Platforms: PC (reviewed), Xbox One, PS4
When you write about video games for a living, you often get into a certain rhythm. It’s not necessarily formulaic, but for the most part games are made up of the same general parts. You play as a character, there is a story that pushes you forward, there are gameplay elements that let you interact with the world, there’s music, voice acting, sound effects, and so on. Generally speaking, those sorts of characteristics can be used to understand the majority of modern games.
Those same characteristics cannot be used to understand Virginia, a recent first person interactive drama by indie game developer, Variable State. We’ve written about why the designation of "video game" might be an outdated term in and of itself, and Virginia is the latest argument against what we traditionally understand as a game. For better and for worse, this is unlike anything else I’ve ever experienced.
It All Starts With a Missing Boy
Virginia is a game of moments. What I mean by that is that virtually every scene in the game ends with a jump cut to another scene, similar to what you see in films and TV shows. Typically in a game, you’d control the character as they walk from point A to point B, looking at things, talking to characters, engaging in combat, collecting items, and so on. That travel time, the freedom of exploration and movement, is one of the biggest things that separates most games from films.
In the case of Virginia, that doesn’t exist. Once a scene is completed, it immediately cuts to the next scene. As soon as you exchange glances with an important character – jump cut to the next scene. Once you pick up an important object and look at it – jump cut to the next scene. This structure creates a frantic pace that eliminates filler content and ensures that each and every moment of the game is crucial.
Furthermore, this is not a game for people that need to have a sense of agency and control in their virtual worlds. Other than walking around in some areas and clicking on things to progress the story forward, there isn’t much interaction or "gameplay" going on at all. That isn’t to say it’s necessary, but it does end up feeling empty without something meaty to replace that feeling of direction.
Show, Don’t Tell
The quickened pace built up a strange sort of anxiety for me, which matched the state of mind of my character, Anne Tarver, an FBI agent. You’re tasked with following her story as she searches for a lost boy named Lucas, who lived in a small town in Virginia – thus the game’s title.
While there is zero dialogue – literally, no one speaks a word – there is still a rich, engaging narrative to follow. Subtitles and voice-overs are replaced by a soaring musical score, bright, contrasting visuals, and a deliberately designed game world. Instead of exploring environments, looking for clues, and interviewing witnesses, it feels more like a highlight reel of all of the most important moments throughout the investigation. Although, just a mere 30 or so minutes into the 2-hour long game, you’ll learn that there is much more going on than meets the eye.
When the format of jump cuts and zero dialogue works, it works very well. The incredible musical score is performed by the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra and it’s easily the brightest spot of the entire game. The score will swell as you’re walking down a hall, then the scene cuts to a new room once the music climaxes. Each scene in the game is built around the flow and bend of the orchestral tracks just as much as it’s focused on the important points of the narrative itself.
The enigmatic storytelling is a bold direction that must have taken precise planning and insight to pull off. The format falters most when it presents more information than you’re given time to process before switching things once again. For example, during one moment I was reading a file on a case and before I had a chance to even skim the first paragraph of a full sheet of text, the scene shifted. Clearly this could be an intentional, stylistic choice, as if to imply that you shouldn’t be able to digest everything at your own pace, but it comes off as more jarring than profound.
What Just Happened?
This general confusion and lack of context is on display best during the game’s final act. Throughout the experience, you’re funneled from one moment to the next without clear explanation, but you can infer meaning from the scattered symbolism, music, and character expressions. It’s not difficult to discern the happy and hopeful from the sad and desperate in this way.
But once the story reaches its eventual climax, the established format is seemingly thrown out the window. Perspectives will shift, making it unclear who you’re controlling. An eventual betrayal hits hard with its emotional weight, even given the brevity of the entire experience. I can’t help but feel additional time and character development could have improved things dramatically.
After what seemed like a tremendous, unexpected conclusion to the story, the game keeps going. What felt like an appropriately sentimental climax devolves into a muddled mess of harrowing events. Elements that were never foreshadowed or alluded to at all suddenly arise to further derail the plot and, before you can wrap your head around what in the world is happening, the credits roll.
On paper, I loved the ideas behind Virginia. The unique premise of eschewing dialogue for more atmospheric and mysterious storytelling was a welcome change of pace. But the end result felt like something that never truly resolved itself and left me with more questions than answers. I’ve read theories and interviews and, while I’m not at a total loss for explanation, I can’t help but wish for a bit more clarity in storytelling and less vague symbolism.
“It’s been a strange and confounding experience making Virginia,” a letter from the creators reads in the game’s main menu. “We hope it’s resulted in a strange and confounding game.”
Rest assured, Variable State; confounding is an understatement.