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Virginia Hands-On: 30 Flights Of Lynchian

Into the night

Virginia is an upcoming first-person 'interactive drama' infused with unabashed Twin Peaks and X-Files influences, which had already very much piqued the interest of Alice and Adam. I played a short demo build at the EGX games show over the weekend.

It's not fair on any game that's primarily about tone and mood to experience it whilst sat a stone's throw from a man bellowing into a PA system about Street Fighter. That was murder-mystery Virginia's lot at EGX, sadly, but testament to how well its demo pulls off a languid Lynch-does-police-procedural style is that I nonetheless had a moment when I closed my eyes and let its sounds - and all they meant - wash over me.

Those sounds were a careful, wordless homage to Julee Cruise's (who I only realised later, and with great embarrassment, I'd for some reason referred to as 'Judy Bloom' when talking to the devs) Twin Peaks theme and appearances - a band in a bar, a singer with the voice of a ghost, music all bass with the edges filed off, the sound of smoke and yearning and regret. Mid-investigation, with no clear suspects and only opaque leads, I'd gone to a bar, ordered a drink, and sat down. All I could do was sit down, in fact.

So I did. I watched. I listened. I closed my eyes, just for a moment, and I thought of Laura Palmer, I thought of where I was and what I was the first time I ever heard of Laura Palmer, and I thought about the timeless and universal horror of a missing child. The missing child it was, in Virginia, my job to find. The missing child who wasn't my child, but one day, if the world went wrong beyond all imagining, might be.

And while I knew this was a direct homage, not a moment in which Virginia established its own identity, I also knew that this was a vastly more powerful way of evoking a part of Twin Peaks than most other games which try to evoke Twin Peaks ever managed. Just sitting, listening, transported, into sadness and strangeness, fear and duty, guilt and loss.

When I opened my eyes, I saw my character lift her hand from the table, and reach it hesitantly into a pocket. There, a clue. An odd item, a sort of UFO toy, found earlier in a locked drawer in the missing girl's house. Some sort of box, perhaps? I turned it around and around in my hands. The music played on, spurring intuition. This gaudy nick-nack meant something. But what? And how to open it? TO BE CONTINUED. A perfect ending. Half a heart-shaped necklace, writ as little green man-themed keepsake.

The music stopped. The spell lifted. Shouty Streetfighter Man barged back into my consciousness. Mingled dim pleasure and slight frustration. Frustration both because my time in Virginia was over, for now, and because I wasn't entirely sure it was my time in Virginia. While I hadn't ever expected full-on detective work, I also hadn't expected a languid, small town take on 30 Flights of Loving. Mood and style (both in the low-fi but high-expression art style as well as the heavy use of ambient sound) in spades, but very little agency bar forward movement.

Cross an unseen threshold and Virginia jump-cuts to a new sequence. Comic panels in motion, and exactly what happened between panels was for me to decode. There's always a brief moment of confusion, then complete understanding - this follows movie and TV tropes, and the mind fills in the gaps from experience. The FBI office. The small town. The local police station. The victim's house. The bar. Places engraved in the bones of detective serials, be they traditionally procedural or be they Lynchian.

While on the one hand I worried a little that all I could really do was walk on and have events unfold around me, that all this could ever be was a one-shot, on-rails story with nothing more to do than open an occasional drawer, on the other hand I marvelled at how much Virginia managed to say without using a single word. No names, either. Just images and sounds that draw from the mind's own lexicon of detective dramas. Rich scenes, each a picture to speak thousands of words.

Meeting my partner on this case for the first time, her crossed arms and slight scowl openly declaring that she didn't want to work with me.

Half-finished breakfasts at the diner revealing our mutual anxiety about the grim task ahead of us.

Grieving parents sat on the sofa as my partner tried to interview them.

And the bar, of course: half-empty bar a few hunched figures, no-one looking at each other, no-one talking, everyone nursing regrets and secrets along with their drinks, everyone hoping I won't talk to them. So much to do. So many to question. Where to start? By listening to a band that's far too good for this dingy, desolate place and seeing where my thoughts take me, of course.

Virginia looks good. Virginia sounds good. Virginia is ur-detective show, with hints that it will go somewhere stranger. Perhaps it will go where True Detective ultimately feared to tread. But it does seem as though Virginia will all but play itself, and while I respect that (and know, from the works of Blendo Games, that this approach can work extremely well), there is some disappointment that I'll be more observer than participant in this aesthetically sumptuous investigation. Of course, that's probably the point. After all, you don't really visit the Red Room - the Red Room visits you.

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