Mike Bithell is a guy who is famous for getting people to draw fan art about a blue square. Actually, Mike Bithell is a guy who has gotten a number of people to have very strong feelings about colored rectangles. He did this by making a video game.
In 2012, Bithell released Thomas Was Alone, a video game that he described as being “about friendship and jumping.” Intentionally designed with a minimalist art style that left players controlling rectangles of various shapes, colors, and jumping abilities, Bithell crafted a spare, simple game which— complemented by the charming narration of British comedian Danny Wallace and the lush, beautiful music of David Housden—achieves Pixar-caliber emotional highs. Or “weapons-grade feels,” in Tumblr speak.
Today, Thomas Was Alone has sold over a million copies and is available on just about any device that plays games (you should play it.) In many ways, Thomas was the passion project that gave Bithell the opportunity to do whatever he wanted, completely independent with no strings attached. So for his next game, Volume, Bithell is going to reinvent Robin Hood.
It’s very different.
Recently, Bithell took the time to chat with EW about his career so far—what it’s like to go from an anonymous designer at a major studio to marquee indie developer, the stories behind Thomas Was Alone and Volume, and why he’s surprised when people ask about his games’ strong sense of emotion.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: A good place to start is with Thomas Was Alone coming to current-gen consoles. Have you been surprised by the reception it’s gotten?
MIKE BITHELL: It’s been a bit crazy. I don’t think anyone—well I hope that no one—expects that kind of success with anything they make. Obviously, I’d be a pretty horrible person if I saw it coming, right? [Laughs]
But yeah, it’s been cool, it’s been exciting, because it was only meant to be a hobby game, made for PC—the original plan was that hopefully it might pay for an iPad [laughs] that was basically the thought process. And obviously it’s paid for a few iPads, and it’s on iPads, so that’s exciting.
It’s been cool to keep finding new audiences for it. Every time we release it somewhere new, there’s this whole group of people who discover it for the first time. It’s quite fun. I have the standard Twitter search for Thomas Was Alone just going all the time, and every day I see someone say, “Oh I just played this game called Thomas Was Alone, you should check it out.” And that’s two and a half years after it came out. So it’s quite fun that it’s still finding new people. I guess because it started so small, it’s still new for a lot of people.
What was the origin of your first game, Thomas Was Alone?
I was working in traditional dev as a designer, just going to work nine to five every week, and I was seeing this indie scene happen. These kind of small games, usually made by people who were working in the industry, but in their spare time, as weekend jobs, or quitting the day job to take a chance and make something.
I was really inspired by that and I thought it was really cool, and I was massively jealous of everyone who was doing it. Because there I was, kind of a cog in a machine.
One weekend, my girlfriend was out of town—so I had nothing to do for a weekend—and I just sat down and made a little prototype for this game that would become Thomas Was Alone. I made it in 24 hours, put it online, and people liked it. I think it got 100,000 plays in the first week, which was a mind-boggling number to me. I was like, wow, there’s people that actually want to play it, I guess I’ll continue with this. “
So I kept developing it, and spent about two years worth of evenings—a couple of hours every night after work, a few hours every day of the weekend—and slowly this game came together. Because I made these choices to keep it quite simple in terms of how it looked, or in terms of how it played, it meant that it could actually get made. And it got done over those two years.
How did you settle on the game’s wistful and friendly feel?
I guess it’s my sense of humor, to an extent. That’s the way I talk and that’s the way I like stories. I like that kind of historic British humor. I’m a big fan of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and a lot of the British kind of sitcom humor. It was really just born out of my taste, I guess it just seemed like the way to do it.
As I put stuff together and the game mechanics kind of happened, I just sat down and thought, “why is this red rectangle running and jumping around? There has to be something.” And a story developed based on what the attributes of the characters were.
To be honest I just sat down and wrote it, and rewrote it, and rewrote it, and eventually, out the other end came this kind of storybook vibe.
How did you meet David Housden, the game’s composer?
That was a weird one! Basically I was trying to find music for the game, and trying to find a composer who would, like, work for free, basically [laughs] because I had no money. I was just trying to find someone, and couldn’t find anyone that was very good, or doing a decent job. And then I brought it up to a colleague in the office, and said “oh, I’m just trying to find a composer.”
He was like, “I know this guy, he’s just about to graduate uni, he’ll probably do it for free because he needs the experience, you guys should chat.” And we did, and he kind of made me this really cool sample where he took some footage from the game and kind of wrote music for it.
It was just beautiful, and evoked such an awesome tone—I think I actually teared up listening to it, it was amazing. And yeah, we kind of—I talked him into not getting paid for it, but he took a percentage. Obviously at that point we thought we were talking about a percentage of 200 quid, maybe, if we got lucky—but obviously it went big in the end, which was lovely.
