Virginia on PC
Wisps of steam curl upwards from rich, black coffee; the sounds of keyboards and typewriters clatter softly in a gloomy office; a suited man with iron-grey hair stares out of a window smoking a cigarette; an office lies buried away in the basement, housing a wayward FBI agent who’s put under investigation by the bureau mainstream.
From independent studio Variable State comes Virginia: a mystery, thriller, adventure game played in first-person and belonging to the ‘walking sim’ genre. An apt descriptor perhaps not just for the walking you’ll be doing, but also for the legwork you must do to unravel the story.
Playing Virginia involves detective work of two kinds: that of the game’s two protagonists – Anne Tarver and Maria Halperin – and that of the player, sifting through the narrative detritus looking for clues and uncovering signs of passage from some of the best-loved television shows of the 1990s. Within minutes you inhabit once more the worlds of The X-Files, of Twin Peaks, and The Outer Limits. The game’s premise is simple, but its unfurling is masterful.
Richard Burroughs and Terry Kenny have penned a simple set-up that engulfs players in a narrative labyrinth. Two agents are tasked with the case of a missing local boy, Lucas Fairfax, and the ensuing investigation uncovers a deeper and more sinister idea lurking beneath the façade of Kingdom – the game’s fictional, rural town. You will spend time wandering through rooms – both real and imaginary, and both just as important – inhabiting different bodies, and piecing together what you find. Small, subtle visual clues and the blurring of lines between reality and dream combine to form a tapestry of imagery and insight.
Flat coloring and smooth lines cut clean shapes from melancholic and serene backdrops. The faces of the characters are cartoonish and toy-like, but they are betrayed by small, meaningful glances, frowns, and gestures that must be noticed and thought on. Early on in the game, Agents Anne Tarver and Maria Halperin interview the parents of a missing boy. Their home is like an Edward Hopper paining: muted, washed out colors, subjects looking away, staring out of windows, absent.
There is no dialogue in the game, but it’s far from silent. Lyndon Holland has composed one of the most effective soundtracks in recent memory. In collaboration with the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, Holland has produced a haunting, seductive, mysterious score that recalls the work of Angelo Badalamenti – in fact it was even recorded in the same studio Badalamenti used to score David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. Your actions in Virginia are mirrored and shadowed by the score, which adapts to what you are doing in a similar vein to Austin Wintory’s work on Journey and Abzû.
The images and sound blend and clash against one-another as they are unraveled with one of the most powerful tools in visual storytelling: the cut. Indeed, it’s odd that gaming, in all its cinematic aspiration hasn’t yet truly mastered the most fundamental of editing techniques. Virginia manages this, and as such is a ‘cinematic’ game in an entirely new sense of the word.
Taking inspiration from Brendan Chung’s Thirty Flights of Loving, Virginia will whisk you from one scene to the next with match cuts, jump cuts, and fades – you will be taken along for the ride. When the cuts pull you through scenes there is a briskness to it all that feels pacey and breathless; however, as things progress the cuts serve a different purpose – they highlight perhaps the game’s only shortcoming.
The way a piece of film is edited sculpts the way that it will be watched; it forms what viewers feel and how they will engage with a film, or a television show. It is the filmic equivalent of gameplay, something that has been largely sacrificed in Virginia. The way that we engage with a game is the most vital part of the medium, and much of what you will be doing here is pushing on to find the next narrative-triggering object. Interaction isn’t all that necessary.
Lacking here is the sense of autonomy, separation, and physicality present not just in other like-minded games – The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, Gone Home – but in games in general. You are both camera and director in one, shaping and advancing scenes or slowing them down – but never yelling ‘cut’. You really are, as the main menu suggests, ‘pushing the A button to take a trip’.
In the end, what a trip this is though. There aren’t any puzzles or obstacles to progress here, save for the single, all-encompassing enigma at the heart of the narrative. Though your engagement, as far as the controller in your hands, is limited, your engagement with the puzzle-box of imagery and ideas is boundless. While the game’s running time is short – clocking in around two hours first time through – multiple play-throughs will yield new ideas and reward players the satisfaction of myriad ‘light-bulb’ moments.
This will change the way that a lot of developers think about narrative, and it will change it for the better. The game trusts you to come away with your own judgments and ideas – you will have plenty of those when the final curtain comes down – and it is remarkable the complexity of emotions that it conveys without the use of a single word.
It is easy to come away from Virginia inspired and reeling from the vision that the team at Variable state have conjured; it is impossible to come away unchanged.
Score: 4/5 – Great