Mike Bithell first came across Hideo Kojima's Metal Gear Solid series as a not so innocent 12-year-old. A friend of his dad's passed him the PC version of the first game in the series with word that you could catch a glimpse at a nude girl if Solid Snake positioned himself perfectly in an air duct. Ask any hardcore Metal Gear fan what I'm talking about. They'll know.
Bithell found the Metal Gear Solid "Easter Egg" his friend's dad had mentioned deep within the bowels of Shadow Moses. In the air ducts that overlook the area where you rescue the DARPA chief, you can peek through a vent to see Meryl Silverburgh exercising. Crawl out of the duct then back in a few times and you'll spot her doing sit ups - sans underwear. It's really not worth the effort, but, you know, video games.
The young Bithell entered the world of Metal Gear expecting juvenile titillation. What he discovered was one of the greatest games ever made, and his mind was blown wide open to the possibilities of a brand new genre. 13 years after Metal Gear Solid launched on PC, Bithell, now a celebrated indie developer, is having his own go at the stealth genre - the culmination of a love affair with Mr. Kojima that has remained steadfast ever since those first cautious steps inside snowy Shadow Moses.
"I guess it's the cleanness of Metal Gear Solid," Bithell tells me in an interview proceeding this week's unveiling of Volume, his new game.
"As stealth moved on it became so much more visually complex and detailed. Those games are great, but it just lost the purity for me, of knowing exactly if an AI can see me. I wanted to try and make a game that went back to those things I liked."
Volume is exactly that: it plays from a camera perspective lifted from the early Metal Gear Solid games, with a character whose movement rekindles memories of Snake, and strange, almost knight-like enemies that patrol in repeating patterns, complete with cones of vision. The story is under wraps, as is the identity of Volume's mysterious protagonist, but the gist is you must stealth and steal everything - a simple premise, a simple mechanic, all wrapped in a minimalist, cyberpunk meets Medieval aesthetic. Sure, Volume plays faster than Metal Gear Solid did, but Bithell's inspiration is clear for all to see.
"As stealth moved on it became so much more visually complex and detailed. Those games are great, but it just lost the purity for me, of knowing exactly if an AI can see me."Mike Bithell
But there's a twist. Conquering Volume's hundreds of Bithell-created environments is only half the challenge. The game actively encourages players to remake, or "remix" its levels, using a simple to use in-game editing tool, and share user generated creations with the community. Remixing Volume is where the Minecraft in "Metal Gear meets Minecraft" comes from, and it's Bithell's hope that the community that emerges around the game will keep it alive for years after it releases at some point late 2014.
Volume's user generated content aspect is not a jumping on the bandwagon thing, Bithell insists. It's not about riding the crest of the wave pushed inland by Notch's gargantuan indie success, either, he says. Messing about making stealth levels is something that's been cooking somewhere inside Bithell's brain for years and, again, we have Mr. Kojima to blame.
It was Metal Gear Solid 2, which Bithell was playing when he should have been revising for his maths GCSEs, that sparked the idea. Those with decent memories might remember Metal Gear Solid 2: Substance came with a special features disc, called The Document of Metal Gear Solid 2. Alongside the thousands of words of text and hundreds of character models that could be viewed were making-of videos that zoned in on Kojima as he was developing the game.
"He was talking about the process of designing levels," Bithell remembers. "And he did it with Lego. The camera panned across basically the entirety of Metal Gear Solid 1, with all of Shadow Moses laid out as a Lego set. That just blew my mind. I bought Lego [Bithell has spent hundreds of pounds on Lego over the years, and is something of an aficionado]. I thought, that's actually something I could do. I could make a level."
Volume's editing tool works just like Lego. You lay down blocks that can snap together, automatically making sense within the blank virtual world. Bithell's goal for Volume is that it works as a toolbox for virtual level-tweaking and building. If it turns out the game has a problem with colour-blindness, for example, players will be able to remix it to suit. The developer mentions a Eurogamer article, published last month, about PC game Vampire: The Masquerade Bloodlines, which revealed how players had kept the game alive for years after launch with updates. This article (and Bithell assures me he's not blowing smoke up my arse by mentioning it), proved something of an inspiration.
"I like the idea of making a game which can change over time," he says, mentioning his regret at not having had the time to add content to Thomas Was Alone. "That's something that's really interesting to me."
"The camera panned across basically the entirety of Metal Gear Solid 1, with all of Shadow Moses laid out as a Lego set. That just blew my mind."
Bithell's rags to riches story is well documented, and he's sick and tired of retelling it. But we'll go over it briefly here. In 2010, while working at Blitz Games, Bithell created a Flash-based puzzle platformer called Thomas Was Alone and released it to the Kongregate site. But it wasn't until he became a game designer at Surgeon Simulator studio Bossa that the more complete version of Thomas Was Alone was made with the Unity game engine - all during his spare time. Bithell had help from friends (David Housden did the soundtrack), gave the shapes names and, somehow, convinced Danny Wallace to narrate. Thomas, the "rectangles, feelings, jumping" game, as Bithell has called it, launched on PC in July 2012 and quickly found an audience.
