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Talking Noir And The X-Files With The Developers Of Virginia

by Javy Gwaltney on Sep 25, 2016 at 06:30 AM

Virginia, a first-person narrative adventure game where you play a recent FBI graduate on a missing persons case in a small town, is shaping up to be one of 2016's most interesting and alluring adventure titles. We got some time with co-creator Jonathan Burroughs, who worked for EA and Rare before going on to form indie developer Variable State with Terry Kenny. Jonathan and I talked about the game's Twin Peaks inspirations as well as the struggle to develop Virginia over the past two years.

What inspired you to make Virginia?

It was a real mixture of factors. I’d been interested in what was going on at the creative fringes of games for a long while. Prior to Virginia, I’d been in studio game development for over 10 years. And I had been enviously watching developers like Jason Rohrer and Tale of Tales and Robert Yang and recognized that there were opportunities for games to be more than just entertainment; they could be about personal expression, they could be bizarre and strange and ambiguous. They could legitimately be considered art. Which felt a world apart from the games I was working on professionally. And I was increasingly dissatisfied by how mainstream games felt so singularly focused on the commercial over the creative. This came to a head with an unreleased free-to-play game I had been working on around the time I met Terry Kenny, who would become Virginia’s co-director.

Terry’s and my friendship emerged out of our shared interest in the independent game scene. At the time we were both following Kentucky Route Zero with interest. And Gone Home had just come out. And I remember feeling like it was a “now or never” moment, that there was a momentum to the indie scene and new ideas were emerging all the time; wholly new aesthetics and mechanics and story ideas you would never have seen explored in the mainstream. So when a company restructure occurred and our project was canceled (leading to us both being made redundant by our employer), we decided to seize the opportunity the moment presented. We had some savings and we had experience developing in Unity. And in January 2014 we called ourselves Variable State and embarked on our first concepts.

Our initial game ideas were hopelessly ambitious. But after a couple of frustrating dead ends, we had the good fortune to play Brendon Chung’s Thirty Flights of Loving for the first time. I’d had it on my mental “to play” list for some time and was aware how well it had been received critically. But playing it was an epiphinal moment. It felt profound. The use of cinematic editing in the context of normal gameplay was so simple and at the same time broadened the scope for interactive storytelling to such a degree, it was just beautiful in its elegance. And both Terry and I decided at that point that we had to explore the opportunities it presented.

Terry’s background is in animation. So we decided to pursue concepts around featuring a large cast of animated characters and at the same time making use of Brendon’s real-time cinematic editing approach. And that’s how the earliest Virginia ideas began to emerge.

How big is the team?

At its height the creative team consisted of about 10 people, all working remotely and coordinating over Skype and Slack. Virginia began as just Terry and myself. Once we settled upon utilizing cinematic editing and character animation, we knew the storytelling would have to be complemented by good sound design and captivating music. So we put out feelers on industry forums and on Reddit looking for a composer. And we were very fortunate to meet Lyndon Holland, a graduate of the UK’s National Film and Television school.

Lyndon’s made an invaluable contribution to Virginia, not just in the audio, but thanks to his general background in filmmaking. Lyndon co-wrote the story with Terry and myself. And provided a whole array of insights in the scene-setting and cinematography too.

Later on we brought on Kieran Keegan, who had been lead programmer on Kitty Powers’ Matchmaker. And Matt Wilde as technical artist, who Terry and I had worked with at Headstrong Games in London, as developers on Battalion Wars 2 and House of the Dead: Overkill. Stephen Brown and Wayne Peters assisted with the 3D art. And Virginia’s phenomenal animation requirement – arguably comparable to that of an animated motion picture – was made possible thanks to animators Steve James Brown (who had previously animated for motions pictures such as District 9), Mikael Persson (who had just come off Soma for Frictional Games) and Abby Roebuck, of Dublin animation studio Pink Kong, who specialize in animated cartoons.

