Yes, instead of talking about Metal Gear Solid V, we’re going to talk about the other embarrassingly good stealth game that just came out: Mike Bithell and company’s Volume.
But before we get to this latest stealth hurrah, I have a question: is it too bold to say that games are innately political things?
I don’t think so. I would argue that they’re inseparable, that one will inevitably seep into the other. But it’s fair to say we have a hard time recognizing that games can be political. In recent history, gaming culture has distanced itself as far as possible from potential political ties – born from, I think, the trial by fire that was the ridiculous scuffle with the United States government through the 90s/2000s – creating a perception that politics is a dirty word in games. This isn’t just on the side of gamers – it’s happening in development too.
The familiar screen above means that many different perspectives were involved in the creation of Assassin’s Creed, but I’ve always understood a second meaning; “no political statement was intended.” It’s a get-out-of-jail-free card – which isn’t a bad thing, because sometimes you have to cover your ass. But when I play Assassin’s Creed Unity, set during the ludicrously important French Revolution, and feel as though the game is apolitical to a fault, it feels like something essential is missing. That cover your ass statement has become game design.
Picking on Assassin’s Creed may be unfair, but it works as an effective analogue for both AAA games as art and what Volume attempts to tackle. Many AAA games seem to be following that initiative: well-made stories with little thematic weight that actively avoid political topics. Perhaps it is that particular devil of games – technically, you’re the one doing it. And implying a relationship between a player and character action could have unfortunate implications even for the best told stories, hemming close to that dreaded argument that games cause violence.
It’s this line that Volume examines, but it doesn’t do it in the ways other independent and AAA games have. It does something different, and to me, altogether more interesting and important.
This title uses Robin Hood and Let’s Plays.
The Robin Hood myth has gone through as many versions in historical documents as it has in adaptations. Depending on who you talk to, Robin Hood was from Nottingham, York, or Loxley, England, was everything from a noble to a common man to an alias used by many different thieves, and went from common thief to defender of Richard the Lionheart. His legend evolved over time to contain his iconic archery skills and Maid Marian, their tales added in ballads performed all over the British Isles. The version that Volume settles on is a mash of tales – Robin Hood is Robert Locksley, a minor thief with a big idea, and the villain is Guy Gisborne, reimagined as a dictator-masquerading-as-business-man of an economically collapsed England – one Gisborne is largely responsible for.
Volume, from its announcement, has been very clear about its origins: a science fiction retelling of the legend of Robin Hood, set in a dystopian near-future England and done in the gameplay/aesthetic style of the Metal Gear Solid series’ VR missions. It is, much like Bithell’s previous “solo” title Thomas Was Alone, a very simple game on a mechanical and visual level. Where Thomas was a game about platforming with rectangles, Volume is a top-down gem collector with stealth mechanics stripped down to the bare essentials of the genre – a Bugle to distract guards, an Oddity to entrance them, a Mute to move silently, things like that. All the guards have vision cones, and you can flush toilets and whistle.
But those who played Thomas Was Alone know it was much more than just a game about rectangles. Beyond the simple visual veneer was the story of the first artificial intelligence to become sentient – effectively, a story of the beginning of conscious thought, and how concepts like “friends”, “enemies”, “heroes” and “legends” are formed. Mike Bithell used the very simple artistic presentation of rectangles to tell a story about simple things suddenly gaining complexity. The rectangle characters work as an avenue for players to understand and comprehend the complexity of what it entails to think for yourself – the simplicity of the art style wasn’t just an aesthetic. It was the most important element of the story Thomas was trying to tell, as essential as Danny Wallace’s narrator.
While Volume is slightly more complicated on a visual and mechanical level than Thomas Was Alone, they broadcast on the same wavelength.
The unique hook to this independent hit is how it recontextualizes the thief part of the Robin Hood legend using the simple visual style of Metal Gear’s VR missions. See, Locksley doesn’t actually do the stealing in this world. He instead hacks into an old simulations database of households and places of value run by the rich and powerful of England, and by an ineffectual A.I. named Alan (a reimagining of one of Hood’s “merry men” sidekicks). Simulations that happen to include both probable guard routines and locations of valuable documents and information. Locksley runs the simulations of all of Gisborne’s allies, stealing the virtual versions of their valuables…and broadcasts it to all of England.
