Gaming Muse

A Variable State of mind

Indie developer Jonathan Burroughs talks storytelling and Twin Peaks with Adam Koper

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Image: Variable State
Image: Variable State

Jonathan Burroughs is one half of the two-man team that leads Variable State. This relatively young indie studio caused a stir last year when a demo of their current project Virginia was shown at the EGX 2014 convention. There was universal praise for what seemed to be a brilliantly unique game, with some critics ranking Virginia as one of the best games of the convention. Working alongside Terry Kenny, it looks like Burroughs' first game could be a big hit.

Burroughs took a long and meandering path to get to this point. Despite taking mostly science courses at A-level, he started on an art degree, a decision he later regretted. "I found myself kind of drifting for a little while, ended up working in a shop in Woking selling picture frames, and that wasn't exactly where I wanted to be." Having spotted a job advert in a local newspaper, Burroughs became a games tester for Electronic Arts. From there, he moved into game development, working on Battlefield 2: Modern Combat for Playstation 2.

Burroughs admits that his entry into the world of game development was almost accidental. "I always feel a bit guilty if I'm ever asked the question 'How's the best way to get into games?', 'cos certainly the route I took was a real fluke I think. I feel very lucky for it, but it's certainly a difficult field to get into if your aspiration is to get into the studio end of things."

Variable State was set up by Burroughs and Terry Kenny in January last year. The two had become friends while working together for the company Deepmind in London. Burroughs describes Kenny as "a very accomplished animator and 3D artist," with whom he shared a passion for indie games such as Gone Home and Kentucky Route Zero. "I think we wanted to have a go at doing something like that, do a game that was perhaps a bit more personal."

Virginia will be the first game to come out of this vision for more personal games. Set in small town America, the story follows an FBI agent brought in to work on the case of a missing boy. The game describes itself as "a first person interactive drama." When I ask Burroughs what they mean by this, he jokingly tells me "it's a slightly pretentious way of saying it's a walking simulator," and admits that it "really isn't a game in the traditional sense of puzzle solving, or applying skill to master a complex challenge."

The focus point here is on the storytelling. "It's far more about immersing yourself in a story and experiencing a story, really almost like watching an animated film, from the first person perspective. You drive your character through the scene and there's some degree of interaction, but it's not an adventure game like a Monkey Island game - there's no picking up objects for an inventory and figuring out how to use those objects. It's certainly not LA Noire, there's not that kind of role-play."

You'd think that a game which puts such an emphasis on storytelling rather than gameplay would naturally rely on dialogue, although rumours on the internet had it that Virginia would feature no dialogue whatsoever. When I asked Burroughs about this, his answer was quite direct. "That's completely true, yes, now that is right. So partly for practical reasons we were a little afraid of doing [dialogue], it would add an extra dimension of quality to achieve." But this has ended up working in their favour, he tells me. "There's a large cast of characters in the game and they're all fully animated and their performance conveys a lot of the drama in the game, and also we had Lyndon Holland our composer who has done an incredible soundtrack for the game, and I think we don't miss the dialogue at all. I think in fact that it adds a useful ambiguity to the storytelling so it leaves an amount up to interpretation. I think that's very useful."

On paper the story bears a noticeable resemblance to the nineties' television show, Twin Peaks. When I bring this up, there's a hint of regret in Burroughs' response. He tells me about how his friendship with Kenny was partly the result of the pair's love of a certain type of nineties television. He names Twin Peaks, The X-files and The Outer Limits as being part of this group. While he describes these programs as being "the starting point" for the project that would become Virginia, he is quick to make it clear that the game will not be weighed down by its influences. "I think maybe we were at risk of referring to that a little bit too often, I wouldn't want people to think Virginia was a pastiche of Twin Peaks or even really that much directly inspired by David Lynch [...] It's certainly not trying to be Twin Peaks as a game."

So far, Variable State haven't released any video footage of Virginia, and only a handful of images. Little has been seen or heard of the game since a demo was shown at EGX 2014, but Burroughs was quick to explain the secrecy, telling me that "since then the game's changed enough that I think we can't continue to show that demo, but nor is it quite far enough along that we can show what it has become, so I think we will have something to show before long." It seems that Variable State are taking their time, which is reassuring in an era characterised by unfinished games. Hopefully it will have been worth the wait when Virginia is released next year.

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