Road to the IGF: Variable State's Virginia

Variable State's game was nominated for several Independent Games Festival awards, including Best Audio, Excellence in Narrative, Excellence in Visual Art and The Nuovo Award for innovation. 

This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series. You can find the rest by clicking here.

Low-poly, lynchian mystery Virginia is a single player, first-person thriller set in a small town harboring a dark secret. It's a moody, cinematic tale that plays like the love-child of iconic '90s televisions shows like Twin Peaks and The X-Files, blending the strikingly mundane with the downright strange to create a dreamlike journey that drips with surrealist, atmospheric charm.

The case is simple: go to Kingdom, Virginia, and uncover the truth behind the vanishing of a young boy. And what's striking about Virginia is how that story is told, with Variable dropping traditional narrative techniques like voice acting in favor of more cinematic methods. 

It was an approach that netted the game several nominations at this year's Independent Games Festival awards, including Best Audio, Excellence in Narrative, Excellence in Visual Art, and The Nuovo Award for innovation. Intrigued by Variable's unique take on cinematic storytelling, we caught up with studio co-founder and Virginia co-director Jonathan Burroughs to find out more about the development process. 

What's your background in making games?

My earliest experience creating for games was building Marathon Infinity levels on a Macintosh computer my mum borrowed from my secondary school, which she used to transcribe articles for the school magazine over the summer holidays. I’d make some pretty rudimentary arena maps and then, when term started, I’d playtest them against friends in the computer lab after class.

When I left school I drifted for a while. I dropped out of art college and found myself responding to a local job advert for a games tester position at Electronic Arts in Chertsey, a job I was lucky enough to get. After 18 months in the role I had a lucky break when an email was circulated asking for testers with game design experience to assist with a project at the EA Warrington studio. I applied, based on my Marathon experience. And got a job as a mission builder on Battlefield 2: Modern Combat.

From that point on I was able to call myself a game designer on my CV. I eventually left EA and went to work at Kuju in London on an early Nintendo Wii title, Battalion Wars 2. And from there to Rare to Relentless to DeepMind and then, eventually, to Variable State.

I realize reading this paragraph back I’ve made the process sound incredibly breezy. In reality it was a combination of incredible luck and the benefit of privilege. Had my secondary school not had the computer facilities it did, none of this would have been possible. Similarly if I hadn’t lived within commuting distance of Chertsey and a family car I could borrow. Or if I hadn’t had the benefit of a stable home life and eternally patient parents and partners. And thus didn’t have had a safety net to fall back on when contracts came to an end or on occasions I was made redundant or in the gaps between steady jobs.

I wish mine was an easily replicable path for other aspiring developers to follow, but the testing department at EA Chertsey is long gone, as are many of the game studios I worked at. And so many of the employment jumps I made I achieved thanks to a fluke of circumstance. I’ve been extremely lucky.

How did you come up with the concept behind Virginia?

I met Terry Kenny, my co-director at Variable State, whilst working at our previous company. Our friendship formed out of our shared interest in what was going on in indie game development, particularly the envy we felt seeing small teams doing really interesting things with storytelling. Gone Home and Kentucky Route Zero had been making waves in 2013 and we’d been excited about those titles. And so when we found ourselves with the opportunity to start our own studio in early 2014 we knew it’d be a story-lead game that we wanted to make.

Terry’s background is in animation, so we wanted to make a game which showcased his abilities. And started to focus on ideas which would incorporate character drama. This has been well-covered elsewhere, but the breakthrough moment was when we played Brendon Chung’s Thirty Flights of Loving for the first time, inspiring us to make use of that game’s real time cinematic editing.

We felt that structure in combination with a large cast of fully animated characters and a movie-length duration would give us the foundations of the game we would make. As for the game’s plot, we took inspiration from the ambiguous storytelling of David Lynch, with the goal of writing a game which would be rich with symbolism and open to subjective interpretation.

What development tools were used to build your game?

The script was written in Google Sheets, the animation produced in 3ds Max, the 3D art built in both 3ds Max and Maya, the game engine was Unity, the audio engine was FMOD Studio. We used Visual Studio as our IDE. We also greatly relied on Unity middlewares such as PlayMaker, FinalIK and Rewired. We work remotely, so we used Skype or Google Hangouts to do face-to-face meetings and for our daily catch-up calls. I use Skype for business calls too as I have terrible phone reception where I live.

We used Slack to communicate across the team. There was plenty of Photoshop and Illustrator work for textures, illustration and graphic design. Our video assets were created in Premiere Pro. We used Perforce as our source control. CrashPlan for offsite backup. Jira for task management. Outlook as my main email client, although I believe Terry uses Thunderbird. A surprising amount of the game development process involved editing and saving PDF files, so Adobe Acrobat got plenty of use too.

I realize there are a whole bunch of other bits of technology I’m taking for granted, such as my creaking old desktop PC with a copy of Windows 7. The even older PC we use as a server. And all the various Xbox and PlayStation dev kits and SDKs. Oh! And last but not least the Azure instance and copy of OpenVPN we use so we can have a whitelisted IP to connect to DevNet.

How much time did you and the rest of the team spend working on the game?

I started working with Terry Kenny independently in January 2014. Lyndon Holland joined is around March of that year. The first year was mostly just the three of us, with assistance from art outsourcer Wayne Peters, working on a prototype which we showed at Future of Storytelling and EGX London that year. It was around that time we started talking to publishers, with direct development on the game paused to some extent while we worked on expanding the story on paper into something with a two hour run time.

