I had the pleasure of interviewing Mike Bithell at EGX2014 about Robin Hood and his new game Volume. The full article has been posted on Left Lion, Nottingham’s stellar alternative culture newspaper which successfully reached its kickstarter target last month!
Charlie Phair: We’re joined by Mike Bithell, superstar indie developer.
Mike Bithell: I’ll take it!
CP: So we’re here at the Eurogamer Expo and you’re showing your new game – Volume. Is this the first time its been playable?
MB: No, I’ve kind of lost track to be honest. I think this is the fourth time its been playable, we’ve taken it to quite a few events. It’s a really useful process to us because we get to see all the ways we’ve made the game badly. We get to playtest the game and throw it out in front of a large number of people. I’ve got a couple of people working the stand now just taking notes and keeping an eye on things. It’s how we recognise ‘Oh that bits awful’ or ‘this bit doesn’t work’.
CP: I was just at the booth and there seemed to be a lot of back and forth between the team and the players.
MB: The girl is my girlfriend (Kerry Dyer) and the guy (David Housden) is the composer of the game. They’ve both got an invested interest in the game, so it’s cool it seems to be going well. The reports back are saying that people are enjoying it and getting it, which is great because we’re getting very close now to the final version.
CP: Great news, so Volume is your second game (following Thomas Was Alone). I was there at Nottingham castle at last year’s GameCity where you announced that Volume would be a retelling of the Robin Hood legend…
MB: It seemed like the right place to do it. Nottingham castle seemed like the right place to announce it was a Robin Hood game.
CP: What is volume? How does the Robin Hood story fit into it? Did the idea of Robin Hood come first? Or did you have the idea for the game first and then Robin Hood came into it?
MB: So, it was very much the game came first. I knew I wanted to make a stealth game, a sneaking around game and I started thinking about story. I started thinking about what this character, who was going around this environment stealing stuff, would be doing and obviously the idea of a thief came up. Which I guess made sense. What I did, I started researching and started thinking, so what are the cool thief stories. How do you make a lovable thief? And then obviously very quickly Robin Hood comes up as a name. I started researching Robin Hood and read about 5 books about him, learning the history and the legend.
I was going to take ideas from it, but I realised the thing that excited me about Robin Hood is the adaptation. It’s the process by which this weird little legend has stuck with humanity and this country for 700-800 years now, with people telling it, changing it, tweaking it, fiddling with it, putting their own personality onto it, their own politics onto it. How that has all adjusted over time is utterly fascinating to me and suddenly I realised, I didn’t really want to make a game where I made a character like Robin Hood. I wanted to make a game about my Robin Hood?
What does Robin Hood look like written by a guy in 2014, feel like, whats the angle now? That was fun, that was the angle for me. I got into the idea of doing an adaptation of a 100 year old legend.
CP: It’s interesting that you touch on adaptation, because Robin Hood is one of the great British heroes and yet he hasn’t really had the modern adaptation. Not like Sherlock Holmes which has been adapted for the modern setting twice now (Sherlock and Elementary).
MB: He’s very much in fashion now isn’t he?
CP: Well yes, but you think of other classic British heroes, The Doctor and James Bond both of which who have adapted with the times. It’s bizarre that there hasn’t been a similar treatment in the same way for Robin Hood. So how do you envision modern day Robin Hood?
MB: So we push it past the modern age, we push it a little into the future. The thing that was interesting about Robin Hood was that was always the case. The actual idea of Robin Hood being set in Medieval times, well that didn’t really gain in popularity until the Victorian era. That was a during the cultural obsession with a very Romanticised idea of Medieval history.
Until that point he was very much like spiderman! or James Bond as you say. Whenever the story was told, there were stories of Robin Hood stealing from every king England ever had! He’s moved through history. This idea that he’s set in a very fixed part of time is actually quite recent. So once I realised that, the sky was the limit.
I’m into the cyber punky kind of technology, holograms and all that stuff, and thought – well okay I’ll do that version of that character. I’ll do a modern Robin Hood. You start to think, what would Robin Hood be like now, what role would he play? Well he’s a show off! He’s not gonna just rob from the rich to give to the poor, thats 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 to simulate crimes and basically make how to rob people online and then to take that and ask well does that cause any harm? What effect does that have to the greater situation and the country in which he finds himself?
That was the jumping off point. He’s not going to be living in the forest anymore. He’s going to be broadcasting to an audience, a fanbase. He’s going to be using social media, he’s going to be that kind of guy. So it was fun to come up with that character.
CP: With the times the way they are with the elites in power, the 1% holding the majority of the world’s money. It feels as though Robin Hood is rife for a return!
MB: 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. Someone’s going to do a modern day Robin Hood. 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 one, after Cloud Atlas they were going to do a live action Robin Hood movie, but they cancelled and made Jupiter Ascending instead. I was so happy!
It’s a story that always flares up at certain points whenever there is large wealth disparity. when there is a big ritual divide that’s when people start telling Robin Hood stories. So I think we might just be ahead of the curve on this. I imagine there will be a lot of Robin Hood stories coming out in like two years. I wouldn’t be too suprised if that would be the pattern at this point.
CP: I think the Russell Crowe version killed it for a while…
MB: There was the BBC TV show, which was okay and Arrow, which is kind of based on an adaptation of an adaptation of an adaptation. The one thing with Arrow that was funny, was that up until that point all of Volume’s loading screens and environments were green and indigo. I watched Arrow and just changed it instantly, so it became this white and grey colour.
CP: So Thomas Was Alone started as a very simple idea but then you had the larger narrative unfold in front of you. You realise each one of the blocks has a different personality, dreams and ambitions. It was clear that there was a lot of focus on the writing process. Has this been the same for Volume? Do the mechanics build a road for the story?