Thomas, excluding Bithell's wage, cost just £5000 to make. That astonishingly low figure includes paying others for work done, legal fees, platform fees and the odd bit of travel for PR. Bithell funded development through scrimping and saving, and he raised around £2000 via a small crowd-funding initiative on IndieGoGo for Wallace's voice over.
After Thomas' release Bithell's star burned bright and money began to flood into his bank account. February 2013 was a big month, perhaps the biggest in Bithell's career so far. Thomas' success meant he could quit his day job, and the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Vita versions of the game were announced. Bithell was living the indie dream: he was free from the shackles of an employer with enough money in the bank to not have to worry about money in the bank, and a bulging Twitter follower count fuelled by his new-found PlayStation-powered fame.
YouTuber Total Buscuit's WTF Is? video of Thomas Was Alone enjoyed over 250,000 views, and directly contributed to the game's success.
Now it's time for that difficult second album. It's different this time around. Bithell doesn't need to work as hard getting Volume attention as he had to for Thomas, but, conversely, he now finds himself working under the gaze of the internet's expectant eye. Still, he can take solace in the fact he's in good indie company: The Witness, Jonathan Blow's follow up to the critically-acclaimed Braid; PlayDead's mysterious second project, the follow-up to the wonderful Limbo; Transistor, from Bastion developer SuperGiant; and, of course, Fez 2, from Fez creator Phil Fish. Maybe. Perhaps. All difficult second albums.
Is Bithell feeling the pressure with the more ambitious Volume, I wonder? "I've never met anyone who's good who doesn't secretly believe he's bad," Bithell retorts, with a laugh. "I know I do."
You'd think, then, that given the success of Thomas Was Alone, that a sequel would have been a no-brainer. In video game land, it's almost always the case that successful new IP breeds more games in that successful new IP, now forever more a franchise, a brand. Logic dictates Bithell should be making Thomas 2. His friends told him so. And now I find myself questioning his decision not to.
"I'm very mindful people tie you to a project," he says after a moment's contemplation. "It was very interesting reading Twitter speculation about what project two was. There is this assumption I'm the geometry guy, making geometry jump, and it's going to be a game about circles. In fairness, I do troll that a little bit.
"But yeah, I very much didn't want to make another platformer and specifically another platformer that had that geometric look to it. It had to shift. So a new genre.
"Everyone told me to do a sequel. But I don't see the point. For the first time - and probably this won't last forever - I'm very fortunate to have enough money in the bank and the time to make whatever I want. It's really wasteful to take that opportunity and time to maximise profits from Thomas Was Alone.
"And boring as well. I've made that game. I'm not saying I won't go back to it at some point, if I have a good idea or some twist on it I want to do, or an expansion, or if everyone hates this game..."
Bithell is sometimes accused of being arrogant (he has admitted he is, a touch) and of having let his success go to his head. He sometimes gets passive aggressive grief on Twitter for his so-called "indie" status now he's "made it". Who does this guy think he is? Bithell's critics wonder. The British Notch?
In truth, Bithell is playing the role of the outspoken indie developer with a cool subtleness, gently prodding his name into the collective mind of his sizeable Twitter presence (he has an audience of over 12,000 followers and counting) while stopping short of crossing the line into full-blown scandal (Phil Fish etc). And in any case, he's up front about the rights and wrongs of Thomas, and has deconstructed its development more than once in talks and presentations across the world. Bithell's conclusion is typically self-deprecating: Thomas was overrated, but high-profile YouTubers, including TotalBuscuit, liked it enough to do Let's Play videos, so happy days.
With Volume, little has changed for Bithell. Thomas cost £5k to make. Volume will probably end up costing £30k, which is a lot more, but it's still miniscule in the grand scheme of video game budgets. Sure, Bithell can afford to employ a handful of people (he needs help with 3D objects, for example, and David Housen is once again handling the soundtrack), but "I'm still in my living room", albeit in a new part of London.
"Yes, Thomas was made in a different flat, but I'm about to move again because of a mouse infestation," he says, with a tinge of concern in his voice. "We inherited it from the previous tenants. We've been chased out of house and home, which is a lovely thing to point out to anybody who starts calling me an indie millionaire.
"I work in my living room on the same laptop I've used for years. The only major difference is everyone else. I have a bunch of guys working for me, all working in their living rooms as well. That's the big shift."
That's just one of the big shifts. In genre, tone and look, Volume is the game no-one expected from Mike Bithell, the creator of Thomas Was Alone. Some might say he can afford to change tack where hundreds can't, but it takes courage to take risks, especially when you're livelihood and reputation are on the line. In any case, if everyone hates the game, as Bithell so often contemplates, well, you can always change the volume.