We became registered as ID@Xbox developers towards the end of 2014, and started talking to 505 Games in January 2015. The game was signed in March of that year, and then 505 Games helped us register as PlayStation developers. Full time development on the game resumed at that point. We slowly ramped up the team, bringing on programmer Kieran Keegan and technical artist Matt Wilde. By September 2015 we’d produced a vertical slice featuring the opening scenes of the game.

After that we ramped up the team further by engaging animator Abby Roebuck through Irish animation company Pink Kong Studios. We were also joined by animator Mikael Persson and 3D artist Stevie Brown. The game was ready for console certification in August 2016 and went on sale on Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and Steam in September of that year.

A typical working day was 9am to 5.30pm, with a morning team coordination call at 9am to discuss work completed the day before, to confirm progress towards the current milestone and discuss our confidence in our in progress tasks. Some of our team members worked part time to accommodate their childcare commitments.

There was some requirement to crunch, particularly immediately preceding the vertical slice delivery and before alpha and final. The brunt of this was felt by the animation team, who had to work to extremely tight deadlines (I should clarify that the deadlines were set by us, not the publisher, and that we wildly underestimated the animation work involved, even when using the work that went into the prototype as the basis for our assumptions and adding 30% contingency on all our time estimates).

Typically Terry and myself worked at least one weekend day every week. And we worked late most days. This is nothing to be proud of; we undeniably failed to create a sensible separation between our work and home lives, a problem compounded by being a remote working team and our offices being our front rooms.

How did you land on a specific art style for Virginia? Were you chasing that low-poly look from day one?

To some extent it was a practical decision -- we knew from relatively early in the project that Virginia would have a lot of 3D art content. And that creating those assets would be challenging if we were to keep team size and costs low. So a simplified art style helped with that. We were also attracted to low poly games from a purely artistic perspective.

Kentucky Route Zero stands out as an example of this -- I love how bold Cardboard Computer are with their approach, the distillation of geometry to abstracted forms, the use of light and shadow, the aggressive aliasing. It’s so pleasingly assertive. Nick Preston’s Tōryanse too.

Certainly what may have started out as a practical decision became more artistically lead as time went on. It was an appealing creative challenge to define our own look rather than simply pursue naturalism and I suspect we would have chosen to do this even if it had been practical to be more photorealistic.

You also made the choice to forgo any sort of traditional voice acting. How did that impact your approach to sound design and scoring?

It brought both right to the forefront, particularly the music, which presented wonderful creative opportunities. Particularly when music and sound were used in concert with the real time cinematic editing. Having sound anticipate a cut or linger after one, timing cuts to the beat of the music or have the music adapt to the pace of the player, all were techniques we employed.

Although all of these could notionally have worked in combination with dialogue, eschewing dialogue allowed us to make the editing and the audio the focus of our attention. I feel we’d have achieved a less successful game had we incorporated dialogue and had to spread ourselves more thin. The end result would have been less distinctive.

I'm also curious to hear how that lack of voice acting affected the game's narrative. Did you have to rethink any story beats, or find workarounds to ensure players grasped what was happening on-screen?  

It certainly imposed constraints on what we could and couldn’t do in a scene. Scenes had to occur before or after conversations had taken place -- you should never feel like the characters are just mute automata. Emotional meaning would have to be conveyed through physical performance. Or implied by the soundtrack.

We did at times fall back on written exposition, but we purposefully tried to treat it as wallpaper rather than essential information. Often the game will cut whilst the player’s attention is on a piece of writing and that was done on purpose, to underline how unimportant the specifics of the text are. And how the plot was secondary to how the game makes you feel, what ideas it inspires, to the subjective experience.

Have you played any of the other IGF finalists? Any games you've particularly enjoyed?

Of the IGF finalists I’ve played Imbroglio, which is splendid, and Duskers, which is a remarkable feat of atmosphere and art direction. I’ve not made time for them, but Islands and Mu Cartographer are firmly on my "to play" list. I hadn’t heard of Old Man’s Journey before the award, but it looks just beautiful.

I’d like to sample them all if time and finances permit. I’m pretty terrible at making time to play games. The game I play the most is probably the Guardian daily quick crossword, which I’m never very good at, and which tends to only to remind me how wretched my vocabulary and general knowledge are.

What do you think are the biggest hurdles (and opportunities) for indie devs today?

The greatest hurdles are running costs and sustainability, both financial and in terms of personal well-being. Games are phenomenally expensive to make (even if you work alone you’re talking about months or years of rent payments, computer hardware and software costs), they take ages to finish and when you’re done it’s a roll of the dice as to whether you’ll earn enough money to make another one.

Making games can be isolating, lonely, sedentary. It can make you ill. If you’re an indie you don’t have the protection of working for a large organization which can absorb the cost of commercial failures -- you have the combined vulnerabilities of figuring out who you are as an artist whilst running a small business. And if you want to maximize your chances of being sustainable you need to attract an audience. And then if you want to find an audience without relying on old fashioned paid-for PR, you’re going to have to talk about what you’re making on social media, which, while full of many wonderful people ready to offer advice and encouragement, can also be a swirling maelstrom of bile and inanity.

The opportunities for an aspiring indie are that, all being well, you can make the games you want with the people you want to work with. That the games industry is looser and more fluid than with other more calcified commercial art forms. There aren’t the same gatekeepers, you can sell your work in more ways, with the right luck an Undertale or a Stardew Valley can attract the same attention as a big production game. But that luck is rare and the risks are enormous. 

You can make games as a hobby, in your spare time, on your own, for fun; it doesn’t have to be your job or your sole source of income. I’ve only ever made games for a living, but I fell into industry by luck, rather than following a reliable, replicable career path. And now I don’t know how to do anything else. As much as I enjoy making games -- and I very much do enjoy making games -- to some extent I’m trapped making them. I’d be cautious about wishing my situation on anyone.


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