This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Volume.
Between Volume, V for Vendetta and Children of Men, I'm noticing that the world of fiction finds it curiously easy to believe that a near-future Britain would become a fascist dictatorship. It's like all British people are sitting on the edges of their settees watching Countdown just waiting for the economy to dip a few more points so they can gleefully fling their teacups aside and start taking the truncheon to the underclasses. And speaking as a British person, this never rings true for me.
Now, I admit I haven't been in Britain for nigh-on ten years now so maybe Carol Vorderman founded a neo-fascist revolutionary movement while I wasn't paying attention, but most of the British people I know, if you invited them to truncheon an underclass for the greater glory of the superior British race, most of them would reply with, "Ooh, I wouldn't want anyone to think I was making a fuss", before apologizing for no reason. At the height of the Empire, maybe, but I just don't think there's anything the modern British care enough about to inspire violent dictatorships (except maybe football).
Volume is a new game by Mike "You're probably pronouncing my surname wrong" Bithell, which thrusted something thick and powerful right up my intrigue socket because his last game was the very enjoyable Thomas Was Alone, a game that successfully demonstrated just how much context can add by creating an absorbing experience from just a voice narration and a match-colored-shape-to-hole puzzle for babies. Volume takes things in a bit of a different direction from Thomas: where Thomas was a story prominently featuring sentient artificial intelligences, Volume prominently features artificial sentient intelligences.
But from the starting point of Thomas Was Alone, Volume cranks the story presence down a notch and the gameplay up a tad, being a level-based top-down stealth game owing something to the early Metal Gears in which masked hero Rob Locksley must evade security as he steals from the fascist regime of Guy Gisborne. Wanna make the cultural allusion a little more obvious, Mike? I think there's still a nest of baby eagles on the upper slopes of the Himalayas that haven't figured it out yet!
Now, any indie developer worth his salt these days has figured out that the best way to get exposure is to court the Let's Player streaming communities online, and I should say Mike's worth enough salt to rain down at least a moderate slug genocide. So Volume opens with a rather unsubtle message along the lines of, "Hey, if you'd like to stream or LP this to the massive amounts of money-having followers, then I'm totally down with that, winky face!" In itself, not uncommon, but then we see the true master plan when we discover that the plot is attempting to contrive a scenario in which a streamer can be the hero by streaming. So not so much courting streamers as holding them down for sloppy make-outs. And how contrived it is!
The entire game takes place in Rob's mum's basement where he uses a hologram VR setup to recreate real life centers of power and wealth (a lot of which are museums for some reason) and demonstrate how to steal from them so that other less scrawny people with more dynamic voice acting can go out and do the actual legwork, forgetting that real life guards probably won't have visibility cones straight from the world's most disappointing ice cream parlor. It'd be like streaming Pokemon in an effort to teach the world about animal husbandry.
Thankfully, the sheer stable-boy infuriating amount of bullshit inherent in the idea of someone being lionized for streaming himself running around pretend buildings resting his balls on everything is not something that goes unaddressed. But the main villain is so sneering, goatee-strokingly evil that it rather undermines the moral complexity the plot reaches for in the second half, and which leads to a rather insipid ending that goes, "Ooh, was Rob doing the right thing by streaming himself resting his balls on stuff? I guess only the future will tell." As we used to say in the Heinz tasting facility, "That's fucking weak sauce!"
Feel free to blow me out of the water, because this is me just taking a wild guess, but I suspect that they might possibly have been going for a Robin Hood analogy and Robin Hood is supposed to be about nice, straight forward good and evil. Rob rich, give poor, Errol Flynn, whoosh-crikey, ha-ha foul villain and homoerotic overtones. Not that you couldn't try a gritty re-imagining, but Volume suffers from trying to have it both ways, kicking off with the big boys fun club tweaking the nose of the fist-shaking villain stuff and then suddenly trying to stroke its chin at us out of nowhere. In short, for Christ's sake, take a fucking stand on what point you're trying to make. I'll just be over here playing through the levels while you figure it out.
It's not the most sophisticated stealth game in the world. I imagine that the guards in real life, as well as having peripheral vision wider than a gnat's chuff, will also hunt around for slightly longer than eight picoseconds before concluding that it must have been a momentary gust of wind that ran in front of them, stole all the valuables and rested its balls on the kitchen worktop. It's fairly easy to fudge most of the puzzles by letting the guards see you, running off and standing behind a middling width lamppost so that they think you're a magic disappearing wizard with whom they definitely don't want to mess, then trot back to whatever they were guarding while they're trudging back to their patrol route with their dreams of glory shattered. Some kind of extra bonus for completing the level without being spotted wouldn't have gone amiss, something to throw out for the hundred-percenters, as one would throw a hiking partner's severed leg to a hyena pack as you make a break for the car.
It has annoyances; the slightly angled top-down viewpoint makes it hard to tell if Rob is standing between two moving laser beams or he's about to trip one with his great big pleased-with-himself stiffy. But overall, the gameplay's not bad, which is kind of the problem. If it were bad, I could have at least extracted some amusement from stabbing myself in the thighs.
Just like Thomas Was Alone, without context, it'd be a big boring bubble of bugger-all. And as much as I found the story lacking, I wish there'd been more of it. Thomas Was Alone kept me involved by having an almost constant narration, but in Volume, entire groups of levels go by without the plot moving forward, or more often shuffling to the side like it's trying to fit everyone into a wedding photo.
Brings to mind that old piece of writing advice: Is this the most interesting period of our protagonist's life? And if not, why aren't you showing us that? Essentially, all we do is play a hundred levels practicing at being a master thief. I mean, you usually skip past all this with a montage and a Kenny Loggins track.
- Six-lane bypass to the danger zone: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- So it's called 'Volume' because you have to stay quiet? That makes about as much sense as calling a modern warfare shooter 'Diplomacy'
- Have you rested your balls on things today?