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.
Courtesy of Annapurna Interactive
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.
Courtesy of Variable State