Embracing the Surreal in “Virginia”

I recently played the Variable State game Virginia, which embraces the genre of “walking simulator” almost to a fault. Navigating a handful of environments in first-person, there is almost no exploration to enjoy; you usually have a single action you can take, which is often as mundane as opening a door. Virginia is also a narrative game — but that narrative is confusing at the best of times. There is absolutely no dialogue in the game, so you must rely on your vision — take in the watercolor palette, the characters’ stern facial expressions, the objects that take up space but don’t allow you to interact with them in any way — to comprehend the story. Or what there is of a story.

You play as Anne Tarver, a new FBI agent. With your FBI partner Maria Halpern, you are tasked with a missing persons case about a teenage boy who’s gone missing. But your superior gives you another objective on the side: to keep an eye on your partner.

ss_4fdfae79a4a33a4daaf024005ba91a0c20e79693.0That sounds like a great premise for a thriller. And it is, but that’s hardly what this cinematic game is about. Frequent dream sequences, the lack of dialogue, and recurring symbolism makes the game feel more like a meditation on themes — perhaps even an exploration of “what-ifs”, since it is hard to know what’s really happening and what’s imaginary — rather than a cohesive story.

While I appreciate that the game has an agenda that can’t be played with, I really wanted to do more in the game. I felt the game would have worked almost as well as a short film. It’s certainly cinematic enough.

I’m used to narrative games like Life is Strange and Telltale games, which let you click on multiple items in any given space to study them in detail. This level of interactivity just isn’t present in Virginia. It’s extremely linear, with very little exploration and no decision-making on the part of the player.

That’s what makes it feel more like a movie than a game, to me.

virginia_feature-770x472On the other hand, at least being able to experience events in first person (as opposed to watching this as a film) does create the occasional moment of tension. For instance, at one point when Anne and Maria are in the car together, Anne’s briefcase falls open to reveal her internal investigations file on her partner. For a moment, I held my breath, terrified that my partner would see it. Then I fumbled to close the briefcase, shoving the contents back inside it. A film could have captured this instant of tension too, but somehow being the one who has to react to this event — looking at Maria, looking at the file on the floor of the car, clicking to do something about it — adds suspense.

The music has the hefty job of making the even the most everyday gesture take on significance, whether that’s looking at someone or sipping coffee. And it does a superb job of that. I absolutely love the score by Lyndon Holland, played by the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. Without it, the game feels simplistic, even boring. But the music adds the necessary emotion to each scene. Combine that with the occasional sound effects, and you have a very memorable soundscape that engages you in a different way than most games’.

Some might disagree with me, but I feel like Virginia is more of an emotional experience than an intellectual one. Because the storyline isn’t always linear and frequently dips into the surreal, it’s hard to grasp exactly what’s happening in the story. At one point, you see the missing boy on the side of the road — but nothing happens. There’s also a UFO; a scene in which Anne is let out of a prison cell, just like that; and mysterious items and symbols that keep coming up, such as a red bird, a bison, Maria’s locket, a locked box and its key. All of this requires a second playthrough, some online research, or at least deep thought afterwards. In that sense, the game can be intellectual, but as I played it I had trouble putting the pieces together and at some point decided I didn’t really care to, in the moment anyway.

virginia-26-08-2016-18-28-25-101There were times when I wished I had felt more connected to the story and characters. Maybe it’s the lack of dialogue, or the fact that scenes are so brief and so little really happens. Maybe it’s just the way the game relies more on symbolism than actual events to tell its story.

But the last half hour of the game finally got to me. Seeing one potential future for Anne — whether you think it’s what really happened or not is up to you — is a very emotional experience. That was enough for me to appreciate the game, after over an hour of confusion and frustration.

I would not recommend Virginia for everyone — not in the slightest. It’s hard to digest, slow-paced (most of the time), and leaves the player with very little to do. From a gameplay standpoint, I didn’t feel rewarded, and I found myself contemplating afterwards how Virginia could have been more dynamic with player choices or more exploration. I just wish, as a video game, it had taken advantage of its genre.

But it’s a short game — it took me just over 90 minutes to play — with an intense love for its themes. If you want a game that will make you feel even as your head is trying to catch up, this is it. While I found the first hour of the game confusing at times, the emotional resonance created by the surreal storytelling and score is worth the trouble, especially for the moving ending.

Just the fact that I’m still thinking about this game, days after finishing it, means it must have gotten something right. I’m glad I gave it a chance.


5 thoughts on “Embracing the Surreal in “Virginia””

    1. Ooh really? I heard there are collectibles but I wasn’t interested in looking for them on a second playthrough. I’ll check out the article, I’m enjoying reading people’s opinions on the game’s story!

  1. There were elements of this game that I liked. First and foremost the soundtrack. But the presentation too. The lack of dialogue and the use of jump cuts was really unique. Ultimately, it just wasn’t game-y enough for me. I have embraced some of these types of experiences more in recent years, but as you point out, even compared to something like Life is Strange or the Telltale games, this has very little in the way of player interaction. The story was perhaps just a bit too weird for me as well even if it did turn over in my brain for a while afterwards.

    1. Yeah I agree with you on all that! It’s interesting you had similar takeaways. The music took the place of the dialogue in a really special way, and like you say, some of the unique elements like the jump cuts were interesting… But it wasn’t really gamey enough for me either. The story wasn’t quite my style either, but I appreciate what the game was trying to do. I’m glad I played it.

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