Exploring the low-poly Lynchian landscapes of Virginia

Bodies wrapped in plastic, washed up onto beaches, an ear dumped in a field; it’s murder mystery that paves the way beneath the veneer of small town communion in David Lynch’s rural America.

Detectives—official or self-appointed—step beyond the white picket fence and into seedy interiors of drug abuse, domestic violence, and more. All of which are occasionally haunted by Lynch’s non sequitur moments—who can forget the Mystery Man in Lost Highway, or the Cowboy in Mulholland Drive? Typically, the “whodunnit” falls sway to the mysticism of the rural US, the disturbing fascination of the suburban kitsch, and the strange poetry that ties it all together.

born from a teenage fascination with American TV shows and films of the ’90s 

It’s Lynch’s vision of America, along with the bizarre horrors of The X-Files and The Outer Limits, that entirely enshrouds Virginia. No, not the state, but the first project from young UK-based videogame studio Variable State. Jonathan Burroughs, one of the three members of the studio, describes Lynch’s ability in cult TV series Twin Peaks to “mix the mundane and the strange” with a warm fondness. “That’s something I really hope we can capture,” he says.

On the surface, Virginia is a first-person “interactive drama” set during the early ’90s that follows a recently graduated FBI agent and her professional partner. Following the Lynchian example, the pair is chasing the mystery of a young boy who disappeared in a small rural town in Virginia. It’s this that leads them towards exposing the inexplicable and the absurd, to encounter the “loners, has-beens, creeps and beatniks,” moving between the familiar and the unsettling in a heartbeat. It’s no mistake that it’s all wrapped up in the birthplace of America, where “nothing is quite what it seems.”

Developers Variable State themselves are not from Virginia—it’s two Englishmen and an Irishmen. They haven’t lived small-town Virginia, they haven’t seen it or experienced it first-hand, and so their idea of Virginia is patched together from various exported fictions.

“I hope we can make it clear that we’re not really trying to represent the real Virginia so much as we’re trying to create an exaggerated, abstracted Virginia based on its history, its cultural significance and most of all based on the television, films and literature which have inspired us.”

This is Variable State’s “own personal” Virginia, one apparently born from a teenage fascination with American TV shows and films of the ’90s, watching Silence of the Lambs in bed while half-hiding under the quilt. It’s also why the storytelling in Virginia takes precedence over puzzle solving, completing challenges, and other features intrinsic to videogames that even slightly distract from full engrossment with the story. Jonathan went so far as to compare playing Virginia to “witnessing a film from an actor’s perspective.”

There are even scenes of what Jonathan calls “a little moment of role-playing in an everyday situation.” In the game’s feature list, this is described as taking the time to “kick back with a cup of hot joe”.

“I remember an early conversation with Terry [Kenny], one of the other developers on Virginia, about an early script revision. And we both wanted to include a scene in a diner. And we loved the idea of a scene where you could be doing something as mundane as just enjoying a meal or sipping a mug of coffee.”

It’s important to Variable State that the unexplainable scenes present in other parts of the game live alongside mundane ones such as this. It should be unsurprising to find out that this contrast is one that was blended so well throughout Twin Peaks. It adds an uncertainty to the real and the familiar, turning the drama into a dreamlike exercise, like a living nightmare that you’re constantly expecting to wake up from.

“getting to portray and embody a character of a different ethnic background to myself felt like something I wanted to pursue.” 

But it’s not just Lynch’s TV series that has influenced the inclusion of this mundane role-playing; recent videogames are to blame, too.

“I remember how much I enjoyed scenes in Heavy Rain where I got to play as a father setting a table for dinner and being a parent with my children. And being able to embody a character, one who is either entirely different to me, or who I can completely relate to. I think that’s really fascinating.”

