Thomas Was Alone is one of a handful of innovative British indie games in recent years that have been successful enough to allow their creators to embark on careers as videogame auteurs, creating a new tier of creative talent within the somewhat flagging British games industry. Mike Bithell, who was working at Bossa Studios (they of Surgeon Simulator fame) at the time, saw it only as a means to raise enough money to head to Disney World with his girlfriend. Thomas Was Alone may have been a disarmingly simple game of geometric shapes, though possessed of personalities stronger than most characters in AAA games, but it catapulted the down-to-earth designer into the lime light.
His ambitious follow up, Volume, a future dystopian adaptation of Robin Hood in the stealth genre, is considerably more ambitious in scope, enlisting Hollywood star Andy Serkis and featuring a full-on level editor. I caught up with Mike Bithell at EGX Rezzed and spoke to him about dystopian futures, stealth, working with Hollywood actors, and his love of triangles and squares. He still hasn’t found the time to go to Disney World…
Ready Up: So why Robin Hood? Sorry, you probably get that one a lot!
Mike Bithell: I do, but that’s ok. So, really, I wanted to make a stealth game. And I wanted to make a stealth game set in a virtual environment where you don’t kill anyone. So once I had those things in my head…
RU: You thought Robin Hood was the obvious choice…
MB: Well, yeah, Robin Hood’s all about the cyberpunk! No. Ok, so it’s about a thief, and I take my research very seriously, so I researched thieves through history. What are the popular stories about thieves that people dig? And very quickly you get to Robin Hood. I read four books about Robin Hood and I was like: “I love Robin Hood!” I became a fan boy of Robin Hood. So I thought, well maybe this isn’t me ripping off this story; maybe I should do an adaptation. What can we do to that story to bring it into 2015? Well the game’s set in 2054, so how can we bring the storytelling into 2015 and the game into the future? That was fun. It was more interesting to adapt Robin Hood than just rip it off.
RU: It seems to have this real dystopian feel and it reminds me a little, tonally, of République on the iPad.
MB: I still need to play République. I’ve not played it but I’ve got a lot of time for the creative director Ryan Payton, who was a big player in the Metal Gear Solid franchise for a while, a very down-to-earth chap. I’ve got a feeling there’s a Thomas Was Alone reference in République. I think they asked me for my permission to put an Easter egg in or something.
RU: Yeah, they had lots of iOS indie games in there as collectables. Are you as inspired by George Orwell as Payton is in terms of your dystopian preferences?
All of this stuff comes into play, but also you also want to make something of your own. The trouble with Orwellian stuff is it’s been absorbed in pop culture in such a way that it’s very hard to avoid clichés.
MB: Yeah. I don’t think you can do dystopian future narratives without reading 1984, but to be fair the big thing is it’s a very British – specifically English – dystopia. We do the normal cyberpunk thing where a corporation has taken over the world – obviously, you can’t do cyberpunk without doing that – but our corporation is all about very British family values, which is much more relevant politically now than it was two years ago when I started. I’ve slowly found modern British politics creeping in, as the far-right do, and it’s been interesting to get that into the game.
All of this stuff comes into play, but also you also want to make something of your own. The trouble with Orwellian stuff is it’s been absorbed in pop culture in such a way that it’s very hard to avoid clichés. That’s a goal you always have when you’re doing this stuff, so yeah we’ll see.
RU: There’s been some really interesting takes on stealth in recent years, for instance putting it in 2D with Mark of the Ninja, what do you think Volume will contribute to the genre?
MB: Love Mark of the Ninja! Um, the thing for me was I wanted to make the game exist in my head the same way as the stealth games I nostalgically remember loving as a kid. When you go back and play them they don’t run as smoothly as you remember, they don’t work quite as nicely, so I wanted to go back and make something in that core experience, but use modern design to make it super smooth, clean and straightforward to control. I think we’ve got most of the way there, but we’re not done yet. It’s going well so far though. People seem to be getting it and getting into it.
RU: And you’re using Danny Wallace again. You’re in danger of becoming a kind of Wes Anderson/Bill Murray creative partnership!
MB: Haha! Yeah, I joked about this the other day. But I used the Coen Brothers with George Clooney. When you find a collaborator who is great to work with, but is also willing to contribute stuff, then you hold onto them. Danny is that guy! He’s a very good team member, team player, he did very good work for Thomas Was Alone, and I think he does even better work than that on Volume. He’s so supportive of the other cast members, and helps to bring their performances up. One of the great things about the way we’ve recorded Volume is that they’re in the same room, so that leads to some great energy. We even hired a theatre school to rehearse it. Danny’s been integral to that. Danny’s going to be a part of most of my stuff because I just love working with him. Very nice chap. So I imagine that’s why people like Wes Anderson keeps working with Bill Murray; the two of them love working together, and it’s that simple, right?
RU: And you’ve managed to get Andy Serkis too?
MB: Yes, who’s also lovely. I got him, really, just in a moment of hubris. I was just like: “I want a movie star to play this villain!” Because he is just a proper scenery-chewing bad guy. And when it came to getting that guy my head just went “I want Gollum”, basically. I want a big actor. So we got a casting director and managed to get a hold of him. He gets games, he’s worked on a few of them, and he liked the script and liked his role in the game, and, yeah, he was up for it. He had a spare afternoon, so we just recorded.
RU: I’m a big fan of Enslaved, which was a game he was in. And slightly underrated.
MB: Yeah, he’s great in that. I love Enslaved. I think because he broke out with Gollum in people’s imagination, an aspect of his performance that’s usually missed is his energy and his power. That guy, he rules. He can do that with such a depth of performance and Enslaved captures that. In Volume, as the bad guy, I mean, he’s scary! When he yells at you it’s like “yah” shivers!
