Looking at the upcoming slew of independent titles set to grace to Switch eshop alone in the coming weeks, it wouldn’t be out of the question to say that we’re currently in the midst of a golden age of gaming. When the mid-tier developed games disappeared in the early 2000’s, there was a while there when every game was either an open world RPG or a well-polished shooter. Thankfully one man can who can largely be attributed as being an industry innovator – at least within the indie scene – is Mike Bithell.
Originally gaining notoriety with the release of 2012’s indie hit Thomas Was Alone, Bithell did a lot to prove that flashy graphics and overblown systems aren’t always required in order to engage with audiences, developing a game concerning a simple rectangle in search of his purpose. You’d be forgiven for mistaking the experience as a flash game, but scratching further away beneath the surface reveals a rather thought-provoking commentary on the subject of artificial intelligence. What could have been a fairly basic puzzle-platformer created in Bithell’s spare time defied expectation.
Continuing the trend, was the creator’s slightly more traditional follow-up, Volume. The first instance where Bithell was finally allowed to stretch his game development legs fully, the game had a far bigger production budget and sought to replicate the VR-based missions featured in the original Metal Gear Solid. The top down stealth-action featured in volume saw the roles of story and gameplay reversed compared to Bithell’s initial work, but served to prove that he wasn’t just a one hit wonder. Rather, a man who could lead the experimental charge for other aspirational indie devs.
Since going fully independent, Bithell continues to experiment not just with different game genres, but the methods in which they’re distributed also. Following Volume, he turned his hand to VR in the form of EarthShape, but at present the experiences seems unfortunately limited to Google’s still relatively small Daydream platform. Best described as a pioneering puzzler, EarthShape was a sweet but criminally underplayed title that will hopefully find its way onto mainstream VR units eventually.
Fast forward to only a few weeks ago with the release of Bithell’s Subsurface Circular, a future set text adventure throwback, the first of a proposed series of “Bithell Shorts” intended to be contained experiences. Couple this with the fact that the game saw a stealth release on steam without a single ounce of pre-release or marketing hype, and even in 2017, Bithell and his team continue to take interesting strides.
In order for video games to continue exploring traditional foundations of the industry differently, they need indie dev innovators like Mike Bithell, if only to keep things fresh and surprising. Bithell’s work proves that given enough financial security, circumventing audience expectations is something that can be accomplished, whether it’s successful or not. We can’t imagine what crazy game concoction he’ll cook up next, but whatever it is, you can bet it’ll do things differently.