What would be considered as part of the ‘walking simulator’ trend of recent years – a term that I believe to be rather derogatory, in all honesty – Virginia is a game unlike any other title I’ve played, and it most certainly stands out from its peers. To put it bluntly, the debut title from developer Variable State is very much a non-traditional video game. It’s restrictive, reduces interaction down to an absolute minimum, and it pushes the player through a tightly directed experience. Freedom is a privilege that the game simply doesn’t accommodate for, and over the course of the game’s two hour playtime, the entire experience often feels on-rails.
The game centres on conducting an FBI investigation, yet there’s no puzzles to solve, no exploration, and no choices to make. Virginia is survived by marrying quality audio-visual presentation alongside an utterly interesting and remarkably well-crafted narrative. Though this game will not appeal to everyone, it’s hard not to be impressed by what the developers have so passionately crafted, and it’s more than enough to leave a lasting impression.
Virginia is described by its developers as an “interactive drama”, and I believe that successfully sums up the experience and immediately informs you of what to expect from this title. If you’re looking for a game with significant player involvement and tangible gameplay, then Virginia is not for you. The extent of your in-game interactions are extremely limited and involve nothing more than walking around enclosed areas and selecting objects in the scene. This gameplay – or the lack thereof – would be enough to reduce most videogames to a mundane slog, but this particular game narrowly escapes such criticism because it presents something that is very different from the norm.
Virginia isn’t a conventional videogame by any means, and while there are dozens upon dozens of story focussed titles out there, its narrative is at the very centre of the experience and, in truth, is the experience. The game aims to solely provide an engaging and rich narrative, and the game appeals by focussing on this aspect and never letting it go. With nothing to distract the player’s attention away from the core element, Virginia undoubtedly delivers on a pure serving of character-driven drama.
Part of what makes this game so unique is how the story is told, or rather how it’s not told. You see, nothing is explicitly explained in Virginia, at least not conventionally. Simply put: the game doesn’t include any speech, voice acting, or subtitles. Instead, the story is interpreted from the visual action of each scene and the characters within them. It’s a risky move to communicate story in such a way, but it’s been handled exceptionally well here, with scenes being easy to follow and understand – except for those that are purposefully cryptic – due to solid animation and directing. The game’s soundtrack supports the storytelling too, acting almost as the narrator of the piece, blending perfectly with the on-screen events and adding further context. Performed by the ‘City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra’, the orchestration and music is hard to fault as each song injects further flavour into the scenes. With only a handful of moments that dial back to silence, the soundtrack is present throughout the majority of the game, and it is just as memorable as the narrative itself.
Experienced through the eyes of a newly-graduated FBI agent, Anne Tarver, the game centres upon uncovering the mystery behind the disappearance of a young boy within the small town of Kingdom, Virginia. What begins as a standard investigation soon takes a turn to the strange as the player succumbs to dream-like visions that seamlessly play into the action and distort the line between reality and the untrue. The game developers proudly declare 90’s TV shows such as The X Files and Twin Peaks as the game’s main influences, with traces of the latter in particular appearing throughout as the story moves into more surreal territory. The vibe and style of these absurd, 90’s thrillers is certainly palpable here, but the game doesn’t lean too heavily on this element and avoids feeling like a copycat. As a result, the game maintains a feeling of unfamiliarity, and the narrative is as unpredictable as ever the further it unfolds.
I don’t wish to divulge at all into individual story moments as that would only dampen the experience for people who are fresh to the title, but know that as the game charges towards its thrilling conclusion, you’ll be filled with more questions than answers. The game is billed as a ‘mystery game’ after all, and I can comfortably say that after two playthroughs I still couldn’t fully explain to you what on earth happens in the game’s closing chapters. The game is, quite literally, a mystery. It succeeds in never giving too much away, and as the credits begin to roll you’re left to piece together the story yourself and interpret it how you wish. This may present a problem for some players, but for those who relish an ambiguous finale, there’s a lot to enjoy. While I must admit that I was unimpressed and puzzled by the ending at first, I spent days going over the story in my head, forming my own conclusions as well as reading blog posts in a bid to explain it, and I grew to appreciate it a lot more. The fact that it played on my mind for so long after completion speaks volumes for the quality of the experience.
It’s for partly this reason why I rate this game so highly amongst the backdrop of other ‘walking simulators’ that may try a similar template. They say the best art should be open for interpretation, and while I’m not about to declare Virginia as one of the best games ever made (or even one of the better games I’ve played in recent memory), it says just enough to get you hooked, but not too much as to ruin the element of intrigue. The excellent visual presentation also factors into the enjoyment levels, with a stylish, cel shaded approach that immediately captures the attention and brings the game to life. Colours are lavish, environments are detailed nicely, and the art direction leads to a game with a very unique atmosphere. Coupled with the aforementioned direction and smooth visual transitions between each scene, presentation is slick and filled with all the cinematic and movie-like flair you could ask for.
Unlike a movie, however, there is genuinely very little reason to revisit this experience. Sure, a better understanding of the narrative could be taken away from repeat exposure, but there’s nothing remotely significant to see that hasn’t already been seen the first time (resulting in no remaining ‘wow’ factor), and repeating the same, menial tasks once more does grate very quickly, diminishing the experience almost entirely. The game attempts to hide collectibles along the way, taking the forms of flowers and bird feathers, but these seemingly hold zero purpose and feel like a pointless addition. Virginia is very much a one-time experience, but what it does with its one shot is far more than most. In the two hours of content that it supplies, there’s never a dull moment, and it tries hard to do something different.
Virginia, then, is best described as the very definition of a ‘Marmite’ experience – you’ll either love it, or you’ll hate it. The game targets a niche audience and throws out the rulebook, delivering on something so unconventional that it can’t help but feel refreshing. For those that are fond of interesting storytelling and genuine mystery, there’s a lot to enjoy if you can forgive shallow, lacking gameplay. Those that have been critical of similar experiences in the past however, this title will do nothing to change that opinion.