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Saturday, January 31, 2015

Volume The Game

Show Mike Bithell a square, and he’ll show you a beautiful, flawed individual with hopes, dreams and the ability to do a small jump. Through his debut game Thomas Was Alone which he developed, appropriately enough, alone he made a name for himself as a creator able to divine enjoyment and surprise from ostensibly simple concepts. The tongue-incheek voiceover provided by Danny Wallace turned a game about making blocks jump over other blocks into a kind of geometric pantomime with a cast of characters twice as memorable as those of Watch Dogs or Killzone: Shadow Fall.

So what happens when Bithell allows himself a bit more complexity in his game design when he lets others into his development process, increasing resources in order to realise a grander dream? Bigger blocks, rendered in 3D with diffuse light-mapping and voiced by Troy Baker? No. Obviously, what happens is a re-telling of the classic Robin Hood folklore through the prism of PS1 stealth gaming, starring a character voiced by one of Britain’s biggest YouTubers whose stealthy armoury includes a bugle. Obviously. Ladies, gentlemen and sentient cuboids of every colour and creed, welcome to Volume.

It’s a colourful but clinical place. Designed to train the soldiers of an ongoing military coup to pull off heists, the Volume is a simulation program that winds its way into the digi-pockets of nefarious anti-hero Robert Locksley. If, like us, the script of Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves is never more than a snatch of Brian Adams away from your conscious mind, you’ll recognise that name as a nod to Robin Of Loxley the true identity of folk hero Robin Hood, some say. That’s a narrative thread that ties together the knight-like enemies in each level, and chief antagonist Guy Gisborne a riff on Guy of Gisbourne, the hired killer who, as legend would have it, tries to off Mr Hood. That British mythology also informs Locksley’s ‘Let’s Play’ public broadcasts of corporate heists from within Volume; robbing from the rich to, er, show the poor how good he is at robbing? Well, let’s not go too far down that rabbit hole just yet.

The bright oranges, blues and other vivid shades of Volume’s third-person levels are far from cheerful every inch of its virtual space exists to perform a function. In a microsecond, you can scan all the available cover in each level, parse all the waist-high objects and begin to see pathways between enemy vision cones. It’s an aesthetic designed to let you see the world as the heroes of all stealth games must surely see it in order to do what they do. “It’s kind of like the Sherlock Holmes movies in terms of what they do to make his thought process very visible,” Bithell explains. “It makes the viewer feel very clever even though they’re not Sherlock Holmes.” That same principle is applied to Volume: “You’re not a master spy, so I’m going to give you all the information I can to make you feel really comfortable in the environment and aware of your surroundings. I guess it’s the stealth equivalent of auto-aim in a shooter.”

Geometric System
Bithell cites Dutch painter Piet Mondrian’s grid-based neoplasticist paintings as an inspiration for Thomas Was Alone’s simple geometric look, but the starting point for Volume’s visual design is much closer to home and a lot more painful to stand on. As a teenager, Bithell worshipped the Metal Gear Solid games, so he naturally pored over the additional materials bundled with MGS2: Sons Of Liberty when it was released and found a video showing Hideo Kojima planning out levels with Lego bricks. Brightly coloured, modular, easily rebuilt Lego bricks. The effect on Bithell was profound, and an early design brief for Volume was created right then and there albeit in his head.

Without that prior knowledge you might not see the studded choking hazard’s influence on Volume as immediately as you might see Metal Gear Solid’s, but once you’ve been made aware of it you can’t un-see it. User-generated content is a massive part of Volume’s vision. Cyber-sleuths will play not just Bithell’s levels, but their own ‘remixed’ creations, and those of others. It’s cyberpunk Lego.

The MGS influence is front and centre, though. Locksley, represented like everyone else with a peculiar, fragmented holographic overlay augmenting his physical form, moves like Solid Snake. You feel that you’re steering him as you had to steer the PS1’s great and good, rather than sending him from one canned animation to the next. And although he does have some useful tools at his disposal such as a bugle you can throw and then trigger to make a sound in a faraway location, and the ‘folly’ trip mine, deployed between any two walls success in one of Volume’s compact and intense levels comes down to more actual sneaking than deploying high-powered gadgetry. From hopping in wardrobes and diving beneath floorboards rather than tagging enemies and letting the multi-headshot QTE play out. It’s defiantly old school.


No true Scotsman
When it releases, it’ll almost certainly fuel that ongoing and heated conversation about ‘true’ stealth games a debate esoteric to the genre. Call Of Duty might have its detractors, but it never faces criticism for not being a true shooter, so why do stealth games have to prove themselves on those terms? “It’s a reactionary thing,” says Bithell. “Stealth is probably the mainstream genre that’s shifted the most since its inception. Obviously as part of researching this project I went back and played the original Metal Gear Solid… which feels so different and so far removed even from what I remember it being like, and specifically from stealth games now.

Honestly, Call Of Duty and Half-Life there’s not an enormous amount of difference between those two games. So it might be that people have a version of stealth they love, and then it changes so quickly to something else that threatens or becomes uncomfortable to them.”

Bithell doesn’t get bogged down in that argument too much, though, saying, “I’m making the stealth game I want to make.” As long as he stays on that course, he reasons, he’ll make a game that people who share his tastes will enjoy. It’s more of a hybrid of old and new design approaches than a quasi-remake of PS1-era sneakery, he explains. “It steals heavily from everything that’s come since [MGS1], in terms of movement control and how our cover system works. A lot of our gadgets are, I’d say, more ‘modern’ stealth.” If he’s asking people for their cash in exchange for a game, he reasons, he wants to make sure he’s delivering something, “a bit unique.”

