Variable State on the making of Virginia

Alex Calvin
Variable State on the making of Virginia

One of the most interesting games to launch in the last few months has been the surreal and narrative-driven Virginia.

The title was made by Variable State, the indie studio set up by Jonathan Burroughs and Terry Kenny who met while working at DeepMind – the machine-learning AI start-up purchased by Google in 2014. Prior to the company's acquisition, DeepMind dramatically downsized the core team, with Burroughs and Kenny – who were making games at the firm – losing their jobs.

Rather than being upset about this series of events, the duo decided to set up their own company and started prototyping games.

Virginia came about quite organically,” Burroughs says.

My friendship with Terry formed out of what was going on in the indie games scene. We were particularly struck by the fact that small teams were making games that were very personal and story-driven. We wanted to do something similar. We embarked on something in our spare time, which is what transitioned into the first ideas when we became Variable State. They were all hopelessly ambitious and radically different to Virginia. Then we played Brendon Chung's Thirty Flights of Loving, and were struck by the design of that game and how it used cinematic editing like you'd see in a film but in the context of real time gameplay. It felt like that added so much to storytelling in games. That was one half of it. The other half was we love certain sci-fi shows from the ‘90s. We married the two. It has the themes and atmosphere of The X Files and Twin Peaks with Brendon Chung's story-telling devices.”

Arguably Virginia's most striking design choice is the aforementioned use of jump cuts. This, combined with a lack of spoken dialogue, was a constraint that put a lot of pressure on the team, especially from an animation perspective.

[Jump cuts] are a central component of film and television. You can use them to contrast scenes for dramatic effect,” Burroughs explains.

Games, outside of cutscenes, don't really use that with the exception of Thirty Flights of Loving. It gives you this whole extra vocabulary for storytelling. We also wanted to do something that used Terry's background as a 3D artist animator. We knew if we were going to do a game with a small team, that we would be exploring jump cuts and cinematic in our editing. It would also be very content heavy, which would involve a lot of scenes, 3D art and character animation. We were a bit scared of pursuing dialogue and it worked out to be a very useful creative constraint as well – writing a narrative that wouldn't have any spoken dialogue. All the story telling would be in the editing and in the physical performance of the characters.”

So far, Virginia has been received well critically with Metacritic scores ranging from 76 to 82. But Variable State was uncertain about how well the game would be received.

We probably thought it would do catastrophically,” Burroughs laughs.

We're quite a pessimistic bunch. We were just aware that Virginia was an unusual game and would potentially only be of interest to a niche audience. So we had all those anxieties that have been confounded in quite a nice way. It's done well in terms of formal critical reception. It's been far more positive than I expected. I anticipated there might be some hostility because it's light on game mechanics. It's not about player choice – rather its about experiencing a new kind of story. People have been kind and appear to have taken away a lot from Virginia that we didn't necessarily anticipate. In terms of its performance, because it's published through 505 Games, I don't yet have access to the sales figures. But the team there seems to be very happy with it, critically at least.

Fingers crossed it permits us to do more games in the future.”

GET EMAIL UPDATES

Subscribe