What do you get if you throw Twin Peaks, Thirty Flights of Loving, and The X-Files into a giant game dev oven? If you’re UK-based indie Variable State, the answer is Virginia.
An unashamed homage to quirky '90s TV shows, Virginia has been making waves since it was announced last year, with many suggesting it’s the game famously eccentric auteur David Lynch might make.
Such suggestions are due to Virginia's uniquely cinematic presentation, which relays the tale of a fledgling FBI agent's search for a missing boy in the unassuming state of Virginia.
Much like the shows that inspired it, Virginia is presented as a series of offbeat, atmospheric, meticulously composed scenes. It's a narrative style that gives Variable the ability to tell a cohesive, compelling story without having to worry about the filler in between.
More importantly, says Virginia's creative director Jonathan Burroughs, its an approach that allows for moments of intense "dramatic meaning."
Get in the frame
"Once we’d played Thirty Flights of Loving we knew we wanted to build a game around the idea of cinematic editing," says Burroughs. "I think the most challenging thing it presents from the off is that it imposes a demand on the amount of material you'll have in the game."
"Because you'll be going from scene to scene very quickly, you wont spend a long time in any single environment. I guess you notionally could, if you were doing something based around cutting in time, rather than cutting in space, but we wanted to do both."
The technical challenge with that approach is ensuring scenes can load sequentially and without interruption. To keep the narrative flowing, Variable needed the transitions from environment to environment, from scene to scene, to be seamless, so with that in mind they set about implementing asynchronous loading techniques.
"It means the next scene is already there prepared, ready for the cut," says Burroughs, filling me in on how asynchronous loading works. "The cuts themselves are seamless and occur on a frame, so you don't notice any environments being dropped out or brought in."
"When we get to scenes where you're going from environment to environment, ensuring they're all loaded up in advance proved to be a bit challenged. We figured out strategies for making that work."
Don't lose yourself
As the game dips and weaves around players, shunting them from scene to scene, it's not hard to imagine them becoming unsettled as Virginia's mysterious world melts and reforms seemingly at will.
Keeping players on-task became paramount, says Burroughs, "because they're suddenly in a new place, and that they have enough time to understand where they are and what's going on."
"There's a little character performance that allows them to acclimatize, and the music is very descriptive emotionally, and it gets across what the vibe of the scene is."
There's no magic formula for making a scene "work", though. Finding the right emotional balance, striking the right chord with players, and stitching disjointed moments together on a thematic level eventually became a process of trial and error.
"We'll play through and experiment with stuff, because it's not just a scene in isolation. We have to account for how a scene works with those on either side of it," says Burroughs. He explains how the team would debate creative decisions before moving on to another scene. The group had to agree on the best course of action, and if something wasn’t working, iteration was the answer.
Fortunately, Variable's higher-ups aren't just project managers, they’re a group of developers, artists, composers, and designers, eager to implement ideas and work at ground level. Something that quickly became a "huge benefit."
"In the morning we'll get together and throw around some ideas, then we can go in and Terry (co-director) can iterate on the animation, Lyndon (composer) can do a new sound effect pass, I can go in and change the scripting, and by the afternoon the game has changed in some meaningful way,” Burroughs adds.
"If we were a larger team and there was more bureaucracy involved those changes would be harder won, and would take so much longer to implement."
Lights, camera, action
During our chat, I ask whether the team's willingness to toy with lighting, camera angles, and sound at this late stage makes them feel like a bunch of filmmakers, rather than game devs.
He says it only felt like that "towards the end," and that at the very beginning they took a relatively traditional approach: white boxing levels, building out scenes, and charting obvious paths through them.
When the end finally did arrive, however, the process altered dramatically. Variable pushed on into uncharted territory, and the new frontier looked to be a land of creative freedom.
"I've never worked on a film project, so I don't want to generalize, but it does feel like we're editing a film. We're making certain creative decisions at this stage of a project, that I would never have done on another project. Usually by now you're completely locked down, from alpha onwards at least," continues Burroughs.
"But where we are, we're making changes where we're changing the order of scenes, contracting and expanding scenes, and adding more subtleties to the performances. I guess that it is like editing in the traditional veneer of a film editor."