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Hands-On With Mike Bithell's Volume

Way beyond rectangles

“It will probably be the only time in my life when I have no responsibilities, didn’t owe anyone any money, didn’t have staff that I had to worry about. Absolute freedom to do what I want. I wasn’t going to use that to make a sequel to a reasonably well-received puzzle-platformer.”

I’ve asked Volume lead Mike Bithell if he’s been worried about over-reaching himself. 2012’s Thomas Was Alone was one of several break-out indie hits around that time – a era of Steam that many of today’s PC developers are increasingly worried they’ve missed the boat on – but it was a simple game.

It was, as the man says, a reasonably well-received puzzle-platformer, and it blew up because it was charming and funny, effectively anthropomorphising the textureless, two-dimensional rectangles it starred thanks to well-judged narration and very human writing. Volume, by contrast, is a full-on, 3D stealth game which will ship with around 100 levels, features an array of tricsky sci-fi items, has a full level editor and has hired Andy Serkis to voice its lead villain. Conceptually, it’s a huge leap.

“Obviously I’ve pushed myself outside of my comfort zone,” states Bithell, “so it is a bigger game and maybe it’ll fail miserably, but we’ll see. For me it was worth trying, because everyone was “make Thomas Was Alone 2, make Thomas Was Alone 2” and that just strikes me as such a boring second project.”

More Thomas isn’t off the cards (“I genuinely do have an idea for a sequel now, but I didn’t have that idea two years ago”), but had he gone for a sequel straight away, “it would have literally been the continuing adventures of these rectangles”. He knows it would have sold, and he knows that he would be richer for it, “but fuck that. It’s not why I’m doing this.”

He’s making Volume because he loves stealth and because he loves early Metal Gear Solid. He wants to make something accessible and thrilling rather than technical and punitive, however. Save points are scattered across each level and reload near-instantly, so getting caught by a guard rarely means losing more than a few seconds of progress. You don’t get docked points for getting spotted or reloading too many times either – the aim is to enjoy figuring out your own way to solve the puzzle, not to meet painstaking requirements.

“I want you to feel like you’re the cool kid in the room, the clever kid, the informed kid who knows what you’re doing,” Bithell explains. “I want tension and fear, but also it’s about making you feel clever, and the quickest way to do that is communication. You look at the screen and you’re like “right, there’s a locker up there, he’s going there, I can see this..”

To this end, Volume has a minimalist look, lots of semi-translucent blocks and abstract, polygonal characters. There’s an in-fiction reason for this – you’re effectively inside a VR simulator as part of an elaborate plan to rob from the rich – but really it’s there to serve making a comprehensible, non-distracting place which you can plan a route around. “The less texture, the less detail, the more you pull that back, the more you get to the reality of the space.”

I last played Volume at EGX last year, and to be quite frank I bounced off a little. It seemed fiddly, it looked a little too assembled from prefab parts and it felt like some much-needed fluidity was missing. It’s worth stating that I was playing it on a busy show floor with people queuing behind me for their turn with it, and this meant I couldn’t entirely relax into its pace. It’s not a frantic game, and like Thomas Was Alone it boasts laconic British voice-overs. It’s not chill out as such, but Borderlands 2 it certainly ain’t.

It might well have been the wrong place to play it, but even so I’m relieved to find that Volume’s latest version has come along enormously – something Bithell acknowledges too. If last Summer it felt like a work-in-progress, now it feels like a game close to completion. There are clear visual rules, the crispness and sheer surfaces look appropriately stylised, and character movement is in that agile sweep spot between creeping and dashing.

I found the controls cumbersome last time too, but more intuitive now. I’m using a gamepad rather than keyboard and mouse now, which may help a little, although Bithell’s determined that “it has to feel good on keyboard and mouse because I’m not going to assume people have a gamepad” For all the crispness of the presentation, it’s very much an analogue game to control – a character to steer rather than point, tracing an organic route around patrolling guards, and setting up elaborate ricochet routes for noisemaker gadgets with a nudge of the thumbstick.

I’m not yet entirely certain what the heart of Volume is – the essential stealth? The pith’n’gag-strewn dialogue? The gadgets? – but certainly the latter are what YouTube videos will be made of. “I want to encourage people to use items rather than stockpile them for a boss fight that never comes,” says Bithell. A gadget picked up on one level can be used limitless times (thought does have a cooldown), but won’t carry over to the next map, plus you can only have one gadget equipped at once, so make the best of it.

There’s the aforementioned noisemaker, the Bugle, which you can set off at any point along its ricocheting path in order to make a guard walk over an investigate. This means you can direct them to fairly specific places in fairly specific angles, even to the point that you might deliberately lure them into the same room as you, pass within a hair’s breadth of your hiding place but then turn to the far corner so you can escape out into the corridor they were otherwise guarding.

Then there’s there tripwires, which create a line between any high wall and any other high wall, and with the right timing can stun a guard for long enough that you can dash into (and maybe out of) a hitherto inaccessible area. Where conventional stealth wisdom tells us that such an item should strictly be used to catch someone out on their patrol route, Volume positively encourages letting guards spot you, give chase and then have them plough straight into your trap. Alternatively, you could use the dash-gadget to sprint right past guards, reaching a savepoint with milliseconds to spare. They might catch you moments later, but when the game reloads they're back in their original position, unaware, and you're safely at that savepoint. This is a valid way to play: these systems exist to be exploited. (Also it beats having replay the entire level from the start whenever you fail; they might be fairly short, but you do need to swipe every jewel in them to unlock the level exit, which wouldn't be much fun to repeat over and over).

As much strategy comes from being seen as it does from working out how not to be seen, and I suspect it’s also where Volume’s going to be the most entertaining. My favourite moments in, say, Hitman games are not those where I’ve aced a level, but those where I got myself into hot water, ended up in this mad chase and somehow got myself out of it through a mixture of strategy and wild luck.

Those felt like accomplishments, and it’s that sort of free form, ad-hoc, messy level solution that Volume seems to be offering as much as it is perfect runs. It’s hard not to see a little of Gunpoint, another member of that wildly successful class of 2012-2013, in here – clear mechanics, but relax the rules. Let the people play how they want to play.

How this works out across 100 levels – only some of which comprise the core campaign, with the rest providing a starter pack for what’s planned to be a legion of community-made maps – remains to be seen. What’s fluid and adaptable in one or two maps might become routine across a dozen, what’s an opportunity to look like the cool kid in the room in an early map might be a frustrating exercise in unforgiving precision in a later one. But in what I played, the ethos seemed right: stealth for everyone, stealth that will never descend into killing, stealth that leads to funny or thrilling vignettes which feel entirely personal.

In this, most of all, Volume is an enormous step up from an entirely linear platformer about coloured rectangles. “We’ll see if I’ve bitten off more than I can chew”, says Bithell. “It feels to me that it’s working, that people are enjoying it. I haven’t got illusions that it’s the future of videogames, but I think it’s a good game. I think for people like me who like the old school stealth, it’s taking that and then extending on it. I’m happy with it.” I hope we will be too.

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Thomas Was Alone

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Alec Meer


Ancient co-founder of RPS. Long gone. Now mostly writes for rather than about video games.