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- Last Stop
Virginia was one of the most bizarre narrative games to come out in the last decade. It was a first-person story-rich game, but it had no dialogue; an oxymoronic pairing. Critics were split on this weird experience as the game garnered scores ranging from 3/10 to 9.25/10. Its overall Steam user reviews are even “Mixed.” Games with these extreme scores are often followed up something similarly odd, but Last Stop, the next game from Variable State isn’t quite so weird (even though it still seems quite good). And that’s by design.
Last Stop has characters that speak to each other with words. It even has a third-person camera. Those are common elements for other games, but radical for Variable State. It could be viewed as a loss of a certain signature flair to some, but this change allowed Variable State to explore ideas they wanted to without as many stipulations.
“During the course of making Virginia, it was very apparent that there are real limitations if you set out to make a first-person game with no dialogue in terms of the kind of story you can tell and the nuance you can get across in the characterization and character performances,” said Jonathan Burroughs, creative co-director on Last Stop.
“I don’t think Virginia is lacking — I think it is coherent within those restraints — but off the back of that, I think we were very keen to do something where there were fewer restraints,” he continued. “Dialogue was an immediate thing that we were really excited about doing. We were timid about it in Virginia, which is why we put that limit on ourselves and thought we would come back to it another day.”
The first stop
That timidness comes from the studio’s relative inexperience. Virginia was its first game and it wasn’t a big studio. It was originally just Burroughs, Lyndon Holland, and Terry Kenny, the three studio co-founders. Boundaries had to be set and going without dialogue seemed like the way to go, especially as working with voice actors would add many more complications. Holland seemed happy to move on and be free from those prior confines.
“When you don’t have dialogue, it’s really quite difficult to find the sort of stories you can tell,” he said. “We just felt like there was an opportunity to tell another story. What could we do if we had the ability to totally remove our shackles?”
Kenny, on the other hand, appeared to be slightly stressed out by the experience.
“It’s hard to tell a story in first-person with no dialogue,” he admitted. “I didn’t learn anything because I went to make another video game. Every video game seems to be a weird process. There’s a sliding scale of the joy of it when it is an idea and then the actuality of making it and then you come out the other end… like when we finished Virginia, it was just relief to have finished it. And then we moved on to the next thing and now I am looking forward to the relief of being finished with this game.”
“I don’t think I learned anything!” he continued, somewhat jokingly. “That sounds terrible, doesn’t it? I am sure I did. I am sure I learned that it was difficult to make a first-person game with no dialogue so that’s why we didn’t do it again.”
Finding the words
Whether Kenny wants to admit it or not, Variable State have some takeaways since Last Stop does have some of Virginia’s DNA in it. Virginia’s time-saving jump cuts are in Last Stop. The character designs, while more complex, are still heavily stylized, but appealing. Both have supernatural elements.
Limitations are one of those borrowed elements as well. While every piece of art has some restrictions, Variable State is still small and that means that Last Stop can’t be some AAA blockbuster with Naughty Dog-levels of visual detail. The story doesn’t truly branch like a Quantic Dream game like its choice-laden conversations seem to imply. NPCs are mainly faceless mannequins. Kenny said he felt that worked as players knew they wouldn’t be getting quests from these nobodies, even if he knew it wasn’t some grand plan he had from the start.
“We felt happy, and this sounds cynical, but we thought it was fine for a big city,” he said. “We don’t have the ability to have self-generating versions of lots of different characters. It would draw attention to them. Like you can have a handful of background characters but none of them are distinct. ‘It’s the dude in the pink shirt again!’” [laughs]
In many ways, Last Stop is more open but still carries on from what Virginia started. Jump cuts are just one cinematic technique as Last Stop’s third-person camera allows the team to further expand upon the cinematic language it started speaking in the first game. The camera’s placement can clue players in on the characters’ relationship or swell and zoom out in time with the music.
“It’s sort of embellishment of what we did in Virginia as well,” said Burroughs. “We were able to retain the cutting that we used from Virginia as much as we can. And then we were interested in having conversations that felt naturalistic that leaned more toward brevity. We were very interested in trying something in third-person so we could explore authored camera positions and cinematography. I think it was the next rung on from Virginia in our minds.”
Last Stop is automatically less unique than Virginia because it has more traditional inspirations and can be more easily compared to other games. But that’s not a bad thing because those limits gave Variable State enough experience to work within more established boundaries for its next title. While it still has to prove itself, Last Stop appears to be excelling because of that experience, showing that quality isn’t always dependent on breaking new ground.