Mike Bithell

16 October 14 words: Charlie Phair
We spoke to Mike Bithell, whose second game, Volume is based on the Robin Hood legend
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Mike Bithell is ‘kind of a big deal’ in the fast paced ever ballooning world of indie gaming. His first game Thomas Was Alone was a puzzle platformer with a cast of colourful quadrilaterals, each with different abilities and limitations, that had to work together to get to the end of the level. Though the game appeared simple in terms of aesthetics and mechanics, it was the emotive storytelling delivered by narrator Danny Wallace that really turned the game into an instant classic and Mike Bithell as one of the more exciting indie developers in the UK.

Bithell’s second game, Volume, is a stealth game drawing heavy inspiration on the cybertech world of Tron and the VR missions from Metal Gear Solid. At last year’s GameCity, Bithell revealed exclusively that Volume would be a cyberpunk adaptation of the Robin Hood Legend. In a special event held at Nottingham Castle it was unveiled that the YouTuber Charlie McDonnell would be playing the role of Robert Locksley, the master thief showman entering the holographic world of the Volume to steal from its creators the shadowy mega corporation Gisborne industries.

“It seemed like the right place to do it,” says Bithell. “I mean, where else than Nottingham Castle is better to announce a Robin Hood game?”

Fast forward to just under a year later and I join Bithell in a small room just off the side of the booming Eurogamer Expo showfloor at Earl’s Court in London. The Expo is perhaps the biggest gaming consumer show in the UK attended by over 70,000 gamers over the course of four days. It is a world away from the festivities of GameCity that seeks to explore the nature of digital interactivity and the act of playing as a form of education and creativity.

“I love GameCity,” Bithell says excitedly, “it’s an amazing atmosphere, I’ve been there several years in a row. It’s just a celebration of what games are and what they can be, and who can play them, the answer of which is everyone. They do so much to be super inclusive and celebrate this amazing medium we have in a way that is not so tied to the rumble.

Another boom from subwoofers reverberates across the show floor, shaking the small room. Mike Bithell carries a friendly and cheery demeanour, though is clearly exhausted both from having done interviews all day and the fact that actual members of the general public are playing his labour of love for the first time. “It seems to be going well,” remarks Bithell. “The reports back are that people are enjoying it and getting it, which is great because we’re getting very close now to the final version.”

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It feels as if I’ve been following Volume’s development from a very early stage thanks largely to Bithell’s active twitter presence in which he communicates a very thorough dialogue about the reality of making games independently. Mike has been involved as the developer and the writer, but he’s a game developer first, and the mechanics for Volume came first. “I knew I wanted to make a stealth game,” Bithell explains. “The idea of a thief came up and I started researching cool thief stories. How do you make a lovable thief? And then, obviously, Robin Hood came up.”

“I realised the thing that excited me about Robin Hood lies in the adaptation. It’s the process by which this weird little legend has stuck with humanity and this country for 700-800 years now. How that has all adjusted over time is utterly fascinating to me and suddenly I realised, I wanted to make a game about my own version of Robin Hood.”

The heroic DNA of Robin Hood has imprinted the wider culture for centuries yet when it comes to explicit adaptations, they all usually are attached to medieval times. Take some of the UK’s greatest heroes for example - whether it is James Bond or Doctor Who - all have somehow adapted to the times, with Sherlock perhaps being the key recent example, being so traditionally linked to Victorian London. In a world where so much of the world’s wealth belongs to 1% or the population it is staggering that no one has thought to do a modern spin on the Robin Hood legend.

“It feels like the time is right. Honestly, I spent the first six months before I announced it, terrified that somebody else would do it. Especially after how well Sherlock was doing. I kept on thinking someone’s going to do a modern day Robin Hood! There’s going to be a mega TV show, or a movie or something. The Wachowskis were making a live action Robin Hood movie after Cloud Atlas, but they cancelled and made Jupiter Ascending instead. I was so happy!” If you ask me, I think he’s got Ridley Scott, and Russell Crowe’s wandering accent,  to thank for that.

Bithell’s Locksley by comparison looks wholly different of course. Robert carries no weapons, running stealthily around , backing up against walls, keeping his body tight and compact as he evades the sight lines of guards that strut around on patrol paths with a very brisk and deliberate pace. Though Locksley has no hood per se, his face is obscured by a white holographic mask. Though there are no green tights, there is the swagger of Errol Flynn in there.

“He’s a show off!” explains Bithell. “He’s not going to just rob from the rich to give to the poor because that’s not going to get him much attention and Robin Hood loves attention. I came to the idea, well what if he’s basically a YouTuber? What if he’s someone who decides to show off simulated crimes and basically make ‘how to rob people’ videos online? What effect does that have to the greater moral situation and the country in which he finds himself?”

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In Volume, the UK appears to be in the grips of a dystopian neo conservative future. The perfect setting for ‘the Hood’ to arise. Accompanying Locksley is AI Alan, voiced by Danny Wallace, who returns after Thomas Was Alone

The stealth genre has always revelled in the art of not being seen. Why blast your enemies away when the satisfaction of sneaking past your foes is so much sweeter? It’s less the feeling of you have conquered your enemies, more you have outsmarted them and they don’t even know it. Stealth has always been the domain of the thinking player, requiring tactical thinking, on the fly experimentation and patience.

Volume will also have an expanded cast of characters, from outspoken video game spokesman Jim (‘Thank God for him’) Sterling providing the voice of Tuck. Rather than going straight for the Sheriff of Nottingham or even Prince John, Bithell has decided on Guy Gisborne as the main antagonist. In the legends, Gisborne is the mercenary tasked with tracking down Robin Hood. In other tales he is a romantic rival to Robin for the affections of Maid Marion. At the point of interview, Bithell had confirmation on the actor who would be playing him, something he was excited for.

Rest assured, Gisborne’s identity will be revealed at this year’s GameCity, which occurs between 25 October and the 1 November 2014. “We’ll be having the launch party of Gisborne Industries. Obviously they start off very small in 2014 and slowly rise to power… We’re doing a video introduction from Gisborne himself.” I put forward Alan Rickman, but Bithell confirms it is not Alan Rickman. Looks like we’ll just have to wait and see.

Volume is scheduled for release next year, where it will be launching first on the PS4 and PS Vita, but PC and Mac versions will be available soon after.

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