When you load up Virginia, the first thing you notice might be that the main menu is letterboxed, like a wide-format film. The second thing you might notice is that instead of “start game,” the game asks you to “begin feature”– as in, feature film. Before you start playing, you will sit through a long series of opening credits nearly identical to those you may have seen in a lot of movies. You may notice, in those credits the name of the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. It is a famous orchestra which often records the scores for films. Then you might notice that the game itself is still letterboxed.
At this point, you should begin putting clues one and two and three up through six or ten together and realize that you are about to play a videogame of a film. I mean– a videogame that has pillaged the shit out of filmmaking. Er, bear with me: a videogame that is exploring the vast and (remarkably!!) still fresh zone between whatever feels like a videogame to us, and whatever feels like a movie. If you put a gun to my head and told me I had to pin a solid genre definition on Virginia, I’d call it an experimental first-person narrative game which is designed to look and feel like a movie.
In Variable State’s Virginia, you play Anne Tarver, a newly-graduated FBI agent just starting her career. Anne has been assigned to accompany another FBI agent, Maria Halperin, to investigate the case of a missing teen in a town called Kingdom, Virginia. Anne is not just there to solve the case, though– she has been asked to accompany Maria as part of an internal-affairs case. Over the course of the story, you grow to discover that something possibly supernatural is afoot– but you also discover a series of decidedly un-supernatural mysteries, shames, and cruelties.
Virginia borrows liberally from both Twin Peaks and The X Files. Its main musical theme is nearly a copy of some music which appears in Twin Peaks, and certain story elements– characters, plots, even a disorganized, basement-level office filled with filing cabinets and projectors– seem heavily inspired by The X Files. It strikes a mood halfway between Twin Peaks’ spookiness and The X Files’ often-hallucinatory weirdness. It includes a bizarre drug trip. It includes situations which seem to ignore cause and effect. It includes extended scenes which I am not sure “actually happened” to the characters “in real life.” It leaps around wildly in time and space.
IT CONTAINS ABSOLUTELY NO DIALOGUE.
And that, really, is the thing that makes Virginia special. It’s not just a videogame designed to look and feel like a movie: it’s a videogame that looks and feels like a silent film. The entire story is conveyed through a series of mime-like character interactions that you either witness or participate in– a woman slapping a man, a teen hurling a precious item over a fence, a fateful handshake, repeated over and over again. The low-poly characters in this story have absolutely top-notch expressive animation. The entire story relies on the skill of the animators to convey plot without words. They succeed. It’s amazing.
But it’s not all just mimery– Virginia uses other silent techniques as well. Characters’ struggles, backstories, motivations, and desires are usually represented with prop objects they will carry, dream about, recieve, or hide. You’re given a FBI dossier early in the story which comes to represent your relationship with your partner. Your partner, on the other hand, carries and worries about a necklace which comes to represent her mysterious past. When the plot becomes too confusing to illustrate entirely with mimed vignettes or symbolic objects, someone will usually hand you a TOP SECRET FBI dossier and give you a couple seconds to scan the written contents for context.
When it’s not using mimes, special objects, or text-filled dossiers to tell its story, Virginia relies on its editing– as in, film editing. It moves with hard, fast cuts between images and locations, exactly like the game which very obviously inspired this technique (and which Virginia’s creators thank in the credits): Thirty Flights of Loving, a vignette narrative game released in 2012 by Blendo Games.
Like Thirty Flights, Virginia transports you rapidly from place to place and relies on you to look at where you are, look at the people and things around you, and draw a conclusion about what has happened to you since the last scene occurred. At one point in the middle of Virginia, you pop from a photography darkroom directly into a police station, leaping from the discovery of a clue directly to the investigation’s result, skipping the arrest and interrogation entirely. At another point, a series of cuts from scene to scene in a small-town bar require you to imagine how two characters reconciled their differences and became friends. Virginia trusts its players to assemble the story themselves out of the provided parts. It feels good to be trusted like this by a videogame– I rarely experience that, to be honest!
It’s particularly amusing to feel so trusted and respected by a game which is basically trying as hard as it can to feel exactly like a movie. A lot of people complain about “games which are like movies” because they feel that those games do not trust their agency enough. Even now, you may be sitting here thinking to yourself, “Gee, I don’t want to play a videogame which is like a movie! That’s bad, right?”
