Mike Bithell is already a prominent developer, and that's with just one finished game under his belt. When he started making Thomas Was Alone, he thought he was making a visually strong platformer with a limited narrative, but it turned out the opposite, with a well-written script and Danny Wallace's luxurious narration proving a wonderful accompaniment to the thoughtful but understated audio and visual design of the game. It was a hit, pure and simple, and the success he's enjoyed so far has given him the stability and opportunity to be more ambitious with his next game.
That next game is Volume, a stealth title that beats down the door of convention and aims to put the focus firmly on the way we play these games, subverting the tricks we've all learned after years of playing Metal Gear Solids and Splinter Cells. Volume is hoping to take the "game" out of "stealth game."
That probably comes across as contrived and a little bit vague, so let me explain. Mike Bithell knows all the tricks of the stealth trade. He knows that when we pick up a controller, we're more likely to find a patrol and "bop ‘em on the back of the head" rather than take the time to work out how to get around them. We're always given wonderful tools to distract our enemies and navigate through environments, but inevitably we'll often end up sneaking up on patrolling sentries and taking them out from the shadows, before moving on and doing the same to the next person we encounter. To this Volume says a simple and resounding no.
Actually, I think we're getting ahead of ourselves. Let's rewind a little, and go back to the beginning, and actually talk about what Volume is about, stealth mechanics aside.
It's the story of "a near future Robin Hood," Bithell told us as we sat down to take a look at an early build of the game. The character's name will certainly be familiar to those who know anything about the lore surrounding the infamous British folk hero. "What would Robert Locksley be like if he were to be alive today?" Bithell asks, before adding, "obviously there wasn't a real Robert Locksley, but we're going to pretend there was."
During the course of the demonstration, we're left with no doubt as to the passion that's going into the project ("If there's a book about Robin Hood I've read it. I'm a bit of a nerd for that stuff"), Bithell knows his stuff, and in bringing that fiction into current times, he's done a great job of modernising the legend. "What would Robin Hood be, nowadays? He'd be a YouTuber. He'd be showing off online, demoing his stuff, basically being a let's player for crime."
And therein lies the central premise of the game. Using a military simulation, Locksley can predict the outcome of certain events, and he uses this tool to start generating approximations of rich and powerful people's homes and broadcasting that knowledge online. He's an information superhighwayman, if you will.
With that in mind, we're playing a digital version of Locksley in the simulation, plotting his way through the security systems that protect the brokers of powers. The graphics are stylised, but effectively communicate the key details, with cones of vision on display, and no-nonsense scenery. It might be simple, but it's effective and definitely easy on the eye.
There's patrols to navigate past, but as mentioned already, Volume's systems are designed to encourage you away from a path of least resistance (the aforementioned bop on the back of the head). We talk about the massive bag of "cool gadgets" that are routinely handed to players in stealth games, many of which are ignored by players simply because there's easier, more exploitative ways of progressing forward.
Volume ensures that knocking out guards and hiding the bodies isn't the easy way out for players via one simple trick; stunned guards don't remain stunned for very long. The cool gadgets are also spread out somewhat, and you'll only be given specific tools at specific times, like audio devices that distract guards, sending them away from their normal patrols or stationary positions.
The patrolling guards are actually pretty stupid, but it's clearly a purposeful design decision. They'll almost immediately give up a hunt and return to their original patrols if they don't see you. Volume cuts through the bullshit that we've come to know (and exploit) in stealth games, and unashamedly revels in the systems that hold it together. Everything is exploitable in some way, just not the easy way, and you're given the tools to get to the end of each level, but you can't just knock out your enemies and drag their unconscious bodies into the shadows and move on.
We're shown a couple of different levels, made by the level editor that players will be using to create their own content with further down the line. It actually looks really easy to make your own levels, and it's not hard to see people coming up with fiendish challenges and sharing them with other players. If accessing the very best player-generated content is made simple, it's easy to foresee a strong community building up around the game.
With the demo wrapped up we go off to do an interview on camera (which you'll be able to see on Gamereactor in due time), where we talk about Volume and its systems in more detail. But just seeing the game in action, and hearing about the thought and passion that's gone into making it what it is, we're filled with hope that this will, like Thomas Was Alone before it, be a enjoyable and accessible experience.
We've always liked stealth games, but we have to admit that we've often followed the path of least resistance when presented with the opportunity to branch out and be creative. We're looking forward to being forced to think outide the box, and devising new ways of sneaking past digital patrols. When we'll be able to that is still unclear, with it looking possible that the game might slip into 2015 (on PC, PS Vita and PS4). One thing's for sure, we're definitely looking forward to finding out more.