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Game Design Level Design Narrative

How Virginia keeps the player moving forwards

Having recently replayed Variable State‘s fantastic Virginia (2016), I’ve made a few notes on how I think the game uses linearity to it’s advantage to ensure players move the story forwards.

Scene cuts

The game implements match cuts – a scene transition technique adapted from film to quickly transport the player from one scene to another. When used in this game, it completely skips the sequence or context from how you got from one place to another. Implementing this ensures that the momentum of the story keeps moving forwards –  these rapidly and sometimes jarring cuts remove unnecessary transitional events (such as driving for hours from one location to another) and seamlessly places you into a new environment.

It might just be because I am fan of this technique in film, but I love seeing this implemented in games. Even though it’s abrupt and enforced on the player, I actually feel it can makes the world feel more alive. It suggests that time has passed, that the intervening events have happened off screen and are not necessarily essential to the character’s story, immediately placing you into the next event that requires your observation.

Thirty Flights of Loving used this to absolute perfection (the Virginia devs state in the credits that they were heavily inspired by this game). Here TFoL utilises these fast cuts in almost the opposite fashion, to unique effect. It would skip the action-oriented events and thrust you immediately into the aftermath, leaving you startled and confused as you tried to place together what had just happened. I’d love to see this stuff used more!

Virginia EXPECTS you to keep moving, to keep up the pace. You can stand in one place, but nothing surprising (to my knowledge) will happen around you- it’s linear, filmic and it relies on player momentum to keep the story moving forwards.

Streamlining interactive objects

Everything you need to use or interact with in Virginia is there in plain sight in front of you – if it can be interacted with, it is usually important to the story.

This means that is doesn’t distract you with lots of meaningless set dressing and items to focus on, as there’s (usually) only one primary thing to interact with or pick up in a room.

This narrows down the player’s decision making process towards what is narratively important.

This does not mean that exploration isn’t required or encouraged, however. It still requires the player to move through and explore the space to find the primary intractable, and as a result the player will learn about the events that have/are happening through environmental storytelling.

Pointer/reticle states

Reticle state changes via distance from object

It’s worth noting about the reticle that changes states when an interactive object can be used. This includes three states:

Virginia reticle cursor states

Default   >  Interactive (Out of range)   >   Interactive (In range)

Whilst there’s nothing unusual about this selection of states, the ‘interactive (out of range)’ state is worth mentioning. For me it seemed that when an interactive object is spotted, the reticle will update to this new state from a noticeably long distance away from the object. The game WANTS you to find things easily, again to keep things moving.

VirginiaDistance
Here the reticle has changed state to highlight a selectable object, even though the object is a mirror far away across into another room.

Again, the pacing is critical – they do not want you to get stuck or become confused about where to go. Everything from the mechanics, object placement and level design reinforce this.

Audio

The strict linear and scripted scene cuts makes this a dream project for a composer. The transitions are really clean and obvious, and it’s much easier to know where a player will be at what point due to the filmic linear approach of the level structure. Because of this, you can really use transitions in the music to match the scenes with great effect. The team does a fantastic job with the implementation in Virginia, and Lyndon Holland has crafted a beautiful score.

Another point on audio, is that the game completely lacks character dialogue. This provides the space for the music to come to the forefront, colouring the emotions of the scene in a way few games allow.

The lack of dialogue also helps reinforce environmental storytelling and scripted events, as the story is not reliant on dialogue and exposition to communicate it’s meaning to the player.


(Ps. In the Thirty Flights of Loving post I describe these scene cuts as ‘jump cuts’. After a bit more research it seems that ‘match cuts’ is actually a more accurate term – if anyone has a better term for these cuts used in games, feel free to let me know!)

(Pps. After a prolonged break from this blog, I’ve decided to start writing again about level design in a more free-flowing way. My plan is to open this up more into a broader dialogue with anyone who’s interested and/or working in a level design field. Keep checking in as there’s more to come!)

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