Sometimes a glimpse of something is all it takes to spark my interest. Such was the case with Virginia, the debut title from developer Variable State, which put together a trailer that showcased the unusual art style and your role as an FBI agent. While it revealed little, it was enough to rope me in. Now it’s time to find out if it delivers.
Virginia is a very linear game with limited input from the player. You walk and look around, using the reticule as a visual cue — it’ll become a circle when you’re headed toward something you can interact with and then a diamond when you actually do the interacting. There’s some constant motion, which I’m guessing is simulating your breathing, but it’s kind of annoying when trying to select things.
With its unique, angular characters and colorful settings, Virginia is a visually interesting game. Despite its overwhelming surreal qualities, the game manages to convey a host of emotions without benefit of a single spoken word through recognizable facial expressions and social interactions. Although there are moments where some exposition would’ve been nice, it never undermines the experience.
As enjoyable as the visual side is, the game’s soundtrack is its high point. The orchestral score almost always strikes the right chord for the emotion the scene is meant to evoke, though there a few scenes where it feels a little heavy handed. It’s at its best in a lengthy late-game montage.
Let’s clarify a couple of things: 1) to reiterate, this is more interactive fiction than video game and is in the same vein as games like Dear Esther and Gone Home; and 2) the missing person’s case that’s featured in the trailer is a very small part of the narrative, and there’s little “investigating” going on.
You play as Anne Tarver; a newly minted FBI Agent assigned to work a case in rural Virginia circa 1992 where one Lucas Fairfax has disappeared. That’s only part of your job, however, as you’re also there as part of an internal investigation into your new partner, Maria Halerpin. It sounds like it could be a pretty straightforward tale, but there’s plenty of Twin Peaks mixed in.
Many of the events, particularly as you advance, toe the line between reality and fantasy, such as a cardinal that repeatedly shows up, or a buffalo that makes several appearances of its own. Are these simply delusions? Were they dreams? Was the initial event real and then subsequent sightings a figment of your imagination? It’s never clear.
In fact, Virginia holds a unique distinction with me in that I elected to play the game through a second time immediately after finishing it initially to see if knowing where the story was headed would help me pick out more details and make better sense of it. It did, but it wasn’t like replaying it provided perfect clarity. It simply made some elements less opaque.
While the story will certainly evoke questions and discussions, it has plenty of shortcomings; most notably that it introduces elements and then never follows up. Yes, Virginia provides enough that you should get the gist of most of it, but its carefully scripted world and timed jump cuts limit your ability to interact with it.
Those jump cuts are the game’s signature storytelling device, so you’ll be walking down a hallway and then suddenly you’re in the basement… and then you’re in front of the door. It cuts out some of the mundane elements and streamlines the game into a 90-plus-minute story in the process. Although it’s an interesting idea, their suddenness takes some getting used to.
I liked Virginia, even if it wasn’t the crime drama I’d hope for. Both the presentation and manner of storytelling are unique, and the narrative is an interesting one. If you’re a fan of walking simulators, this tangentially sits among the genre’s better entries. If not, keep on walking.