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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Last Stop’ is an entertaining boxset of interactive stories

(Annapurna Interactive)

Last Stop

Available on: PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X and Series S, Xbox One

Developer: Variable State | Publisher: Annapurna Interactive

Release: July 22

It’s not often I come to the end of a game and decide that its standout feature was the editing. But with “Last Stop,” a jumbled boxset of lively interactive stories, that’s definitely the case. It’s no real surprise, since the last time I felt this way was with “Last Stop” developer Variable State’s first game, “Virginia,” a sweaty, Lynchian FBI drama built on unsettling jump cuts. The tone is different this time — a series of quirky family dramas disrupted by the supernatural — but “Last Stop” shares a similar relentless momentum, clinically arranging and clipping scenes to soften bumps on the road to its titular destination.

The tone of “Last Stop” isn’t the only way it departs from “Virginia,” however. The new game ups the scale and juggles a wider range of filmmaking tricks. Third-person perspective switches in for first, with an array of artfully positioned cameras tracking a trio of fully-voiced protagonists around a fictional London suburb. These characters star in separate, yet subtly overlapping, tales, chopped into several breezy 15-20-minute episodes. You bounce between the three, playing a single chapter of each before advancing to the next.

There’s contrast between the stories as well, as they mine the tropes of different cinematic genres. The first focuses on John Smith, a downtrodden, middle-aged single parent with a heart condition, magicked into a body-swap farce with his younger, fitter neighbor Jack. It’s classic buddy movie stuff, ripe for comedic mix ups and generational divide gags, as the odd couple have no choice but to work together to keep their lives afloat while seeking a solution.

Then there’s Meena Hughes, an ex-spy — or something like that — now employed by a private weapons tech company. She’s the most enigmatic of the bunch, with her buried past and top secret work projects, yet the bulk of her story is straight character drama, a tragic spiral of ruthless ambition, distrust and repressed emotion. Albeit with a hint of conspiracy, or something more inexplicable, skulking behind the scenes.

Finally, there’s teenager Donna Adeleke, whose life of dodging responsibility is complicated by the intrusion of a silent stranger with glowing eyes who may be making people disappear. There’s more emphasis here on the paranormal, when Donna and her friends wind up holding the mystery man hostage in an abandoned indoor swimming pool. Tensions escalate as they try to figure out what to do, and the stranger’s otherworldly intentions are slowly revealed.

It’s a fine assortment, and all three stories hit their stride early on, with intrigue and efficient pacing. The writing is snappy and smart, with a good ear for comic timing, and the good sense to keep moving on when it hits spikes of melodrama or corny punchlines. It’s also warm with emotion, delivered by characters that are simply drawn but blessed with highly expressive faces. Still, if I’m being picky, while “Last Stop” features a variety of accents and identities, there’s a homogeneity to the way the characters speak. It’s most glaring with Donna and friends, who never quite convince as modern teenagers, especially when using terms like ‘dob in’ (to snitch) — an Australian phrase — or referring to “ASBOs” (anti-social behavior orders), which no longer exist in England. The script seems more sure-footed when speaking through older individuals like John, or kids like his delightfully sharp daughter, Molly.

I have similar feelings about “Last Stop’s” setting as well, which doesn’t evoke London so much as a sense of London-ness, built of red buses and other English cultural bric-a-brac. A little like the London of TV show “Ted Lasso,” or Thames Town — the fake “British” enclave in China’s Songjiang province — it’s almost trying too hard to accentuate its sense of place, to the point it becomes uncanny. And yet it does have plenty of personality, like a London-esque edition of “Persona 4” with its zoomed-out views of parks, housing estates, high street shops and tube stations.

The player fits into this presentation very gently, so to speak. In terms of what you get to do, “Last Stop” slots neatly into the Venn diagram overlap between walking simulators, quick time events (QTEs) and visual novels. Like “Virginia,” this game’s interactive elements are less forms of agency and more a means to pull you into the ambiance of the unfolding drama.

Let’s start with the walking. Say Meena is furtively escaping the office to visit her lover, or John is escorting Molly to school — you have to guide them there. Finding the way isn’t a problem since alternate paths are blocked by invisible walls and discouraging camera angles. You’re really just following a preset path — a reasonably efficient means to keep you busy while scenes are set via camera angles, expositional dialogue and amusing shop names but it doesn’t always jell with the slick production. In “Virginia,” the illusion of control bolstered the atmosphere, combining an investigator’s instinct with awkward uncertainty as you panned around for things to do. In “Last Stop,” I felt I was disrupting the immaculate pacing whenever I tried to go the wrong way — often causing AI partners to get in a muddle, rotating on the spot or overlapping with my character — or missing my cue when starting a new scene.

Variable State still has a knack for conveying meaning through simple actions, however, and that comes through in a range of contextual QTE inputs that pop up as characters indulge in certain activities. Having you perform John’s morning routine, for example — a few back-and-forths of the analogue stick to brush your teeth, quarter rotations to sip coffee and scoop spoonfuls of cereal — tunes you in to his autopilot apathy. It also contrasts against Meena’s spy mode, highlighting her professional skills and distrustful nature, where a conversation flips to a static first-person view and you highlight key features of her interlocutor to establish their threat level. Or with Donna, you scroll through photos on her phone, choosing which to delete to free up space, a practice that grants insight into what she values most. Sometimes you only press a single button, but each such gesture tells you something about the mind-set of the person involved.

The same can be said of the game’s thick and fast dialogue choices, if not quite so consistently. Again, you can’t significantly alter the chain of events with these, just decide the attitude your character should take toward plans, accusations or romantic advances. And that’s mostly fine, as long as you accept you aren’t role-playing, you’re piggybacking a story that happens with or without you — a point driven home when the response options to a question are “Yeah,” “Sure,” and “Right.” Yet there are times when the limitations feel cheap and artificial, like when you are given drastically opposing choices that ultimately merge into the same piece of speech.

But if the aim is to have players fumble their way through these stories like their characters, experiencing their sense of confusion and loss of control, not knowing where their decisions are fated to lead, then overall “Last Stop” works, despite the unevenness.

Eventually each narrative arrives at an entertaining grand finale that tests what the protagonists have learned about themselves. It even ultimately offers you actual choices to determine their fates — a nice touch as you finally decide where their personalities would lead them, even if the results aren’t hugely powerful or poignant.

For all its carrot-dangling mystery, then, “Last Stop” is ironically more satisfying for the structure and delivery of the journey than the point of termination. The magic isn’t so much in the fluorescent green light that heralds instances of supernatural strangeness, but in smart plotting and relatable characters, your nudging interventions and, yes, the edit.

Indeed, the most interesting choices I made in the game weren’t the final ones, but those provided by a minimal flexibility to decide the game’s order. You have to go through the first episode of every story before moving on to the second, and so on, but in each round of episodes you select who starts, who goes second and who goes last, determining how they sequence together, how long cliffhangers are left unresolved, and whether your next serving will be more dramatic or comic.

It’s a structure that ensures different perspectives and voices carousel in and out with pleasing regularity, but also in accordance with your mood. It works to intertwine three stories that are differently enjoyable — Meena’s is the most interesting character study, Donna has the most captivating mystery, John is primarily the comic relief — playing them off each other to make them that much more gripping than they would be alone. Variable State may still not have found the perfect interactive formula for its cinematic talents, but until it does “Last Stop” remains a moderate success.

Jon Bailes is a freelance games critic and social theorist from the UK. He is author of Ideology and the Virtual City (Zero, 2019), and can be found on Twitter @JonBailes3.