Imagine my surprise when, after years of decrying “YouTube celebrities” and shouty montages of horror game jump scares, I finally broke down and succumbed to the rising star of video. It wasn’t until I’d familiarized myself with some of these deceptively human personalities, and the activities they devoted themselves to outside of my little screen, that I understood how anyone with a webcam could establish a connection to millions of eager viewers. Hearing tales of business executives and preteens hunting down those big enough to attend conventions in some parody of the Beatles’ Hard Day’s Night only solidified their place in culture. Armies of impressionable fans and lucrative endorsement deals seemed only the tip of the iceberg.
In many ways, that’s what is strived for in Volume, a reimagining of the Robin Hood legend set in mid-21st Century England, a grim world ruled by corporate interests about to undergo drastic changes thanks to a lone webcaster named Robert Locksley.
THE PEOPLE’S MILLENNIUM MAN
Yes, the legendary green-capped outlaw has been re-envisioned as a vlogger, the son of “those who protect” in England’s new caste system. Appropriately voiced by English YouTube celebrity Charlie McDonnell, Locksley plans to use an obsolete version of a combat simulator, the titular “Volume,” to instruct thousands of adoring fans how to complete pacifist heists on the residences and business places of the financial elite.
He’s joined by the Volume’s artificial intelligence, “Alan,” who more accurately represents a cheerful desk clerk or Microsoft’s thankfully defunct paperclip assistant Clippy. Voiced by BAFTA Award-winning actor Danny Wallace (who also narrated developer Mike Bithell’s previous game, Thomas Was Alone), Alan is far and away the true star of Volume, never passing on an opportunity to provide casual snark while convincingly coming to terms with the fact that Locksley must abuse the AI’s primary purpose in order to return a nation’s wealth to the poor masses.
Standing atop that mountain of the poor and desolate masses is a reimagined version of Robin Hood villain Guy of Gisborne, now a corporate oligarch blatantly serving his own interests. In an absolutely stunning performance by Andy Serkis (Lord of the Rings’s Gollum and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ Caesar), Gisborne remains a threatening presence throughout the entirety of Volume, balancing between the measured response of a true CEO and the restrained madness of a man whose income is stained by the blood of those beneath his boot. While classic Robin Hood myths often placed Gisborne as an equally skilled hired killer or in the role of Sheriff of Nottingham, Serkis captures what may be most defining, front and center portrayal of the character in the last 15 years, if not more. The ground threatens to quiver under the weight of the actor’s throaty accent, and the level to which Gisborne seems prepared to defend his ill-gotten kingdom is ceaselessly convincing.
THE DARK SIDE OF ROBIN HOOD
It’s a plot that seems could only happen as a result of modern western politics, rife with “Occupy” movements and the manipulation of our political system by “the one percent.” That Volume’s world feels so fleshed out through a few exchanges of dialogue and internet browsing histories is a testament to Bithell’s writing prowess. This is, after all, the man who made mute rectangles into fully realized characters in 2010’s Thomas Was Alone.
There’s careful consideration of internet politics: the meager hope of Locksley’s youthful fanbase (some as young as 12 years old), and a vile troll who arrives with a sneering “anything you can do, I can do better.” Even Gisborne’s relatively bloodless ascension is touched on through adoring article excerpts, the nation too caught up in nationalist pride or elder disillusionment to notice his true nature. It’s a world I desperately want to revisit, even though many elements seem as soul-crushingly familiar as yesterday’s headlines.
Perhaps Volume’s greatest accomplishment is the doubt it suddenly raises midway, as relationships grow more complex and starry-eyed fans begin to implement Locksley’s simulations. It’s one of surprising maturity for the YouTube generation, and maybe even an unintentional criticism of employing classic Hood’s old school tactics. There may be no band of Merry Men for Locksley to employ, but the dangerous acts he inspires are more real than any folklore or simulation, something Gisborne is absolutely willing to exploit as moral baggage for the young thief. While Locksley demands guns not factor into his simulated arsenal, there’s little stopping others from employing them “just in case,” as Gisborne states, boastfully showcasing those who had already failed to avoid causing harm during their should-be-peaceful heists.
It raises a very important question as audiences for online video content grow. Given the highly volatile nature of internet dwellers, how much accountability does a media figure carry for the actions of those he actively influences, no matter how independent? Is a YouTube celebrity at fault when they mention their disdain for a competitor, influencing a fan’s decision to attack or harass them later on? What of Locksley’s apparent willingness to involve the children of his enemies by infiltrating their private schools? These are dangerous thoughts with even more dangerous consequences, as generations cycle through and leave the world reshaped for increasingly tech-oriented youth. Yet it’s these questions that elevate Volume to something far greater than many previous works that have sought to retell this myth. With great subscriber count comes great responsibility, I suppose.
We’ll have to wait to find out, it seems, as Volume appears content to end on a tease, almost wagging a finger like a cartoon villain vowing to get you next time. Despite this, Volume is a brilliant adventure that dares to reach further than most might with such established tropes to play off of. Much like the numerous reinterpretations of Robin Hood, maybe we’ll see Locksley, Alan, and Gisborne’s world continue to evolve into even more refined adventures. For now, it’s just “see you in the next video.”
Joseph Knoop is a freelance games journalist and part-time comic book geek. His favorite games include cute animals, so Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater probably counts. Talk progressive metal and jazzhop with him on Twitter @JosephKnoop.
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