November 17, 2016 8:00 AM | Joel Couture
"In playing Thirty Flights of Loving, we appreciated how quick-paced it was, and the idea of stopping to have a conversation with someone and how that might just put the brakes on the experience completely." says Jonathan Burroughs, co-director of Virginia.
Virginia is a complex thriller about a new FBI agent trying to locate a missing young man while also trying to find evidence of corruption in her partner. It digs deep into a town's dirty secrets, the truths buried in the characters' pasts, and the hidden agendas of some powerful people in the game's world. It's an adventure inspired by Twin Peaks, Fargo, and True Detective.
It also never says a word.
Virginia, through a series of budgetary decisions and artistic choices, doesn't speak for its entire duration, telling its winding story through careful selections of images, moments, and details, guiding the player through a tale that's open to interpretation. It's the sort of experience that risked being too straightforward or dangerously vague with its imagery, and yet the team at Variable State put it all on the line to tell the story as they wanted to.
"The decision was made with a view to making our lives easier, which must sound preposterous in hindsight."
During early development, the team at Variable State were having a difficult time figuring out what concepts to go with for the thriller they had in mind. "Going back to Viginia's origins, around March 2014, myself and Terry had been pursuing some game concepts for a while that had been going absolutely nowhere. We knew we wanted to do something that focused on storytelling, but we were seeing things that were too ambitious." says Burroughs.
Clarity only came to them after they settled in to play Brendon Chung's Thirty Flights of Loving. That game, an interactive short story that used cinematic editing techniques to communicate its key moments rather than speech, struck them with a bolt of inspiration.
"We really hit a bit of a dead end and were feeling quite defeated, and then just by chance happened to play Thirty Flights of Loving. It was a real epiphanal, night and day, sort of moment." says Burroughs.
Seeing the editing techniques transferred to a means of shifting the player through the most important parts of the story, the choice of moments to help the player bridge their own gaps in the tale, and having the confidence to let those scenes tell the story without a word, got the team moving forward.
Still, drawing from their inspiration wasn't the only reason to leave out dialogue. Much of the decision was a practical one as well, stemming from several aspects of game development that would have been too expensive, would have bloated the team, or would have taken away from the story they wished to tell.
"We knew we wanted a way of differentiating what we were doing from other indie games - other story games - to make use of Terry Kenny's background as an animator and feature a large cast of animated characters." says Burroughs. "We knew that would be very demanding from a content-creation perspective. We knew we wanted to do as thorough a job as we could of the editing. So, we thought 'How are we going to have time to figure out dialogue as well?'"
The game needed enough work from the small team as it was, so adding dialogue would have required even more efforts from a team that had already been stretched thin, and also would have possibly required they hire voice actors as well. It was more than they wanted to take on, and combining that with their inspirations lead them to cut dialogue altogether.
Telling a similar story to those of Lynch would be a challenge for someone with a full script and speaking cast to work with, but Burroughs had set out to do all this without speaking at all. While some may have been daunted by the experience, it was something Burroughs and his team found liberating.
"We definitely created a challenge for ourselves and it definitely imposed constraints on our writing." says Burroughs. "I think we perceived it as a useful constraint and it would narrow our decision-making when it came to the story. In writing the story, we would have to find these moments that would be immediately after a conversation has occurred or just before - between moments when people were speaking. That always felt more useful than it did limiting."
The act of finding the moments between dialogue would hone the writing on the game, forcing its team to focus on what moments would best convey the story, concentrating on those to the exclusion of all else. Each beat would need to be meaningful, with no filler moments in between. It was a challenging task, but Burroughs found it helped give him clarity when considering what needed to be in a scene and what didn't, and made scriptwriting a little simpler.
"It just made the process a bit easier. We didn't have to run through a traditional script. What the story ended up looking like was an excel spreadsheet listing scenes, times of day, the events, and actions that we expected the player to do in each scene (primary actions they would have to perform and the animations)." says Burroughs.