The benefit of including these everyday activities is that it suggests the people we play as don’t just exist for the drama of the story. A moment of contemplation in a diner sipping on a coffee helps reveal another side to this life we’ve jumped inside. For a brief moment, we might question their motives and the personal toll of the actions we commit them to. It’s all part of Variable State‘s effort to have relatable and interesting characters, which is important for any media primarily dealing in drama and conversation. It coincides with the studio’s choice for the two main characters in Virginia—two women, one African American and the other Hispanic.

The protagonists started off as a reworking of Mulder and Scully from The X-Files, with the player in Scully’s shoes, caught up in a heterosexual romance with their partner. But the storylines that came from this didn’t lead to much inspiration. That’s when the partnership became a tsundere friendship about two women, providing a dynamic between them that evolves with their growing trust and fondness for each other. Swapping the ethnicity of the characters came from similar reworkings.

“Initially both characters were white. And then we adapted the partner character to be more inspired by actress Lauren Vélez. And we decided the player character would be African American because we were three white men making a game. And the idea of getting to portray and embody a character of a different ethnic background to myself felt like something I wanted to pursue. As any author must want to, I hope we can approach our characters responsibly and make them fascinating, complete human beings.”

Striking the balance between naturalistic drama and the more unnerving sequences in Virginia, all of it guided by player exploration, has been a struggle for Variable State. But an epiphany did occur for the team upon playing Brendon Chung’s first-person thriller Thirty Flights of Loving as it illustrated to them “just how simply and efficiently a game could elicit a really broad range of emotions.”

The key inspiration they took from the game was its style of animation and expressive sound design. It’s partly why the studio’s animator Terry Kenny has realized Virginia in a low-poly art style, or as Jonathan describes it, an “exaggerated, cartoon style.” He adds that having “bold, evocative, physical performances” from the characters that this style allows (as opposed to the subtle expressions of, say, motion-captured faces preferred by game directors like David Cage), helps in the storytelling of Virginia. The other reasons for adopting a low-poly presentation is it lessens the burden of the artwork, and is helped along by an adoration for Kentucky Route Zero, the graphic novels of Charles Burns (particularly the Black Hole series, presumably) and Hergé’s Tintin comics.

American culture has intrigued and encouraged both scrutiny and celebration by videogame creators 

The sound design and ambient guitar picking of the soundtrack is being handled by composer Lyndon Holland, a graduate of London’s National Film and Theatre School, and whom Jonathan describes as a “virtuoso” (at the risk of Lyndon scoffing). He then says of Lyndon that it’s “his musical contribution combined with Terry’s incredible character animation [that] is very much the soul of our game.”

The main quality shared between the magical realism of the story and the expressive stylistic choices is allowing room for interpretation. “I find that the best stories, the best art, really, typically leaves an amount unsaid and lingers in the mind after you’ve experienced it. I hope that’s something we can achieve too,” says Jonathan.

Virginia is the latest in a string of videogames exploring suburban and rural America. These are stories provoked by mystery, but ultimately lead into an interest in the underbelly of America‘s heartlands, questioning the culture at its core. Previously, this kind of commentary was limited to Nintendo’s classic RPG Mother way back in 1989, and the obvious satire in the bustling cities of the Grand Theft Auto series. GTA IV was particularly potent in its commentary. In it, we follow Eastern European immigrant Niko Bellic as he chases the American Dream through a criminal life of violence and an adoption of America‘s culture of excess.

This discourse is now being migrated to the suburbs and pastoral towns by efforts such as The Last Of Us, Kentucky Route Zero, and upcoming titles like Firewatch, Witchmarsh, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, and now Virginia. These are stories that have us ride in on corpse trails and, as Jonathan admires, leave us with lingering thoughts, questioning what we just experienced, and what it could all mean.

Only one thing seems certain, and that is the superficiality and darkest secrets of American culture has intrigued and encouraged both scrutiny and celebration by videogame creators lately. Variable State and Virginia is easily one of the most enchanting participants moving in this direction.

Virginia is due to release during or after summer 2015 on PC and, potentially, Mac as well.