An investigation in small-town America with Lynchian overtones
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”