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How Virginia uses the language of film to tell a different kind of video game story

A David Lynch-inspired interactive drama

Virginia game

The end of a game development cycle is often grueling. It’s the point where most of the game itself is complete, but the creators need to spend time fixing the little details, polishing bugs, and generally rushing to get the finished product ready to release. Jonathan Burroughs, who previously worked on games ranging from Kinect Sports to House of the Dead: Overkill, knows the feeling all too well.

But for his next game — Virginia, the debut title from indie studio Variable State — the feeling is a bit different. There are still bugs to be squashed, but as a linear narrative game that borrows heavily from film and television, much of the work left to be done has to do with a different set of details, like rearranging scenes, or trimming them for greater impact. "This final stage has been unlike any other game I’ve worked on," he says. "It’s a bit like the editing of a film."

Virginia is an upcoming first-person interactive drama that puts you in the role of a fresh-faced FBI agent working on a case of a missing boy. It’s a linear adventure about the length of a movie, and it doesn’t feature the kind of dramatic, story-altering decision making seen in similar games like Life is Strange or The Walking Dead. Virginia was first announced in 2014, when Burroughs and partner Terry Kenny left AI company Deepmind Technologies to launch their own indie studio. The pair eventually joined forces with composer Lyndon Holland and got to work on Virginia.

"It just worked."

It’s a game that pulls heavily on the style and themes of surreal sci-fi shows from the ‘90s like Twin Peaks and the X Files, taking place in a fictional version of the state of Virginia that looks normal, but hides many secrets. But Virginia was also inspired in large part by a short indie game called Thirty Flights of Loving, released by Brendon Chung in 2012. While most games use the camera to follow the player’s movements, making it easier to see the world around them, Thirty Flights adopted a more cinematic style, with dramatic cuts and angles that changed the flow of the game. For Burroughs, it was a seminal moment.

"We realized that bringing cinematic techniques and editing into the real-time environment of computer games… that it just worked," he says. "Having played [Thirty Flights of Loving], now it’s completely obvious that it works, but so little is made of that game and I hope that in years to come people will reflect on it and think that it was a landmark moment in first-person computer games. Games and film have been running in parallel for so long, and films have this established way to use the edit in order to contract time, to contract space, and to be able to use montage techniques to relate scenes to one another. That was just embraced and understood, and you’d grow up watching film and you’d just accept it. But games, outside of cutscenes, outside of non-interactive moments, had really not embraced it at all."

Outside of the way the game is edited and structured, Virginia also has another particularly unique aspect, especially for a story-driven game: it features no dialogue whatsoever. While you’ll explore many scenes in the game, none of them take place at a moment when dialogue is spoken. Sometimes a conversation just finished, or is just about start. It was a decision made in part for practicality — for a small team removing dialogue means one less variable to worry about — but Burroughs believes that it’s proved to be a creative constraint that’s made the game better. "To play it, you don’t feel like you’re in this strange world, like you walked into a library and everyone’s being incredibly hushed," he says. "It’s just the way it is."

"Unlike any other game I’ve worked on."

When Virginia was first announced in 2014, the plan was to release it the following year. Since then, the studio has received some outside funding and the scope of the game has grown, causing the delay. Burroughs hopes Virginia will finally release later in 2016. Among the changes made to the game over that span is a new art style that gives Virginia a somewhat darker, more surreal feel, with dramatic shadows and a comparatively muted color palette. It lends the game a more serious vibe, and should be a good compliment to a story about finding a missing child.

The other thing that’s happened since Virginia was announced is a resurgence of nostalgia for the TV shows the game is inspired by. A 10th season of the X Files aired earlier this year, while a new Twin Peaks series is also in the works, with David Lynch at the helm. Meanwhile, shows like Netflix’s new Stranger Things are tapping into a similar kind of nostalgia. With all that going on, Virginia’s delay may turn out to be fortuitous — though Burroughs admits that he’s not sure "what it is that has captured the collective imagination" with these kinds of shows.

For now, the game is nearly done, but there are lots of those small cuts and tweaks needed to get the experience just right. "At this point the most minuscule change can make an enormous difference."