Vir­ginia

An in­ves­ti­ga­tion in small-town Amer­ica with Lynchian over­tones

EDGE - - GAMES -

PC

You sense that Jonathan Bur­roughs, a devel­op­ment vet­eran with a ca­reer that has taken him all over the in­dus­try, with time served at Elec­tronic Arts, Kuju, Rare and Re­lent­less, is rather en­joy­ing the flex­i­bil­ity of be­ing an in­die de­vel­oper. As, in­deed, is the sim­i­larly well-trav­elled other half of Vari­able State, artist Terry Kenny. The pair met at ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence com­pany Deep­Mind Tech­nolo­gies, and bonded over a shared fond­ness for 1990s TV shows such as Twin Peaks and The X Files. Late last year, Bur­roughs and Kenny be­gan to dis­cuss the idea of de­vel­op­ing a game in their spare time, be­fore Google ac­quired Deep­Mind and they sud­denly found them­selves with a lot more time on their hands than an­tic­i­pated. By Fe­bru­ary, they had formed Vari­able State, and by March had a con­crete idea of the game they’d like to make. The re­sult is Vir­ginia.

You play as a grad­u­ate FBI agent in the Clarice Star­ling mould, deal­ing with your first as­sign­ment, the dis­ap­pear­ance of a lo­cal boy. “It’s all set in the state of Vir­ginia in the early ’90s,” Bur­roughs ex­plains. “There’s the tie to the FBI academy at Quan­tico, and we’ve ex­panded from that into the his­tory of Vir­ginia as much as we can. It might just be the tex­ture of the place we man­age to cap­ture, but in our re­search there seemed to be so much about Vir­ginia, the place, that was fas­ci­nat­ing for his­tor­i­cal rea­sons, or per­haps could even be in­ter­preted as having some satir­i­cal in­sights into the world as it is now. At the very least, it’s a rich source for in­spi­ra­tion when writ­ing a story.”

The in­ves­ti­ga­tion, it turns out, is just the start­ing point for a nar­ra­tive that prom­ises to ex­pand into stranger and broader ter­ri­tory as the game pro­gresses. The tale re­volves around

an iden­ti­fi­ably hu­man axis, how­ever, by fo­cus­ing on the cen­tral re­la­tion­ship between the player char­ac­ter and their ini­tially an­tag­o­nis­tic older part­ner. “There’s an­other an­gle where your part­ner per­haps can’t be en­tirely trusted,” says Bur­roughs. “Our hope is that we can tell a story whereby at the end of the game you’ve forged an un­der­stand­ing between the two of you, and maybe even a friend­ship has emerged out of that. The sim­ple core of the story is the for­ma­tion of this friend­ship, and [we want] that to re­ally mean some­thing.”

That story, how­ever, will be told with very lit­tle text and no voice act­ing what­so­ever. It’s par­tic­u­larly unusual given the genre: we can’t think of many videogame de­tec­tive sto­ries told with­out in­ter­views, in­ter­ro­ga­tions or walls of text. It is, Bur­roughs ex­plains, partly a prac­ti­cal con­cern. If Vir­ginia were to have voiceovers, then they’d need to be of high enough qual­ity to carry the story, and the cost and time in­volved makes it pro­hib­i­tive for a small stu­dio like Vari­able State.

In­stead, Vir­ginia will rely more on its mu­sic and sound de­sign to tell the tale and gen­er­ate at­mos­phere, which will, Bur­roughs hopes, carry an air of Lynchian oth­er­ness. In­deed, com­poser Lyn­don Hol­land was se­lected from over 50 ap­pli­cants for the job, a horde gen­er­ated by the list­ings Bur­roughs posted on a num­ber of game devel­op­ment web­sites, and his themes are set to draw upon ’90s cinema for in­spi­ra­tion. “Movies like Thelma & Louise, The Fugi­tive and Bit­ter Moon all have dis­tinc­tive synth sounds mixed with live in­stru­ments,” Hol­land says, “which is quite dif­fer­ent to clas­sic ’80s scores from Van­ge­lis, for ex­am­ple, which tend to­wards pure synth. Hope­fully, it doesn’t come across as gim­micky – I think it re­ally ties in with the art style we’re go­ing for.”

Kenny, mean­while, hap­pily ac­knowl­edges the in­flu­ence of The X Files on the game’s aes­thetic. “Cer­tainly the first and sec­ond sea­sons were clearly not made on the kind of enor­mous bud­get you see TV shows be­ing made on now,” he says, “and there’s an ef­fi­ciency in the art de­sign so that they’re still quite spooky. As a kid, I re­mem­ber it stood out from ev­ery­thing else that was on TV at the time.” Con­sid­er­ing Vari­able State’s sim­i­larly limited means, it seems like a par­tic­u­larly good point of ref­er­ence for

Vir­ginia’s art style.

“There’s an­other an­gle where your part­ner per­haps can’t be en­tirely trusted”

“In all hon­esty, for my part any­way, it’s mostly down to nos­tal­gia,” Kenny adds. “It was a time when I was re­ally get­ting into videogames as well as into those TV shows, so I have fond mem­o­ries of those things.” As such, the style of the game, and even the style of the char­ac­ters, will be an af­fec­tion­ate nod to the pe­riod.

While cer­tain el­e­ments of the story will be open to in­ter­pre­ta­tion, how­ever, the tale will be told in un­apolo­get­i­cally lin­ear fash­ion. So far, the open­ing 20 min­utes are playable, and while Bur­roughs has a strong idea of the cen­tral story arc, the rest of devel­op­ment will pro­ceed on a scene-by-scene ba­sis. “It’s all about the pac­ing of the drama,” Bur­roughs says. “Is this mo­ment con­vey­ing the right kind of emo­tion that we want to con­vey? Is it too long? Is it too short? Is it fit­ting with the mu­sic?” He likens the process to edit­ing a film. “It’s great to be ap­proach­ing it from that mindset. To not nec­es­sar­ily be think­ing about me­chan­ics, and in­stead just fo­cus­ing on the player having a thrilling ride.”

Kenny is also us­ing The X Files as a ref­er­ence point for the game’s light­ing. “It was re­ally dark. Ob­vi­ously it’s at­mo­spheric, but it [also] means you don’t have to dress an enor­mous set, and that’s def­i­nitely ap­peal­ing!”

Jonathan Bur­roughs (top) has a var­ied CV, having worked as a de­signer on the likes of HouseOfThe Dead:Overkill and Kinect Sports. Terry Kenny, mean­while, worked as an an­i­ma­tor at Rock­star North for four years

Vari­able State is keen to avoid gen­er­alised me­chan­ics such as those found in LA

Noire. You’ll be able to in­ter­act with char­ac­ters and items of in­ter­est, but there will be no laun­dry lists of ob­jec­tives to com­plete

Bur­roughs thinks role­play­ing in re­lat­able sit­u­a­tions is one way in which games of­fer unique op­por­tu­ni­ties for nar­ra­tives. “See­ing through the eyes of a char­ac­ter adds a le­git­i­mately in­ter­est­ing per­spec­tive on sto­ry­telling, even if you’re telling a lin­ear, start-to-fin­ish kind of story”

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