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Strange and mundane come together in Variable State's Virginia

Variable State tells us about Virginia, its in-development narrative game inspired by 1990s TV like Twin Peaks -- character studies, magical realism and what hides beneath the suburban mundane.

Leigh Alexander, Contributor

July 25, 2014

8 Min Read

In 1990, David Lynch's dark serial Twin Peaks upended the traditions of both small-town soaps and murder mysteries with slow violence. It presented a series of loosely-connected character arcs that seemed to spiral and interconnect of their own accord, united by a distinct visual vocabulary and a universal circumstance the facts of which always seemed just out of reach. It has a certain kinship with video games: Even though it predated the internet, it felt participatory in its time, uniting television viewers to unite around the central mystery. It was highly surreal and abstract, demanding an unusual degree of complicity and attention from viewers as it pushed uncomfortably at the boundaries of previously-understood structures, often suggesting that allegorical or fantastical spaces exist alongside reality. SWERY's Deadly Premonition borrows some of the series' flavor of surrealism, its mad juxtapositions. But while Twin Peaks' murder mystery plot and its allusions to things just outside the fabric of human knowing have influenced countless games, films and comics, those elements were primarily devices to tell stories about small-town people, and how the grotesque can lurk just beneath the mundane layers of American suburbia.

Welcome to Virginia

Virginia is a storytelling and character-study game for PC, developed by Variable State, a team of UK industry veterans seizing the opportunity to do unconventional work independently. Virginia is an "interactive drama" set in the state of Virginia in the early 1990s -- a boy goes missing in that rural heartland, and the player sees the story through the eyes of a fledgling FBI agent, according to the company's press kit. Jonathan Burroughs, who in his 10-year career worked with Rare, Relentless Software and, most recently, DeepMind, says Twin Peaks -- and other 90s-style TV dramas like X-Files and Outer Limits -- is at least a good starting reference to understand what Virginia aims to do. "It is fair to say the show inspired the direction we’ve taken with the story writing," Burroughs tells Gamasutra. "But I hope over time we can start to describe our game’s unique qualities and do more to distinguish it in its own right." "We’re particularly drawn to its blend of strangeness and mundanity, and the ambiguity in Lynch’s storytelling," he says. "That an amount is left abstracted or not literally explained, which invites interpretation from the audience. I find that very appealing. I think the most interesting art, the films I love, the records which stick with me, are the ones which linger in the mind for you to process and analyze and make your own."

Thus far, all that's been revealed about Virginia is this essential mandate -- and a series of modern, stark character portraits. Its logo, a plummeting bird bearing the title on its wing. Somehow that vocabulary is enough to invite curiosity already, to communicate something strongly about what the game wants to achieve. Variable State also includes Terry Kenny as artist and animator, and Lyndon Holland as composer and sound designer, and the veterans work together remotely, a brand-new experience for them all. "I guess it took the independent game scene maturing to where it is now before I had the confidence to flee traditional development," says Burroughs. "Particularly the emergence of short, personal, mechanics-light games like [The Chinese Room's] Dear Esther and [Blendo Games'] Thirty Flights of Loving." "That those games became accepted and celebrated gave me the confidence that I could pursue modest, story-focused game designs of practically-achievable scope," he continues. "And that there’d be an audience for them and the possibility to maybe earn enough to pay my way from game to game. I had lost my job at DeepMind too, which presented the choice between continuing a career working for other people or making something for myself. So I chose the latter." "I’ve made that all sound grimly practical," he adds. "Fundamentally, for a long time now, I’ve wanted to work on games which couldn’t be made in design-by-precedent, risk-averse big studios. And I wanted to work in a creative partnership with a small group of people I respect and who share common goals and interests. And I’m lucky enough to find myself in that situation with Variable State."

Narrative drive

Fellow veteran Terry Kenny says there's finally enough of an audience and developer movement behind nontraditional and narrative-driven games that it seems like a viable direction in which to grow, and in which to finally flex unconventional ideas. "Jonathan and I spent a long time throwing around ideas for the first game we wanted to make and even started on something else before we threw that out and began on Virginia," Kenny explains. "I think that first game started to feel a bit too much like the sort of game we might have made at previous studios, so when we decided to scrap it and start again, we were conscious of avoiding that."