Note those plurals. Our cover system. Our gadgets. After working alone on Thomas Was Alone, Bithell’s team has grown in volume for Volume. There are usually only four to five people working on the game at any one time, since everyone but Bithell is freelance, but the credits list extends to the 25-30 mark. That’s a huge number compared to his last game, but still a different ballpark entirely from the hundreds-strong teams working across several locations at once to bring you triple-A titles. Bithell has experience in bigger environments, with stints at Blitz Games and Bossa Studios, but voices no intent to return to that way of working.

“I just love the degree of involvement I can have,” he says. “As a designer for a traditional dev [studio], you start off basically placing crates, really low-level stuff, and work your way up through the ranks. And if you’re good enough you become a design manager or lead, and then you’re not allowed to touch the engine any more [laughs].” Bithell describes a six-month, “sweet spot,” in which designers have the desired level of creativity and responsibility at traditional studios. But when you’re an indie studio, everyone’s involved in the process, every step of the way.

Indie Deep End
The thing is: he’s not sure he’s an indie developer any more. “My personal view is that ‘indie’ is a word that’s increasingly difficult to claim ownership of, especially in my case because I have X number of people working on my game, and I have this amount of money in the bank… Can I really call myself an indie any more?” It doesn’t just come down to the size of the credits list, he continues compared with the artier end of the indie spectrum, Bithell feels he’s, “taking someone else’s word a little bit!”

Three names in particular stand out on Volume’s credits list: Andy Serkis, Danny Wallace and Charlie McDonnell. Serkis’ aptitude for menacing tones is put to good use as Guy Gisbourne, CEO and despot of the shady company under which Britain is run as a corporatocracy. Wallace, returning after a BAFTA winning performance as the narrator in Thomas Was Alone, plays AI program Alan. “Alan’s your mate! You can trust Alan,” the disembodied voice tells Locksley upon their first meeting.

He’s designed by Volume’s creators (within the game, that is) to be as companionable as possible even the choice of name was the a result of careful focus-grouping of many unfortunate denizens of this bizarre dystopia. But as Locksley becomes more mischievous within Volume, the initially placid relationship between the two changes. “Mike described the AI as being a bit like the Microsoft Office paperclip,” says Wallace. “Friendly, helpful, but with a growing attitude. I have always been a huge fan of the Microsoft Office paperclip I have posters all over my walls so used that as a starting point. And then really it was working with Charlie and Mike on the interactions to take it a bit further.”

Alan plays an important role in teaching the rules and mechanics of Volume to Locksley and you, the new and befuddled player, simultaneously. That’s his job within the program, after all. But he’s also, inevitably, a vessel for a few chuckles. Many games shoot for the offbeat, self-aware humour that Thomas Was Alone and Volume manage to pull off without appearing to break a sweat almost always with toe-curling results.

What are the particular challenges of getting someone to laugh within an interactive experience? “You need to deliver jokes as if you’re in the real world. You don’t need to slow down, you don’t need to worry that they can’t see you, you just have to do it with some confidence. Gamers are generally pretty smart. They’re people who get references.”

Wallace’s involvement in Volume was pretty much a given, he says: “I’d have worked with [Bithell] on whatever his new game was. If he’d said, ‘I’m remaking Way Of The Exploding Fist, but from the point of view of Leisure Suit Larry, with the whole thing set in the mind of a fly,’ I’d have said, ‘Yeah, okay. I’ll do it.’ Mind you, I might not have turned up on the day.” Volume’s all the better for Wallace’s returning noise-pipes and for not being a sexually charged fighting game remake.

Much less of a given is Charlie McDonnell’s involvement as Locksley. One of the most subscribed YouTube celebs in the UK, his performance in Volume is understated and entirely without theatrics, sounding as if he’s stumbled into the universe and will be content with not knocking anything over. Which is exactly the position the neo-Hood protagonist finds himself in. The choice of casting reveals itself to be a bit more arch when Locksley uses his acquisition of Volume to stage ‘Let’s Play’-esque virtual heists and broadcast them to the downtrodden public. “The character is basically a YouTuber himself,” says McDonnell. “He’s putting on a front, showing off to the world so to me it makes total sense that Mike would pick someone who’s already from a world like that to voice that character.”

Man in mind
The role was essentially written for McDonnell, he reveals: “[Bithell] approached me. Apparently when he was writing the character he had me in mind quite early on, and when he was with some friends he said, ‘I’m looking for someone like charlieissocoollike’ [McDonnell’s YouTube channel name]. Luckily he was hanging out with someone who I knew too, so she put us in touch.”

Thomas Was Alone was much more than the sum of its parts, of course, but the depth and vision behind Volume are on another level Bithell’s research bibliography for the game includes literature on Victorian England, the London Underground, and of course Robin Hood but there’s no mention of anything immediately relevant to the dystopian, corporate-run tomorrow in which the game takes place. “I think it’s very easy to regurgitate stuff that exists,” he says. “It’s a cyberpunk stealth game, there’s going to be something there that approaches cliché, but for me it was about finding a different source of that stuff, finding different ways to talk about the issues that come up in cyberpunk. For me that meant going back to Medieval times. One of the big narrative conceits is basically to introduce medieval politics to near-future England. We play with that. We see where that goes, because the Medieval era was not a good time [laughs].”

This is usually the part where we make a call on the game, but Volume isn’t playing by the usual rules. Traditionally when developers preview their games, they’re essentially selling them, but Volume, very deliberately, isn’t available for pre-order. That being the case, the game sinks or swims based on word-of-mouth after it’s released an admirable, and incredibly high-risk, strategy.

Bithell seems unfazed: “The only way it fails is if the game is bad. And if the game is bad, then I don’t deserve to get rich off it!” He isn’t trying to sell Volume to you until he’s finished it. He isn’t trying to mislead you with early screenshots he can’t deliver in the final build. How’s that for a vision of the future?

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