Typically when I'm assigned a game for review, I try to sit down and begin the writing process soon after I complete the game, while it's fresh in my mind. This happens much of the time, but not always. Upon completing Variable State's Virginia
in one sitting, I didn't allow myself any time to delay. I knew I had
to sit down and write immediately. That's because the often beautiful, always bizarre adventure game is so dizzying, especially in the latter half, that any time spent away from it may have resulted in only more fogginess regarding everything that I had witnessed. Like a dream upon awakening, vaguely remembered and demanding rumination, Virginia
is surreal, intangible, and all the better for it. Virginia
is a first-person adventure game. While it can be called a point-and-click, its lack of puzzles or inventory management aligns it more closely with what is sometimes derogatorily referred to as a walking simulator. You play FBI Special Agent Anne Tarver who travels to idyllic Kingdom, Virginia, alongside her newly assigned partner Maria Halperin to investigate the disappearance of a missing boy. From the moment that you begin, the influences that television and especially film have on Virginia
are clear. The opening credits are simply that. There's no gameplay tutorial, nor is there a quick title sequence or cold opening that throws you into the action. When Virginia
begins, you might forget for a moment that you're playing a game. "Directed By" credits that finish off the introduction and the widescreen format assert the game's intentions and leave no doubt. This is a cinematic game with aspirations to present itself as something more movie-like than even the majority of its genre counterparts.
In first-person, you'll freely move about your environments but there's seldom much with which to interact other than precisely what is next needed to drive the plot forward. As you first enter the room wherein you work alongside other FBI agents, the learned nature of games may influence you to explore the large office, but you'll soon find that there's little reason to ever stray from the exact path on which the story wants you to travel. The story is better paced and better told the sooner that you learn that the world is meant to be observed but not inspected. The town of Kingdom is often a sight to be admired with its quaint Twin Peaks
-ian diner and the spectrum of fall foliage, but Virginia
is intended to be experienced as a two hour movie, paced perfectly and not delayed by wandering.
No small town with a secret is complete without a quaint diner.
Often when I veered from the path that the game contextually hinted was the correct one, I ended up feeling bad. I had stepped out of the experience, ruined the pacing of the narrative. "That's not what she would do," I'd say to myself. In movies, you don't see a character stall a scene to scan over every inch of a room looking for things to pick up. If my partner waited for me to walk through a door so that the story could continue while I checked if any of her drawers opened to reveal items, it was like breaking the fourth wall. Because of that, it didn't take me long to assimilate to the game's direction.
This is where the language of film clashes with the language of games, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. The game's small team, led by co-directors Jonathan Burroughs and Terry Kenny, made it blatantly obvious from the moment that the game begins that Virginia
is not intended to play like a game. Its lack of "traditional" gameplay makes Gone Home
seem like Peggle
. That sort of approach will undoubtedly drive away countless gamers who play first and foremost for things to do
rather than things to witness
It wouldn't be unfair to call Virginia
a nearly on-rails walking sim. You do have freedom to explore but it's just that you'll soon not want to explore when doing so only manages to awkwardly stall the pacing of what is supposed to be a mystery story. But while the gameplay is nearly on rails, the story goes completely off them. Walking sims put a premium on storytelling and Virginia
again uses that language of film to advance its relatively young genre to new heights. Jump cuts, fades to black, and a brilliant original soundtrack are some of the Hollywood-esque techniques that are employed to tell the bizarre story.
Like riding shotgun with Special Agent Halperin, you're little more than along for the ride with Virginia.
While the game begins with your main character waking up, the whole thing feels more and more like a dream as you go on. The world is hazy, sometimes feeling like it's moving in slow motion. I don't say this to imply that the game is a bore -- it's just all so surreal. The second half gets so deliberately confusing that a second playthrough feels almost mandatory. It's genuinely hard to describe the game's sequence of events without spoiling it, but I also wouldn't really know where to begin. I thought that I had an understanding of where the game was going, but I don't think anyone could correctly predict its latter half.
Because it plays out in two hours, it's best done in one sitting as if you've committed to something in your Netflix queue. But what starts as a movie may leave you feeling like you just awoke from a dream. It nails atmosphere in a way that few games do and its alternatingly quirky and threatening story borrows from some of Hollywood's greatest visionaries, like Roman Polanski, the Coen Brothers, Alfred Hitchcock, and far above all else, David Lynch. One of its most impressive feats is that it delivers this whole story without a single word ever spoken. The lack of voice acting certainly kept costs down, but it feels more like a stylistic decision than a penny-pinching measure. This lack of spoken dialogue is replaced by gestures and scenes that speak for themselves. We're left to fill in the remaining blanks, which only helps to deepen the mystery.
Scully? Mulder? Is that you?
Since the entire package that is presented by Virginia
is so strange, why wouldn't the achievement list be the same? The game's list features 17 unlocks. None of them plainly reveal what exactly is required, and most of them are so cryptic that I simply can't go hunting for them until a few guides appear online. I believe that at least two of them are guaranteed to pop in a playthrough, including one
that I think unlocks when you finish the game.
On top of the nondescript requirements that come with each achievement, so too come unorthodox values. While they total in the standard 1000 gamerscore, individually almost none of them feature the usual multiple-of-five numerical assignments. I finished the game having unlocked six of the 17, but for 97, 19, 82, 86, 13, and 23 gamerscore respectively. In weeks to come, when guides help to clarify exactly what we're tasked with doing, I have little doubt that Virginia
will be an easy completion. As it stands now, you may have an easier time capturing Bigfoot on camera.
is a game because of its avenues of release and its use of a controller, but it is the most cinematic, movie-like game that may have yet been created. That's meant as a compliment but it's understood that plenty don't care for such a shallow gameplay experience. However, like all of the best first-person adventure games, or "walking sims", Virginia
works better than its movie inspirations because of the inherent interactivity that comes with telling a story in this medium. It goes all in on delivering a surreal, Lynchian narrative and hits that nail of unreality on the head, all the way down to leaving you wondering what exactly you just witnessed.
- Engrossing story that invites replays and reflection
- Cinematic presentation makes it feel like a well-paced movie
- Hazy, slow burning soundtrack sets the perfect mood
- Weaves character and mystery without a single spoken word
- Interpretive, confusing plot may annoy some players
The reviewer spent two hours playing through the full game in one sitting, unlocking six of 17 achievements along the way. He's still very, very confused, but more playthroughs are planned to help unravel it all. An Xbox One copy was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review.