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The last game from developer Variable State was a first-person adventure, Virginia. It was set in Virginia. It told the story of Anne Tarver, an F.B.I. Special Agent, investigating the strange disappearance of a local boy. Actually, it didn’t tell anything; it was wordless, and its plot was whipped along by the camera—closing in on faces and cutting from one scene, and one revealing detail, to the next. The new game from Variable State is a third-person adventure, called Last Stop. It is set in London. It tells the story of Meena Hughes, a special agent with a private intelligence firm, trying not to investigate the slow disappearance of her marriage. And it really tells it; it is filled with words, and its plot is talked along by the characters. How’s that for variable? Thankfully, we still have the camera—which floats and cuts away from them, as if slightly bored and angling for mystery.
This it soon finds, though I wish it hadn’t. Last Stop is at its best as a study in London lives, steeped in concrete and rain. This prevailing theme is caught in one perfect shot, as we pull slowly back from the window of a living room—muffling the row within—revealing the beige grid of a block of flats. As well as Meena’s tale, we also have two others: that of John Smith, single father with a heart condition (non-metaphorical), who works in admin for the council; and Donna Adeleke, troubled teenager and school truant, who likes to pass the time on an overpass with friends. One fine day, John bumps into a besuited gentleman at a tube station, who drops his briefcase, tripping up another man, John’s neighbour Jack. Jack and John: their names have a nursery-rhyme ring, and, sure enough, that evening each goes to bed, to mend his head, but wakes up in the other’s body instead.
The smartly dressed fellow, it turns out, is a kind of cosmic interloper—shades of the G-Man from Half-Life, who had a habit of crowbarring himself into the narrative at odd moments and opening up bizarre possibilities. Our fellow on the tube, however, is just pissed at the inconvenience, and decides to wreak a little havoc. Meanwhile, Donna and her chums, Vivek and Becky, notice an eerie occurrence of their own—a man taking a dip in an abandoned swimming pool. Weird enough, you might think, but wait, what’s with the blaring-green beams that shine from his eyes, and the feathered wings that unfurl from his back? I was reminded of Wings of Desire, the Wim Wenders film about angels who preside over Berlin. Their mission, as summed up by Otto Sander, was to “Do no more than look! Assemble, testify, preserve!” From what I could work out, this guy has similar aims; only, a look from him and you get trapped in a drifting dimension and wiped from people’s memory.
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All of which suggests a game straining, a little too hard, for our attention—or else a developer hungry for genre at the cost of a consistent tone. The design and writing are credited to both Jonathan Burroughs and Lyndon Holland (the latter of whom also composed the score), and the pair clearly have a reel of movie-coloured dreams running through their heads. Virginia was set in 1992, a year after Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs was released, and it borrowed from that film a stream of visual cues. The off-white walls of the bureau, the cold browns of the autumn outside, and its heroine, crowded by male colleagues in a lift: the game was drizzled in a Demme-glace of isolation and paranoia. When, later on, it was swept into Lynchian surrealism, served up Twin Peaks-style, it seemed a short hop—a change of channel, so to speak, but on the same network, at the same time of night.
When, in Last Stop, you switch from Donna’s exploits, which feel like an episode of Doctor Who; to Meena’s, which have the espionage and the after-watershed darkness of Spooks; then over to John’s, a light comedy with a heart condition of its own (namely, an unhealthy interest in warming it), you come away dazed. The mix-up, I’m sure, is the point; each character’s strand has a TV-show title—“Paper Dolls” for John, “Domestic Affairs” for Meena (who is unfaithful to her husband), and “Stranger Danger” for Donna. And Burroughs and Holland do hit on a fine idea: that, if we could peer into the other lives sharing the pavement, like idle channel surfers, we would surely register a jarring shift of genres.
The trouble is, I take my binge-watching neat; I don’t like to scramble shows together. There are six chapters in Last Stop, and you have to play each character’s episode in each chapter before you can move on. You can’t follow one story through to the end and then dart back. Bad news if, like me, one pulls you in more than the other two. Meena is much the more interesting of the characters; she is ex-military, her past is filled with classified pains, and she cruises through an affair on auto-pilot, zipping through the city in the back of a black cab. Her’s is the plot least touched by the supernatural, and, when the threads twine together, toward the close, her’s suffers the most tonal whiplash. I sat in disbelief at the events onscreen—which are about as far from domestic as one can get.
It comes as no surprise, then, that Last Stop is most enjoyable when it isn’t going anywhere. The end of each episode may hook you with a cliffhanger, but, when you look back on the game, the story fails to hang around. Instead, the scenes that stick in the memory don’t mean much at all. John’s daughter clamouring for her chicken dippers; Meena rounding the corner of her street, as the camera creeps along through the evening drear and cuts to her door; or Jack at the dinner table with John and his daughter, explaining what, as a game developer, he does for a living: “My team makes empathy games,” he says. “You know, games which say something about the human condition? Cutting-edge stuff?” This is met with a skeptical scowl, and you can sense Burroughs and Holland mocking their profession with gusto. But Jack is right: Last Stop is an empathy game, and Variable State may yet have something to say about the human condition. If only they would stop cutting away.
Developer: Variable State
Publisher: Annapurna Interactive
Available on: PlayStation 5 [reviewed on] PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X / S, Xbox One, PC
Release Date: July 22, 2021
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