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British game studio Variable State teased its upcoming chapter-based narrative adventure Last Stop during a press demo, describing the game as a dialogue-heavy “anthology story,” with points of reference, at least in terms of structure, being films like Magnolia or Short Cuts, “where you have a protagonist and multiple overlapping stories.”
The game features three playable characters and three converging stories that happen concurrently, but vary in tone. Its set in a fictional borough of London, which developer and company co-founder Jonathan Burroughs said is an “amalgam of lots of little out of the way parts — not the tourist trap sights and sounds like the Houses of Parliament or Tower Bridge, much more the suburbs, the kind of places you can only get to by taking a half-hour journey on the London Underground.”
Burroughs tells The Hollywood Reporter after the demo that the initial version of Last Stop was going to be set in America, though when the team relocated it to London, many more creative opportunities presented themselves. “Our lived experience of the detail and minutiae of the way people speak here, that’s something we could get into the game,” says composer and Variable State co-owner Lyndon Holland.
Explaining some of the background to the development of the game, which took five years to make, Burroughs notes how it almost ended up being entirely different, not just in terms of its location. “As originally conceived, it was going to be a spiritual successor to our previous game, Virginia,” he says. Virginia was Variable State’s debut, a first-person narrative following an FBI agent investigating her first case. It was nominated for best British game and best debut at the 2017 BAFTA Games Awards.
“I think we always saw it as taking Virginia as a starting point, a game which was very rooted in cinematic inspirations; so we were inspired by Thirty Flights of Loving [indie title from Brendon Chung’s Blendo Games], which incorporates this cinematic editing technique in the context of an interactive experience. We really embraced that.” He adds that the team built upon what they did with Virginia, which is a completely silent game, and decided to tackle dialogue to advance the storytelling in an ensemble, multi-protagonist game.
For Last Stop, the team said in the demo that they were interested in using cinematography to guide the player and help with pacing. Holland pointed out that even in expansive street scenes where the characters are seen in third person and going from A to B, there is always conversation to drive the story forward.
In terms of the characters, which were described in the demo as a “band of misfits” and outsiders who have ended up together, Variable State’s Terry Kenny tells THR that they pitted human drama against a backdrop of supernatural. “The challenge that each character is facing and the journey they go through is grounded and down to earth, whether its balancing their work-life or being a struggling single parent, those are stories we’re actually really interested in telling,” he says, adding that this game offers a supernatural twist.
Among the stories in the game, one is horror-like, while another is more comedic, with some influence from Edgar Wright and Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. “There was definitely a challenge in getting the music right between the three stories,” says Holland, adding that the game has three separate musical identities for each story.
For Burroughs, his personal influences in gaming date back to when his father, an avid science-fiction and fantasy fan, bought The Hobbit on the ZX Spectrum computer. “I don’t think we ever got particularly far in it, I remember both of us having a go at it independently, [but] that would have been my first experience of a narrative-focused game,” he recalls. Later, he got into LucasArts games, from the comedic Monkey Island to the more dramatic The Dig. “I guess maybe there’s a through-line there,” he says.
Kenny recalls having an Atari 2600 during his childhood, though it got taken away from him because he “wouldn’t stop” playing it, he remembers with a laugh. Similar to Burroughs, the games that made a big impact on him were the LucasArts portfolio. “I remember seeing the opening of Sam & Max: Hit the Road, and just being blown away that this was a video game,” he says.
Holland had a Sega Master System when he was growing up, but it got stolen. He says he remembers playing platformers like Sonic the Hedgehog and Alex Kidd. Later, he played Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade at friends houses. “I think up until that point, I just thought video games were for kids,” he says. “This was the first time where I saw adults playing the game — three or four adults crowded around the computer trying to work out some of the puzzles — I thought, that’s actually really interesting. The puzzles and the narrative is engaging enough that adults want to play this.” Later on, the point-and-click games that solidified his love for the medium were entries found in the Broken Sword adventure franchise.
Last Stop is published by Annapurna Interactive and will be coming to Nintendo Switch, PlayStation, Xbox and PC in July.
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The game releases on Xbox April 15.
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