Virginia - title

I spent a large chunk of my gaming time since last August playing football video games. With the season over, I wanted to spend a couple months playing other games before diving back into to football critique videos with the next installment of my "How Madden Fails To Simulate Football" series. I also recently played Outer Wilds, which gave me an idea for a new video essay about the evolution of walking simulators (video will be published soon, and I'll post it to the blog when it's released). So I spent pretty much all of March diving into my Steam backlog of walking simulators, replaying ones I'd played years ago, and spending some Patron funds to purchase ones I had never played.

One such game sitting in my Steam backlog for years was the divisive indie noir thriller Virginia. Players take on the role of a freshman FBI agent tasked with performing internal affairs oversight on her partner, who is currently investigating a case involving a missing teenager in a small Virginia town. The game shows its X-Files and Twin Peaks influences proudly on its sleeve, including a scene of lounge musicians performing a song that is a blatant homage to the title theme of Twin Peaks.

Virginia is heavily inspired by 90's thrillers X-Files and Twin Peaks.

What makes Virginia interesting as a game is its unique presentation. It uses very cinematic editing, with sudden cuts and montages during gameplay. I might start walking down a hallway on the first floor of the FBI building, then suddenly cut (mid-stride) to the hallway leading to my partner's basement office (just like the office of Agent Mulder in X-Files). This can be convenient because it spares the player from the unnecessary legwork of tediously walking through such a large building. This keeps the game focused on telling its story at a brisk, cinematic pace. When combined with the context of the situation, and the movie-quality soundtrack, this editing can build a lot of tension and suspense. Who would have thought that a montage of walking down empty hallways for less than a minute could be such a tense experience?

Furthermore, the levels are designed such that these edits sync up with player inputs so as to create a surprisingly smooth and purposeful stream of inputs. These aren't cutscenes. I remain in control of the character, and these sudden cuts rarely, if ever feel jarring. They might be surprising (especially the first few times they happen), but I never felt like I had no idea what was going on (with maybe a few exceptions late in the game).

Cinematic edits cut down on tedious travel and keeps the story moving at a brisk pace.

This style of carefully-paced editing can also be problematic. Scenes will sometimes transition without player input, creating frequent points of no return, even if I wanted to go back and examine something else or try another interaction. Even though the player remains in control throughout, I still had virtually no agency in how scenes would progress -- let alone how the larger story unfolds. This probably could have been a first-person animated film and wouldn't really lose much in the translation.

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This review was originally published 06/21/2010 on Game Observer (now defunct as of 05/13/2014). It has been republished (and updated) here for archival purposes.

Backbreaker

Backbreaker cover art

Less like a game of pro football, and more like a pick-up game with 100 people who don’t know what they’re doing.

I’ve been waiting for Backbreaker for years, following every dev diary, watching every trailer, drooling over every new tidbit of information, all the while, fully expecting that it is going to unseat Madden by revolutionizing the football video game world and force EA to relinquish its NFL-exclusivity deal. And while Backbreaker delivers in terms of its revolutionary new game engine, it fumbles the game of football.

Back-broken gameplay

The Euphoria Engine is the driving force being this game, calculating and rendering every action and every collision on the field using its simulation of physics and human motion. Momentum is well-respected, and the game is full of "you’ll never see that again!" moments that will make your jaw drop. The action is in your face and intense, and when things get exciting, you might find yourself bouncing up and down at the edge of your seat like you did last year when Drew Brees was engineering the Saints’ come-from-behind victory in the Super Bowl. You may even jump up and cheer after breaking a long touchdown run or blindsiding a QB for an 8 yard sack. And you’ll be loving the game.

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