It was a really interesting and weird project, but he pulled it together. And especially as someone who just graduated university—I think at that point he was maybe 21, when we did that score—and he was awesome. So yeah, he’s working on the new one as well, because yeah, I want to work with that guy for a long time, because he’s immensely talented. I’m really lucky to have found him.
That makes for a great transition to your upcoming game, Volume. How did that come about?
So I was a massive Metal Gear fan, and I guess basically, at that point I was a teenager I was starting to think maybe, when I grow up I want to actually make these things—as I think a lot of teenagers do, probably a lot of adults too! I started designing the game in my head, like, “oh it’s gonna be this stealth game, and you’re gonna be able to make your own levels, and it’s gonna have weirder gadgets than Metal Gear” —because I always thought the gadgets were a bit boring— and all this stuff, just building this game in my head.
Now obviously, it was rubbish—as all kind of half-formed game design ideas are—but over the years, since then, that idea just kind of slowly bounced around the back of my head, and got added to and tweaked over time with everything I learned as I worked through my career.
And then when Thomas Was Alone kind of went massive, and sold as many copies as it did. I think—like most people in that position—I went “Okay, so I can make anything now, within reason [laughs] what’s the game I’ve always wanted to make? And immediately I thought, there’s this one game I’ve always wanted to make, that’s probably reasonable to do with the budget I have, let’s get this done.
So I quit my day job, and bought a computer, and started making it, you know?
What is it about stealth games that appeals to you?
I guess the big thing is they make me feel clever. As a player, I do enjoy first-person shooters, and fighting games, and stuff like that, but they make me feel badass, they make me feel strong. But with stealth, the really cool thing about stealth is that it makes you feel clever, and it makes you—it empowers you through that. It makes you feel like the smartest guy in the room, and there’s something cool to that, the idea of outwitting systems, and sometimes a lot of stealth games—because they want to give you the option of action as well—they kind of diminish that. It’s not quite as important anymore, they pull back stealth so you actually can still be badass, but if you want to be clever, you can be clever.
But for me, what I wanted to do with Volume was go back to that kind of pure stealth, where your only option here is to work this scenario and trick everyone in the room. And that fantasy of being Sherlock Holmes, or being—Sherlock Holmes was never sneaky, but he was always the cleverest guy in any room—and that’s a fantasy I enjoy. So therefore, as a genre, the ones that achieve that are the ones that I’m excited by.
The Hitman games, in particular—Hitman’s a great kind of—it makes you feel like the clever guy who snuck into the cool party and is going to do their fiendish bidding. And Volume’s really about that.Volume is about being the Robin Hood character, this character that’s outwitting the fiendish and slightly stupid Sheriff of Nottingham kind of characters. And that was a fun thing for me.
Why did you settle on the Robin Hood legend as the basis for Volume‘s story?
Well it wasn’t meant to be [laughs]. I knew I wanted to make a game. I knew I didn’t want to make a game about killing people, I wanted it to be something else. So obviously you start thinking about, “why is the character sneaking around?” And very quickly you start to realize, “well, a thief makes sense!’
And then, for me, a big part of my writing is research, reading everything I can on a subject and trying to work out an angle. And with theft, if you start researching hero thieves, it’s not long before you get to Robin Hood. I never intended to make a Robin Hood game, I just read, like, five books about Robin Hood and realized that Robin Hood was cool, and there were a bunch of cool things that I could steal from Robin Hood. But what was actually more interesting to me was the act of adapting Robin Hood.
Because everyone has. These hundreds of years of generations of writers and storytellers—people who wouldn’t even refer to themselves as storytellers that far back, just people making up versions of this story. The oral tradition, the written tradition, theater, and now film and television and video games, have all been kind of fixated on this character and changing the character and making the character reflect their values and using the character to talk about different things that are important to their cultures.
I just got really excited about being the latest in a distant, long line of writers to try and do this character and make it my own. So that became the thing—okay, I’m going to make an adaptation, this is going to be my Robin Hood, this is going to be my version of the character. What do I want to say? And what are the interesting things about doing a contemporary Robin Hood?
One of the fascinating things about both Thomas Was Alone and what we’ve seen so far of Volume is their strong emotional core—friendship for Thomas, and being heard for Volume. How do you go about finding that?
I was a child actor, so I’m a bit pretentious about these type of things [laughs]. To me it seems obvious, and it’s weird to me when it’s called out as something that’s interesting, because it just seems like—how else would you do this? It’s just a case of, “So what is the activity I’m going to ask the player to do over and over again, and what is their action going to be?’
