It's impossible to talk about the haunting, gorgeous adventure game Virginia without mentioning its strongest influence, Twin Peaks.
When we spoke to members of Variable State, the indie studio in charge of the upcoming title, they conceded that they struggled to talk about the project without referencing the cult classic TV series themselves.
"We certainly perhaps over-relied on referencing Twin Peaks and nostalgic references," said Jonathan Burroughs, the narrative designer on Virginia. "We used it as a bit of a crutch since it's such a convenient shorthand."
In this case, "Twin Peaks-like" is code for an at-times obscure story, moody lighting and a dreamlike logic. Like David Lynch's two-season wonder from the early ‘90s, Virginia's basic summary belies its true nature. It's the story of a pair of FBI agents, one new to the job, the other a more seasoned professional. A boy's strange disappearance befalls a tight-knit Virginia community, sending the detectives out on the case, but this is no simple whodunnit.
Instead, what follows is an experience that some may find jarring at first. Although it's a tightly constructed, first-person adventure game that unfurls over a scant two hours, a bite-sized piece of Virginia became available as a demo earlier this month. (The full game launches Sept. 22.) Over the course of 15 minutes, players proceed through a variety of settings, where they can interact with a limited number of doors and objects in order to ascertain more about the situation and move forward. It's not a narrative-heavy puzzle game in the Telltale Games mold; think more atmospheric indie, a la Gone Home.
But playing the demo build — taken straight from the final game — also introduces the game's more unique elements. Virginia is a game full of quick cuts, disorienting setting changes and, most intriguingly, no dialogue, spoken or otherwise. The story is about solving a mystery, but none of the characters speak. The world is just a pretty score and that striking art style.
It's also hard to tell if the game is moving ahead in a linear fashion, as scenes cut away quickly after a player has progressed as far as they can. At the beginning of the demo, the player is dropped in medias res to the missing boy's home — we assume, based on the presence of silently weeping adults seated in the living room — where these quirks quickly become apparent. Although other FBI agents console the bereft, the player isn't privy to what's being said; there are no speaking voices, even when the player walks right up to the other characters in the room.
What one does hear is the dramatic score playing softly as they slowly meander through the house, searching for meaning behind the mystery and the goings-ons of the scene itself. It's a perplexing start, especially when entering the one accessible room quickly leads to a cut away from the house entirely.
Virginia's abstract mechanics may seem like curious choices for a game focused on its characters and stories, but every design element is crucial to crafting that abstract quality, art director Terry Kenny said.
Virginia isn't "a detective role-playing experience"
"When we put the story together, we had a very clear idea that we argued for weeks and months before we got it on paper and were all happy," he explained. "When we cut it down into scenes and showed it to people, it seemed so obvious since we have the legacy of everything behind it. So people are asking questions of, ‘What does this mean?' and we're like, ‘Well, obviously!'"
What is obvious to the designers is complete esoterica to the player, however. As a Twin Peaks fan might say, "The owls are not what they seem." The game clips at such an unfamiliar pace that it may baffle the player until well into its runtime. That's not a bad thing, necessarily; the charm of Virginia and the horror-tinged ‘90s dramas from which it draws (The X-Files is another obvious influence) is that they offer more questions than answers. Yet to a player well-versed in straightforward first-person narrative games, even those like Gone Home , whose true stories are kept hidden, Virginia can be a confusing experience.
The editing plays a hand in that, as does the cinematic quality. There's not much interaction within the demo, and the designers admitted that this detective story is no detective game.
"I wouldn't want anyone to be under any illusions that it's a detective role-playing experience," said Burroughs, "or approaching any other detective games that led you through those mechanics and let you imagine yourself in the role of an investigator or have very richly interactive environments."
Instead, "our focus is on inhabiting or embodying the particular character that this story is about," he continued.
Playing as the younger FBI agent, Anne, helps the player feel as though they're not the only one lost here. She, too, is confused, both as a newbie on the job and party to this quick-cutting, magical reality. The team described her as a Clarice Starling-type, an idealistic agent who is nonetheless green, and maybe isn't as well prepared for what lies ahead as she thought.
Thankfully, she has her partner Maria alongside her. It's a relationship that the designers define as Virginia's core narrative focus, grounding what could be an ambiguous, if beautiful, adventure game. Even though scenes rarely last more than a few minutes, the agents' relationship grows more affecting and intense over the course of the story.
The lack of voice-acting actually contributes to that, strange that may seem. Burroughs compared the game to Firewatch in this regard: That's a game that prioritized teasing out emotions through rich dialogue. Virginia goes the other direction, with its gorgeous art and animation building out its cast in the absence of spoken word.
For Variable State, the hope is that players grow fond of Anne and Maria over the course of Virginia's movie-like length. A big part of that is the unique combination of two women as the leads. Rare is it to see two female friends at the forefront of a game, and the team acknowledged that this less well-trodden ground was more ripe for drama.
"It seemed so much more interesting to do something about a friendship and how a friendship can develop and be tested," said Burroughs, after telling us how the game started life as a more romantic, heteronormative experience. "Particularly to have two characters that were serious people in a friendship. That seemed as simple as that sounds, like a powerful story and an unusual story."
Kenny concurred, saying that "a lot of the decisions we made were just a chance to be contrary to the norms of video games as possible."
Considering both designers entered the industry under the tutelage of big-name studios, like Rockstar and EA, the Brits have found the creative freedom of the indie scene refreshing. With Virginia as its debut title, Variable State is clearly embracing the go-for-broke attitude that defines the field.
As for the possibility that Virginia could all be written off as yet another Twin Peaks homage, well, the team is hopeful that the story's central relationship can overtake those bigger buzzwords. But as longtime fans of the series, is it really such a bad thing for their game to be compared to Twin Peaks?
After all, as Kenny said, the nostalgic quality can only remind players of "happier and safer times."