As many of you who have followed me for a while will know, I was a big fan of Mike Bithell’s debut hit Thomas Was Alone. As a narrative focused gamer, I was won over by the game’s charming narrative and Mike’s focus as a developer on narrative over mechanics. Thomas Was Alone wasn’t mechanically flawed, but the game is unlikely to be remembered for it’s 2D platforming mechanics as much as it’s personification of basic four sided shapes. The charming plot of friendship and teamwork, the relatively short playtime and the ease of completion made it a game I came back to time and time again.
Going into Bithell’s newest release, Volume, I had a certain set of expectations. I went in expecting narrative to take centre stage ahead of mechanics. I went in expecting a game whose core narrative could be completed in a single sitting. I expected a narrative that had a steady level of quality and cohesive tone from start to finish. For better and for worse, that’s not what I got with Volume.
Volume is a 3D stealth game that definitely puts its focus on mechanics over plot. A loose futuristic retelling of the Robin Hood narrative, the game sees you enacting simulations of crimes in a VR environment and streaming your progress over the internet, in the hopes of sparking a national revolution amongst those worse off in society.
I’m generally not a fan of 3D stealth games as a genre. The lack of clearly defined visibility states, the difficulty of keeping abreast of the environment around you and the focus on level design dependant on clearing an area out before progressing just never gelled with me. I never bumped into any of these usual barriers to the genre with Volume’s core level set. Over the eleven hours I spent playing through the core campaign, which interspersed new enemies and non lethal gadgets at a very steady pace, I never once failed to enjoy Volume on a mechanical level.
Volume uses a series of visibility cones of varying intensities to denote visibility across the world. Employing an isometric viewpoint, you’re able to see a decently sized area around yourself at all times. If you stay out of visibility cones, or behind walls in less intense cone areas, you’ll be completely invisible to the world. Sounds produced by the player create predictably sized and visible circles of influence that make the concept of audibility much easier for me to visualise.
The selection of gadgets, a new one being offered every ten levels, served well to keep the gameplay fresh. Gadgets are introduced in isolation where they can be freely experimented with, ramped up in difficulty, mixed in with previous gadgets and moved to the standard repatoire all within a ten level arc. I was constantly being introduced to new tools and not only given enough time to learn them, but also allowed to move onto something new before it became too familiar.
While I’m glad to see Bithell not resting on his laurels and releasing a second game that places narrative over mechanics, this focus on mechanics over narrative has left Volume’s very ambitious plot to suffer in terms of polish and cohesion.
Let’s start with what Volume’s narrative gets right. The overarching plot of Volume and the lore it sets up for England was certainly fascinating overall. The idea that the plot of Thomas Was alone would eventually lead to a nation turned Corporatocracy, political immigration stance analogues for non human beings and a city state system are a fascinating backdrop for a narrative about attempting to stoke an uprising.
The problem is that many of the finer details of this ambitious plot either fail to be adequately explained within the game, or suffer from the dreaded concept of ludonarrative dissonance.
While Volume’s plot attempts to invest players in the idea of a privileged male hero fantasy gone bad, much of the game’s final act fails to properly critique the actions of the protagonist in any meaningful way. The hero is confronted with the consequences of their actions and never really seems to take the time needed to properly weigh up the risks, rewards and morality of is actions. The idea of a mechanics based game mid way through flipping the hero fantasy on its head is genius, but the follow through just wasn’t there for me.
This all being said the performances in the narrative were all superb. Charlie McDonnell, Andy Serkis and Danny Wallace all do a terrific job. While there are inconsistencies in the larger plot, all the dialogue written for these actors is distinct and well directed. The soundtrack is also a very high point in the experience, working well to fit the atmosphere established within the levels. Voice over is paused when the music raises in intensity and continues where it left off when you move from one level to another, preventing narrative being missed by those fluent with the gameplay systems at hand.
Volume ultimately is an incredibly strong game from a mechanical standpoint, but I just can’t shake my problems with its uncohesive narrative. For a game with such rich lore and such a promising concept, much of the follow through is missed in the later arc of the game. Still, it should not be understated how much I enjoyed working through the game on a mechanical level. Considering that I never usually enjoy the genre, Volume certainly succeeded in keeping me excitedly playing longer than any 3D stealth game before it.
Disclaimer: I know Mike Bithell fairly well. He has made small recurring donations to my Patreon, as well as that of IndieHaven.com, a site I founded a number of years back. While these recurring donations were very small, it is important to acknowledge their existence. I reviewed the game based on code provided by Bithell.