s cyberpunk movies, according to Peters. There's also a touch of Mode 7 Games' Frozen Synapse about it, as well as Metal Gear Solid's VR missions -- in fact, Metal Gear Solid in general is clearly a big influence on Volume; much of the stealth-based gameplay revolves around manipulating the perception of the guards in order to be able to sneak around them, and special moves such as taking cover behind a wall and then sneaking slowly along it to avoid detection are straight out of Kojima's classic. Guards have a vision cone on screen that is visible at all times rather than confined to a radar, and various collectible items allow Redacted to make noise; alternatively, he can simply whistle to attract their attention if necessary. The range of a loud sound such as that created by an object or Redacted whistling is indicated on screen, so it's easy to judge how close you need to get in order to distract a guard. Sound is a massively important part of the game; that's why it's called Volume, after all.

Bithell's tweaked the game slightly since this screenshot was taken; enemy vision cones are now filled and semi-transparent, which makes them much clearer and easier to see.

Eventually, I make it through the two non-tutorial demo levels and feel satisfied that I have a handle on what Volume is all about. There's some tense sneaking, occasionally some pulse-pounding chases if you mistime or miscalculate something, and a sense of smug satisfaction when you do successfully manage to execute a plan.

By the time I finish, Bithell has arrived, so we retire to the Expo's press area, chatting on the way. He tells me he's been very pleased at the response to the new game so far, and notes that the Expo this year in particular has had a very friendly, welcoming atmosphere for everyone, which is something of increasing importance as the gamer community as a whole becomes more conscious of and considerate to the diversity of its members. As we converse idly ahead of the more structured questions I have in mind for him for when we reach the comfortable chairs of the press area, it strikes me how easy Bithell is to talk to; my previous contact with him has been purely electronic, but it's very pleasant to discover that the approachable, friendly persona he cultivates on social media channels such as Twitter very much carries across into the "real world."

We reach the press area, and we begin our more formal conversation. I already know that I won't squeeze any story, character or casting information out of Bithell today, so I jump straight to what I have felt was one of the more interesting aspects of Volume ever since it was announced: the prospect of user-generated content.

"User-generated content is something I always wanted to do," says Bithell. "I remember hearing Hideo Kojima talking about using Lego blocks to design Metal Gear Solid. I thought, 'I have Lego! I'm as good as Hideo Kojima!'"

He notes that despite his initial enthusiasm for the idea, however, the prevailing wisdom at the time was that "people don't want to make things." While Bithell wasn't sure if he entirely agreed with that, it was enough for him to put the idea of a game involving user-generated content on the backburner temporarily.

Redacted has access to a number of gadgets that can help him to sneak his way past the guards and steal loot to his heart's content.

Then came Minecraft, of course, which demonstrated beyond a doubt that yes, people do, in fact, want to make things, and that it's something where there was a lot of potential to create enjoyment. It wasn't just Minecraft that people wanted to use to create, though; Bithell recounts to me how shortly after Thomas Was Alone was released, he received a number of messages from people who wanted to design their own levels and take the game's cast of geometric characters through them.

"I couldn't do that," he jokes. "Because of the way I coded Thomas Was Alone, moving anything by even a pixel would have caused the whole thing to fall apart. It was all hanging by a thread. Volume is, in part, a chance to make up for that."

I ask Bithell if he's had any experience with other games that have a strong focus on user-generated content, such as the TrackMania series. He hasn't as yet, he says, but Nadeo's series is on his list of things that he wants to explore from the perspective of seeing what interface elements do and don't work for players. I joke that, despite the quality of the game, TrackMania's appalling menus aren't something he should really be taking inspiration from, but with all seriousness he notes that there's just as much value in exploring things that aren't perfect as well as those that are.

I'm intrigued by the idea of user-generated content in a game that will also have a significant pre-built campaign in it, so I ask Bithell about whether the user levels will be integrated with the main story at all, or whether they'll be cordoned off into their own area.

"I'm not entirely committed to this yet," he says, "but what I want to do is structure the story in such a way that we can implement the user-generated content into the campaign -- perhaps as missions that pop up or something. The game will ship with a whole lot of levels, of course; people are going to pay me money for this, after all, so they better get a lot of game!"

I shift the topic to those levels that he's making to ship with the final game. Is he designing them with a single "correct" solution in mind, or with a more open-plan nature to encourage emergent, creative play?

"Initially, I was designing the levels with just one solution," he tells me. "We weren't necessarily aiming for emergence, but it just sort of happens naturally; it's like chaos theory at work, or the drop of rainwater on the back of your hand -- you never know which way it's going to go. What we've seen from bringing the game to the show is that people are tackling the levels in all sorts of different ways, not necessarily just the way I had in mind, and that's great."

Volume's simple but clear visuals make it straightforward to quickly "read" a situation and form a plan.

It's clear that bringing the game to the Expo and getting feedback from the public was very important to both Bithell and the game's development cycle, so I ask him whether the show has provided him and the team with any specific things that they need to change in the final game. He immediately cites the example of the Bugle, an item in the demo which you can launch by holding down the mouse button until it reaches the place you want it to go, and it then emits a noise at the point you released the mouse button. I had to have this explained to me by Peters while I was playing since there was no in-game explanation; it seems I wasn't alone, either.

"When 90 per cent of players don't get something, that's not players being stupid," says Bithell humbly. "That's me getting something wrong. But that's good; that's exactly why we brought the game here, to get that sort of feedback. It's like playtesting on a massive scale -- lots of people spotting problems so we can fix them as soon as possible."

Each time I've passed Bithell's booth at the Expo, I've seen a steady flow of people playing the game, so there's been plenty of potential for helpful feedback. I turn the conversation to the topic of promoting the game and getting the word out -- has it been difficult to attract attention for Volume?

"Thomas Was Alone came from nowhere," Bithell explains. "I was having to trawl websites for their contact details and beg them for coverage. And it was a tough sell because, well, Thomas is a rectangle.

"With Volume, it's been a little easier," he continues. "Because Thomas ended up being so well received, I've been able to build up relationships. I want to make sure I get the word out to a broad range of people, including the press -- many members of the press still have an issue with discovering indies. At the same time, I'm aware that Volume is a much more niche title than Thomas and probably won't sell as well; that's fine, though, since Thomas did so much better than we expected."

Part of Thomas' success can be attributed to the fact it was picked up by Sony's Shahid Ahmad and featured on both PS3 and Vita. Like most of the developers I've spoken to at the Expo, Bithell has nothing but effusive praise for Ahmad and his enthusiasm towards the indie community. "It's always a lovely recharge to go down to Sony HQ and spend an hour or two talking to Shahid," he says, cheerfully.

What about Microsoft and Nintendo, though? Both of them are clearly making something of a push for the indie market, but are they too late to get a piece of the pie?

"We've been talking to both Microsoft and Nintendo," says Bithell, "but Sony started the conversation. They had this problem a few months back where they wanted more Vita games, so they reached out to indie developers to help make more Vita games. Then when PS4 momentum started, they talked to those same indies to get their games on the new platform. Microsoft came along a little later, and Nintendo, too; over the next year, you'll definitely see a lot of indie stuff coming to Microsoft and Nintendo -- including some of mine -- but Sony got the jump on them both."

Our time sadly up by this point, I ask Bithell if there's any last things he'd like to share.

"Only a reminder that we're revealing the story in a few weeks at GameCity," he says. "And that I really hope people will be excited for Volume." Having played it, I certainly am, and you should be too.

Volume will launch in 2014 for PC, PlayStation 4 and Vita.

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