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- Last Stop
Story-heavy adventure games are seemingly more prone to criticism. Many of them lack gameplay and can be perceived as dry to actually play. This then puts all of the load on the narrative, which many games still can’t support. While it has some interesting ideas in the former category, Virginia developer Variable State‘s next game, Last Stop, is poised to be one of the best entries in the genre because of the quality of its story and writing.
Three unsuspecting victims
Last Stop revolves around three different protagonists: a middle-aged single dad named John, a secretive government official named Meena, and a teenage girl named Donna. The trio could not sit farther apart in a theoretical pub as they have next to nothing in common aside from the fictional borough of London they all live in. But supernatural forces pull them together and even though their stories don’t immediately cross, it’s almost guaranteed that they will down the road, given the setup and main menu screen.
This setup is full of engaging X-Files-like mysteries and occurrences that evade reasoning. According to Terry Kenny, creative co-director and art director, it’s just a product of what he loves to make.
“Those kinds of stories are always appealing to me.” he said. “It’s just a media diet someone grows up on like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. Those are the kinds of things we throw around at the very beginning.”
Ordinary people, extraordinary events
But it’s not all spaceships and special agents with unusual names. Last Stop is rooted in some sort of reality. John is dealing with his boring day job and routine life. Meena is struggling to balance her work and home life. And Donna is going through the typical teenage tale of trying to find herself in the world.
They’re all tried-and-true dramatic elements that are intriguing without the supernatural events because of the charismatic cast of characters. Dialogue is fast-paced and natural, something that was undoubtedly aided by recording the characters in a scene as a group instead of individually. Even the children and teenagers are funny, which is almost unheard of in the medium. Lyndon Holland, another creative co-director (as well as a principal music, narrative, and design director), explained how the team pulled it off with actors in their thirties without feeling like “that Steve Buscemi meme.”
“We had watched Attack the Block and they did a really good job with teens with dialogue and the slang they had,” he explained. “The lengths that they went to get that seemed quite daunting and there were a lot of TV and films that we watched that had teens that [weren’t great]. Because when you get it wrong, you get it really wrong and it’s cringe. So we kind of just wrote them as neutral-sounding adults.”
Juxtaposing these two disparate tones is what makes Last Stop so intriguing. It’s got the drama that could work on its own — an aspect that is aided by the cliffhanger-prone, episodic format — while also wrapping itself in a mystery that begs to be unraveled. Meena’s marriage woes and the otherworldly things happening to her are equally captivating. While it remains to be seen if this approach will be a success, Kenny said this was all part of the plan.
“Keeping it grounded was intentional,” he said. “We wanted it to be relatable stories to happen against the backdrop of something supernatural. A lot of time went ensuring that no matter how fanciful stuff gets, we wanted the characters to feel relatable and they are normal people who are having crazy things happening to them.”
Finding the game
But it is a video game and does have interactive elements as well. Aside from just controlling the character, there are also small prompts that are more than just quick-time events. These range from mindlessly tapping on the keyboard to simulate John’s dull job or sifting through Donna’s phone to delete pics or read old texts. None of them are mechanically deep yet their narrative ties justify their existence and Last Stop’s qualities as a video game. Except for one scene in the beginning, they do break up the dialogue scenes and yield more insight into the characters in a way just tapping X at the right time doesn’t have. Again, this was all part of the plan according to yet another creative co-director, Jonathan Burroughs.
“Those interactions should always be driven by the characters as well as being able to break up the routine enough and reveal something about the character for a moment. John’s interaction lets players role-play and it reveals the monotony of his work. That ambition was that they’d have some sort of dramatic ambition to them.”
There are still ways for Last Stop to come up short. It’s a game with 18 or so total chapters split across at least three characters, which is a long time to stretch out a mystery. And if the story doesn’t work out, then its scant gameplay interactions lose their meaning, too. But this outcome would deviate from the evidence laid out in the first few sections. Last Stop’s organic, witty writing and enigma-riddled narrative seem good enough to persist over the length of a full story. It’s just up to the full release to prove that.