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can't understand what he said
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Jonathan Burroughs from Variable State talked about the development of Virginia – a new detective adventure game, which doesn’t have a single line of dialogue. We’ve discussed the main concept, talked about the visual style and the choice of narrative solutions. Virginia will be available for purchase on the 22nd of September (which is in two days!).
So Variable State, the production company developing Virginia, was established by myself and Terry Kenny in January 2014. We had previously worked for Google Deepmind, which is where we met. Our friendship formed out of a mutual love of American television of the 1990s, in particular Buffy, Twin Peaks and The X-Files. And out of our shared interest in independent game development. When we left Deepmind, we felt an immediate desire to make something for ourselves that was a reflection of our tastes and interests.
Fairly soon we were joined by composer Lyndon Holland, who heard about the project online and was interested in what we were doing. Lyndon is a graduate of the UK’s prestigious National Film and Television School, so in addition to his abilities as a composer and sound designer, he brings great insights from filmmaking and screenwriting to the project.
At the project’s height we must have had over 10 people working on Virginia. And all working remotely too. We don’t have fixed permanent premises – we all work out of our homes. Which has enabled us to collaborate with some wonderful, talented people from around the world. I’m based in London myself. But Terry is based in Dublin in Ireland. And we’ve had other developers based in Sweden, Belgium, Australia and America.
Both Terry and myself have been working in studio game development for over a decade. I started out as a games tester for Electronic Arts around 2004. And then transitioned into game design. And since then have worked for a range of companies, including Headstrong, Rare and Relentless, developing for publishers including Nintendo, Sega and Microsoft. Terry’s background is animation. He developed for Rockstar working on GTA: San Andreas and GTA IV. He also worked for Frontier on the unreleased game The Outsider.
We both joined Deepmind at roughly the same point in 2012. It was an incredible experience working in the same office as some of the leading minds in neuroscience and machine learning. I can’t disclose what we were working on. But when Google acquired the company in 2014, our department was closed and we left. And at that point found ourselves with a lot of free time. And inspired by our heroes in independent game development decided to make something for ourselves.
How did you come up with the main feature of the game – a total lack of dialogue? It does make the game so much more immersive. How did that idea come to you? How did you decide to go on such a brave move? It seems like an unprecedented thing to do, especially in a game, where most of the information is given through audio. Why do you think audio sucks or maybe, why is it not that good for your particular task?
An epiphanal moment in the development of Virginia was when Terry and me played Brendon Chung’s “Thirty Flights of Loving” for the first time. I think this must have been around February 2014. It was a revelation. I’d never before played a game which was capable of eliciting such a broad range of emotions so efficiently. Or one which told such a distinct story so succinctly. The use of cinematic editing in the context of a real time game experience was so new and fresh. And so elegant in its implementation. It was profound. And Terry and me quickly knew that we wanted to build on what Brendon had started and incorporate cinematic editing into our own story-lead game.
The other decision we made was based on Terry’s abilities as an animator. It’s fairly typical for independent games to shy away from featuring characters because of the time and effort involved in character animation, particularly facial animation. You can see this with games like Gone Home and Firewatch, which use narration or radio dialogue as a way of getting around having characters represented in the world.
We wanted to take a different approach as we knew we could make use of Terry’s talents and would give the game a distinct character.
But we knew that we wanted to keep the team small, to keep decisionmaking quick and agile. And we knew if we wanted to produce something of high quality with only a few people, we could only pick a few creative battles.
We discussed using voiceover and dialogue at length. But there are so many components which go into a good voice performance: the quality of the writing, the casting of actors, the quality of their performance, the dialogue systems themselves. If we were to make a game which included cinematic editing, character animation and dialogue, as our first game, we were worried we would be spreading ourselves too thin. So we took the decision to focus our efforts on the first two. And to write a story where nobody would miss the absence of dialogue. Where you’d enter scenes between the conversations. And where the body language and physical performance of the characters, complemented by Lyndon’s incredible soundtrack, could do the storytelling.
How did the art direction of the game progress? What did you start with and what direction did you want to go with it? The art itself is very stylized – was there a reason for choosing this particular way of representing the reality (except for the cheapness)?
It was a mixture of practical and creative reasons. I know you mention “cheapness” in your question, but when I say we chose a simplified art style for practical reasons, it wasn’t in order to be “cheap” so much as to be achievable at all. Because of the cinematic cutting, the game takes place across a great many scenes in a great many locations, featuring many unique props and characters. With only a few small 3D art team we knew the work just wouldn’t be possible unless we reduced the complexity of the assets we created. And simple assets don’t just cut down on creation time; they reduce iteration time too, if during development you decide to make changes.
