Video games are starting to feel a lot more like movies, and I’m not complaining.
The recent influx of interactive story-based games has sparked new conversations about what it means for something to actually be a video game, and developers like Virginia‘s own Variable State continue to push the boundaries of the medium. We’re seeing dynamic and impactful narratives told through inventive lenses that only video games can provide and it’s fantastic.
Virginia is one of those narratives, and it’s intimate. The barrier between you and the character you play as is paper-thin; it makes you feel everything first-hand. It doesn’t matter if it’s the sense of raw determination to crack the case of a missing boy, or the anxiety that comes from being alone in a harsh world, Virginia makes you feel those emotions.
It’s an extraordinary experience that just wouldn’t be anywhere near the same if it was in the form of a television show or a film. Even though it was heavily inspired by shows like Twin Peaks and The X-Files, the simple fact that the player is actively participating in Virginia makes it what it is: a profoundly personal adventure.
Playing Virginia almost feels like you’re watching a movie. It’s unapologetically linear, and that’s what makes it stand out. It’s fleshed out, deliberate and deep; everything happens for a good reason. Because it’s so linear, you never get the chance to actually make a choice, you’re really just looking around with your reticle to find the next thing that will trigger the story.
To some, that might sound unappealing or boring, but the player’s lack of choice isn’t an issue because of how well constructed each situation is. Instead of being a “choose your own adventure” narrative game like Gone Home, Virginia chooses to be more concrete in what it allows you to do and see. You don’t wander around everywhere looking for clues, you’re always in a situation where your objective is near and semi-explicit and I find that way of story-telling really effective. Essentially, Virginia gives the player a “narrative leash” that’s just long enough that they never feel restricted while snooping around town.
It’s clear that Virginia wants to tell a remarkable, movie-like story. One where the player cares about the characters, the plot, and is fully emotionally invested the whole time. For the most part, it manages to do so effortlessly. Aside from a few frame rate issues, everything looks gorgeous in Virginia, and it’s because everything behind the curtains is working so cohesively to make sure you’re focused solely on the overall narrative. The lighting adds to the mood of every scene. The simple and charming animation brings each character to life. The atmosphere-building soundtrack sets the stakes of every scene. Every moment I spent in Virginia had me wanting to stay in its world even more. I just had to stick around until I found out the answers to every single cryptic question the game holds, and there’s a lot of them.
You play as Anne Tarver, a rookie FBI agent who is put into a lot of unfortunate situations, and forced to make gut-wrenchingly tough decisions. Initially you get assigned a mission to find a missing child, which doesn’t sound too hard, right?
Well, eventually it gets a little bit deeper and a little bit darker and things happen that make the discomforting feeling grow. It got to the point I straight up felt sick being in her shoes. She was doing things that were just morally wrong in my eyes. The story starts off as an innocent rescue case but it slowly devolves into a twisted intrapersonal adventure of finding out the truth.
Virginia is riddled with symbolism, dreams, and out-of-body experiences. A lot of the time it’s almost impossible to tell the difference between reality and fantasy. It’s really weird. It can also get kind of frustrating because you’re supposed to be solving a crime but you don’t even know what you can believe. Thankfully, it doesn’t only use unorthodox methods, it also builds the narrative in more familiar ways. You can see characters change and develop. For example, at the beginning, your partner in crime, Maria Halperin, leaves you with the bill for breakfast and just walks out the diner. Later on in the game, there’s a scene where you visit her apartment, and she makes you double her own portion while serving you with a smile and a twinkle in her eyes.
Those little gestures mean a whole lot, especially because there isn’t one word of dialogue the entire game. The story is told without any voices or talking, it relies on a lot of tiny things like the emotion’s in characters faces and clever positioning of key items to explain the narrative. It forces you to pay more attention to it’s cinematic presentation and to look carefully. It gives you more incentive to want to understand what’s actually going on in that messed up town.
All in all, Virginia’s story is mystic and confounding – and it works. The unknown motives and unusual metaphors had me scratching my head for a good chunk of the game. I’m not even entirely sure what happened with the ending, but I think that’s okay. Virginia’s many perplexing aspects may be up for interpretation, but it’s a fact that Virginia is a high quality experience. It combines the cinematography of a short film with the intimacy of playing a video game, to create an original, yet familiar experience everyone should have.