RU: I guess you didn’t MoCap him for Volume?
MB: No we didn’t motion capture him. We did use motion capture in the game though.
RU: Because he’s pretty good at that apparently…
MB: Yeah, he’s alright. I’ve heard good things. Maybe next time.
RU: So were you surprised at the success of Thomas Was Alone? Another question you probably get asked a lot!
MB: I’d be an arsehole if I wasn’t, is always my answer. I think if you expect success you rarely get it. I was very pleasantly surprised, because it was a hobby game, the plan was Thomas Was Alone was going to pay for a holiday. I was working a day job in the games industry, I was fine. The hope was maybe this will do well enough to let me take my girlfriend to Disney World. And then obviously it did much better than I ever expected. So I’ve still not been to Disney World, because I was like “I’ve got to make another game with this money!”
RU: Mickey will have to wait!
MB: He’s still waiting! Perhaps I’ll treat myself in a few months. It was amazing, and life-changing, obviously. I just hope we can keep it up with the next game and keep going.
The hope was maybe this will do well enough to let me take my girlfriend to Disneyworld. And then obviously it did much better than I ever expected. So I’ve still not been to Disneyworld, because I was like “I’ve got to make another game with this money!”
RU: Was it a difficult decision to leave Bossa Studios to set off on your own?
MB: It was one of those moments. I joined the company because I was friends with the founders, but it was always on the cards that I was going to go and do my own thing. Indie games were always something I wanted to make. They were prepared for it and when that money started coming in it became obvious that I had to leave and try and make a go of it. It was still sad to say goodbye, obviously. I took my boss into a meeting room and told him Thomas Was Alone was a big success and I was going to go, and his answer was: “I’m surprised you’ve stayed this long. Good luck!” They’ve been amazingly supportive and we’ve worked together since on the mobile ports, so I like to think I’ve put some value back into Bossa as well.
RU: There’s been a recent history of people’s games suddenly taking off, like Tom Francis for instance who is also showing his game at Rezzed, and you guys have become a bit of lynch pin in the British indie scene. Do you guys all hang out at all, or exchange ideas?
MB: We have hung out. We don’t hang out much. I actually remember before Gunpoint came out, me and him [Tom Francis] were sat in a bar, weirdly in Disney Land. He was asking me “do you think Gunpoint will make enough money for me to quit my day job?” And I remember smiling and saying: “Dude, it’s going to make that much money in the first hour. Your game’s awesome!” To be honest that’s how I stay in touch with other indies, at events like this, because he’s demoing Heat Signature a couple of machines over from me. We tend to meet at these things and exchange notes and see how everyone’s doing. It’s a boom time now and we’re all doing well. It’s exciting and long may it continue.
RU: I did think I heard Tom Francis’ dulcet tones when I was in that room. Anyway, back to Volume, you’re including the tools for players to build their own levels. That seems quite ambitious, how are you dealing with that?
MB: It is ambitious. The way we dealt with it was that we decided right from the start that we would do it, that’s the big thing. At all points in development the level editor has been built in tandem with the game. So much so that all the levels in the game are built in the level editor. There is no secret level editor that we’re using. And when you’ve built a hundred levels, you start to notice problems. You think, actually this needs to be better. So we built it in tandem, and I’m really pleased with where it is now. It’s a really solid level editor and a really good user experience. I want to make everyone who wants to make a level, able to. With user-generated stuff it’s never the majority of people. The majority of people buy the game and never touch the stuff. But for everyone who loads up that level editor to give it a go, I want to make sure we have something that gives them the experience they want.
RU: I guess they are more plentiful in this game, but I can’t help but notice that you like geometric shapes. Would you say that’s a defining characteristic of your games?
MB: I wouldn’t say it’s defining. I think for me, what’s great about geometric shapes is they communicate very well, so you know where everything is. In Volume, you look at a level and you get it. It removes ambiguity. It’s something I like, but I don’t think I’m going to do every game this way. It made sense in Thomas Was Alone because I had no money, it makes sense in Volume because it communicates better. There are definitely ideas I want to try out that are not the minimalist blockiness, but it’s a look that works for me, and I guess at this point it’s associated with me, which is useful. It’s good for marketing.
So there’s a big team working on all that stuff. Because we want to do simple, but we want to make sure it’s ‘good’ simple. That it doesn’t appear cheap.
RU: You’re kind of like the Pythagoras of videogames.
MB: I’ll take that. I like it.
RU: It’s a very bold aesthetic, who does the art for the game?
MB: He’s here actually. A guy called Daz Watford is my concept artist, so me and him work together to create the look of the game. Then we have this art team, so we have a guy called Kris [Hammes] who does all the character art, we have animators, we have a storyboard artist, we have an environment artist. The guy who does most of the environment art [Wayne Peters] is great because, he’s a teacher, but he used to work in the games industry back in the PlayStation One era, so he knows all the low poly stuff and he can make that stuff really quickly. So there’s a big team working on all that stuff. Because we want to do simple, but we want to make sure it’s ‘good’ simple. That it doesn’t appear cheap.
RU: Sounds like you’re working with a lot more people than Thomas Was Alone.
MB: Yeah, I mean we’re not all working simultaneously. It’s pockets of people at the right moments, but it’s probably between 20 and 30 people in the credits. So it’s a decent sized team, but each doing a very specialised job. I want the best people in each job. Some people have worked half a day, and some people have worked two years, and everything in between.
RU: Thank you very much and good luck with the game.