Robert Locksley is a Let’s Player, and his game is revolution.
This is such an extraordinarily clever hook that Bithell and his team could have coasted on this project and its simple stealth gameplay all the way to the credits. But like Thomas, the premise works well beyond that. If Assassin’s Creed Unity uses simulation and revolution and finds no politics, Volume finds all of them – especially the less than perfect ones.
The legend of Robin Hood has been made straight as one of his arrows over time. He is a hero, plain and simple, a leader of men and defender of the downtrodden. “Take from the rich and give to the poor.” Disney turned him into a fox (and that movie is amazing). Russell Crowe played him in a Ridley Scott movie (and that movie sucks). And it isn’t that this is some revisionist take on the legend – the villains of the story are absolutely still the rich. Bithell’s version of Gisborne’s England has intentional parallels to the modern world, with Gisborne himself evoking the current campaign of Donald Trump in the United States – England has become a capitalist business of unquestionable evil. Locksley is absolutely the good guy.
But revolution is never a simple thing. Many ballads from the time of Robin Hood mention the consequences of his actions, and many historians and political writers have questioned the righteousness of becoming that kind of freedom fighter. Volume keeps those in mind and never fully lets Locksley off the hook. Throughout the game, the consequences of Locksley’s revolt are never ignored. Lives are ruined. People die. Counterpoints are constantly brought up by those Locksley is targeting – and these are not easy, strawman arguments designed to be taken down by Locksley’s quick wit and righteousness. Bithell writes them all intelligently enough that you can’t help but question the worthiness of your actions.
In fact, Locksley doesn’t have the quick wit traditionally given to Robin Hood. Locksley doesn’t sound like much of a hero at all. Famed YouTube vlogger Charlie McDonnell purposefully plays Locksley with the cadences of…well, of a YouTube vlogger. Or a Let’s Player. He even brags a little to his audience. He keeps a timer.
And that is where Volume ties itself together. By recontextualizing the legend of Robin Hood, and keeping its politics intact, as a Let’s Player in a dystopia playing a game with his audience: a brilliant example of how to deal with the potentially problematic relationship between games and politics, and the line between player action and protagonist interaction is provided. And what example does this game set?
That the politics, though messy, are necessary.
Look again at the simple visual style of Volume. Look at the cartoonish guards in these pictures. The clean game-ness of the gems. It looks like Disney’s fox Nottingham, like it should be simple. But the game continually brings up what these objects represent in Gisborne’s real world. Those gems are documents, valuables, and trinkets sometimes unrelated to what Gisborne stole from the people. These are people’s homes and businesses. These guards are people, and they carry real world guns.
The divide between Robert Locksley’s simulation and the real world is the same divide that video games face as they step out onto the artistic stage. The games industry imagines itself as being as simple as the presented simulation, even as teams absorb and assimilate droves of real world places, real world people, echoes of real world wars, and pretending like these things aren’t, even unintentionally, broadcasting to the real world.
Volume accepts this – that what we do in the virtual world has an effect on the real one. It doesn’t state that art causes violent actions, but that there are ties. Ties that exist in every form of art in the world. And sure, they can cause issues – it’s why we fight for diversity and against sexism in game content, because they can create ideas of the world in people. But those ties are the very things that lend art its power. To ignore them as video games have is to make the art worse.
This small little indie game, at its conclusion, accepts everything. That’s what makes it one of the most resonant games I’ve played in recent memory – it is a scathing attack on corporate greed in government and economic inequality, and it is a potent story about the inherit problems of revolution. That juxtaposition lends the story power and give no easy answers to its questions of how worthwhile the legend of Robin Hood is, and how worthwhile putting politics in games is. What it is makes it so that when Volume finally does give an answer, it matters.
When you want to be heard, you have to be loud.