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Virginia is out now on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Alan Stock brings you this review for ComiConverse.
Game Review: Virginia
From the opening scene in front of the bathroom mirror and your subsequent recruitment into the investigative world of the FBI, you won’t hear a word throughout Virginia’s strange and intriguing story. It’s fitting, as like the narrative, it’s down to you to fill in the gaps with your own interpretation. Inspired by 90’s dramas and films like The X-Files, Silence of the Lambs and especially the iconic David Lynch series Twin Peaks, weirdness abounds here – where symbolism, imagery and jarring cuts contrast with a very grounded setting.
Virgina is played from a first person perspective, with you playing as special FBI agent Anne Tarver in the game’s namesake state, in early 90’s rural America. You’re tasked with investigating a fellow agent and accompany her as she tackles a missing person case in the little suburban country town of Kingdom. The game falls firmly in the “walking simulator” or “interactive experience” realm – and it’s about as minimal as it gets for this genre. Although you have free movement, environments are small and there are a very limited number of interactions to be had using the game’s only tool – a minimalistic central reticule which expands when hovering over points of interest. It’s a very linear game – essentially you just go from scene to scene, exploring the environments and clicking on the correct thing to advance, with no puzzle solving to be done (aside from the story itself, which is another matter entirely). However, despite the simplicity of the gameplay, the story and cinematic experience of Virginia makes up for the lack of interactivity – this is a game designed to immerse.
From the start, Virginia is striking in its presentation. Pastel paintings unfurl in the menus and in the game a minimalistic and slightly blocky aesthetic works well, using a muted colour palette and excellent lighting to bring the world to life. This is a good looking game with everyday buildings lent plenty of atmosphere thanks to the art direction. Virginia’s developers, Variable State, cite large inspiration from the stylised presentation of the indie game 50 Flights of Loving by Brendon Chung, and its influence is immediately apparent. Instant cuts in location (for example, walking down a corridor and suddenly appearing in a car), pared back visuals and storytelling through environment and character expression are all present in Brendon Chung’s games, and are used to great effect here.
Details in Virginia’s environments explain locations and backstory without the need for exposition, someone’s apartment revealing more about their personality than a character profile. Like the speech, some detail has been deliberately omitted – pictures on the walls are often blank, and text in documents or noticeboards is absent or blurred with only plot-relevant items actually displaying information. With no speech, the game does a great job of using the characters’ body language and facial expressions to convey the essence of the dialogue you can’t hear. It’s no easy task to achieve, especially in a game so centred on story, but it works very well. Apparently the lack of speech was mostly down to the small dev team’s fears of sourcing good voice acting, but it complements the themes of the game nicely, allowing you to project your own assumptions onto what’s being said as the plot develops. Together with the other omissions, it lets you paint your own picture of the exact details of the characters and plot intricacies allowing the game to focus on the broader themes. The presentation gets a final flourish with a wonderful score combining a blend of synths and rousing orchestral compositions performed by the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, which dynamically always blends into the right tone for the moment.
The relatively mundane environments you visit, from the FBI offices to the little town of Kingdom feel like real places, with Twin Peaks constantly springing to mind when you visit familiar locales like the diner, a petrol station and the small-town police station. The realism is emphasised through immersive sound effects with great attention to detail, ambience such as the whir of an air-con unit in an office or the hum of a neon light, to small touches like the noise of the plastic lid of a coffee cup being popped off and placed on the dashboard, grounding the experience despite the stylised visuals.
But like David Lynch’s works, reality begins to bend and oddness doesn’t take long to emerge – surreal imagery, recurring motifs, dream sequences and random narrative chops increase throughout the story. Whether you appreciate this or not, you’ll probably be scratching your head or even annoyed at the initial confusion you may have after finishing the game. Thinking about the story afterwards and its themes is where you’ll find value, replaying chapters with foresight can give a sense of what might be really going on as you try to decode the symbolism and flashbacks and maybe even dabble in some online research into Virginia state. But even if you don’t buy into the oddness, or care about deciphering the story, it’s still a very engaging experience with compelling characters for the game’s roughly two-hour duration.
I suspect many people will write off Virginia as being pretentious, confusing, simplistic and “not a game”. Certainly it’s been divisive in the gaming community, with many critics applauding it but lots of gamers deriding it for its lack of gameplay, short length and incomprehensible Lynch-ness. However, I think that this is unfair on Virginia. It’s a captivating cinematic mystery that looks great, intrigues, tackles storytelling in a clever and engaging way and is original to boot. I personally haven’t attempted to unravel all of the mysteries and symbolism in the game, though I’ve read some great explanations online, but the overall weirdness didn’t spoil it for me. I think it’s entertaining and immersive in its own right and I enjoyed the ride. You don’t have to be Einstein to get a fair gist of some of the story and themes from one playthrough and there’s much more to uncover for the more dedicated.
You’ll probably know in advance whether you’ll like Virginia or not. If interactive novels or walking simulators aren’t your thing, it’s probably best to stay away. If you see anything from David Lynch and immediately hate it, or want everything to make sense the first time you see it, then avoid – but I’d also argue that fully understanding the plot is not essential to enjoying the game. However, if you like movies and TV shows and want a great example of a polished and unique interactive cinematic experience, with great artistic direction, music and storytelling – then Virginia breaks new ground. It’s certainly a work of art even if it’s largely devoid of gameplay. Now, I’m off to reopen the case file and uncover some more truths.
A demo of Virginia is available for PC on Steam – click here.
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Virginia won’t be for everyone due to its lack of interactivity, but its compelling storytelling, artistic direction and sound make for an original and immersive cinematic experience.