Post Script

In­ter­view: Jonathan Bur­roughs, Vari­able State co-founder; Lyn­don Hol­land, com­poser


Vir­ginia com­poser Lyn­don Hol­land re­sponded to an ad­vert posted by Vari­able State co-founder

Jonathan Bur­roughs on an in­die game fo­rum, seek­ing a mu­si­cian to work on a nar­ra­tive game in­flu­enced by Twin Peaks and The X-Files – Hol­land’s two favourite TV shows. We talk to the cre­ators about the game’s unortho­dox sto­ry­telling ap­proach, and the vi­tal role played by its sound­track. Vir­ginia’s cred­its ac­knowl­edge Bren­don Chung’s

Thirty Flights Of Lov­ing as a key in­flu­ence. How did that shape the di­rec­tion of the game?

Jonathan Bur­roughs We al­ways knew we were go­ing to do a story-led game and it had been Gone Home and

Ken­tucky Route Zero that [co-di­rec­tor] Terry [Kenny] and I had been talk­ing about. We came up with all sorts of ideas, but they were all way too am­bi­tious, so we had a bit of a panic and de­cided to just plough ahead and make some­thing. By pure chance we both had Thirty

Flights Of Lov­ing in our Steam li­braries, and we chose to play it on a whim. It sounds hy­per­bolic to say it was an [epiphanic] mo­ment, but that’s what it was like – ex­pe­ri­enc­ing this game that told a broad-rang­ing and emo­tion­ally im­pact­ful story in such a con­cen­trated form. We knew we wanted to do some­thing that built upon the cin­e­matic edit­ing tech­nique in par­tic­u­lar. Telling a story with no di­a­logue is a chal­lenge. Was it a purely cre­ative choice, or was it partly down to a lack of re­sources for voice act­ing? JB It was a prac­ti­cal de­ci­sion. We knew we’d only be able to do a few things well and wanted to stay small – part of the frus­tra­tion [we had] with stu­dio devel­op­ment was the cre­ative in­er­tia you get when ev­ery idea has to go through X num­ber of peo­ple. But it was a cre­ative de­ci­sion, too. We looked at the edit­ing and pac­ing of Thirty Flights and thought about hav­ing to stop and have con­ver­sa­tions with peo­ple and carry on again. We did worry it would slow down the ex­pe­ri­ence. Or at least we couldn’t think of how to solve that, and de­cided it would be best pur­sued in an­other game. Tell us about the process of de­vel­op­ing a story with a view to in­cor­po­rat­ing mu­sic to aid the nar­ra­tive. Lyn­don Hol­land We had a doc­u­ment that was ba­si­cally a script in an Ex­cel spread­sheet and this was split into scenes, so when there’d be a cut you’d have a new cell, and the whole game was scripted like that with de­scrip­tions of what was go­ing on. I used that as a way of struc­tur­ing where I thought mu­sic would need to be. I wanted the mu­sic to bridge scenes, and glue to­gether se­quences of scenes, and so I marked up this script. Some things changed dur­ing the pro­duc­tion and some things stayed, but that was the ini­tial process. When we got into the nitty-gritty of mak­ing all this in­ter­ac­tive mu­sic hook up, that was more of a col­lab­o­ra­tive process. Were you ever anx­ious about tak­ing too much con­trol away from the player? JB I was def­i­nitely wor­ried about the op­po­site – that the temp­ta­tion would ar­rive, ei­ther from our­selves or that the pub­lisher would ex­pect it, [to add] ex­tra things to do in scenes that were just dress­ing. I was con­scious of it be­com­ing a spot-the-ball com­pe­ti­tion where you go into a scene and there’s 20,000 things to click on, but only one of them has emo­tional sig­nif­i­cance and drives the story for­ward. It was the tem­plate of Thirty Flights that gave us con­fi­dence that you could have a very spe­cific story that was ex­tremely lin­ear, but be­cause of the va­ri­ety and the de­light in the ar­rival of a new scene, you wouldn’t nec­es­sar­ily be frus­trated. In fact the risk was that, by not al­ways guid­ing the player to­wards the spe­cific thing they should do, frus­tra­tion might be in­tro­duced. With­out go­ing into specifics, there’s a no­tice­able shift in the fi­nal stages. LH When we were writ­ing it, we wanted the end to have a dif­fer­ent en­ergy. The en­tire last day is al­most wall-towall mu­sic, which helps with the cli­mac­tic feel. A lot of times, not just in videogames but films as well, the end of a story peters out. We wanted to bounce against that mas­sively and have a big fi­nale. You can ex­trap­o­late var­i­ous mean­ings from what ac­tu­ally hap­pens in the end: it’s quite am­bigu­ous, but there’s some sort of res­o­lu­tion for the [pro­tag­o­nist]. JB For me, mu­sic is a good ex­am­ple of some­thing that does this, where a song per­haps has a lit­eral ba­sis but in lis­ten­ing to it it’s more the emo­tion that comes across, and you don’t nec­es­sar­ily dis­til a spe­cific mean­ing from it. Mu­sic can be in­cred­i­bly sub­jec­tive: ten dif­fer­ent peo­ple can en­joy the same pop record and they’ll all have taken some­thing dif­fer­ent away from it. Where there’s an op­por­tu­nity for sub­jec­tive per­sonal in­ter­pre­ta­tion, I think that’s where art is at its most ef­fec­tive. It’s not ar­bi­trary am­bi­gu­ity. In con­ver­sa­tions be­tween Lyn­don, Terry and my­self we’ve found we can pro­duce very dis­tinct in­ter­pre­ta­tions of as­pects of the story. That’s not be­cause any one of us is right or wrong; part of it is be­cause it’s been writ­ten by three peo­ple who’ve all con­trib­uted to it in a very per­sonal way. It’s a col­lec­tion of ideas that of­fer an op­por­tu­nity for you to ques­tion things and pro­duce your own mean­ing. If we’ve man­aged that, then we’ve done what we set out to achieve.

“You can ex­trap­o­late var­i­ous mean­ings from what ac­tu­ally hap­pens in the end: it’s quite am­bigu­ous”

Jonathan Bur­roughs

Lyn­don Hol­land

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