I’m a little surprised by just how cinematic Last Stop is. Developer Variable State wrestles the camera away from the player to frame every scene in different ways. Much like Silent Hill or The Medium, this is sometimes utilized to achieve a disturbing voyeuristic effect, but as Last Stop is a supernatural adventure game and not horror, the camera is used to convey more feelings beyond fear or dread.
It’s a totally different vibe from Variable State’s debut game, 2016’s Virginia. Virginia is portrayed in first-person, and gives the player control of the camera to observe and focus on the finer subtleties of its ambiguous plot. That, coupled with the lack of any spoken dialogue, allows Virginia to also be fairly open to interpretation–just Google “Virginia game ending” and you’ll find plenty of different theories of what players think that game’s story is about.
“It was really interesting for us, because to us, there’s a version of Virginia on the page, and our development documentation was very specific,” Variable State co-founder Jonathan Burroughs told me, following a showcase of Last Stop. “So it’s not that I never want to share that with people–I love it, I’m down with these many interpretations.”
Last Stop writer and composer Lyndon Holland added that there shouldn’t be as open an interpretation when it comes to this game. “Hopefully there’ll be stuff to read into and interpret when it comes to the motivations of the characters,” Holland said. “But I think it will be less polarizing. It should be. There shouldn’t be any confusion about what’s happening.”
Which certainly seems true: Last Stop feels a lot more strict in what it wants to deliver to the player. Almost every shot is carefully framed in a specific way, and the player has no control over it. In this way, Variable State can guide the player to specific places via the camera or convey certais emotions via specific angles.
For example, one scene sees you stealthily approaching a hole in a fence to sneak through. The camera is positioned just on the other side of the hole, severely limiting your view. You can’t see anything if you wander to the left or right, implying that you should walk forward towards the camera and the hole. But the framing also invokes a sense of dread–with so much of your surroundings blocked off, you have so little agency but to walk forwards to the camera. It feels like some unknown force is guiding your hand and slowly pulling you into a trap, or that someone is secretly spying on you.
Last Stop’s story also seems to be a lot more straightforward than Virginia’s thanks to it having spoken dialogue. “Just by the nature of [Last Stop] having dialogue makes it obviously much less open to interpretation,” Holland said. “Characters are more specific with what their intentions are.”
So far, I like it. I enjoy how intentional Variable State is with the stories of Last Stop’s three protagonists because it allows me to understand exactly what’s going on in the three separate storylines. That, in turn, makes it easier to craft theories as to how they will all connect.
“The stories do converge and the characters do meet at the end of the story,” Variable State co-founder Terry Kenny said. “If the characters didn’t meet, I think it would be unsatisfying. One of the more interesting things we got plenty of feedback on was in regards to the mystery of Last Stop in it of itself: How do these three characters meet, how are they going to end up connecting? So that’s part of the story.”
John, a single dad, is stuck in a Freaky Friday situation where he’s somehow switched bodies with his young bachelor neighbor. Meena, a ruthless businesswoman seeking a promotion, discovers a supernatural secret in the basement of the company she works for. And Donna, a high schooler, stumbles into trouble after she and her friends accidentally kidnap a man they believe to have superpowers. I can’t yet see how any of those three storylines connect, but I do have theories–ones I doubt I would have if this early preview for Last Stop’s story wasn’t delivered as straightforward as it is. Though, there seems to be a lot of set up for twists and turns from what I saw in the opening for each character’s plots.
As the interview was wrapping up, I asked the team how they had arrived at a game like Last Stop, as it seems to be such a departure from Virginia in terms of structure. As it happens, Last Stop did initially look a lot more like Virginia, but then Variable State fell in love with the idea of moving to a third-person perspective and that adjusted the idea of what the game could be.
“[Last Stop] is an accumulation of just five years of decision-making,” Burroughs said. “Actually, if you were to see the original pitch for Last Stop, it is much more explicitly a spiritual successor to Virginia. But the ambition was always there to move from first-person to third-person. We were excited about this idea of jump cuts in Virginia, asking, ‘Could we do something with interactive cinematography? Like with how the frame is composed in a film or how the camera moves in a movie?'”
He continued: “And then we got really excited about the idea of doing something with dialogue. And so Virginia, plus third-person, plus dialogue, that’s where we started. And then a variety of decisions and conversations and changes over these past five years. And very early on, the most profound idea of being able to relocate. As pitched, [Last Stop] was set in the United States, but we relocated it to London. And then from there, that opened up a lot of opportunities and presented a lot of problem-solving that led to Last Stop as it is now.”
Virginia ended up being a little too open-ended for interpretation in its storytelling for me, so I’m excited to see how Variable State handles the opposite of the spectrum with Last Stop, utilizing a more cinematic camera and including dialogue to help the player better follow the plot. Last Stop is scheduled to launch for Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PS5, PS4, Switch, and PC in July.