In the upcoming game Virginia, you can sit down in a diner and enjoy a cup of coffee "black as midnight on a moonless night," as if you were Agent Dale Cooper in Twin Peaks.
Over the past year or so there's been a wave of games strongly inspired by television, but while studios like Telltale Games focus on modern properties like The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones, Virginia is influenced by the weird, surreal mysteries of the 1990s. It's Twin Peaks crossed with The X-Files, with a dash of The Outer Limits tossed in. The developers at new studio Variable State hope its unique story and setting will feel a bit different from what you're used to seeing in a video game. "I hope we can make something more personal," says developer Jonathan Burroughs.
Virginia puts you in the role of a new FBI agent whose first case involves the disappearance of a young boy in the middle of rural America. There are few story details available beyond that, but like the death of Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks, the missing child is just a starting point. Soon you'll be pulled into "a world both familiar and strange," as the developers describe it, which blends real-world drama with surrealist elements. It's a type of storytelling that has worked well in other forms of media, especially TV, and Burroughs wants to translate that feeling to something more interactive. "They give you a certain leeway with reality which serves drama and storytelling," he says of magical realist stories.
"Everybody will have the same, authored experience."
Like Gone Home and Kentucky Route Zero, Virginia is more about atmosphere and narrative than action or problem solving. Virginia also won't feature the same kind of decision-based storytelling as The Walking Dead, where you're forced to make tough moral choices that influence the outcome of the game. In fact Virginia is being billed as an interactive drama as opposed to a game, as you'll spend a good portion of your time just walking around and talking to people. "Everybody will have the same, authored experience," Burroughs says. "The emphasis is squarely on the storytelling and making a story which the player participates in and experiences firsthand."
Variable State is a brand-new studio, but it's made up of industry veterans. Burroughs and his partner Terry Kenny were previously employed by EA and Rockstar, respectively, where they worked on significantly larger projects. Part of the reason they decided to start their own studio was to make games that are a bit more personal, something that's virtually impossible when there's a team of dozens or even hundreds of people. "Just as much as the town of Twin Peaks is a view into David Lynch's mind," explains Burroughs, "I hope myself, Terry, and [composer Lyndon Holland] leave something of ourselves in Virginia."
"A complete story which can be digested in one go."
By regularly name-dropping shows like Twin Peaks, it may seem like the studio is betting on nostalgia to court players. The game even features a diner inspired by the one in the classic X-Files episode "Jose Chung's From Outer Space," Burroughs' personal favorite. But Burroughs believes that it's about more than just revisiting a specific period of time, it's about bringing back a specific feeling. "Exaggerated and strange as the characters were, they were very human," he says of his love affair with these shows. "You could empathize with their motivations and admire their strengths, feel sympathy for their weaknesses. I've always enjoyed science fiction and dark or wry humor. I think these shows embodied both of those things."
Virginia isn't expected to launch until sometime next year, when it will be available on PC. But unlike its contemporaries, which are released as a series of episodes spread out over months, Virgina will instead be a standalone experience about the length of a movie. "We see it as a complete story which can be digested in one go," says Burroughs. Episodic structure aside, Virginia may have at least one other thing in common with The Walking Dead when it does finally come out — it may not be all that fun.
"I'm not really sure I want people to 'enjoy' the game per say," says Burroughs. "I'd much rather it makes them feel something a game has never made them feel before."