But pragmatism was only part of the reason. We were also attracted to other games which unashamedly embraced low detail art styles, in particular games like Kentucky Route Zero and Thirty Flights of Loving. When a game chooses not to pursue photorealism, it creates opportunities for game artists to find their own style and express themselves in a personal way. The art direction becomes less focussed on technological accomplishment and more on individual expression. And I think that was very attractive to us.
I’m very interested in the way you’ve been approaching environment design in the game? It seems like there’s a ton of details there, but yet you’ve found a way to bring out only the most important elements, putting all the rest to the background. What’s your approach to the production and the creation of the environments? How did you use the light and color?
It means a lot that you noticed this. As it was quite intentional. We knew that removing dialogue meant that an amount of storytelling would have to occur in the environment. And we knew that with a simple art style, there was a real risk of creating clutter or certain elements dominating scenes without providing useful storytelling. This was particularly the case with text, which can be very distracting. So we purposefully paired back text and 2D artwork in the environments as much as we could, only leaving the really critical elements. In the lighting and set design, we knew that mise en scene and composition would be critical in giving scenes the correct emotional context. And would be useful functionally to guide players to items of critical interest. We also made generous use of colour correction to further stylize and enhance the look of individual scenes, also with a view to complementing the emotional intent of the scenes. I imagine the approach is broadly analogous to cinematography in filmmaking, except you have to take into account that you’ve surrendered control of the camera – and thus the image – to the player.
You’ve mentioned in some interviews that building Virginia is more like editing the movie. Is this because Virginia is less about the gameplay and more about the presentation of the story? What are the benefits that games as a platform give to you? I mean, you could just as well go and do a CGI film or produce a film? Why games worked so well for you?
I’ll answer the second part first and come back to the original question after. The reason Virginia has to be a game and not a film is that it matters that you are a participant rather than just a viewer. I want the people experiencing Virginia to feel a connection with the protagonist and to feel like they are embodying that character. That they’re roleplaying as this unique individual in these unique circumstances. I think passively witnessing the game story as a first person movie would feel quite different to the experience of actively participating in it, where you can imagine you’re there in each moment. Games are so often about mastery of mechanics, about competition, challenge and the overcoming of obstacles, that we neglect how significant it can feel to simply be immersed in a roleplaying experience, which is something a game can do and no other medium can. And I think when you strip back mechanics and focus on characters, worlds and storytelling, you can create experiences which are meaningfully distinct from film and television. And which have an emotional dimension that can’t be found in other mediums.
In regards how making Virginia was like editing a film, I’ll confess I don’t know all that much about film editing, but towards the end of development we were shuffling around the order of scenes, changing their relative lengths, making adjustments to character performance and to the music. And they’d be very small, incremental changes which cumulatively had a big impact in how story information is conveyed and in the emotional impact of scenes. Making very small changes to the cuts in particular had a surprisingly large impact. So it felt like film editing, at least based on my anecdotal understanding of the process.
What engine are you using for your production? Why did you choose this particular platform? You’ve built the game in just two years, so you must have relied heavily on the modern development tools. Which ones were most useful for you?
The game is developed in Unity, which is a game engine both Terry and myself had previous experience working in. And so it made complete sense to develop Virginia using the technology. Unity is fantastically versatile and extendable. And it made the job of porting the game from Windows to Mac, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One so much easier than it would otherwise have been. We also made use of the FMOD audio engine which allowed for rapid iteration of sound effects and gave Lyndon a great amount of control when scripting precise changes in music and sound to coincide with the actions of the player.
How did you finance the project? Is it a very costly production? Did you go through crowdfunding or maybe some funds? It’s interesting how you’ve managed to get the money to build this incredible project?
For the first year we paid for the game out of a mixture of our savings and through the help of our partners, who were fortunately very supportive of what we were doing. If it hadn’t been for them it wouldn’t have been possible – we wouldn’t have had enough money to last the year on our own. In that time we were able to produce a short demo of Virginia which we showed at a few events, including the Future of Storytelling festival in New York and the EGX trade show in London. Off the back of that we spoke to a number of publishers, including 505 Games. And 505 were excited about the game and the attention it had received. And the rest is history. Without 505’s involvement we wouldn’t have been able to bring the game to Xbox One and PlayStation 4. And their backing also enabled us to enhance the overall quality of the game. In particular the game’s soundtrack, which after 505 became involved we were able to record live at the Smecky Studio in Prague, the same studio where Angelo Badalamenti’s scores for Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive were recorded. 505 have been excellent to work with and have allowed us to maintain our creative vision without any compromises or intrusions. That’s a brave thing for any investor or publisher to do, particularly when financing a game as unusual as Virginia. We’ve been very lucky to have been given the opportunity they’ve given us.
Jonathan Burroughs, Co-director and co-writer, Virginia
Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev.