Wot I Think: Virginia

I’m delighted to say that Virginia [official site] was not at all about what I thought it would be, what it seemed to be. Pretty early on, its narrative took a surprising sideways step, a sudden and yet fluid motion that made it feel fresh, exciting and unpredictable. It was the first of a series of such steps the game would take, crabbing its way into increasingly unusual territory until, at the end of its two hour story, I wasn’t quite sure where either of us were left standing. Many of its surprises were pleasant, but others were perplexing.

Ostensibly, Virginia is about two women working for the FBI in the early 1990s, tasked to find a boy who has gone missing in the titular state. However, this missing person case isn’t quite what it seems. Nor is your own objective. Nor even is your character or, it seems, much of what’s going on around you. By its conclusion, I wasn’t entirely sure what Virginia was about and I’m not sure how much of this I could attribute to imperfect storytelling, to elements of very deliberate obfuscation or to my own ignorance. Virginia is strange and fascinating. It definitely isn’t for everyone, but it certainly is remarkable.

It’s unapologetically linear throughout. If there are many opportunities to make choices or control the narrative, I didn’t find them and most of the time, I was exploring static environments or clicking the mouse to advance the action. In an RPS interview two years ago, developer Variable State unabashedly owned the often disparagingly-used term “walking simulator” and that should give you a firm idea of what you can and cannot expect from it. Your role is to watch, to search, to prompt and, occasionally, to discover.

Oh, and to interpret. If you’re anything like me, you’ll frequently be trying to interpret much of what you see. Good luck with that.

If you’ve not caught any of the the previous coverage of the game, then there’s something you need to know: Virginia’s narrative is neither linear nor reliable. Like one of its key inspirations, Thirty Flights of Loving, it skips from scene to scene, from location to location, sometimes without warning, but it also jumps between the past and the present. It also plays coy games with you, bouncing you between the real and the unreal, between dreams, visions and the everyday. Occasionally these scene changes are linked by the same objects, symbols or motifs, other times they might be simple match cuts, at other times they’re an outright surprise.

This all happens in a stylised world that isn’t quite cartoonish but has something of a pastel, sometimes almost watercolour feel to it. It’s populated by a blinking, frowning and scowling cast who emote almost melodramatically at times, yet are also just as likely to remain inscrutable. Nobody in Virginia has anything to say. The game has absolutely no dialogue and only small amounts of text. It spends most of its time talking to you through its extensive and often impressive orchestral score, the emotional anchor of the game and far less ambiguous, rising and falling as it carries you from moment to moment.

And many of those moments are now lodged in my recent memory: the exploration of a deserted observatory; a strange midnight encounter; an apparent out-of-body experience. I want to avoid specifics because there’s so much in Virginia that is very, very easy to spoil and I think that ruining what is coming could dramatically colour your interpretations of what you see. Like the game’s characters, I want to remain mute.

But there are some themes that are blatant. The game’s opening, for example, is an overtly feminine-coded moment, placing you opposite your reflection and directing you, with your very first action, to apply your lipstick. It’s a first scene that’s simultaneously going to be mundane for so many, yet alien to others, and which is so very rarely portrayed in video games. It is a simple, unambiguous opening statement made from the tiniest action: you are a woman.

You are a woman of colour, too, as is the partner that you will soon meet. In the FBI of the early 90s, you are not about to have an easy time. There are many incidents that I couldn’t help but second-guess because of this. Does my identity explain the silent stare of a colleague, the disrespect of a man, the over-familiarity of a stranger? Or am I reading into things that aren’t there? I think these are questions Virginia very much wants me to ask (giving me, a man, the luxury of experiencing my uncertainty in this safe, virtual context for one brief evening), all the while peppering me with subliminal suggestions found in location and character names like Tubman, Sojourner’s Truth and even Halperin. I found myself questioning some of these apparently mundane incidents almost as much as the increasingly bizarre imagery and confusing, fractured narrative.

