Thomas is not so Alone anymore: An Interview with Mike Bithell

Volume screenshot

At EGX London this year, I had the chance to sit down and have a chat with Mike Bithell, the indie developer whose debut PC and Mac title Thomas was Alone became a runaway success upon its release in 2012, selling over 700,000 copies as of August last year (you can read Wes’ review of the game here). Thomas Was Alone has since been ported to Anroid, iOS, PlayStation 3 and Vita, while Bithell himself has become something of an icon for supporters of Indie games.

Nearly two years since Thomas Was Alone was released, Bithell isn’t resting on his laurels. Having been beavering away at his follow-up Volume, a stealth game reminiscent of the VR stages from Metal Gear Solid – though the developer states that the aesthetic similarities came about purely by coincidence. Approaching the final stretch of a long development, Volume follows the adventures of Robert Locksley, a modern-day Robin Hood figure who breaks into a corporation and stumbles across a device which allows the user to simulate and plan complex heists. The Volume device also has its own AI personality – voiced by Danny Wallace, who also narrated Thomas was Alone.

So let’s start at the top. Where are you from, and how do you say your name?

I’m from the great city of London! I went to university in Wales, and I’ve worked in the Midlands, but I’ve been drawn back to the south. It’s where I’m from. As for the name, it’s pronounced “Bithell”. “Bith-elle” sounds classier – I wish it was that, but no, it’s Bithell…

Volume_13Will we see Rob Lockley’s face, or will that be covered for the entire game?

His face is covered for the entirety of this game. Who knows, if we ever do a sequel maybe we’ll have fun with that. You see bits of it; you see through the mask, there’s gaps in the mask. You get the idea of how he looks, but there’s no reveal in the game at the moment.

You’ve mentioned the phrase “empowered intelligence” a few times now [when describing the game]…

I like the phrase “empowered intelligence”! That’s a good buzzword I made up!

Volume will allow you to pit yourself against your friends by sharing levels – are scoreboards something you considered?

I did and they’re in. You’ll be able to see your score versus your friend’s, basically. We’ll be tracking all of that. Also we’re going to be doing a par-time system so on any level in the story or community maps you’ll be able to see what the normal completion time is, so you get a sense of how well you’re doing against the community.

Fantastic! So what are the penalties for getting caught by the guards, if any? How does that affect your par time?

Getting caught by a guard has no effect on your time as long as you get away. Obviously if you’re getting caught a lot and are having to hide, that’ll delay you; it’ll make your playthrough not as optimal. If you’re killed, the timer will go back to[pullquote]In terms of the company, it’s my company and we called it Mike Bithell Games because we didn’t have a good name for it[/pullquote] the time you had at your last checkpoint. So there’s no real penalties, it’s really about creating that perfect playthrough.

Volume is going to be available on PSN, PC and Mac. Have you considered Microsoft, Nintendo or iOS as well?

So I think mobile might not work for Volume – it’s a very complex interface and [the game features] lots of abilities. Making that work on mobile… it was very challenging to get Thomas Was Alone to work on mobile. I’m proud of what we did, but I think that’s about as complex as I could go with my games on mobile. So unless I have an amazing idea on how to fix that, I don’t think Volume would be the right fit.

In terms of the other consoles: let’s see! I’ve not decided yet. I’m in the ID@Xbox scheme which is cool, and I know plenty of people at Nintendo, so we’ll see; but I haven’t started on any of those yet.

I finished Thomas Was Alone twice in one day – the day I picked it up; the developer commentary was something I absolutely adored. Are there any plans for bringing that to Volume?

We’re thinking about it, trying to figure out a way to make that work. The problem is with Thomas Was Alone obviously you have levels; it’s a very clear progression from start to finish. You basically just recorded a 2-5 minute bit of speech Volume_12for each level. It’s gonna be trickier with Volume because Volume isn’t metered out in that way, and it’s kind of impossible for the VO handler to know what’s going on on-screen.

What we’re currently planning is that the game will launch with an optional version of the game like a Special Edition where you’ll be able to get an e-book. This book is being written right now by a very cool author named Lee Bradley who is writing hopefully a short form e-book with interviews from everyone working on the game. That’s the other thing – directors commentaries are cool but I want you to hear what the composer thought or the actors, or the people coding it thought, all these things. So that’s going to hopefully be a more fully fledged version. It won’t be in the game but it will be there in e-book form for people to read and see how things worked out.

We now know that the overall antagonist in Volume is a chap named Gisborne. What can you tell us about him?

Gisborne is the boss of Gisborne industries, and is kind of the evil guy pulling all the strings that you’re up against. We’ve got a fantastic actor playing the role who we’ve not announced yet, and I don’t know if we’re going to for a while. I think he’s going to be a very good videogame villain.

When you started on Volume did you think “I’m going to make an astonishingly British game”, or was that just a byproduct of working with the voice actors you have?

It’s just kind of what I’m into. I like The Hitchhikers Guide to The Galaxy; I like Danny Wallace; I like British humor and obviously Robin Hood – cos that’s the story I’m into. You can’t really help it you’re gonna go down that road. I think the VO has come together in a very British-sounding way… But I’m British, that’s how I write! I write the way I talk! Or at least in a heightened version of it. I think it’s always gonna have that vibe to it.

Volume_11Talking of teams, a lot of people seem to think that you’re the sole programmer on Volume. “It’s by the guy who made Thomas Was Alone“, and all that. How big is your actual team?

Yeah we’re changing the name of the company at some point soon because of that. It varies – there’s 20 people who have worked on the game at some point. At the moment there’s three or four people working every day on it, but in terms of any given day, but it varies. People come in and out as they’re needed. So the sound engineer doesn’t need to be at the desk for two years; he comes in, he does the work and he goes. Same with the animators, same with all the 3D artists. Right now we’re got a bit of a push to get the servers side stuff working, so we have a couple of coders working. Obviously I’m working on it – I do that 7 days a week – so yeah it’s a big team.

