Volume is a game about information. And for a game that fits into the stealth genre, that’s a fitting theme. Stealth games, from Metal Gear to Dishonored, are, at their core, about information. The games demonstrate patterns–be it patrolling guards or scanning security cameras–and then ask you to maneuver through them, sometimes while keeping an eye on some form of meter that measures your visibility. It’s you against a set of mechanics built to catch you, the vision cones, the alert meters.
So, naturally, there’s a euphoria to overcoming that kind of systemic oppression. When you narrowly slip between guards, snatch the valuables, and escape without a scratch, you feel as if you’ve done the impossible, like you’ve mastered something. And even if you haven’t, there’s at least the sense of eking out a small victory against the game’s barricade of required execution through trial-and-error. Through perseverance and training, you are finally good enough to move on.
Volume wraps those stealth game fundamentals into a story about revolution in an oppressive world. Then it adds layers of privacy, our relationship with the internet, livestreaming, and A.I. on top. There’s a friction to what you’re doing as main character Robert Locksley, virtually robbing the rich of their valuables, their homes and office buildings abstracted via simulated graphics, broadcasted live to the public.
But that’s really all there is: an uneasy context to a video game about collecting gems in record time. Because, even though Volume is willing to talk about very relevant, messy issues, it’s also willing to run a timer in the top left corner and tease you with the fastest runs by other online thieves. Some of that meta-awareness is in the story itself. The AI that occasionally speaks with Locksley embeds text tips and comments in the levels that might as well be developer Mike Bithell elbowing you at his funny Pac-Man reference. It’s distracting, especially considering the game spends huge lengths of time–of course depending on how fast you can get through its base 100 levels–without any narrative injections.
In those quiet spaces between the game’s story, it’s easy to embrace what’s there, which is a tight stealth game that isn’t afraid of veering into almost Portal-like puzzle design. Some scenarios are a steady progression through shifting guard patterns, careful use of items that lock their attention long enough to sneak past, and exiting with all the gems collected. Here, you can almost believe that the level design was lifted from the blueprints of these malicious business men and women. Others are blatantly puzzle-like. There’s a level with a room carpeted in panels that alert guards within a few spaces, and you have to run along them to avoid the guards placed in it. You’re not really sleuthing through a rich person’s home anymore, you’re working out a solution to a puzzle designed by a game developer. Combined with its clean, computer-generated aesthetic, these breaks in realism work, and are often incredibly satisfying, if just for their clever use of already-learned mechanics. What’s even better is the tools to make your own are readily available in the game’s editor, and there’s already many player-made rooms ready to conquer.
Volume is really at its best in these moments, when it’s not only about information, but actively exercising it. There’s a neatness to how it conveys vision cones, timers, and obstacles. A neatness that begs for you to prod and master it. The loop of learning, failing, and winning is consistently engaging, usually only taking about five minutes per level. And the twists it introduces to that formula through its few items give you just enough influence on it to keep the difficulty fair. Some of the chat logs, emails, and dialogue tinge that cleanliness in a way that is subtle enough to balance your relationship with its oppressiveness, to make you consider what’s actually happening, but most of it tips it all the way over and leaves you wanting to go slip back into the quieter storytelling.
Volume is a game about information and sometimes it’s too much. Most of the time it understands that that information is better shared through play, not through its sudden heaps of story. And when it does that, it offers a compelling set of complex and satisfying stealth game trials and puzzles that are worth facing.
A PC copy of Volume was provided by the developer. To learn more about our score, read our review policy.