It’s been two years since Virginia first appeared on my radar. As a first-person detective mystery set in the early 90s, inspired by David Lynch, The X-Files, Kentucky Route Zero and Brendon Chung’s brilliant Thirty Flights of Loving, it ticked pretty much all of my boxes. Then developer Variable State went very quiet for a long time. Now, Virginia has finally resurfaced, with a release date that can be measured in weeks rather than months.
Keen to catch up with the game’s progress, I ask developer Jonathan Burroughs over Skype whether he and his studio made a conscious choice to stay silent, as a way of preserving the secrecy of a game where the story’s surprises are evidently key to its appeal. He laughs.
“I wish I could claim it was some grand plan,” he says. “It was, to a great extent, about our ineptitude at any kind of social media, any sort of marketing. We became so focused on making it, we neglected that side of things, and I think that was a mistake, we could've found ways to carry on talking about what we're doing. But particularly with a mystery game, talking about the game risks [spoiling] the delight of revealing that story. So I guess maybe by accident it was to our benefit, but it certainly wasn't planned. We perhaps should have done that a bit better. But we're here now.”
Back in 2014, Variable State was just three people: Burroughs, artist and co-founder Terry Kenny, and composer Lyndon Holland. Since then, with outside investment, the team has increased in size and the game’s scope expanded accordingly. Virginia now has a longer story, with more locations to visit and more characters to meet. But if that’s given this small team more to do, it’s also presented them with opportunities that wouldn’t have been feasible before. “Lydon was able to go to Prague to record a live score,” Burroughs explains. “Whereas he'd have done it all out of his bedroom had we not have received some investment. It’s lent this whole new quality to the soundtrack.” Fittingly, Holland recorded the score at the Smecky studio, where Angelo Badalamenti recorded the soundtrack for Lost Highway. “Lyndon showed us photos of David Lynch on the walls of this place,” Burroughs says, “which was quite a charming association to have.”
Virginia’s score is particularly vital, since it’s a story-led game with no dialogue. This helps explain why Holland has been so heavily involved from the start, which Burroughs admits is rare, but probably shouldn’t be. “Lyndon's worked in games before, but only on a contractual, short-term basis - he's gone in, done the soundtrack and left again. In fact, even in studio development, that's been my experience of the composer and audio designer's roles, they come in at the end. When I was at Rare, It was a bit different. Rare definitely cared about the audio side of things in a different way [to most]. But it seems mad that you would allow all the other disciplines to iterate and experiment and take this journey collectively, but not let the audio team do that.”
Like the rest of the team, Holland has been multi-tasking. As well as being responsible for the music, he’s the game’s sound designer, setting up his own foley studio at home to record a wide variety of audio effects. But he’s also involved in the level scripting, and, along with Kenny and Burroughs, is overseeing the development of Virginia’s story. Other contractors have been involved in the development process – at its peak, there were ten people working on the game simultaneously, though it’s since dropped down to six, with a 3D artist having recently completed his work, leaving Variable State with just five staff.
There are, Burroughs explains, a number of benefits to having such a small core team. “It allows us to almost have a film-like approach to editing,” he says. “In the morning, we'll review a scene as if we're reviewing dailies. Then Terry and Lyndon and I will meet and we'll talk about what's working and what's not working. By the evening, Lyndon's [made] adjustments to the soundtrack, he's done new audio, Terry's redone some of the animations or got one of our other animators to make some changes, I've changed the game scripting and we’ve got a whole new scene.”
That kind of turnaround, he says, simply wouldn't be possible with a larger team with more clearly defined roles and the inevitable bureaucracy involved. “The whole process would be so much slower, and there would be so many arguments to win before it got done. Because it's just the three of us and we're all so much more hands-on, stuff rattles through at a much quicker pace, and that means more changes can happen, and hopefully you get a better edited experience at the end of it.”
In fact, the editing process will be particularly crucial to Virginia’s success. The game is in the bug-fixing stage at present, yet scenes are still being trimmed and tweaked. This, he says, has been the main difference between this and the other games he’s worked on before. “It's normally kind of tools down for a lot of disciplines at this point, but we’re still making creative changes. That’s probably a bit risky, but it's definitely leading to a richer and more refined experience.”
Burroughs again refers back to Thirty Flights of Loving and its use of smash cuts and jump cuts as “an epiphanic moment” for him and Kenny after they founded Variable State. “Terry and I played it at the same time [and said] ‘Okay, this is doing something new, we have to try and incorporate it in some way’, and then we just embraced it wholeheartedly.” It’s one of a range of cinematic devices the studio has employed to make the game more pacey and exciting. “[With cuts] you can contract time and space, so you only spend as long in a scene as is pertinent to the story. Or if you're going on a journey over many miles, it doesn't have to be as you would expect in a normal game, where it’s just continuous, unbroken real-time.”