The team would no longer have to worry about reams of dialogue that would hint at character motivations, dole out plot, and guide the character down different paths. Instead, they could just concentrate on strengthening the imagery, utilizing visuals and moments alone to convey the story while leaving gaps for the player to find meaning.
Doing the Job
The positive aspects are all well and good, but it still meant that Burroughs would need to come up with a story and tell it without speaking. Not only that, but the story was a complicated one filled with hidden meanings and interpretations. He would need to make sure his story was told with only visuals and music, and would have to know that he had told that story well enough for someone to comprehend it.
"I've written for games before, but this was a very different kind of experience - one that runs in parallel to doing level design. The work on Virgina was more myself, Terry, and Lyndon Holland just working on it for months, day-to-day, coming up with ideas for little scenarios - doing a bit of collective writing and then going away to have a think and then coming back together again." says Burroughs.
It was not a process of just sitting down to write it, but instead, a more collaborative experience split between the three people working on it. With the game being written by a single individual, there would be a risk that a given scene or moment may not completely convey what they intended it to. If it worked for one writer, that wouldn't mean it would necessarily mean anything for someone else.
By having the three work together on writing, each bringing their own ideas to it, they could also bounce reasons between each other on why something would or wouldn't work. They could consider and discuss this together, seeing if all three would understand the hidden meanings and conveyed story behind each scene.
"I think part of it was that we just kept talking amongst ourselves. At the forefront of our minds, always, in the process of making this a little bit vague, was 'Have we gone too far and put something arbitrary in that doesn't explain things? Are the breadcrumbs not there to lead the player to a piece of information?'" says Burroughs.
"We were always trying to make sure there's a picture on the wall or there's a detail in a scene, a prop or something, that can explain a piece of imagery. That the foreshadowing is there to explain something that has paid off later."
This was all done without testing outside of the group as well, only ensuring that the three creators had a hand in what the game was trying to convey. "We kind of anticipated they (505 Games) would have us do some usability testing and they didn't at all. I'm kind of pleased. I think it means that this is completely the product of our vision. The edges haven't been smoothed off to make it a more entertaining experience. It's entirely the story that we wanted to tell." says Burroughs.
"I wonder if in hindsight maybe we should have had some usability testing. I wonder how that would have affected us and if we would have ended up second-guessing ourselves and taken a different approach - maybe made things more literal and less ambiguous."
This was not a quick process, as every single moment would need to be considered within the group, with ideas bounced back and forth as they considered whether they conveyed the meanings they wanted them to.
"It was incredibly slow. It was a couple of months, at least, of just these day-to-day conversations about story and things gradually coming together. It was hard in the sense that it took a long time, but never defeatingly difficult." says Burroughs. "It was certainly helpful that it was a group of three of us and we could throw ideas back and forth."
Splitting an idea amongst three people can cause issues between creators. If not everyone is on the exact same wavelength for a story, it can cause bickering or arguing over how to best convey what a story needs. Each person derives their own unique meanings from events and actions, and while there may be some similarities, people often differ greatly in terms of interpretation. Virginia was going to have its vague ideas split across three different minds, something that could have caused catastrophic schisms.
Not so for the team at Variable State. "I'm incredibly fortunate that the three of us are very similar in demeanor and we have very similar interests when it comes to art and film and literature. It always felt like we were drawing from a common pool of experiences. That's really rare."
Burroughs had hit a creative jackpot with his co-developers, sharing a common vision for the game that the three of them worked toward together. In sharing a similar pool of experiences and art, they could collaboratively create the story, each bouncing ideas off the others until a common meaning could be found in the scenes, using their talents to best say what they wanted to.
In this way, they both tested the game for different viewers amongst themselves, and also helped pull scenes and actions together whenever one of the others was stumped. Through this slow process, a story without words came together.
A large part of why the quiet worked was due to the developers putting a lot of time and thought into every scene, studying cinematic tools to create juxtapositions that would encourage thought and add clarity.
Cinematic editing is used frequently throughout Virginia, teleporting the character to different points in the game world through cuts made between frames. This was done for several reasons that would all enhance meaning in some way.
