James Stephanie Sterling
Virginia Review – Buffalo Wings
See, because a buffalo and a bird feature heavily in it, you see?
Developer: Variable State Publisher: 505 Games Format: PC (reviewed), PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One Released: September 22, 2016 Copy provided by publisher
Virginia is a difficult game to describe if only because it relies so heavily on implication to communicate its story.
Conversely, it’s quite simple to explain the game from a basic delivery standpoint – it’s another “narrative” game in which player actions are limited almost entirely to facilitating the progression of the story. No combat, no puzzles, just a story you have to personally drive.
Beyond that, Variable State’s interactive fiction is cryptic by design, preferring to hint at exposition rather than deliver it plainly. Much of the plot unfolds wordlessly – there is no spoken dialogue in the game at all, and any text that appears can only briefly be seen in documentation and letters – just enough to give you the jist.
It is through character animation, music, and the expressions etched into cartoon faces that the audience understands events… or at least attempts to.
From what I’ve been given, Virginia is about a newly minted FBI agent with an eye firmly on the advancement of her career. While nominally investigating a missing person case, protagonist Anne Tarver is charged with reporting on her partner as part of an Internal Affairs task. Dirty work, but work Tarver seems more than willing to undertake.
The missing person case is, itself, more of a lens through which the relationship between Tarver and partner Maria Halperin is explored, all in an adventure that involves rowdy teens, naughty clergymen, and bizarre encounters with a mysterious buffalo.
Virginia crafts a surreal atmosphere without going out of its way to be overtly weird. Jump cuts have players skipping from scene to scene. A jarring effect initially, these leaps forward in time eventually become an expected occurrence, ones that often do a good job of cutting out boring travel from point A to point B.
Even when players grow accustomed to the cuts, however, they may provide a frequent unsettling effect on the game’s progress. It ensures audience members never remain comfortable in one spot for long, and reinforces a need to pay attention or risk missing an important event.
Critics have already compared Virginia to the works of David Lynch, particularly namedropping Twin Peaks. As a Peaks fan myself, I can’t say the game is truly Lynchian outside of some very deliberate nods to the director’s legendary television drama.
The use of symbolic imagery and surreal dream sequences are more grounded than one might see Agent Dale Cooper engage with, while the lack of dialogue gives everything a muted, matter-of-fact presentation. There is an understatement to Virginia‘s strangest occurrences, a banality in appearance that may actually make them even more unnerving.
That aforementioned buffalo turns up several times, and there are repeated references to a cardinal – the state bird of Virginia. At times, Anne has out-of-body experiences, or warped flashbacks to the day’s events.
By contrast, the supporting case of characters are fairly mundane, not at all like the eccentric and sometimes insidious individuals that populate a Lynch work.
Nevertheless, it’s an odd duck for sure. Quite what everything means, or indeed if it’s all meant to mean anything, is something one could ponder for quite some time. There are clearly themes running throughout the production, but some of them prove to be more elusive than others.
The basic plotline isn’t hard to understand, not if you’re looking at what’s unfolding onscreen. Virginia is a game that takes the “show don’t tell” philosophy of storytelling to the end zone, with interactions between characters, archetypal situations, and a smattering of text-based clues doing a fine job of relaying events at face value.
On the surface, this is a game about ambition, betrayal, and the value of friendship. Deeper subtexts remain for those willing to suss them out, as well as some plot points that may very well be red herrings… or may not be.
Those already unfond of the games with which this shares a niche will find nothing to enjoy in Virginia. It’s been firmly tempered in the same forge that delivered Gone Home, Firewatch, and Dear Esther to the world. Personally, this is a game I’d place in the higher end of such games, where minimal interaction works in the story’s favor while providing enough involvement for the audience to feel like part of the world.
Virginia‘s graphics are simplistic but artistically bold and colorful, resembling That Dragon, Cancer with more detail and personality. Despite their refusal to speak, we get a solid grasp of a character’s personality through movements and expressions. A smirking FBI chief casually tossing the latest IA case file to his underling, a military father and son stopping themselves from embracing and instead saluting impersonally, Virginia is full of personal activity that says a lot while speaking no words.
Some questionable visual effects get in the way of potential enjoyment, most notably the glaring motion blur that marrs the PC version and some frame stutter on the PS4 version. Like the jump cuts, these are things that can be gotten used to, but unlike the jump cuts, overcoming their involvement does not aid the experience in any way.
The big black bars attempting to make the game appear “cinematic” are totally unwarranted, too.
The soundtrack is superb, however, and does a fantastic job of setting the appropriate mood with every piece of music. The music sometimes pulls a bit of a Supergiant, tugging at emotional heartstrings for scenes that don’t quite deserve it, but most of the score aligns with in-game revelations perfectly. A particular montage toward the end of the game would have been nowhere near as great without the tune backing it up.
Virginia isn’t a particularly mindblowing game, but it’s an altogether pleasant experience that dangles enough mystery before its audience to keep things intriguing without becoming so vague to as be self-indulgently offputting.
There are certain events I would have liked more followup on, occurrences that unfold but don’t develop, and while I realize they were intended as flavor for the game’s main premise, they nonetheless provided intriguing threads that deserved to be chased. Payoffs are not always required but there are some key moments where more resolution would have truly made this game more resonant.
It’s also worth pointing out that this isn’t really about the missing person case despite advertisements to the contrary – those wanting a “Who killed Laura Palmer?” event will be sorely disappointed. Just prepare for that, and you ought to be fine.
With Virginia, Variable State has created a grounded piece of interactive narrative, free of the waffling conceit of the genre’s worst offenders, but not quite evocative enough to be a true classic. Thanks to a savvy use of visual communication, a stirring soundtrack, and a tale that confidently communicates much in spite of its silence, Virginia is a good little game and a worthy contribution to the world of minimalist indie offerings.
If you like that kind of thing, of course!