I’m sure you can tell that I frequently found Virginia compelling. But it can also be frustrating or overly simplistic. It’s narrative can be heavy handed, with occasional unnecessary flashbacks reinforcing moments you already knew were significant, and the camera is overly keen on forcibly taking control, repeatedly directing your gaze. At one point, I thought I was waiting for a scene change, not realising I had to click the mouse to perform the relatively impotent, insignificant gesture of showing somebody my FBI badge. It’s not always clear when you should move on and when you should linger, or even sometimes exactly what has caused a plot development.

Similarly, you can wander through areas you might expect to be full of clues or detail, only to find them mostly void or absent of anything to do. Virginia can do a good job of demonstrating how a space tells you about a person, tells a story, or gives up some tiny secret, but it only does this sometimes. Not all of its locations feel as rich or as lived in as those of Gone Home or Firewatch. Alongside its peers, I was reminded most of Dear Esther: I keep moving forward, I’m not supposed to stop, take in the view or smell the flowers. Even when the game does want you to take a moment to search around, there’s usually only one undisguised, plainly telegraphed thing to find.

And like Dear Esther, I think what Variable State are aiming at here is something that connects more emotionally than intellectually. This is a story painted with strong, broad and deliberately incomplete strokes. It most certainly is not for everyone, but it has no such ambition. I think the best thing about Virginia is that it is unashamedly being what it wants to be. It will connect with you best if you’re the kind of person willing to meet it in the middle. Though a Lynch comparison is overly, overly simplistic, if you enjoyed trying to figure out what Mulholland Drive was all about, I think you’ll enjoy this. Conversely, if you didn’t, I’m quite sure you won’t.

I’ve played through Virginia twice. The second time through I found I was still just as frustrated both by unnecessary prompts to move the action forward, as well as by renewed searches of certain locations in the hope I’d missed something. Mostly I hadn’t, save a few cosmetic items to collect for achievements, yet several of those achievements remain locked and I can’t conceive of what else it is I might need to do. Or to see. I suppose that’s yet another part of this mystery still to be solved, though how big or significant a part I have no idea.

It’s not because of these achievements that I feel ever so slightly unfulfilled. It’s because I want just a little more from Virginia and yet, like its characters, it mutely refuses to deliver. I think it’s a strangely touching game, evocative and effusive, but it’s also not as subtle as it may think it is. It’s occasionally plodding. Its cast would benefit from being more naturalistic. Nevertheless, even a second time around, I couldn’t quite decipher its remarkable closing acts, which bewildered and beguiled me. The soundtrack (all courtesy of a real orchestra) is strong, vibrant and expressive. The story and its telling are both quite singular, if sometimes lacking in clarity. At the cost of player agency, it’s the most cinematic game of its sort I’ve played, far more so than Thirty Flights, and the cinema it reminds me of is Lost Highway or, yes, Mulholland Drive. A note from the creators says they hope they have made a game that is “strange and confounding.” That is certainly, definitely, absolutely true.

So, do you want to try a game that is “strange and confounding”? If it was up to me, everyone would play this. Then they would tell me not just what they thought of it, but what a certain item, location or actor signified, because an important part of Virginia may well be what you bring to it. I know many won’t like the idea of traipsing through its scenes or passively watching its unfoldings and, sure, if you think you won’t enjoy any of that, you’re right on the money. But if you’re a little bit curious, or if you enjoyed any of the games with which it shares its DNA, Virginia may be one of the oddest and most fascinating things you’ve played in a long, long time. Vivid Virginia is a hell of a lot more than plain old “walking.”

Virginia is available later today, for Windows and Mac, and can be bought through Steam. The demo is available now.

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32 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    johannsebastianbach says:

    Sounds interesting enough to me.
    Couldn’t find any info on pricing, but assuming it’s going to be reasonable I’ll definitely get it when it unlocks later today and give it a go – what can you lose except for two hours?

  2. Premium User Badge

    Dorga says:

    I was really looking forward to this but then the demo really pit me off. Reading your thoughts does pique my interest though.

    • poliovaccine says:

      I want to shake your hand, sir, for not saying, “peak.” Thank you, sincerely, for helping to redeem my faith in the idea that the English language will outlive me.

      • artrexdenthur says:

        Not that “peak” for “pique” doesn’t bother me too, but it is a French word, after all :p
        Besides, the English spelling system is easily the most arbitrary and scattered in the world… If I had my way, we’d all spell in Hangul

  3. lokimotive says:

    I enjoyed the demo for a bit, but I found that if you reduced the resolution (which I had to do on my less than wonderful laptop), the screen size stayed the same, but the action window reduced, like an old school FPS. I wonder if they fixed that.

    • Scandalon says:

      I haven’t tried it, but that may be more a function of your video drivers. Intel/AMD/NVIDIA – all have the option on most chipsets to have the hardware do the scaling rather than the software, and what to do w/ non-native resolutions: Almost anything should have some variation of “always full screen, no matter how bad it looks” to “full screen but keep the aspect ratio” to “Don’t touch it”.

  4. משוגע־סאָפֿע says:

    one of those celebrated this fiscal yr ‘interactive shorts’ that lasts just over 2hrs. pat-pat-pat pat-pat pat pat ad nauseam.. for some gameplay / structure & slightly more originality i’d suggest picking 《play dead INSIDE》. “in the end it’s all in the mind, you know”

  5. Laurentius says:

    Is it even competent as game though? For example Kentucky Route Zero is great experiece or it would be if it ditched point and click adventure premise which is chore and also game structure undermines its strength.

    • Sonntam says:

      You could have had a point about Kentucky Route Zero, but considering “It’s To Late To Love You Know”, I absolutely have to call bollocks on that.

      Kentucky Route Zero tries to work with the player: let them not only feel things, but imagine them. You don’t sit and watch, you choose what you see or hear. The kind of choice that was given to me with that one song completely blew me away.

      • Laurentius says:

        I don’t deny choice, and your example is exactly what I am talking about. It works because I’m just clicking mouse on words, it simple and elgant and it adds to experience. But so much of KR0 is muddling through. Clicking around locations gets tiresome super quick, it’s not fun the first time, but when trying to replay it’s a chore that is really bad. So interactivity is fine, puting this interactive experience into some obvious “game frame” is often bad idea.

    • invitro says:

      It’s a game, I guess? That’s what Destructoid reviewer Caitlin Cooke (I think I like her) said here, anyway: link to destructoid.com

    • DrollRemark says:

      Oh my why have I completely forgotten about episode 4 and why haven’t I played it yet.

  6. mnemos says:

    Sounds like an instant buy for me, if only because it seems like exactly the type of game I can feel good about supporting.

  7. TeeJay says:

    “…subliminal suggestions found in location and character names like Tubman, Sojourner’s Truth and even Halperin.”

    What/who is Haleperin?

    • invitro says:

      Maybe this guy… “In 1988, Halperin started out as a desk assistant for ABC News and a researcher for World News Tonight. He then worked in the investigative unit of World News Tonight and as a general assignment reporter in Washington. In 1992 he worked full-time as an off-air producer covering Bill Clinton. In 1994 Halperin became a producer with ABC’s special events unit in New York and later an editorial producer.

      In 1997 he was named the political director for ABC News.” …from link to en.wikipedia.org

  8. Ross Angus says:

    This sounds great. I had a disappointing first experience with Mulholland Drive (a film I love) when the friend I was watching it with delivered a perfect encapsulation of the film and it’s meaning in about one minute (it was the first time he’d seen it). It so perfectly explained the film that it vanished from my brain immediately.

    • gwop_the_derailer says:

      So he opened the blue box…

    • Vandelay says:

      One of the best things about Mulholland Drive is that the story it tells is actually incredibly simple. It is the classic jilted lover’s revenge story that we have all seen hundreds of times before. It is just injected with a madness like nothing else.

      *spoilers – hopefully mild* My first experience of it was relatively blind. When the Pandora’s box is finally opened towards the final third of the film, I actually felt as if we were then entering into some kind of other world. Suddenly scenes seemed disjointed and incomplete. Characters did not seem like they had previously seemed. Suffice to say, I didn’t really understand what I saw, other than I liked it. I read a synopsis afterwards which made me realize I had things the wrong way round; the bright and hopeful world we watch before is the dream, with the dark real world creeping in ever so often.

