HIGH Lyndon Holland’s incredible score.
LOW The nauseatingly narrow field of view.
WTF All of it, basically.
I hate admitting that I don’t like Virginia because I don’t know what it’s about.
Presented with zero dialogue and edited (yes, edited) in such rapid-fire motion as to make its few concrete plot details extremely easy to miss, Virginia is designed for the attentive player. The game feels deliberately obtuse, but there’s a slight inkling of doubt in the back of my mind whether I missed something crucial that would have made its plot comprehensible. The problem may just be that I’m just not stringing the pieces together.
Whatever the case, as Virginia’s credits rolled I had only the barest possible understanding of what I’d just watched. I say “watched” because Virginia is the sort of narrative-driven game that minimizes player input. There are no choices, no fail states, and very few opportunities to stray from the intended path. By my observation, apart from a few collectibles, players are only ever allowed to interact with whatever object will advance the plot. That’s not a problem in and of itself, but when a game is so singularly focused on telling a story, well, not telling it cohesively is a bit of a speed bump.
The setup, which is all I’m able to provide, is that a couple of FBI agents are looking into the disappearance of a suburban teenager while one of them, the protagonist, secretly investigates her partner. I’ve seen Virginia compared to Twin Peaks (and, admittedly, the setting looks a lot more like the Pacific Northwest than it does Virginia) but its unabashed weirdness channels David Lynch’s work as a whole. As someone who often feels lost watching Lynch’s movies, I felt similarly befuddled here.
There’s repeated symbolism involving a cardinal and a buffalo that I have no idea what to make of. Dream sequences are so frequent that it eventually becomes difficult to tell what we’re meant to take literally, especially when fantastical elements become involved. Virginia seems to switch perspectives later with no warning, and I think one sequence is meant to represent a possible future that the protagonist is imagining for herself. The game’s climax is a cacophony of bizarre images presented too quickly to make sense of.
Again, I have no idea what this game is supposed to be about.
What makes Virginia particularly frustrating as a work of ambiguous fiction is the chief storytelling gimmick of being portrayed with absolutely no dialogue. The whole thing plays like a silent movie — it’s an ambitious idea that’s breathtaking to behold when we’re not putting puzzle pieces together. Lyndon Holland’s incredible soundtrack is often perfectly synchronized with actions and cuts, and gives the game a sense of poetic, purposeful flow.
The downside of being dialogue-free is that an already-obtuse plot becomes even murkier thanks to developer Variable State’s refusal to tell us anything outright. The relationship between the protagonist and her partner seems to be Virginia’s emotional anchor, but for all of the time that the game spends exploring the personal backgrounds of these characters, I left with little more than questions. Does her partner have a different name? Who’s the person in her locket? Who are these thugs that show up and bully her?
The game’s poor facial expressions certainly don’t help in its mission to show rather than tell. 93% of communication is supposedly nonverbal, but that sure isn’t true in the world of Virginia.
Also, I never thought I’d say this about a “walking simulator,” but Virginia is too fast-paced for its own good. It’s full of jump cuts which sync nicely with the music and noticeably reduce the downtime that’s usually token for this genre, but I frequently found myself wishing Virginia would slow it down a few notches so I could absorb details at my own pace.
Despite my issues with it, I can’t write Virginia off as a total failure. It’s short, cheap, and unique enough that I wouldn’t consider it time or money wasted. I don’t think the silent movie approach meshes with the game’s labyrinthine plot, but Virginia’s style is infectious, and it functions well as a piece of visual poetry. I didn’t like it, but I appreciate that ambitious content like this exists.
Disclosures: This game is developed by Variable State and published by 505 Games. It is currently available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC. This copy of the game was obtained via paid download and reviewed on the PC. Approximately two hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
He was born and raised in Amish country and has yet to escape, despite a brief stint in Philadelphia, where he attended Temple University. He took a one-credit course there called "Career Opportunities for English Majors," which painted a bleak picture for prospective writers. Mike remains steadfast in his ongoing role as a video game critic, however, and has recently written for GamesRadar. Most of his work can be found on HonestGamers, where he has contributed over 200 reviews to date.
When not playing games or writing about them, Mike is a rabid indie music fan and ardent concertgoer. He doesn't read as much as he probably should, but his current favorite author is Alastair Reynolds.