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”