      On my second view, I was a little disappointed that I had read what it was all about and found it relatively simple to piece it altogether. However, I also realized why it is such a fantastic and effective film. The few moments that seemed out of place for the first section (the mesmerising Club Silencio – best scene in cinema? – , the inept assassin, the terrifying back of the diner,) are symbols from the real world. The dream is actually the comforting place, a place to hide from our regrets. The film’s primary target is Hollywood and the illusion of the film industry that ensnares so many young people, but it is told in such a subtle and affecting way that it feels so universal.

      It is one of my favourite films. To suffice to say, I’m intrigued by Virginia.

      • BertieDugger says:

        You might be right that Club Silencio is the best scene in cinema. Breathtaking.

  9. thelastpointer says:

    How long is this game? I’d be up for it if it’s not longer than 3 hours.

  10. Premium User Badge

    cockpisspartridge says:

    It is the best thing ever. Once you’ve got some, you’ll never look back. Oh, my bad. I misread the title…………………..

  11. pertusaria says:

    Good to see you in this neck of the woods, Paul!

    The game sounds interesting and will go on the long, long list. (I still haven’t played past Episode 2 of Kentucky Route Zero, and I own and love it. Why? No idea.)

  12. malkav11 says:

    I am incredibly intrigued by almost everything about this game, but the lack of any dialogue at all (which has been discussed in pre-release coverage, so is not a surprise) is a complete and utter turnoff for me. I am a big fan of most of David Lynch’s work, for example, but Eraserhead lost me inside ten minutes, mostly because of the lack of dialogue. So I think I will have to skip it. :/

    PS: David Lynch’s best movie, for my money? The Straight Story. It’s way outside his usual style (I think he did it for Disney, and it’s G-rated, which he usually is not at all), but MAN it’s good.

    • poliovaccine says:

      The Straight Story *is* way underrated, and frankly so is The Elephant Man these days, which is maybe the next closest thing to a David Lynch movie with accessible humanity (considering that the Twin Peaks *movie* was pretty ugly haha – very little “smalltown charm” in the film), but honestly my favorite David Lynch is Wild at Heart, dude. Man oh man.. for Willem Dafoe’s mealymouthed grin if nothing else… and for being, in my book anyway, the best synthesis of reality and surreality he’s ever done without one of those disrupting the other. It almost reminds me of a Coen Bros movie at times… except obviously more deeply, overtly twisted haha.

      But yeah, to me Wild at Heart is kinda like the shy sibling of Blue Velvet, in that both are totally cohesive narratives which are only fueled and informed and illustrated and explored by the surreality in them.. rather than other movies, like Lost Highway or Inland Empire, where the surreality kinda is the story itself. Nothing wrong with that either, but for a perfect balance between the two, I think Wild at Heart is that holy grail haha… in some fucked up ass religion.

  13. TheAngriestHobo says:

    You can totally tell that that header image was shot in the villains lair. Look at it: filthy cave of evil, comfy chair of evil, antiquated gramophone of evil, turkish rug of evil, uh… orange traffic cone of neutrality.

    Okay, so I don’t quite understand how the traffic cone factors in, but my point still stands.

  14. Metastatic says:

    If you just wanna see the gameplay link to youtube.com

  15. faircall says:

    I thought I would enjoy this, since I really liked 30 Flights and Gone Home. Unfortunately I found this so disappointing as to be the first game I’ve refunded a game.

    The abstract visual style, while pretty, actually made it hard for me to follow the plot at times. As in, I couldn’t tell one character from another, or recognize objects. This is a big problem for a game relying on visual storytelling.

    I often triggered a scene change before I had explored the things I wanted to, which was very frustrating. Other scenes involved doing nothing except waiting, which seemed cheeky given the previous issue.

    Camera motion was almost nauseatingly slow, similar to the effect that some games use to portray drunkenness.

    The lack of any meaningful interaction/a.i meant certain scenes were robbed of tension, because the player has zero agency.

    And it seemed an immodest amount time was spent on credit sequences given the game was made by a couple of people- seemed like excessive backpatting, reminiscent of high school film projects, with each person giving themselves multiple titles.

  16. Premium User Badge

    caff says:

    Really enjoyed this, superb soundtrack, short but to the point.