The other major contributor to Virginia was the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra under conductor Richard Hein. Thanks to the support of 505 Games, we were able to record Virginia’s score with full orchestration. And we chose to do so at the Smecky Studio in Prague, the same studio Angelo Badalamenti and David Lynch chose to record the scores for Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive. It was a wonderful association to have. And the live orchestration made a remarkable difference to the quality of the music.

What were some adventure games you played growing up?

It’s interesting you ask this, as I think one of the first games I ever played was an adventure game. To this day I vaguely remember me and my dad sitting with me cross-legged on the floor of our living room as we played The Hobbit together on our old family ZX Spectrum together. And I have even more vivid memories of using the code wheel to pass the copy protect on Monkey Island 2. And the hours I spent playing and replaying that spectacular game. I think Monkey Island was another epiphanal video game moment for me, as I’d never before played a game which felt so close to a traditional animated cartoon. Nor one which was so well written. And crucially which was so hilariously funny. I vigorously consumed adventure games from that point, particularly other LucasArts titles, with Fate of Atlantis and Full Throttle standing out as particular favorites (Full Throttle has some splendid characterization). But also titles like Broken Sword and Beneath a Steel Sky and the Discworld games. Aside from adventure games, I most fondly remember titles which placed a premium on their storytelling. Particularly Looking Glass' immersive sims like Thief and System Shock 2. And prior to those, space-combat games like Wing Commander and X-Wing.

What do you think about how the adventure game genre has changed over the years?

Although I suspect the genre definition is perhaps unhelpfully broad, I think the adventure game as I would define it is timeless. And the appetite for them is undiminished. And furthermore their diversity and creativity is broader than has ever been. An adventure game these days can be anything from Samorost to Broken Age to Heavy Rain to The Walking Dead to Obduction to Firewatch to the work of Anna Anthropy. The devlogs on TIGSource are awash with adventure platformers, isometric adventure games, first-person adventure games and classic point and clickers. For me, one of the most compelling aspects of games is the opportunity to participate in an immersive story. And that’s something adventure games uniquely excel at. Of the upcoming games I’m looking forward to most, be it Night in the Woods, Tacoma, Below, Somerville, the bulk could be considered adventure games of one form or another.

Are Twin Peaks and The X-Files a strong influence on the game?

Both were undeniably useful points of reference in the early days of the game’s development. And even earlier than that, it was a shared interest in The X-Files, Twin Peaks and more generally in the films and television we grew up with that helped establish my friendship with Terry. In the first months of working together as indie developers, when we were meeting with frustration and getting mired by concepts which went nowhere, it was an enthusiasm for the characters and the atmosphere of '90s neo-noirs which set us on a path toward what would become Virginia. In particular a desire to build a story around a character in the Clarice Starling mold. But Virginia quickly found its own identity and after building out our characters and the scenes they would inhabit, the story took on a life of its own. And now I think it's fair to say Virginia is anything but a Twin Peaks or X-Files pastiche. It’s very much its own story with its own ideas and with a wealth of creative decisions unique to it to inform the shape it has taken. Albeit it's ultimately a form which embraces the ambiguous storytelling and the dark atmosphere of its original inspirations.

What are you hoping to accomplish with Virginia?

First and foremost to tell an original story. And to enjoy the process of creating it. And for the most part we’ve achieved both of these. Virginia has been an incredible challenge to make. It’s required we adapt to new ways of working – we’ve gone from 10 years of studio development to working entirely from home and entirely remotely, which has taken adjustment. And we’ve had to contend with all the usual problems of setting up a new business and how overwhelming that can be. It’s been immensely challenging and at times stressful in ways I’ve never known. But thanks to incredible luck, to the support of our families and friends and thanks to the generosity of fellow game developers and enthusiasts in the industry, we’ve gone from some fairly whimsical conversations in late 2013 to a complete game which is simultaneously releasing on four separate platforms. Which is no small thing. I’m hugely relieved that we’ve made it. And I really hope we have the opportunity to build on the lessons we’ve learned from this experience and to move on to even stranger and more unconventional creative projects in the future.

You can read our glowing review of Virginia here.