"First and foremost, we were just trying to abbreviate the journey. We only needed you to see a few moments along the way for you to understand where we were going." says Burroughs. "Games tend to be about one character's perspective in unbroken, continuous real time, without that journey necessarily itself being useful to experience from a dramatic perspective."
This would help tie the key moments together that they'd been creating over months of discussion, helping them weave a tighter story that would keep the player from getting lost in extra details. Not only this, but there were uses of cinematic editing that could help them enhance the meaning and ties to both scenes.
"There are immeasurable different ways that it's used to relate imagery - to contrast sets of imagery for the purposes of deriving emotional or intellectual meaning through creative usage of cuts." says Burroughs.
"In day one, there's a scene where Anne picks up a bill in a diner, and then we cut to a scene where she is holding a missing persons poster. We do a few others like that where the composition at the end of one scene broadly matches the composition in the next scene. We do that, not just for aesthetic purposes, but to relate two pieces of imagery together as well." says Burroughs.
The team would use this often to tie meanings together, or to encourage thought on why these two scenes would go together in tandem, helping the player piece things together through the shared meanings.
The final key aspect to conveying Virginia's meanings would lie in it being a video game, and the very interactivity that is tied to the medium.
"Just the fact that you're the one instigating the interactions and moving the story forward breaks down the barrier between you and the characters that you would feel while watching a film or a play." says Burroughs.
"The story is moving at the pace you dictate, and you are roleplaying in this character - embodying this character. That is meaningfully different from this being an animated film where you'd be an observer on the outside and things would be moving at the pace the story dictated."
The player chooses when to move the story forward, and when to take each interaction. This lets them drink in a scene if they so choose, or tackle things at their leisure. It asks the player to make the connections and carry out each action, whether good or bad, creating a bond between them and the character that blurs the line between self and story. The player plays a role as a character in a game, rather than witnessing one. It is not Anne seeking evidence about her partner, it is the player as Anne collecting that evidence.
"It's not so much you empathizing with the character you're seeing like you would empathize with someone in a film - the barriers have broken down sufficiently that you're feeling the emotions that the character in the game is feeling. That certainly is a distinction between what you'd experience watching a film and playing a game. If we've achieved that, then that's more than we could have hoped for." says Burroughs.
Through the unique connection of it being a video game, it draws the player into the game's narrative, helping players take on the character into themselves and seek meaning out of what they see as a personal journey. It connects the character's thoughts and their own, creating a bond that will tie the game's events together even tighter.
Burroughs and the team at Variable State spent years working on this narrative, finding ways to tell a story without words in such a way that the player would derive meaning from its cuts, from its chosen scenes, and from the ways the player would bond with the characters in ways only a game could do.
While budget constraints may have coaxed them in this direction, the developers used those limitations as inspiration, drawing from Chung's work and building upon it to create their own twisted, complex tale of murder, mystery, and small town secrets. They used several tools to tie all of their works together, developing an experience even the developers themselves still have some questions about.
"Virginia is the combined efforts of three people, and, in fact, we find that, although we all agreed on the shape the story should take, we all have subtly different interpretations of what we think happens at the end and what that means for the main character." says Burroughs.
"I like that, even for its writers, there is a divergence within. I have my own views -quite specific views - on what the theme of the game is and the specific way the character ends up, but I wouldn't want to say what those were and take away from other people's interpretations."
And other players are deriving their own meanings from the game as well, all taking their own stances on what the game means for them. "The fascinating thing is I'm seeing people reading things into the game that we didn't see ourselves with our intent in making the game. But when I read the depth of their analysis, I see no reason that those aren't just as valid. Perhaps some things were hidden to us - maybe only thought about on a subconscious level when making the game."
Virginia is ambiguous, but in such a way that it encourages thought, getting the player to coax meanings from its silence. Even for its developers, it's an experience that will encourage thought and introspection as they, and its players, wrestle with the story they've woven and the secrets hidden within the booming, meaningful silence.
Virginia is available for $19.99 on Steam. For more information on the game and developer Variable State, you can head to the game's site, the developer's site, or follow them on Facebook and Twitter.