Setting the controller down as the credits roll on Virginia, I don’t really know how I feel.
The story I’ve just watched is a gripping one, one that had me by the knackers until the very end. But now it’s over – now the final scene is done, for the third time – I’m left with nothing but an aching sense of unfulfillment.
We play as Anne Tarver, a rookie FBI agent ostensibly assigned to a case about a missing boy. But while I stand uncomfortably in a room as the boy’s parents openly weep in the corner, in truth I’m here to keep tabs on my new, more experienced partner, Maria Halperin, and feedback to my asshat boss.
I fear this is not the greatest start to my career.
Virginia is a bold, beautiful attempt to deliver a razor-sharp narrative that drops selective clues and cues whilst leaving much up to our own interpretation.
A wholly linear, narrative-driven tale, this is more an interactive story than a typical game peddling traditional mechanics like puzzle-solving and boss fights. The story unfurls in a flurry of razor-cut scenes, a breathtaking musical score, no dialogue whatsoever, and a feast of nonverbal cues, expressions and body language. It’s staggeringly effective, and the visuals deliver a subtlety that feels at odds with the misleadingly simplistic abstract style.
The story unfurls in a flurry of razor-cut scenes, breathtaking music, no dialogue whatsoever, and a feast of nonverbal cues, expressions and body language.
And while we’re tasked to uncover secrets about Halperin, Tarver herself is not without mystery. The game opens and I stare at what I presume is my (Tarver’s) hand, locking shut a vanity box. And suddenly I’m standing before a restroom mirror, my clothes conservative, my hair pulled up in a chaste bun, glossing my lips with nude lipstick. Then, smothered by an inexplicable red light, I join the end of a queue at the edge of a stage – the only female in a line of men, I note with some apprehension – and I walk onstage, dazzled by lights, to rapturous applause. A single second later, the room is dark – empty – and all I can hear is the soft, steady pulse of a heartbeat monitor.
But Tarver’s plagued by bad dreams. Sure, it’s a trope – a well-trodden one – but it’s delivered in an unusual way, with Tarver’s difficulties usually only manifesting at night, unfolding in her dreams. And as the game progresses, what is and is not a real becomes intentionally blurry, with some of the story’s most surreal moments playing out in such a way that you’re left intentionally disoriented. There’s no time to work it out, though – a single breath later, and we’re thrown head-first into the next scene.
Whilst it works in negating needless exposition and travel time, the scene-cuts are blunt to the point of brutality.
You’ll see a lot of these blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scene transitions and, if I’m honest, I never got used to them. Whilst it works in negating needless exposition and travel time, the cuts are blunt to the point of brutality. You’ve no sooner settled into a scene before you’re unceremoniously yanked back out again, with some lasting a scant few seconds before you’re dragged onto the next.
That said, what this does is expertly, and wordlessly, depict the passing of time. As Tarver settles into her home – unpacking boxes, arranging furniture – the trees outside her windows change with the seasons. Tarver’s choice to toss away her lipstick – the same one she’d used just moments before, in our reality – hints at an off-screen maturity. But recurring themes – a broken key, amongst others (it’s okay – we’re spoiler-free here, I promise) – intimate that, despite the passage of time, some things, particularly the painful ones, stay with us. Subtle symbolism coupled with fog-like dream sequences hint at a deep-seated melancholy, but the scenes pass in such a blur, it’s painfully possible to miss the soft subliminals until your subsequent playthroughs. (And yeah, I mean that as a plural).
While the premise itself lends well to a video game adaptation – scouring for clues, selecting the right witness, interrogating suspects – it’s barely utilised here. While I’d initially thought my job had been to reunite the missing boy with his family – a job I took most seriously, actually, and saw me scouring every set piece to uncover the mystery – eventually, I stopped looking in every corner for clues. The game doesn’t reward you for this kind of exploration.
This game isn’t that kind of game at all.
In fact, everything that makes this a ‘game’ is muted and understated. You cannot run. You cannot jump. There are no big Blue Xs or shimmering objects to help you identify gameplay items from the unimportant set props. Your only clue to interactable items is a subtle change to the reticule in the centre of the screen, and even then, most of the time your next steps are outrageously obvious, with entire scenes arranged to guide you to your next goal. And while I enjoy a non-typical story played out in non-typical ways, in Virginia the disorientation is such that the story feels nonsensical at best, misleading at worst, and you’re left not with a tale from an unreliable narrator, but indeed an unreliable story full-stop.
If you play games because you expect a finite set of expectations – press X for this, O for that, kill this guy, solve this riddle, find this item, watch this cut-scene – then Virginia is unlikely to set your world afire. Even if you’re big on interactive experiences that you direct, again, Virginia’s air-tight constraints don’t give you much room to explore.
That said, this story of two black women cutting their paths as detectives in the 1990s is devastatingly well done. We watch as their male colleagues silently turn their backs in elevators, others that openly stare but studiously ignore, and those who can barely check their palpable resentment. Halperin’s basement office tells you more about her time in the FBI far more than any extraneous in-game document ever could.
Instinctively, I want to tell you this is brilliant. I want to tell you it’s an exciting departure, something new and different in a world of cookie-cut shooters. But what could have been a new, novel experience left me confused and disorientated, unfulfilled and… well, quietly pissed off, if I’m honest.
It was only during my subsequent playthroughs that I was able to catch the game’s quiet understatement, and I’m so frustrated that I missed these the first time around. This is a game to be savored and treasured, but its blunt delivery and liberal use of codes and symbols only serve to sacrifice clarity.
This game was reviewed using a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.
Platform: PC / PlayStation 4 (reviewed)
Developer: Variable State
Publisher: 505 Games
Price: £7 approx.
Release date: Out Now
- Strong, bold storytelling
- Beautiful visuals and stunning score
- Jarring presentation
- Convoluted story
- Short run-time
If you’ve played, and enjoyed, story-driven games like Gone Home or Firewatch, this is a worthwhile investment. I just wish it wasn’t so damned confusing.