Over the last decade, I’ve heard a lot of people accuse a lot of videogames of being too much like movies. The assumption these people usually make is that a videogame should not be like a movie– that movies and videogames each have little to nothing to offer one another, and that videogames must diverge from films as fast and energetically as possible in order to find their way as a medium.
This is, in my opinion, extremely silly! There is no reason why games shouldn’t pillage anything they want from filmmaking, and there is no reason why anyone shouldn’t try to create hybrid experiences. We’d be silly to limit people’s creativity by holding them to any prescriptive idea of what games can or should be. Players who complain that an experience is too much like a movie are, I think, really complaining about something else– a lack of satisfying agency, a feeling of powerlessness, or an overscripted awkwardness that draws glaring and negative attention to the ways in which games aren’t actually movies.
Virginia, on the other hand, is largely without that kind of awkwardness. It’s clear very early on exactly how scripted the game is. There is little conflict between its expressive scenes and its players’ agency because player agency is limited to discovering and triggering expressive scenes. You will not be collecting clues or solving challenges or earning rewards: your reward will be the satisfaction and fascination you experience every time you trigger a new, mysterious moment.
This works because Virginia lays out its ground rules almost immediately, and sticks to them with serious dedication. The game’s first scene walks you step-by-step through the process of applying lipstick in order to teach you how its interactive hotspots work– and, I think, to get you accustomed to the idea that you do not have the freedom to start and stop this process or walk around or do whatever you like in the middle of it. When the game wants you to apply lipstick, you’ll apply lipstick, goddamn it. In Virginia, you are often free to explore environments for as long as you want, but the hotspot is king, and in order to eventually progress through the story, you must click on all your prompted hotspots in order as they appear. Often, your ability to walk, sit, or stand is quite limited. Your role here is to perform and witness a series of intriguing vignettes which make you feel like a character in a story. That’s it.
And it’s great. Genuinely, I loved this. I am a sucker for Twin Peaks and The X Files, but I think I would have enjoyed this odd story and its strictly-limited interactive rules even if I had never seen either of those shows. Virginia is often mindbogglingly beautiful. Its lighting and color work are incredible– nighttime gas-stations, dawn-lit meadows, and sunsets over rolling, forested hills are all absolutely perfect. Its characters’ cartoonish yet subtle facial animations communicate layers of feeling and help to define complicated, suspicion-riddled relationships. Its interior scenes in particular are full of fascinating little low-poly details. Your hands– the part of yourself you see the most– are incredibly eloquent, showing your character’s horror, excitement, and shame in a way that doesn’t feel even the least bit awkward or stilted.
And, about these characters: Virginia stars two black female FBI agents, and gives them distinct, strongly-opposed personalities without even having them speak on-screen. When it comes to creating characters who look and feel unique, Virginia is putting a lot of other games to shame, mainstream and indie alike. It’s extremely refreshing! Over the last few years, television has started to discover, I think, that audiences want new kinds of stories about different kinds of people. We want to be surprised and intrigued by characters whose life-stories and personalities we can no longer predict. I think Virginia shows us a way that videogames can follow the same path.
If you are the kind of person who likes stories to end with cold, hard, answers to specific, strongly-stated mysteries, I’m gonna warn you: Virginia is not interested in giving you these things. You are going to get– uh– a bird. A bison. Some out-of-body experiences. Some time travel? A half-answer flickering by at the corner of your eye in the last minute of the game, easy to miss if you look the wrong way. Many characters’ stories are only half-told. They enrich the world, but add more questions than answers. If you like the kind of answer-phobic attitude characterized Twin Peaks and The X Files, you’ll probably love the way the story is handled in Virginia. If you didn’t, you won’t. If the idea of a narrative game which looks like a movie and feels like a movie and is only as long as the average movie repels you, you’ll also probably be disappointed.
But if those things repel you, you are missing the hell out! Virginia is definitely a must-play for any fans of first-person narrative in videogames. I wouldn’t be surprised to see echoes of its scenes and its interactive techniques appear in other videogames over the next few years. It takes a lot of risks, and all of them absolutely pay off. It’s a masterclass in videogame narrative design. It feels fresh and weird and it respects your time and your smarts and it’s beautiful as all get out.
And it’s chock full of references to my two favorite 90s TV shows, so, yeah. There you go.