Nominee | Nuevo Award | Excellence in Narrative | Best Audio | Excellence in Visual Art

Jonathan Burroughs is one of the creators of Virginia.

Each year at GDC, MFA students from the NYU Game Center interview the Independent Games Festival nominees, asking them three questions about their development process. In addition to this interview, you can read all the insightful interviews from 2017 here. These conversations, and much more, will happen when the Game Center returns to GDC in 2018. Learn more about the Game Center at GDC 2017.

Corey Bertelsen: What main concept, image or question began this project?

Jonathan Burroughs: Myself and Terry [Kenny] were working on a game a our previous company.  That was fine, but we were sort of drawn to what was going on at the time in indie game development, particularly in terms of storytelling.  Gone Home had just come out, Kentucky Route Zero had just come out, and those were the games that we were talking about.  So even while we were at that company, we knew that we wanted to do something in our spare time if we could.  Then we were made redundant at that company, and just kind of carried on with it from there, knowing that we wanted to make a game in which storytelling was a focus.

In terms of themes, we saw in “Gone Home” how powerful nostalgia was in that game.  We thought about the era of our childhoods, and that’s where we drew on “Twin Peaks” and the “X Files” to some degree.  It was a useful storytelling device for the game to be about a detective story, and to have two outside characters who are constantly inviting storytelling by probing into this unfamiliar environment.  

So that was kind of it. The decision to not include dialogue was kind of a practical one, so we could focus on animation.  On the back of playing “Thirty Flights of Loving,” we decided to include that game’s cinematic editing technique.  We thought that dialogue would be stretching ourselves too thin, with all the work involved in that.  So we kind of convinced ourselves that we’d be able to tell a story which didn’t require any speech, and we just launched ahead with that.  Fortunately it all worked out!

Corey: Was the lack of dialogue borne out of time constraints?

Jonathan: It was a variety of factors. The primary reason was a fear of not being able to do it justice.  There are so many components involved.  There a lot of really good voice performances in games, but it’s tricky to get right.  I think we knew as much as a creative exercise it would be a research and development exercise, and there’d be a prototyping phase, and we’d have to figure out how to make a lot of these things work, in particular the cinematic editing.  We just thought this was one thing too many, and we’d be spreading ourselves thin.

There was another side to it, which was in the course of playing “Thirty Flights of Loving” and being aware of the pace at which the game moves, partly because of the use of editing, I was aware that there wasn’t a point of reference for how to bring dialogue into that model without bringing the game to a stop.  If it was done like the Telltale Games model, for instance, or in Mass Effect, you’ll perform an interaction, then you’ll be in dialogue mode.  That can be a quite slow experience.  We were worried about that being jarring.

Corey: You’ve mentioned other games and media, like the X Files and Thirty Flights of Loving, as inspirations.   Was there a specific experience or moment in these media that inspired the atmosphere you were going for in Virginia?

Jonathan: I don’t know actually.  That’s interesting, because I don’t remember talking about the project with the intention of arriving at a particular atmosphere.  It kind of took us by surprise even, quite late in the project – the atmosphere that the game did have.  We knew from the off that we wanted a story that would be about a dynamic between two characters, and initially that was a romantic relationship.  Fairly quickly we thought it would be a less commonly told story to make it be about a friendship – a friendship that would be quite rocky, and there’d be a lot of dramatic opportunities there.  

At the end I find the tone of Virginia to be quite morose, it’s quite a sad game.  I don’t think we set out to make a sad game, necessarily, or to make something as bleak and forlorn as Virginia can be at times.  We set out with certain intentions, then over the course of making it, it ended up somewhere we didn’t anticipate.   

Corey: Is there a specific tool or methodology that you feel was important in shaping a unique characteristic of your game?

Jonathan: Because Virginia was so light on mechanics, it was very story-led.  There was a script up front that we finalized, I think, towards the end of 2014.  Where there was iteration, it was where, having made a sequence of scenes, in the course of playing it you would find that the audio didn’t provide the correct dramatic emphasis, or one scene was too dominant in relation to the other scenes.  Whereas in a film you’d edit those down, in the game we’d solve that by expanding or contracting corridors.  The key thing was the relationship between the fixed music, the points in the scenes where the player could trigger a cut, and the unpredictable nature of the player’s behavior.

Corey: Was Lyndon Holland [the composer] involved early on to facilitate those kinds of detail iterations?

Jonathan: Yeah, Lyndon was involved very early on.  We started out in January 2014, and I think Lyndon joined us in March, and stayed through to the end.  It’s kind of unusual, at least in my experience.  Often sound and music are afterthoughts in a long game development – you get a contractor parachuted in at the last moment, and they don’t have enough time to do the thing justice, and they haven’t been there for all of the discussions leading up to that point in the project.

Lyndon kind of made the role broad for himself, and he took on a lot of extra responsibilities.  He did all of the sound design, he composed and created a lot of the music, which was re-recorded in an orchestral session later on.  But he also did game design and level scripting, and would often have to go into the Unity scenes and change the logic in order to accommodate the dynamic behavior of the music that he wanted.  He even did some 3D modeling at one point.  That really helped, because when doing an iteration, the span of time that it took from idea to implementation was so narrow that we could have an idea in the morning, talk it through, and have it implemented in the evening.  I think that pace of iteration was essential to get all the story adjustments we needed, particularly towards the end of the project.

Corey Bertelsen, a recovering structural engineer from Minnesota, is studying game design at NYU.  He likes synaesthetic games, improvised music, and pancakes.