In terms of the company, it’s my company and we called it Mike Bithell Games because we didn’t have a good name for it, and it was done in a rush. We now have a good name for it and that’ll be announced soon.

With such an emphasis on storytelling and narrative-led gameplay in both Thomas Was Alone and the world you’ve built around Rob and Alan, did you start volume with a particular story in mind, or was it purely just “I really want to make a stealth game”?

It was the latter; I wanted to make a stealth game. I’ve been a fan of the genre for years. On top of my tick-list for games I want to make, the second was a stealth game. When started making it I had a prototype, but then I started thinking “what’s the story that this is telling?”. I knew it was about a thief, so I wanted to do a bit of research on different thieves and the stories around them and that kinda lead to Robin Hood.  So I read Robin Hood – I read like 4 books and instead of what I was planning to do, just steal cool things from Robin Hood, I kind of got obsessed with the concept of how Robin Hood has been rewritten so many times by different people and how there’s so many different versions. I just thought well I w0ant to make my own version and put my own spin on it. So that’s what I did.

I’m seeing a theme with AIs in your games. Are the two connected/ in the same universe?

Interesting. That’s an interesting question… I can’t say – it you were to play the demo and notice certain references to Thomas Was Alone within the demo, maybe you’d have something there… I can’t really say…

Ok, moving on! Can Rob leave the AI world?

Rob is not in the AI world, he’s in the real world! He’s in a warehouse which has a projection system run by the AI, Alan, who’s coming over the speakers. We need to do some sound work to make that more obvious, but yeah he’s in the real world in a kind of hologram, Tony Stark, Iron Man kind of environment.

OK, so does he leave the warehouse at all?

For this game he’s in the warehouse.

The background in the room – the ring around the play area – is that important at all or is it just a background?

There are a couple of things; there’s Locksley’s cup of coffee, cos he’s pulling an all-nighter. There’s a couple of little gags in there…

The levles in Volume are interchangeable. There’s the Vanilla build, and community levels, which you can change in and out. Is there an option to just hit play and just get a random level set to play the story Volume_14through?

I quite like the term Vanilla! The way it works is every time you complete a mission, you’re taken back to the mission select screen. You’ll be served the core stuff on one tab, and the other tab is stuff that’s been made by the community. On that tab you can search for levels or there are recommendations and things. There’s also a star-rating system to see what other players think.

In terms of the story, have you had to cut any of the narrative for the sake of Volume‘s mechanics? Or are there mechanics you wanted to add, but the story wouldn’t accommodate them?

For me it’s been quite organic – I let the two grow together. I didn’t sit down and make a stealth game and then think I’ll add Robin Hood, or make a Robin Hood game and then decide to make it a stealth game. It was always naturally feeding in. When I started researching it, for the first couple of hundred years [Robin Hood] wasn’t an archer, he didn’t do archery at all. His special ability in the stories was that he had a bugle that he could use to sound the alarm and bring his friends in, so the bugle became a gadget in the game. We kept finding weird things that were interesting. But to be honest, no, it’s grown together. That’s how I like my games to work – it was the same with Thomas Was Alone. I think if you sit down and do one thing before the other, you end up with a very broken relationship. I think you need to see where the game’s going, and that’s one of the great things about being an indie developer – I’m both the designer and coder of the game. And the writer. It’s all in my head, so there can’t be a miscommunication there.

[pullquote]I’ve not played Shenmue in years, but in a world before Fable when open-world games didn’t really exist, it was pioneering. I imagine if you played it now, it would seem a little bit less impressive.[/pullquote]

Do you have a defining moment in videogames, where you decided “right this – this is what I want to do”?

I actually do! So I was a child actor… my whole childhood I wanted to be an actor. I did a bit, I was in a couple of movies just as a kid…

Anything we might have seen?

No, no – nothing that stood the test of time, unfortunately! I tried it and got into it and it was kinda fun. I had fun with it. I had been in a play in London and when the play had all finished my agent called me. I was sat playing Shenmue on the Dreamcast. My agent called me saying they want to tour this show. It’d be going around Europe and I was just about to my GSCEs [Editor’s note: the General Certificate of Secondary Education, GCSEs, are the national exams British kids do when they’re 16], so either had to sit my GCSEs, or quit school, flop my exams and do this play.

It was basically “this will set of your career if you want it… or not”. I looked at Shenmue, and I looked at my phone, and I decided that I wanted to make Shenmue more than I wanted to be an actor, so I said thank you and never spoke to her again. From that day on,I was going to make videogames. So that was a real fork in the road moment.

I’ve not played Shenmue in years, but in a world before Fable when open-world games didn’t really exist, it was pioneering. I imagine if you played it now, it would seem a little bit less impressive because things have moved forward, but in terms of being a pointer in terms of where videogames were going, things would go, it was years ahead of its time.

Last question: are you thinking of your next game yet, or is that waaaay down the line still?

No, we’ve actively started doing concept art and thinking about the game. That is in progress; we’re playing with ideas.

Brilliant! Thanks Mike.

Thanks, it’s been an absolute pleasure talking to you.

You can get Mike Bithell Games’ new game Volume on PS4, Vita and PC and Mac at some point in 2015. We’re very excited by what we’ve seen so far, and you should be too. For those of you who haven’t seen it, check out the trailer below, and then come join the rest of us waiting with baited breath.

Nic Bunce

Nic Bunce

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A South African born, London raised Brit living in London. Studied Microbiology at the University of Leicester, and taught English in Japan. Jack of all trades and Master of the Universe...
Nic Bunce

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