Virginia tells one of the year’s most moving, esoteric stories.
It’s an interactive film noir that is more Blue Velvet than The Third Man, but what it has in common with both of these dreamlike movies is its memorable, if ambiguous, conclusion.
"The game seems to be polarizing critically, which I think is excellent," lead designer Jonathan Burroughs recently told us, in large part due to that complex, if not outright confusing, story. "I think that’s much better than it provoking no reaction at all."
Our reviewer quite liked Virginia, now available on PCs and consoles, but players have expressed a mess of differing thoughts on the game. Part of the mixed reception is due to the nature of Virginia as a so-called "walking sim;" there’s little to do in the game but follow the elegiac story to its unnerving, remarkable conclusion — all without any dialogue.
The ending in particular has been a subject of backlash. (And spoilers for the game's story will obviously follow from here on out.)
"It seems to be provoking an amount of discussion online," Burroughs said of Virginia’s conversation-starter of an ending. We reached out to him about the myriad places that Virginia goes in its third act as soon as we finished playing the two-hour game ourselves.
"Virginia’s narrative has an indirectness that leads to confusion"
It’s hard to explain out of context, but Virginia’s conclusion sees FBI agent Anne Tarver thrown into jail alongside her partner, Maria Halperin, after refusing to sell her out to their superiors. What follows is a dreamy, drug-addled sequence, in which Anne sees a future version of herself whom ascends the FBI’s ranks by ratting out her fellow detectives (many of whom, interestingly, are people of color).
Eventually, we see her at the top of the corrupt bureau, an unhappy ending that is eventually thrown out in favor of a UFO sighting, a visit to her dying father and the possible appearance of Lucas, the missing boy Anne and Maria were originally assigned to find.
"The ending, of course, collapses on a string of climaxes," wrote one Steam reviewer.
"I'm not dead set on narratives requiring traditional structures," said another, "and I love movies that incorporate strong visual storytelling (Upstream Color comes to mind), but Virginia's narrative has an indirectness that leads to confusion rather than good old fashioned mind-fuckery."
Although many agree that Virginia’s final note is a confusing one, there are myriad interpretations as to what that ending is meant to suggest. Burroughs was appropriately vague when we asked him to validate some popular fan theories, instead pointing to a few that piqued his interest.
One forum poster speculated on two possible readings of the ending, looking at the game’s use of primary colors to derive meaning and finality.
"The entire game consists of the dying thoughts of Anne's father," user TheBigG753 wrote. "The big thing here is that the very first shot of the game is from the perspective of her father (it is clearly his hands), but the rest of the game is from Anne's perspective.
"Even when you are seeing things from the perspective of other characters towards the end (the priest, the mayor, Cord, etc.), you still see them from the perspective of Anne‚ it's her hands that you see, not their's," the user explained. "The very first scene is the only time when the game is not clearly seen from Anne's perspective, perhaps because this is the only scene that takes place in reality."
Anne’s father is able to let go
Anne Tarver’s dad was also an FBI agent, TheBigG753 goes on to say, and any choice the younger Tarver makes that doesn’t follow along her father’s path is highlighted in red: the red envelope in her prison cell, a red box at the game’s end, etc. All the while, her father is reflecting on his own history with the FBI, hoping to rewrite it through his daughter’s actions.
"Anne's father has regrets about his own life, and is overcome with the fear of her following in his footsteps," TheBigG753 wrote. "As he dies, he is able to let go once he has acceptance that she will chart her own path in life, and not make the same mistakes he did."
TheBigG753’s other hypothesis is that, while Anne’s father has a strong influence over her, she is still charting her own, anxiety-ridden path. Stressed by the investigation before her, Anne hallucinates frequently, trying to disassociate herself from the weight of both the missing boy and her partner’s own secrets.
Eventually, TheBigG753 said, Annie dies in the line of fire, and what follows is "wish-fulfillment."
"Anne wakes up from the fall -- everything that happens in between was a dream," the user wrote. That means all of the stuff she experiences on her "acid trip" never happened.
Instead, she "goes down [into the field where she "died"] to find the necklace (and does), but also spots the missing boy, who runs off. She patches things up with Maria, they go out searching for the boy and find him walking along the side of the highway with his guitar."
Steam user Allahweh went in-depth about many of the game’s intricacies, and it’s their assessment of the ending that seems most valid to us. In fact, Allahweh’s reading doesn’t go too far into the interpretive side of things; instead, they focus on the symbolism of the ending’s series of events.
"Halperin and Anne both decide to leave the FBI, and seeing Lucas leaving Kingdom[, Virginia, where the game is set] on the way out of town they realize that he, too, was leaving a bad situation," Allahweh wrote. "In the end, it kind of ends up being about getting away from toxic situations and new beginnings — freeing yourself from your ghosts and the baggage of your past."
We can only glimpse whatever happened in the ‘60s and ‘70s
Their analysis also includes some insight on what role the unidentified flying object that appears during Anne’s drug trip plays into the story. Allahweh sees it as part of the cover-up that Anne and Maria are caught investigating, which results in their arrest and exit from the bureau.
It’s also possible that Maria’s ex-agent mother was caught up in the FBI’s mysterious, potentially illegal acts during the ‘60s and ‘70s, they write, which could motivate Maria’s own private investigation into her mother’s history with the organization.
"Whatever really happened back in the 1960s and 1970s at that Air Force Base and in Kingdom itself is something we can only get a glimpse of, but it certainly has left those involved feeling wracked with guilt and yet still wanting to protect themselves at almost any cost," said Allahweh. "Thankfully for Lucas, though, his story is more about running away from his broken home, and the alien abduction vision seems to be more symbolic than anything else."
Although Burroughs passed these interpretations to us, he was quick to note that doing so did not suggest his tacit confirmation.
"I’ve seen a few interpretations which share some commonalities with mine," he said. "Although I’ve not yet seen anybody whose ideas exactly match my own."
His vision of the ending? Unclear, but it’s far more melancholic than many other players’ readings. He told us the game is "terribly sad," and was surprised to find that the common interpretation was an optimistic one.
Still, he stressed that the most valid reading is the one that makes sense to the player.
"It’s entirely appropriate that people treat the game subjectively and draw their own interpretations," he told us. "I think there are specific plot details which may take some probing to understand fully, but which are intended as absolutes. But as to the game’s themes and the ideas behind it, I wouldn’t want to suggest there were right or wrong ways of viewing the game. Nor would I suggest my ideas were more correct than anybody else’s.
"Although there were a specific set of ideas behind the creation of the game, the game stands apart from its creators now," Burroughs added. "It’s its own thing and it’s up to each individual who experiences it to decide what it means for them."