HIGH It’s wonderfully cinematic, and the soundtrack is amazing.
LOW The story falls apart and doesn’t deliver at the end.
WTF Seriously? Climbing up that log made sense to anyone?
Coming out of absolutely nowhere, developers Variable State have burst onto the scene with Virginia, an intriguingly cinematic title that’s sure to be one of the most interesting and noteworthy games of the year. Unfortunately, it loses its way after a brilliant start and falls short of being an unqualified recommendation.
Inspired by fare such as Twin Peaks, The X-Files, The Outer Limits and more, Virginia stars two female FBI agents who travel to a small, rural town to unravel the disappearance of a young boy. At least, that’s the premise suggested at the beginning.
What’s immediately noticeable about Virginia is that the graphics are heavily stylized, the interactions with the world are limited, and there’s absolutely no dialogue. There are a few times when text will appear but everything is generally communicated via carefully curated sights and sounds. It’s most easily lumped into the Walking Simulator genre because the player has minimal interaction with the world — no combat, no puzzles, and players only click on specific hot spots to progress – but it’s a standout.
The thing that gripped me about Virginia was the confidence and surety the devs display in how they move the player through each part of the story. Rather than creating an open world full of superfluous high-res textures to wander around in, everything is measured and paced. When the main character is walking down a stairway, Virginia will allow the first few steps and then instantly cut to the destination. In another instance, the character will wake up and leave their apartment, only to have the game cut to the office.
Removing uneventful downtime is unexpected and jarring at first, but it quickly becomes clear that Variable State is chasing film-style storytelling to string scenes together, and they pull it off with aplomb. I’m more interested in characterization and narrative than I am in huge spaces and pretty skyboxes, so Virginia’s approach worked for me in a big way.
The developers are also surprisingly successful with the removal of dialogue. Although, that’s not to say they are entirely successful.
After it became clear that no one was going to start talking, my focus quickly shifted — examining each scene without chatter and simply inhabiting spaces conveyed more information than I would have initially assumed. Sitting in a coffee shop and watching who came in painted a great picture of the community. Walking into a house and seeing grieving parents instantly cued me in to a crime scene, and I acted accordingly. Virginia gets much done by showing and not telling, and that’s excellent.
On the other hand, there are certain aspects of Virginia which are unclear and ultimately unsatisfying. It’s partially due to the lack of direct communication, but to a greater degree it’s because the developers are intentionally trying to create an ambiguous story and they drop the reins before the horses are properly on-course.
Without dialogue and almost no text to read, I just wasn’t clear about certain things. The relationship between the two agents becomes strained and it’s not elaborated on, and some of the connections between people in town are too vague. At one point my character ended up in jail, and I haven’t the faintest idea why. There’s a line between inspiring a player to ask questions and simply not communicating details effectively, and Virginia falls on the wrong side of it. Rather than recovering, this obfuscation is only magnified near the end.
While Virginia‘s first half comfortably contrasts the “real world” investigation with divergences into dream states and undefined phenomena, the last leg seems rushed and jumbled. The developers obviously know the details of the story they’re trying to tell, but instead of letting players in on it, they opt for a long series of flashbacks, flash-forwards, unexplained images and scenes which don’t make a lot of sense in the context of what players have seen up to that point.
In a way, Virginia’s focus seems to shift away from the missing boy’s investigation and to the player’s character, and it’s an odd gear change. It’s almost a bait-and-switch, really, as if the writers are saying that the plot never mattered at all. From there, the game ends in a whirl of confusion that’s ostensibly meant to inspire water cooler discussion and fan theories, but instead left me scratching my head and wondering what the hell happened. David Lynch might be able to pull off a trick like this, but Variable State hasn’t managed it here, and it’s a real disappointment to walk away from this largely engaging work feeling so unfilfilled.
Virginia is an excellent example of what can be done with the medium – the director’s hand is felt, the approach is unusual and the subject is intriguing. However, “Ambiguous Story” is becoming a widespread disease in videogames, and it’s hitting the indie scene are particularly hard. While occasionally appropriate, it’s a perilous shortcut that leads too many narratives astray, and this game is a victim. I recommend Virginia to examine how it moves a player through its story, but I can’t sign off on the story itself.
Disclosures: This game is developed by Variable State and published by 505 Games. It is currently available on PS4, XBO, PC. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PS4.Approximately 3 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated M and contains Violence, Suggestive Themes, and Use of Drugs and Alcohol. Although there’s no dialogue, the game is obviously meant for older audiences. It’s never very explicit or gory and the suggestive themes are oblique… It’s more about being too dry for kids than being harmful in terms of exposure.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: There’s no dialogue in the game, and barely any text. It’s all visual here, so it’s fully accessible.
Remappable Controls: Certain functions can be reassigned and the camera axis can be flipped, but otherwise this game’s controls are not remappable.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.