Platform: PC, PS4, Xbox One
Release Date: 22 September
Developer: Variable State
The game begins with a close-up shot of a face, my own face, the anxious face of soon-to-be FBI Special Agent Anne Tarver. That close-up shot slowly relaxes as Anne breathes deeply, composing herself in a bathroom mirror. Soon after, we walk down a long, colourful, wood-panelled corridor as the lighting plays with the shadows on the wall and Lyndon Holland’s beautiful orchestral score grows louder and louder. Before long, however, all that we’ve seen thus far – the regular and the mundane – is thrown out, mixed in with the surreal, with the dreamlike, with a world of symbols and images that come to haunt us throughout the game. In these first moments, we get a glimpse of what sort of game Virginia will be.
Drawing heavily on the language of cinema, Virginia feels more like a two-hour playable film. There’s little room for player expression, the game corralling you through a series of scenes, sometimes minutes long, and sometimes just a few seconds long, cutting between a scene in a diner to a scene in a car, or cutting from the present to the past, or from waking life to a dream.
This lack of player expression isn’t a dig at the game. It knows its strengths. It works as a tightly-paced, narrative-heavy game. It works as a game too. It isn’t just a film disguised as a game. In someone’s living room, for example, it’s important that you’re able to walk around and learn things from the environment at your own pace.
It’s especially important because Virginia has absolutely no spoken dialogue, relying instead on the characters’ expressive faces, its well-detailed environments, lots of smart, cinematic editing, and a strong orchestral score. This is probably the greatest of Virginia’s achievements: its ability to introduce some of the great elements of movies without shitting on that which makes games great too.
But if all this sounds too high-minded and intellectual for you, there is a great story being told here too. The problem, however, is that the story is hidden in flashbacks, surreal dream sequences and recurring enigmatic symbolism. It takes its cues from some of the work of David Lynch in that way, and, if that form of storytelling, one which forces you to think and rethink what you know, is something that appeals to you, then Virginia is for you.
It left me, after its two hours, deeply confused, but still intrigued by all its secrets and mysteries. I remember my confusion at the game’s final 30 minutes most of all, but I shouldn’t fail to mention several expertly crafted sequences in the game, its editing and score, most of all.
And in remembering those moments, and even remembering my confusion, I certainly want to come back to it a second time. Much like Mulholland Drive and Thirty Flights of Loving before it, Virginia can be frustrating, but it can also be an intriguing, wonderful experience if you let it be, one that asks its players to return to it again and again, to better piece together the narrative puzzle it has intricately laid out.