|Platform Win, PS4, Xbox One
|Developer Variable State
Narrative game Virginia has been marketed to the world as a tribute to kooky TV shows from the 1990s, but I think the time has come to dispense with this media-friendly merchantry.
While the game certainly takes its narrative cues from The X-Files and Twin Peaks, developer Variable State’s subversions of video game norms are far more interesting. Over the two hours of its running time, Virginia manages to tell a deeply engaging story about friendship, loyalty, betrayal and identity, without using a single word of dialogue. This is an act of creative courage, as well as an outstanding achievement in storytelling.
The silence of the characters creates a world of intuition, subtlety and meaning far beyond the rote exposition of most video games. Every scene is a mini-adventure in visual comprehension.
things I needed to find were right where I might expect them to be.
You play as a rookie FBI agent in the early ’90s who’s attached to a more experienced agent and tasked with finding a missing teenage boy. Your partner has secrets that you begin to discover.
The whole game is told in first-person, with the player’s activities restricted to moving around and looking at things. Certain cues — such as approaching the right person to move the story forward — trigger progress.
But Virginia’s designers have avoided turning the mechanics of the game into any kind of a challenge. When I walked into a room, the person I needed to talk to was pretty obvious. If I was searching a room, the things I needed to find were right where I might expect them to be.
This is basic cop work. It asks only that the player has a smidge of common sense. There’s no video game-y task-making or interactive padding, like cruising along walls looking for the cursor to blink suggestively at a hidden panel. There’s no "talk to Person A and then to Person B" to progress.
Virginia also avoids the errors of some story games, in which characters poke around the environment searching for secret stuff while the owner of that stuff looks on, apparently rendered incapacitated by this cheesy gameplay device.
There are zero choices in Virginia. It has a predefined story that I was expected to follow. The heavy moral choices that it poses are in the hands of the characters. I merely activated those choices and witnessed their effects.
This is not to suggest a lack of intimacy between me and the characters. On the contrary, the minimalist facial animations and bodily expressions convey enormous emotional data. The exact nature of the relationships at play in this game are always clearly signaled. At the big moments in the story, I felt them deeply.
It’s also worth noting that the main protagonist and the secondary character are both women of color. The fact of their status within a system like the FBI is woven into the story, making them both outsiders in a culture driven by suspicion and conformity.
But it’s also presented as a core reality that the women understand and accommodate. Virginia does not pretend that two black women working in law enforcement in the ’90s are going to be surprised by their own disgraceful marginalization.
Virginia makes use of various cinematic tricks that kept me on edge. I walked down a corridor and was cut to sitting in the back of a car in daytime, which then cut to being in my own bed. This homage to those ’90s shows isn’t just nostalgia. The tricks work to create a sense of disorientation that helps to confound what might otherwise be a fairly straightforward conspiracy tale.
Dream sequences — which I normally loathe — also offer playful insights into the main character’s psyche, into her fears and her subconscious thoughts about the investigation. All this is elevated by a lovely, lovely musical score, which I expect to see listed in awards nominations at the end of the year.
The only missteps in this story are occasional insistences on going back to meaningful scenes, props and memories that I felt unnecessary, as if the creators doubted my ability to follow simple narrative clues. This was especially jarring in a game that generously afforded me a feeling that I was playing something smart, emotionally mature and thought-provoking.
Virginia is powerful and original
Virginia’s deviance from norms makes it the sort of game that demands to be discussed among friends and, in this respect, the comparisons with Twin Peaks are apt. Although there’s only one ending to this game, it’s confounding enough to leave multiple possible interpretations, which is often the mark of a great story. Such is its power and originality, I suspect Virginia will have significant influences over games yet to be conceived.
Virginia was reviewed using a pre-release Steam key provided by Variable State. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.About Polygon's Reviews