MB: To be honest, the interesting thing with Volume is that there is lots of overlapping narratives. There’s layers to it, there’s the top level layer, which is effectively a story about Loxley and AI Alan getting to know each other and deciding how they go forward. That’s the main story and that’ s the story everybody is going to see. Two characters, one room, what happens to each other? But underlining that, there’s a kind of lore to this world, the game takes place in 2054 and there’s been a history that’s happened prior that gets us to the point in which England has gone a bit Medieval, as in it’s a feudal nazi government place. The history, people and conspiracy involved in turning the country into that is something that is littered throughout the game. You discover what situation has led to the current situation. So I’m hoping those two layers of story telling will merge. Those who just want a character driven piece will get that, but those who care to dig a little deeper will uncover the larger conspiracy thriller aspect to it, though it’s more in the background. The human drama is in front of that.
In terms of mechanics, it’s less directly linked to the things you are doing as with Thomas Was Alone. The storytelling isn’t actually locked into the environments you’re confined within. The idea is that this character is travelling through this very crap holodeck. It’s not a case of you go somewhere and discover something and then carry on with the story. It’s you’re doing stuff in this one room whilst the story plays out. Which means it’s not tied to levels, it is actually tied to user generated content. You can progress the story without playing through levels I’ve made. You can play your mate’s levels and progress the story that way.
CP: Can I ask how the fair city of Nottingham features in this cyberspace Tron world?
MB: Well, Loxley is in an undisclosed location and we have fun with where he is. The whole point is that Gisborne, who is the villain of the story, is trying to work out which of these volumes he is operating in. These volumes are installed all over the country and he doesn’t know which one Loxely is in, because he’s constantly evading him. Over the course of the game, Gisborne is working out where you are. I won’t spoil it, but you actually finish the game without knowing where he is.
There is a gag later on, where they narrow it down, it’s either Nottingham or Barnsdale. But to me it’s a warehouse in Nottingham. And if we ever expand the world that’s where we’ll probably go to. We’ll maybe step out of that room, because the whole game does just take place in that room.
CP: Can we talk about the expanded cast. Robin Hood is your main guy, but I know you’ve enlisted a lot of vocal talent to help with the game. Danny Wallace is back.
MB: He’s an AI called Alan, it’s a focus tested game and he’s. We’ve got Tuck played by Jim Sterling. Gisborne is the villain, he’s an old character from the story so we’ve got all these nods to those characters. In a way if we ever continue there there, we hint at that universe. But this game is very focused on the two characters.
CP: Volume 2: the Merry Men!
MB: I think that’s the natural way to do it. There’s a lot of cool stuff in Robin Hood. If this catches on, I do want to be able to have other places to go.
CP: What about this Guy Gisborne? I realise he’s prepped to be making an appearance at GameCity?
MB: Yes, they’re going to be having a launch party for their startup. It should be fun, it will be a champagne and canapes kind of affair. It’s the launch party in our fictional universe of Gisborne. Obviously they start off very small in 2014 and slowly rise to power… We’re doing a video introduction from Gisborne himself. I’ve not announced who’s playing Gisborne yet, but I will do in due course.
CP: Alan Rickman?
MB: [laughs] I told myself that I wouldn’t use anyone who’s appeared in a Robin Hood adaptation before. My casting director just confirmed who will be playing him. And it’s going to be good.
CP: What about Gamecity? At this point you’re something of a veteran having been going for the last couple of years. How does it compare to EGX here in London?
MB: They are two very different events, EGX is very much about bringing together the big, noisy, brash triple A exciting games. Gamecity is more about the culture around games and the slightly artier end of the spectrum and about being super inclusive. I love GameCity, it’s an amazing atmosphere, I’ve been there several years in a row. I tend to always be there, I don’t think there will be a year in which I won’t!
It’s just a celebration of what games are and what they can be, and who can play them, the answer is everyone. They do so much to bring in kids, parents and grandparents and just celebrate this amazing medium we have in a way that is not so tied to the rumble of subwoofers and hype.
I love the Eurogamer Expo but for completely different reasons. It’s big and bold and shiny. With lots of noise, and I love that. But Gamecity serves a slightly different purpose.
CP: I think you’re absolutely right, its explores the art of playing as a vessel for creativity and personal development. It’s a powerful message especially in these times where GamerGate has threatened to set the medium back a couple of years.
So have you had a chance to check out any of the other games on the EGX show floor?
MB: I do always make a point of doing that. But today, I’ve mostly been in this room doing interviews. I wander round, you start to notice patterns. It feels a little bit more restrained this year. I think last year it was a lot more ridiculous in terms of some of the choices being made. There’s a lot more indie games. It feels like there is just a much larger selection of weirder games that I’ve not heard of.
CP: Especially the Leftfield Collection (EGX’s platform dedicated completely to up and coming developers)
MB: I’ve yet to make it to the leftfield collection. Thomas was Alone was there originally. A lot of people start off in that tunnel. It’s a good place to discover who the big names will be in 2-3 years time.
CP: So when can we expect Volume to come out?
The first half of 2015 is what we are currently aiming for. PS4 and PS Vita first and then PC and Mac soon after.
CP: Mike Bithell, thank you for talking to us! I look forward to the unveiling of Gisborne at GameCity!
GameCity 9 takes place in Nottingham between October 25th to November 1st. Gisborne’s launch party starts at 7pm on Friday 31st of November. It truly is a great event for anyone who is into games, and rest assured I’ll be covering it tirelessly!
Also check out Mike Bithell’s Volume announcement at last year’s GameCity.
Also check out this lovely video of various UK gaming insiders singing to Taylor Swift at EGX.