And then it’s just working out what would the motivation be for the character. So in Thomas Was Alone it was, “I’m making a game where you make characters work together in order to achieve something.” Okay, then it’s got to be about friendship. And if it’s not about friendship, then it has to be about something else that kind of reflects that. So maybe there’s an alternate universe where Thomas Was Alone was about Communism [laughs], or it was about management structures in capitalist companies.
You know, there’s loads of different angles for something that supports the activity that’s being done. And with Thomas, individual characters then have the same thing. So, what does it feel like to be the one character in the universe that can float in water? You’d feel like a superhero, that’s amazing, you’re superman, you’re special—and kind of extrapolating stories out from that.
But with Volume, it’s, okay, so I have this character of Robin Hood that’s kind of defined. And you’re going to be playing this version of Robin Hood who doesn’t kill, who kind of sneaks around—okay, so what does Robin Hood mean, what is Robin Hood about nowadays?
And for me, Robin Hood—historically, Robin Hood is a fairy tale about empowered middle class people saving poor people. If you look at the history [laughs] it’s a story that middle class people have constantly told each other to feel better about having a little bit of money. It’s not usually a story that’s told by either the very, very wealthy or the very, very poor. Because the very, very poor are just getting on with things, and the very, very wealthy don’t really like this idea of a story about a guy who robs from them…
Well for me, it’s a story about redemption. It’s a story about a character that sets out to be the Robin Hood that we know—the hero saving the poor, but through his actions and through that journey, he finds out what a hero actually is and who he wants to be in that universe.
So that just made sense for the character. For me, it’s the same way I design. It’s just working logically through the problem. You start off with, I know this about the game, or I know this about the character—how do they feel about that? How does that affect the larger world? What would my reaction be in that situation, what would be the reaction of a friend who has an interesting personality that I’d like to put into a game?
It is just a step by step journey to finding the truest and best version of the story. I hope (laughs)
Do you think the climate in game development is moving towards exploring other emotions besides feeling badass or clever?
I think it’s starting, and you can definitely see it in indie—the smaller games, where there’s kind of pressure to perform financially on the creators—you’re already seeing an enormous diverse range of things being done.
WIth AAA, that’s a slower process but you are starting to see it. Alien:Isolation is an example of a game that’s designed to make you scared and designed to make you feel week. That’s not a power fantasy by any means. That’s a game about disempowering you. And that’s interesting—and that’s financially, a big game they’re taking a risk with.
You’re starting to see games like The Last of Us, which is, on a gameplay level, kind of a logical stealth-action game. It’s kind of standard AAA fare, but then in its story it’s actually exploring kind of darker themes. So I think it’s creeping in. As the medium matures and as the people making games make games targeted at slightly older players and players that maybe have a bit of experience in the world and want to see stories that suit them better—it’s a slow process though.
I think, for us, we’ve just stopped being the spectacle medium, and we’ve started broadening that, both in AAA and in indie, but in indie it’s happening a bit faster just because things move faster when there’s less money on the table.
I saw recently that someone had sent you a feminist critique of Thomas. Do you get that sort of feedback much because of you work very publicly?
I do receive a lot of criticism (small laugh) both the kind of—like, that feminist article was fantastic, and in-depth—it was quite scathing, but it was really interesting, well-argued, definitely useful to my development.
I also get a lot of crap. Obviously everyone who’s kind of visible on the internet does. (laughs.) But you just ignore that, or better still, have fun with it. I have a good time with that stuff.
But yeah, it’s useful, and I’m always amazed at how smart my audience is, and how much useful feedback I receive on Twitter, and on articles, and just general chatter. I think if you are a human face that’s associated with a game, people are more able to come and talk to you about things and discuss stuff with you.
An example of that actually—Volume (it’s actually tied to the feminist arguments as well). I was talking about Volume a lot, and someone on Twitter asked me, “Can I play as a girl in your game?” To which my immediate response was, well, no, because you know, it’s a story about this specific character, and it would be weird for me to have two actors playing that role. I wouldn’t want to have that option there, and that’s fair enough.
But then people pressed, and there were a couple articles talking about it, and people asking questions on Twitter. And I was mid-response to a tweet, saying, “Well it’s definitely got to be a man, because you play the story, and the story has to have this character.”
I was midway through writing that response, when I realized, but the story ends after a few hours, and there’s all this content after. Okay, I could actually—I could have more stuff. So once you finish the story, you can play as multiple different characters, and that’s what we ended up doing in the game.
That conversation led to a new feature in the game, where once you finish the story, once you finish the bit where I have to lock you into one actor in order to tell the story I want to tell, at that point we open it up and there’s lots of different options, and some of them are female.
So that was really useful to me, that was conversation that directly led to the game being richer and better, hopefully. And that’s all because of that engagement.
If I had been in my little cave making my game and not talking to anyone about it, I would’ve missed out on an opportunity for something really cool.
Volume is coming out in early 2015.