Review: Virginia

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The year is 1992. The place is Burgess County in Kingdom, Virginia. A boy has gone missing under mysterious circumstances that no one seems to be able to shed any light on. Newly graduated FBI agent Anne Tarver, the player character, and her veteran partner, Maria Halperin, are on the case, while Tarver is also secretly working another investigation of her own.

That’s the basic setup to Virginia, the new first-person noir detective drama from Variable State. Needless to say, there is a whole lot more to the plot than what I have just explained, including David Lynchian down-the-rabbit-hole twists and a deeper conspiracy to be uncovered within the Kingdom community. But to reveal any more would spoil an experience that needs to be absorbed and digested by each individual player. As such, this is a difficult game to review, because it’s hard to find the right balance of describing the game and what makes it so memorable without giving too much away. But I’ll give it the old college try, and hopefully by the end you’ll come away knowing if the game’s right for you or not.

First, it’s important to outline that Virginia is the video game equivalent of an interactive art-house independent film, far more than it is what one would traditionally define as a video game. In the same vein as FPXs (First Person Experiences) like Gone Home, Dear Esther, Firewatch, and Adr1ft, interactions exist and have meaning, but true gameplay and player participation take a backseat to scripted storytelling. Virginia‘s interactions are so basic that the entire game can be controlled using only a mouse, left clicking to interact, holding in right click to move forward, and scrolling the mouse to aim the cursor and direct movement.

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The story unfolds over a series of acts, one for each day of the week, from Monday, the first day, through Saturday, the final day. Events are composed in the flowing style of a movie with film editing techniques such as jump cuts, fade-ins and fade-outs, flashbacks and flash-forwards, dream sequences, and montages used to bring an unprecedented level of cinematography to the interactive fiction genre. Think of it as a two hour cutscene that lets you pan the camera to look around, inspect and interact with objects, and briefly explore certain areas. Just the fact that the main menu says “Play Feature” rather than “Play Game” should clue you in on what to expect. There’s even a DVD-style chapter select menu for instantly jumping to particular scenes. The only thing missing to complete the effect is a bonus materials menu containing extra features like a director commentary and behind the scenes doc. Hopefully at some point Variable State will add such content in an update, as a commentary track in particular would be fascinating to listen to.

Player agency is virtually nonexistent, as the story follows a linearly directed script without any opportunities to make choices or influence the outcome. The story is told by a confident storyteller with a clear vision for where they wanted the narrative to go. That said, the game does offer fleeting moments of actually feeling like a true adventure game, where you get to walk around small environments and inspect for clues. Feathers and flowers serve as persistent collectibles over the course of the whole game. They, along with certain other items, lead to cosmetic changes within Anne’s apartment that can be picked up on during subsequent scenes returning to that environment. For example at one point a flyer for a model train sale is left under the door. Picking up and reading the flyer leads to Anne apparently ordering the train as its opened package can be found later on the coffee table. Then, in another scene thereafter, the train set appears fully assembled and running on a display table. Little things like that can be altered based on objects you collect or examine. While the game itself has no actual puzzles, the cryptic achievement descriptions add an element of puzzle solving by challenging you to decipher their meaning, collect certain combinations of items, or look out for specific moments that happen quickly and are easy to miss.

The most remarkable thing about Virginia is the way it tells its story entirely without words, written or spoken. Well okay, occasionally you’ll inspect paper documents that do have text on them, but the primary character actions, their feelings and motivations, are conveyed exclusively through physical movements, expressions, and symbolic imagery. Actually, the most remarkable thing is that the story manages to hit with such power and emotional depth, and build such memorable characters, without any of them uttering a single line of dialogue. Some players may find the silent film approach confusing and difficult to interpret, and I can understand that perspective even though I think it’s a creative choice that works perfectly to tell this particular story.

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With the intentional lack of dialogue, it’s the masterful score by composer Lyndon Holland and the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra that fills the void of silence. The soundtrack effectively serves as a symphonic narrator, its shifts in melody, theme, tempo, and phrasing used to set the mood and atmosphere for each scene, to speak where the characters do not. The score is breathtaking throughout, but there’s a particular what-if montage late in the story that takes your emotions on a rollercoaster ride of crescendoing music and vivid imagery. I’ve replayed the scene multiple times even after multiple full playthroughs, and it gives me goosebumps every single time. I can even listen to the soundtrack on its own (it’s been playing nonstop on my MP3 player for three days straight now, believe me) and fully visualize scenes in my mind. The stylized art direction plays an integral role as well, its striking minimalism and soft color palette fully capturing the beauty of Virginia’s countryside landscapes, as well as the dark undertones and secluded, small-town vibe of the story and setting. The characters look almost as if they’ve been molded out of clay or plastic, which helps to play up the pantomimed storytelling and surreal imagery.

I suppose every player will reach their own conclusions and make their own interpretations about the deeper meaning behind the story Virginia has to tell, but my general takeaway is that it is about the choices we make, the things we choose to hold onto or let go of, the singular decisions that determine our lives going one path or another, and how those choices also impact the lives of others around us. I have broader interpretations of the events of the story itself, but it’s impossible to get into that discussion without letting the spoilers fly (but I’d love to share ideas and interpretations in the comments, so chat away if you’ve played the game).

I also think it’s safe to assume that many players will struggle to grasp the full scope of the storyline the first time around. It’s so soaked in nuance and symbolism that it begs to be replayed at least a second time. Even after three playthroughs some of the symbolism is still beyond my feeble mind, but the second viewing was definitely more enjoyable than the first. Having gained at least a general understanding of the plot the first go-round, the second time through I was able to concentrate more on picking up on the finer details to fill in the deeper holes. A third playthrough wasn’t entirely necessary, but I still noticed a couple little things that I’d missed previously. I also suggest playing through the whole story in one sitting. As what is essentially an interactive movie, the experience soaks in better if you take it all in at once without interruption. Even then, I can still understand a lot of folks finding the experience confusing, and in turn frustrating. My brain sure was scrambled at first, too, but letting things sink in over multiple replays has resulted in a greater understanding of the story and appreciation for the cryptic nature of its delivery.

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For me, the only annoying part is the menu system. Intentionally done for stylistic reasons I presume, the menus load with this sort of slow burn effect that wastes a good five seconds between selections, which doesn’t seem like a lot but quickly adds up when going through the pages to configure settings. This is one area where style works against function in a negative way. Similarly, I found the ever-present cursor dot at the center of the screen to grow increasingly distracting. It’d be nice to have the option to turn it off, or to have a dedicated screenshot mode, because the way scenes are framed and shot makes the game very screenshot-able.

Obviously if you aren’t a big fan of what the kids these days like to call “walking simulators,” you can feel comfortable sitting this one out. Virginia is a focused experience, heavily influenced by cinema, driven by story and emotion, and aimed squarely at players with an appreciation for symbolic interpretation, who don’t mind direct action and gameplay taking a backseat to narrative. As a work of interactive fiction, Virginia is a modern masterpiece.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Breathtakingly evocative score
+ Powerful, nuanced storytelling and characterization without a single line of dialogue
+ Outstanding use of film editing tricks and stylized visuals
+ Interesting integration of achievements and collectibles

Cons:
– Menu’s slow burn effect puts style ahead of functionality
– Story and symbolism can definitely be confusing
– Limited player agency won’t be for everyone

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PC, also on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One
Publisher: 505 Games
Developer: Variable State
Release Date: 9/22/2016
Genre: Adventure
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1

Source: Review code provided by publisher

Buy From: Steam, Humble Store, PlayStation Store, or Xbox Store for $9.99

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!