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In a Nutshell

WHAT I LIKE

  • Unique visual style
  • Story communicated entirely through body language and other visual cues
  • Brisk, cinematic editing and pace
  • Experiencing instances of prejudice and bigotry
  • Movie-quality soundtrack

WHAT I DON'T LIKE

  • Confusing ending
  • Hard to parse certain plot-critical information
  • Virtually no player agency

Overall Impression : B-
A "walking sim"? Or a "cinema sim"?

Virginia - cover

Developer:
Variable State

Publisher:
505 Games

Platforms:
PC < (via Steam or Good old Games),
PlayStation 4 (via PSN digital download),
XBox One (via XBox Live digital download).
(< indicates platform I played for review)

MSRP: $10 USD

Original release date:
22 September 2016

Genre:
noir thriller

Player(s):
single player

Play time:
2 hours

ESRB Rating: M (for Mature 17+) for:
Violence, Suggestive themes, Use of Drugs and Alcohol

Official site:
505games.com/games/virginia

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.

There are also times when I was supposed to read a document, but the scene would progress before I was done reading it. In yet another case, a plot-critical photo is being shown to the player, but it's pulled away from the camera before I had a chance to figure out what, exactly I was looking at. Stuff like this can make it really hard to follow along with what's happening.

The game cuts away from plot-critical documents
before I had a chance to fully parse them.

This problem of not having enough time to parse important documents can also be exacerbated by the fact that Virginia does not include any spoken dialogue at all. Everything in the game is communicated through body language, facial expressions, and other aspects of visual scene composition. The overall visual style is very simple and minimalist, but the characters are expressive enough that the animation usually gets the point across.

Even the cuts and edits help to convey emotional context. For example, after being given her initial assignment, the game cuts from the director's office to the player character standing in the elevator staring at the folder the director had just given her. Is she excited to have her first assignment and potentially advance her career? Or is she dubious about ratting out a fellow agent? Either way, the gravity of this assignment is clearly weighing on her mind.

I felt sympathy for the characters as they get to know each other and bond, knowing all along that betrayal might be in the cards. I especially sympathized with them as they experienced bigotry and prejudice together. The emotional highs and lows of the second act hit hard and were effective.

I was enjoying the game, and was starting to make sense of what was going on, right up until the end, when it seems to go completely off the rails. To say the ending is "confusing" does not quite do it justice. There's multiple, contradictory climaxes, as if the developers maybe had multiple, divergent endings in mind, based on player actions, but instead decided to just show them all to the player in a single playthrough. Without trying to spoil too much, it's clear that some of what's seen in the ending is dreams or drug-induced hallucinations, but it's not at all clear which is fantasy and which (if any) is intended to be real.

There's no dialogue, but emotions are effectively communicated through body language and facial expressions.

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Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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