Originally, Mike Bithell's Volume was a very different game. An early development screenshot shows a background that looks almost like a three-dimensional version of his previous title, Thomas Was Alone, with a Chell-like female protagonist standing front and center. Initially, this unnamed young lady was to play a starring role, making for what would have been a very different game.
"When I sat down to come up with the story, and who its characters would be, I had to decide on the gender of the protagonist," Bithell explained to Polygon. "I was honestly leaning more towards a female character, just from the selfish perspective that my last game was focused on a male character, and I really dug writing for Claire, who was popular with fans of Thomas Was Alone."
"The game did have a female avatar for the first few months," he continued, "mainly because I had the mesh lying around from a previous prototype. This was before I'd settled on my story; I was just throwing ideas of gameplay together and seeing what happened. At that point, I'd honestly still have been using a cube for the player character if I hadn't needed to account for eyeliner and such."
Eventually, as Bithell moved along with the development process and narrowed down just what sort of narrative he was looking to explore, he eventually realized that a female player character simply wouldn't work. According to Bithell, he felt that, though it might be interesting to see more games starring women, there are still stories with male protagonists worth exploring, "despite the boringness of the standard chiseled beefcake with the big guns." Robin Hood was one such character, in Bithell's mind.
"To play with the story, to look at and challenge that particular form of rich masuline heroism, I felt I had to have a male hero," he continued.
"As I zeroed in on Robin Hood, and specifically to adapting it, I increasingly realized my main character had to be male. Locksley, ever since Henry VIII became his biggest fan, has been a rich hero saving the poor. This is a story about a man of privilege helping the little guy, and we've been retelling it over and over, right up to movies like Avatar. Why? Why is that story interesting? Is it okay to keep parroting it?"
Whether or not it is, Bithell feels that, with a science fiction adaptation of Locksley's tale, he might reveal new avenues through which we can approach masculine identities in video games; avenues beyond the stoic and musclebound space marine. To me, it sounds like he might be taking a similar route to Thief's Garret.
"My hope is that [Locksley] is a different kind of male protagonist," Bithell explained. "Smarter, non-violent, and a bit arrogant."
As something of an easter egg, Bithell has included the ability to play as a female character after completing the original narrative. This option - accessed in Volume's endgame, which is focused on the creation of user-generated content - will allow players to remake levels using in-game editing tools and eventually share their own stories with the online community.
Although Volume doesn't star a female protagonist, Bithell thinks it's a telling indication of how far we've come that people even noticed to begin with - it means gamers are beginning to question the gender disparity in the titles they play.
"I hope that when people play Volume, they'll realize why I chose to tell this story with a male protagonist," he said. "l. "For me, that's the interesting shift in the thinking recently. Male heroes should no longer be the default, it's a choice, a choice that should be deployed when it works for the story being told."
Ultimately, Bithell is hoping to present a new sort of hero with Robert Locksley - a hero who, to truly challenge the conventions of the genre, must be male. Personally, I find that exciting - after all, as Bithell noted, "people are getting tired of playing the same grizzled man carrying a variety of big guns."