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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

'Last Stop' Is a Playable Love Letter to London

London 1982. Big Ben except it’s not actually Big Ben, just a poster for tourists. As the camera pulls back, we see teenagers Sam and Pete running through a Tube station, laughing, as they’re chased by police officers dressed in classic, old-school uniforms. The action is quick, but the pair’s quips are quicker, that is until they meet a mysterious man who ushers them toward an ominous door deep in the underground labyrinth. He opens it, and a bright green light, the sci-fi kind you might find in an episode of Doctor Who, fills the screen. Sam steps boldly through the door and into the light as Pete is accosted by the two officers. The door closes, the scene ends—cut to black.

This opening to Last Stop, a new narrative-adventure game by British studio Variable State, is kind of a feint. For a start, it’s the most high-octane moment in a game that, while no slouch for the rest of its seven-hour playtime, is more interested in zippy dialog than punchy action sequences. More than that, the game’s prologue gives the impression that this is yet another familiar depiction of London—you know, London Bridge, red telephone boxes, Parliament itself, the kind Ubisoft’s open world blockbuster Watch Dogs: Legion leaned into recently. Thankfully, Last Stop is anything but a predictable trawl through famous landmarks. Instead, it whisks players to the city’s leafy hinterlands of Zone 2 and beyond (according to its famous Tube map), a place where Victorian architecture rubs up against 20th-century social housing—somewhere visitors rarely go, unless they scored a great deal on an Airbnb.


It’s surprising, then, to hear that London wasn’t the original setting the game’s codirectors, Jonathan Burroughs, Lyndon Holland, and Terry Kenny, pitched to publisher Annapurna Interactive. Originally, Last Stop was called Moon Lake, and it took place in a fictionalized US town reminiscent of the Twin Peaks-esque location of the trio’s first title, Virginia. The change stemmed from the major difference between this game and their first—not the enhanced scope or shift from first to third person, but the inclusion of dialog. Virginia was entirely devoid of speech, instead telling its quiet story through evocative animations, eerie environments, and smartly cinematic editing. Last Stop, by comparison, is a chatterbox; you spend most of your time taking part in peppy, naturalistic conversations.

Having locked in the publishing agreement with Annapurna for Moon Lake in 2017, and work having officially begun soon after, Burroughs and the rest of the team quickly started to have doubts about the marriage of their US setting and newly talkative characters. “I was certainly feeling anxious,” Burroughs says over a video call on Zoom. “If dialog was going to be central to this game, it would be a benefit if it was set in a location we were all totally familiar with. We wanted to speak with colloquialisms and a natural voice, and not rely on second-hand TV and film references.” Annpurna agreed to the shift, and a relieved Variable State changed tact, throwing themselves into the anthology of stories that would eventually coalesce as Last Stop.

Its narrative doesn’t play out like a typical video game. There’s no single protagonist but three, and you don’t really role-play these characters so much as gently influence their preordained stories. There’s John Smith, a middle-aged, single parent with a heart condition, Meena Hughes, a mother and possibly former spy who works for a private weapons company, and Donna Adeleke, a teenager who just wants to hang out with her friends while dealing with the illness of her mother. Despite sounding heavy, these individual tales, structured episodically like a television show, deftly straddle drama, humor, and action. Holland mentions the UK show Misfits, a comedy-drama about a group of teenagers with supernatural abilities, as one influence. It’s a useful comparison; Last Stop isn’t so much prestige TV as it is the kitschier end of British TV, and it works precisely because of its refreshingly light-hearted style.

This snappy tone didn't just emerge during the scriptwriting phase, but regular weeklong recording sessions with a cast of voice actors whose credits include popular UK soaps and dramas such as Coronation Street, Silent Witness, and Casualty. It was a notably unhurried approach, at odds with an industry that tends to treat dialog recording as a necessary rather than creative part of the production process. “We were keen on it not being a checkbox exercise, of just going down the spreadsheet and recording lines,” says Holland. “We were fortunate enough to have the producer at [recording company] 2020 Audio  give us that flexibility. They wanted to record audio for games that felt much more natural like a TV show.”

But Last Stop isn’t just an interactive TV show, despite presenting itself as such. (Each episode ends with a tantalizing cliffhanger followed by a swift “previously on …”) It’s a video game, and in this regard resembles the adventure genre, albeit much stripped back from the style popularized in the 1990s by LucasArts with hit franchises such as Sam & Max. You’ll mostly direct characters from one side of the screen to another and choose dialog options while occasionally looking for objects amidst the odd interactive flourish. (One involves helping John perform his daily morning routine—a swivel of the analog stick mimics his coffee sip.) The game never quite resolves the tension between its interactive form and light mechanics, but the story rollicks along at such a pace that you might not necessarily notice.

On this point, Last Stop very literally goes places. I won’t spoil where, exactly, but its final chapter will likely leave you either tearing your hair out in disbelief or smiling gleefully while reaching for the popcorn next to your controller. Honestly, your reaction will likely depend on your tolerance for vintage—some might say, corny—sci-fi.

And yet it earns this crescendo by virtue of how thoroughly grounded the preceding six hours are. Of course the writing and performances are key, but it’s also down to the game’s finely rendered (“romantic,” according to Kenny) vision of London. Eagle-eyed players will spot locations modeled on real life: John's flat is inspired by the iconic Balfron Tower in east London. while Meena’s dad lives in a house based on the beautifully futuristic-looking Alexandra Road Estate. But elsewhere, the vibe just feels right—the bright green of shrubbery set against the azure blue sky, framed by the high-rise council flats. Players looking for something more interactively involved might balk at the idea of simply walking through such environments, but others will lap up the game’s indelible sense of place. Burroughs says recent entries in the Persona series, widely beloved for their depiction of everyday modern Japan, were an inspiration, and really, it shows.

So too, ultimately, does his, Holland, and Kenny’s fondness for the game’s setting that derives from their own experiences. There’s no faking how lived-in it feels. “I love those Tube stations outside of Zone 2—the London that’s removed from the city,” says Burroughs. “It seemed to me that the culture and aesthetics of that hadn’t been well represented in games. I felt there was an opportunity to say something with authority, and for Last Stop to have an authentic quality.”

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