"I hope 'interactive drama' doesn't read as pretentious."

Like anyone else working in this strange and fertile space, Burroughs is a little self-conscious about classification: "I hope 'interactive drama' doesn't read as pretentious," he reflects. "I think we could have just as legitimately chosen 'environmental story game or 'empathy game' or 'walking simulator'. I’d suggest we’ll be treading similar ground to other first person adventure games like Gone Home and Dear Esther." Virginia will have a linear narrative that eschews puzzles or mechanical mastery and instead focuses on an engrossing, participatory story: "We’re really interested in making the most of the player embodying a character and experiencing a story through another person’s eyes," says Burroughs. "And I hope that for some people there will be interest in being put in situations removed from their day to day experience. And for others there will be moments which are completely relatable. And just ordinary and mundane."

"Real world, sympathetic characters"

Virginia's story will unveil itself through interactions with characters, following Thirty Flights' example of "using cinematic devices like editing and mixing up the chronology of events for dramatic purposes," he adds. "Our use of sound will be key to this too. And to do this in real time, during play, not in cutscenes. We don’t want the player to feel like they’re witnessing a cinematic play out around them. They should always feel like they are the character they are embodying, existing in the moment they’re experiencing." Embodiment is a key trait for games, Burroughs believes. "Games like Papers, Please are realising this kind of roleplaying on a deep, mechanical level. But even when it’s only achieved on a narrative or aesthetic level, such as roleplaying as a young woman home from college in Gone Home, I think it provides an experience entirely different from watching a film or reading a point-of-view character in literature. And an experience which is legitimately interesting and worthwhile from a storytelling perspective. It’s that kind of approach we’ll be pursuing in Virginia."

"I'm a scientist and an atheist in my real world outlook. But I love storytelling where reality isn’t straightforward or literal."

The game's magical realist world will be populated with "real world, sympathetic characters and colorful eccentrics," he explains. "We also want to create a world with a spiritual and a moral character. I would say I’m a scientist and an atheist in my real world outlook. But I love storytelling where reality isn’t straightforward or literal. I recently read Shadow of the Wind and adored it. And I love the writing of David Mitchell, Jorge Luis Borges and John Fowles. And I enjoyed the magical quality of Twin Peaks." Terry Kenny says he likes a simple, uncluttered style, and remains inspired by the low-poly games of his childhood. The scope constraints of a small team will naturally create that clean approach to aesthetics, too: "We are a small team and we want to create quickly," Kenny says. "Keeping the scenery simple makes it quicker to build and keeping the characters simple means that the animation requires less complexity." As for the music, says Holland: "The aim is to enable the music to flow seamlessly with the narrative like it might in a film. Cues will bridge scenes allowing for longer evolving sequences, significant moments of drama will be highlighted with musical gestures, and transitions will be drawn to evoke a specific emotion based upon the nature of the scene preceding or proceeding it," he explains. "This cinematic approach is not exactly new territory and appears in a lot of video game cutscenes, but we’re trying to achieve this same level of detail whilst keeping the player in-game," he adds. "So on the surface, the music will score the present drama and help guide you through the story. But on a subtextual and perhaps stylistic level, we want the music to belong to our characters, pose questions and raise curiosity about the magic and mythology of the world we're building." The team has a refreshing candor about its objectives and influences, which perhaps signals a less-apologetic approach to dogged traditionalists' issues about "what a game is" or whether social issues "belong" in them. Says Burroughs: "In our fictional Virginia, daydreamers, artists and blue-collar workers are uniquely in touch with the spiritual aspect of the world." "Roadhouse singers, gas station workers and diner waitresses are our shamen and spirit guides. They embody the virtuous world of industry, collectivism and ingenuity, at odds with the negative world of exploitative patriarchy, conservatism and naked capitalism. I’m a great big left wing social liberal and I anticipate this will inevitably be reflected in the storytelling."

About the Author(s)

Leigh Alexander


Leigh Alexander is Editor At Large for Gamasutra and the site's former News Director. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Variety, Slate, Paste, Kill Screen, GamePro and numerous other publications. She also blogs regularly about gaming and internet culture at her Sexy Videogameland site. [NOTE: Edited 10/02/2014, this feature-linked bio was outdated.]

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