Virginia is a game that inseparably mixes abstract, surreal imagery – often prized from dreams or hallucinations – with the reality of its plot. Sometimes it’s apparent that what you are seeing isn’t real; other times it isn’t quite so clear. It also doesn’t matter. The truth is tinged with fiction and crucially, the fiction is imbued with a deeper truth. As such, the ambiguity over some of the game’s ideas isn’t worth coming down on either way: sitting on the fence and accepting dual possibilities will only net you a richer experience. To bastardize Andy Warhol: instead of asking, ‘what is real?’ ask, ‘what is good?’
One note before you read on: it is a game that, perhaps more than any other, benefits from multiple playthroughs. If you have just completed it the once then go back and take a second trip to kingdom to see what ideas leap out at you. Oh, and – spoilers ahead of course.
Anne Tarver is a freshly christened FBI agent at the game’s beginning, and is quickly assigned to two cases: the search for a local missing boy – Lucas Fairfax – and the investigation of a fellow agent – Maria Halperin. Halperin has been consigned – Fox Mulder style – to the basement office, and is clearly a pariah. The Fairfax case leads both agents down a rabbit-hole as they discover a secret society operating in Kingdom, Virginia. Most of what then springs forth from this simple plot is channeled through the game’s protagonist, Anne, and so this is where we will explore most of the game’s clues and imagery.
The Broken Key
Perhaps the most important symbol tied to Anne is the broken key that she carries through the game, the first large piece of the puzzle to her character. When Anne became an FBI officer, she proudly went to tell her father, who was ill in a hospital bed. His condition is presumably fatal because he asks her to do something unusual for him: to burn a box that he has in his closet. The cardboard box that she is to burn is housed within a more secure metal one, and the key to this metal box is what her father gives to her. It breaks off in the lock as it opens. Anne doesn’t look inside the box – perhaps afraid of what she might find – and puts it in a furnace.
This furnace then becomes a recurring image in Anne’s mind. Appearing periodically in Anne’s dreams, the furnace serves as a constant reminder of the choice she made to protect her father and of the mystery that continues to haunt her as to what exactly was burned. How bad could it possibly have been? How much does she trust her father? She is terrified of what might have been in the box; good men usually don’t need things burned.
During one particularly disturbing sequence, Anne dreams of a deserted highway at night. The furnace stands in the middle of the road ahead of her; on the floor leading up to it, there are scattered missing persons posters with Lucas’ face on them. The crucial thing to take away here is that Anne is terrified that Lucas may well have gone the same way. Lucas may have been put into the furnace – figuratively – by someone who needed him out of the picture. Anne’s fears are firstly that the boy may have been killed, and secondly that her actions burning the box are akin to what may have happened to Lucas in Kingdom. Perhaps Lucas knew too much.
The missing boy at the heart of the story, Lucas is a very present figure throughout the narrative despite his absence. On the one hand, Lucas represents a fulcrum that Anne’s conscience sways on, and on the other he acts as a torch shining through the darker and uglier aspects of Kingdom’s community – much in the same way that the character Laura Palmer managed in one of the game’s biggest benefactors, Twin Peaks. It becomes clear earlier on, when Anne stumbles on his secret development lab, that Lucas has a hobby: photography. Not an ideal one to have in a town where all sorts of people have plenty to hide. Indeed, it is Lucas’ hobby that may be what gets him into trouble: among the hanging pictures that Anne finds are snaps of the boy’s father engaged in an affair, and the location of what ends up being a meeting point for a group of very shady people. Lucas’ knowledge was inconvenient then, but it is not clear precisely what happened to him until, perhaps, the game’s end.
Cult or Conspiracy?
Before we get there though, it’s important to consider the possibilities that surround the game’s finale. The cult-like vision that Anne saw could well depict the key players – Sheriff Taft, Director McCarran, Colonel Emenegger, The Mayor, and Lucas’ Father – in their meeting place performing what seems to be a sort of blood ritual involving the buffalo. This could be an exaggerated imagining by Anne of what really goes on behind these closed doors. It could well be something sinister enough to get rid of Lucas if he were to discover too much.
What is also possible is that those key figures are meeting at the observatory to conspire with regard to their involvement with an alien presence. Earlier in the game, as Tarver reads through Lucas’ journal, she finds his depiction of a UFO hovering above the spot near the air force base; also in the journal is his rendering of an alien-like figure emerging from the tunnel. It is entirely possible – especially given the debt the game owes to Sci-Fi like The X-Files – that the government is colluding with a real alien presence and is attempting to cover up Lucas’ abduction.
Halperin’s mother – Judith Ortega – came close to exposing the conspiracy at the heart of the bureau; because of this, there was an internal take down whereby she was accused of misconduct involving drugs, and a character-assassination ended her career. Maria hasn’t forgotten this, and indeed it drives her bitterly to continue her mother’s work. She wears a pendant around her neck with a picture of her mother in it. This is similar to the broken key that Anne carries with her: both are symbols of weight, of ill feeling, and of baggage that traps the two agents and confines them to certain paths.
At one very telling moment in a dream, Anne walks into Maria’s office and finds her father’s uniform cap on the desk where she first saw the pendant. This ties both ideas together and highlights how much the weight of her mother’s ordeal hangs over Halperin, just as Anne’s father’s death-bed request hangs over her. It is also interesting to note that the hospital-style bed in Maria’s apartment reminds Anne of her father’s hospital bed, strengthening the connection Anne has with Maria.
Halperin’s mother used controversial methods to aid in her investigations: use of “controlled substances” is mentioned on her file, and it seems that given Maria’s encouragement of Anne taking the acid toward the game’s final act, Maria acknowledges their effectiveness. It is reminiscent of a native American ritual – the vision quest – and is something that Agent Mulder utilized in The X-Files – another subtle reference.