In short, it’s about cutting out the boring bits. “It means there's always something new, and you [look forward to] the surprise of what's around the corner: what are you going to be doing, and how is the story about to reveal itself to you in a new way?” he explains. “Even the most dramatic and high-octane of normal computer games can become a bit plodding at times – actually, that's a horrible way to describe it, but I think there are unnecessary moments in most games that you could contract without damaging the whole. That's what we've tried to do throughout our game, a lot of waste is just not there, and everything that’s left is in service of the story.”
It will be a very lean game, and Burroughs hopes that players will finish it in a single sitting, much as they’d binge a few episodes of a Netflix show, or watch a Blu-Ray; indeed, the game will feature a chapter select function which will allow players to easily revisit favourite scenes, or replay the game from the halfway point. With this in mind, and given Variable State’s appropriation of cinematic techniques to improve the game’s storytelling, Burroughs is acutely aware that he and his team will likely be accused of being frustrated filmmakers.
What, I ask, does Virginia gain from interactivity? “I've been wrestling with that justification in my head, because I can see that being an easy criticism of Virginia when it comes out: why aren't they working in the medium that suits them?” he says. “I can't imagine working in film. At all. And I don't think I've got a completely useful answer to this question, but I know in my bones that Virginia would only work seen through the eyes of its main character, where you reveal the game at your own pace, where you feel that barrier is broken down and that for the length of the game you are that person.”
The key difference, he elaborates, is that the player assumes the role of a performer rather than a voyeur. “A film is a removed-perspective experience - you're seeing [events] as a fly on the wall or from a different perspective, and it's a story coming at you, whereas in Virginia you're living the story. So it isn't like a role-playing game with all the verbs of one with a great many mechanics, but it does make a significant and meaningful qualitative difference that you're experiencing this story through the eyes of that character. I wouldn't want people to be under the illusions that it's like an LA Noire or anything like that, but I think drawing comparisons with the level of [involvement] of, say, Firewatch seems reasonable.”
Campo Santo’s game is a useful comparison in the sense that the protagonist has a tangible physical presence in the world, and the same is true of the rest of the cast, which is one key point of difference between Virginia and most of its peers. “With games like Firewatch and Gone Home, you’ve got these incredible stories about characters, but they’re either completely absent or represented in a way that doesn't require you to have full body animation for an entire cast. But we've embraced that wholeheartedly, because Terry's background is that he's a 3D animator by trade and he really wanted to do some animation. Though I think at the end of this project he may not want to do some animation for a while!”
Even as the game nears completion, Variable State is keen to keep the finer details of the story under wraps. All it’s prepared to reveal is that you’re cast in the role of Anne Tarver, a recently graduated FBI agent in the Clarice Starling mode, whose first case involves the disappearance of a young boy called Lucas Fairfax from a small town in Virginia. You're assigned a partner, special agent Maria Halperin, and you travel from the FBI Academy Quantico to this town and begin your investigation. One thing Burroughs is prepared to discuss, however, is the early Nineties setting. Was this, I ask, simply down to the X-Files and Twin Peaks influence, or was there more to it than that?
“As I recall, the decision was informed by Gone Home to some extent,” Burroughs explains. “Both Terry and I had remarked on how interesting it felt playing that game and inhabiting a place which was evocative of the era of our childhoods. I think we wanted to capture that same feeling, even if it’d be in a more general and less personal or homely way. As you say, it also tallies with some of our influences, particularly The X-Files and films like Silence of the Lambs and The Fugitive.”
It has proved handy from a storytelling standpoint, too. “It’s very convenient to have constraints like no mobile phones and no internet,” Burroughs continues. “And not just because of the absence of dialogue, but because it’s perhaps more interesting dramatically to force characters to have to meet up face to face, and to reach dead ends because of a lack of information, rather than just sit in front of computer screens. Although we do have a scene where the player uses a computer, so perhaps that’s not completely true. It’s a very of-the-era computer with satisfying clicky keys. Perhaps clicky computer keys singularly justify the period setting!”
As a short-form detective story with clicky computer keys and a period setting that has seemingly come out of nowhere, it’s hard not to draw comparisons with a certain award-winning indie from last year. Could Virginia be 2016’s Her Story? We won’t have long to wait to find out. “It’s that last push to the finish line, the mad final stages,” Burroughs says. “But it’s very exciting to have it finally crystallised as a near-finished thing. It’s almost a little bit anticlimactic, because this stage has so stressful, but it’s kind of amazing as well. Virginia is a real thing now and it's so much more than we thought it would be. We're all very proud of it.”
Virginia will be released on PC in the coming months.