There's a self-deprecating air to Thomas Was Alone creator Mike Bithell, a humble British smileyness that perhaps partly comes from the securities of today's successes, but was likely always there keeping him grounded. Despite how he put it as we chatted at the Eurogamer Expo, I doubt he didn't know just how lucrative Thomas 2 would be.
"At this point if I did Thomas Was Alone 2," Bithell continued, "I've got lots of people who would actually now buy that game at launch, and I would make a lot of money. But it's boring. And it's a decision and promise I made myself. I'm not going to use this opportunity I've been given to do that. I don't think Thomas needs a sequel right now."
"if something comes to me one day I might go back to it. Or if I make a couple of flops I might go back to that well," he giggled in jest. "I'll regret that quote down the line."
Instead, Bithell ditched his acclaimed platformer to make Volume, a game that very deliberately harks back to older, top-down stealth games. It's a dramatic switch from the jumping rectangles of Thomas, but stealth games are clearly close to Bithell's heart. Our chat spanned the genre's history as he talked wanting to go against modern stealth games with Volume. Rather than placing the camera close, Bithell is pushing it back and high to give players as much visual awareness as possible, but balancing that by making sure the enemies are tough and "have really good guns," as he put it.
He expressed surprise, however, at how many people at the expo saw things his way too.
"It seems there are a lot of people like me who love stealth games – and I really, I never want to be seen as insulting the current crop of stealth games – but want to go back to a slightly crueler stealth game, or a stealth game where you're more a personal risk in the game," Bithell explained. "Taking out the ability to kill creates that environment, you're never safe. I think that appeals to a certain kind of old-school gamer."
It was one heck of a turnaround from three years ago, when Bithell first made Thomas in his spare time, while working at the recently shuttered Blitz Games. The browser-based Flash game, as it was then, was the product of a personal 24-hour game jam conducted in his own home, or "his damp and smelly South Leamington hovel" as Blitz's site put it. Three years and over 700,000 sales later, the playing field has shifted seismically.
"It's been a really interesting, emotional journey for me," Bithell said of his newfound status, and the pressures that come with it. "I put up a big front because I realize that's necessary, I'm a big loud voice on social media and all that kind of stuff, I do lots of interviews, but I'm actually quite introverted and kind of think I'm rubbish. It's very odd to have that challenged on such a scale!
"To me, I don't comprehend it. The example I always use is my mates have heard of Thomas Was Alone and have played it, but of course they have because they're my mates. They know me. It's really odd to me where pretty much anyone who's plays indie games, if they've not played Thomas they've [at least] heard of Thomas and it means something and it's a known thing. And it's surreal and odd and I don't understand it."
Bithell wants Volume to be more than a second album that's successful, that doesn't see him fade away from what he's made for himself. He told he wants his next game to have longevity, something he felt Thomas Was Alone didn't. The key to that in his eyes is the game's level editor, or as he sees it a "stealth toy box."
"Allowing players to make their own stuff, and encouraging the process by which they can generate this content long-term," he said, "It serves me because people make stuff about my game, that generates buzz, I can get more and more stuff made about it, more and more footage. And it also means that those who want to create stuff get to play with toys. I loved, I absolutely loved the Hideo Kojima Lego videos where he's talking about making Metal Gear Solid in Lego, but what was really interesting about that was I watched those videos again and I wanted his toys!"
Bithell doesn't hide away from just how inspired Volume is by Metal Gear Solid, although he notes he wants to take bits and pieces from "every stealth game" as well as apply his own creativity; he's told me before about aiming to deliver another strong, authored story with his next game. At next week's GameCity event in the UK he'll expand on what the story entails, as well as revealing which cast member's he's lined up - again, the shadow of the BAFTA-winning Danny Wallace looms over that. Aside from all of that, one key question remains: has he talked about Volume with Kojima yet?
"No," he sighs. "He doesn't write, he doesn't call..."
He then regales his fandom for Kojima's work, a little starstruck just by the mention of the auteur: "It would be a dream come true for me. I would love to. One day, maybe. Let's see if I can make a good enough game to be worthy of his time."
Sony PlayStation 3 (late 2012)
Sony PlayStation 4