It’s worrying that tales of Robin Hood and his Merry Men remain so popular. Ballads have been sung about the wealth-redistributing bandit since the 15th century, but the same problems Robin grappled with in his day—income inequality, abuse of power—are still hot-button issues half a millennium later. Perhaps that’s why modern retellings of these tales often struggle to say anything new with the character. The rich are still bastards, and the poor are still miserable, so with every passing century, a hero like Robin becomes both more necessary and more difficult to believe in.
Volume, by Thomas Was Alone developer Mike Bithell, is a Robin Hood story for the 21st century. Its Robin isn’t a rakish highwayman with a bow and arrow but a cheeky hacker with a computer and a few cameras. He practices his craft in virtual reality instead of Sherwood Forest and targets a politically savvy corporate fat cat rather than The Sheriff Of Nottingham. This cyberpunk update to classic folklore is more than just a fresh coat of paint, though. Volume makes full use of its updated setting and, in doing so, tells one of the freshest Robin Hood tales in decades—maybe even centuries.
Volume depicts a 2050s England in ruins. War has shaken the country, the monarchy has abdicated, and an ambitious tech CEO has quietly taken control of the government. Fed up with these injustices, hacktivist Rob Locksley sets up a virtual-reality training system and streams simulations of high-stakes robberies for his oppressed audience. These simulated burglaries make up the game’s 100 miniature sneaking challenges. Each one is designed to fit inside Locksley’s warehouse hideout, so the maps are all small, dense stealth gauntlets. Completing the levels—even when aiming to come in under the game’s par times—is usually not that taxing. The real challenge comes from competing for the fastest times among players, a pursuit implicitly encouraged by the leaderboard displayed before every level.
Where Classic Robin was content to simply move coins from full purses to empty ones, Locksley takes more of a “teach a man to fish” approach. He broadcasts his virtual break-ins hoping to inspire copycats to commit the crimes for real. He is a Robin Hood for the Information Age, so he trades in knowledge, not just stuff. His targets gradually increase in value, from baubles and trinkets to art and artifacts, and finally to sensitive data and documents. The disparity between rich and poor has only grown since Robin’s medieval heyday, so Locksley must enable people to reclaim not just their wealth, but their culture and history too. His motivations are similar—to steal from the rich and give to the poor—but Locksley addresses 21st-century problems with 21st-century solutions.
Another of Volume’s smart approaches to modernizing Robin Hood’s 500-year-old myth is to make the power of games one of its running themes. Locksley’s virtual robberies are deliberately video game-like, featuring abstracted collectible gewgaws, predictable guards, and low-fidelity graphics. His broadcasts evoke streaming services like Twitch, where audience members can establish a rapport with the performer. This is where Volume’s Merry Men are found, reimagined as e-celebs who propagate Locksley’s message using music, podcast rants, and cosplay. It’s a future where social media-driven activism and art operate in a virtuous cycle potent enough to ignite full-blown revolution—a power-to-the-people vision the original Robin would have found most agreeable.
Volume also looks fondly on the democratization of game development. Locksley himself is both programmer and player, an independent developer who turns a villainous tech CEO’s own technology against him. It frames the rise of independent and amateur developers as a revolution of its own, as if the tools and skills needed to create games have been liberated from the monolithic corporations that were hoarding them. In that spirit, Volume comes with a robust level editor and the infrastructure for sharing custom maps, bringing that power down from the mountain and giving it directly to players. In this way Locksley—or perhaps Bithell himself—is more like Prometheus than Robin Hood.
In 1973, Monty Python’s Flying Circus deflated the Robin Hood myth with Dennis Moore, the moronic thief who bankrupts the rich and spoils the poor before reaching the conclusion that “redistribution of wealth is trickier than I thought.” It’s an obvious joke, but it was still more complex than most contemporary depictions, which are content to retell these stories essentially unchanged after centuries. With Volume, though, Mike Bithell injects modern relevance into a character most famous for shooting pointy sticks great distances. Locksley is styled as a role model for his downtrodden onlookers, but he’s also an inspiration for players. Everything needed to follow his example—level-creating technology, broadcast capabilities, a silly mask—are either provided by the game or readily available online. Don’t wait for somebody to rob the rich on your behalf, says Volume, go out and do it yourself. The revolution will be livestreamed.