Virginia - Brutal Backlog
Brutal Backlog is a semi-regular feature where the JDR team play through some of the unplayed games on their shelves (both digital and physical), disregarding their age or the technical limitations of their era. Only the very best titles will stand up to scrutiny today.
It’s always the same. You pick something up — a book, a film, a piece of music — and when it so perfectly scratches an itch you didn’t know you had, it becomes imperative to find something to try and capture that same feeling. Fortunately it has never been so easy to track down the next companion piece to your latest obsession, thanks to a world wide web full of suggested searches. Having finally caught up on Twin Peaks: The Return and season three of True Detective in quick succession, I have a new itch — for small town suspicion, for a surrealist influence, for an off-the-wall mystery drama. Disappointingly, the first handful of hits for my lazy Googling of “similar to True Detective” threw up films and documentaries I’d seen before, many of which I’d contest any but superficial similarities to either series… but then Variable State’s 2016 game Virginia swam into focus (the only listed game title that I hadn’t previously encountered). I remembered the frankly unremarkable name from many industry end of year honours, but hadn’t had the opportunity to investigate it beyond that at the time — I figure Virginia should be worth a punt.
Five Minutes In
I… well. I think I’ve found exactly what I was searching for, I just didn’t expect the influence to be so obvious so soon. Virginia’s title screen is a cheery tourist map of rural town Kingdom, with an ominous synthy track playing over it. The game intro is presented as a film or prestige HBO series, complete with opening credits and establishing shots of the town in widescreen letterbox format. It’s well put together and Lyndon Holland’s score (impressively performed by the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra) is enchanting, but if Virginia had started life as a failed TV show pitch I wouldn’t have been shocked.
Ten Minutes In
Playing in first person, the opening stage introduces you as Anne Harver, psyching yourself up in a bathroom mirror before your FBI graduation ceremony. After nervously applying lipstick and checking your reflection over, you head out of the bathroom along to the presentation stage. Walking out to a quick handshake and the awarding of your agency badge is purposefully uncomfortable, due to the quick scenery transition from the deserted grey corridors to the harsh lights and a sea of anonymous faces. Before I can take it all in, the scene cuts to waking up in your bed in a well-sized but poorly-kept apartment, a Monday morning some years later.
Getting ready for work mimics the same preparatory bathroom scene from those years earlier, except this time you decide against the lipstick, shooting yourself a brave smile: you’re older and more confident in yourself. Today you’re not relying on the warpaint to help face down a challenge, is the warming message I take from this.
An abrupt transition later and I’m in the back of a taxi on the way to work, and scarily, there’s nothing to pick up or open! It feels alien to have scanned around the vehicle and for the reticule not to indicate that I’m expected to interact with the world inside the game. Relaxing, I settle to staring absentmindedly out of the window as we pass through the rolling countryside and through dark tunnels, occasionally turning my head to watch passing cars until they vanish behind bends in the road. There’s no dialogue (the whole game has been wordless so far), and no exposition taking place, it’s simply your ride to work. It’s serene.
Twenty Minutes In
Arriving in the office, my boss hands me a case file, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it document on which I caught the words “internal investigation” and a picture of woman, before finding myself in another part of the building. It’s a bit frustrating not to have been allowed the time to read the document in full before being prodded on, but I’m intrigued by the idea of the moments in the game happening in somewhat real time, jumps forward (through quick cuts from scene to scene) aside.
So far Virginia is shaping up to be a peculiar beast, and not what I was expecting. Being a huge fan of Firewatch and Gone Home, I look to so-called ‘walking simulators’ to burst with exposition and exploration, whereas Virginia so far has presented everything and nothing at once. There’s no dialogue, and the text documents are shown and then taken away before you can fully digest them (and no inventory system to bring items back up). There are not many objects to interact with, but plenty of environmental details to take in of your own free will, from piled takeaway cartons littering your apartment to nameplates and paperwork atop the desks at your office.
It’s at once keeping you at arm's length, but also forcing you to pay attention and engage with each situation, as otherwise you’ll be cut adrift from the plot. As it is, all I know is that I’m investigating a co-worker, but not entirely sure why. All will be revealed in time, I’m sure (I may or may not have also scooched a tad closer to the screen in preparation for more quickfire documents being displayed).
Forty Minutes In
I’m working a case with the colleague I’m investigating, Maria Halperin. Arriving at the home of a missing teenager, we enter to inconsolable parents and begin to search for clues. The teen’s bedroom reveals a hidden panel leading to a mini darkroom, in which he had been developing photographs — could he have snapped something he shouldn’t have, leading to his disappearance? The walking speed is noticeably sluggish in these larger exploratory areas, and I wish there was an adjustable setting to add a bit of urgency to your movement. Come on, there’s a missing person on the line here!
One Hour In
A lot is going on now. Alongside investigating the disappearance of the teenage boy, working with Maria has given me a chance to rifle through her belongings when she’s not looking. The diner we frequent each morning and the locals we meet on our drives are unwelcoming — once to the point of violence — and I’m left wondering whether it is because of our profession, race, gender, or a heady mix of all three. Surreal dream sequences are inserted between each day, and recurring images of buffalo, incinerators, red lights, and missing persons flyers abound, complemented in the waking world by items and events which mirror the dreams; feathers found randomly inside corridors and plants growing through the rotten floors of abandoned buildings.
One Hour And Twenty Minutes In
Maria and I have clocked out for the day, and she’s taking me to local bar, Sojourner’s Truth, to unwind. She passes me her wedding ring as she steps through the dark entrance. Pocketing it, I follow behind into a pitch-perfect recreation of Twin Peaks’ Roadhouse bar, darkly atmospheric, warm, and seemingly in a plane entirely removed from the outside world. A band plays, moodily, what can only be a rearrangement of that TV series’ main theme. Maria flirts with a local at the bar while I take a seat at the stage. A man approaches to hit on me, and I slip on Maria’s wedding wing and shoo him away, happy to watch the band play in peace.
Virginia eschews traditional interactive gameplay for character-heavy scenes like this, and succeeds entirely unaided by dialogue: the confidence in their visual and emotional storytelling is Variable State’s biggest achievement, and scenes like this — although very on the nose with the musical score — are emblematic of the game occupying a liminal world straddling dreams and reality.
One Hour And Forty Minutes In
On Saturday — the final day — you are hauled in front of the commissioner to submit the results of your investigation of Maria Halperin. As you weigh up whether to turn in your colleague, what follows is fifteen minutes of bittersweet montage, unpacking different ideas, characters, and storylines. Think Noah Kalina’s Everyday, channeled through the lens of possible futures, the rot of corrupt bureaucracy, and the unconscionable directives of each character you’ve met in Virginia. Holland’s score is marvellous, and this emotional climax is melancholic, emotional, and purposefully ambiguous.
Although at times Virginia’s homage to established surreal dramas is overly insistent, I can’t honestly mark it down for that, as it is exactly what I was looking for. It does manage to forge its own identity by the end of the two-hour story, presenting the narrative in a fresh way: the engagement is missing from the gameplay, but instead requires you to pay attention, hold tight, and proactively interpret your surroundings as you’re propelled along by the game’s tight linear structure. Although containing sequences you might expect from a private investigation are still here — stakeouts, redacted files, and conspiracy — my assumption of the primary plot points were cast aside as Virginia forged a path focused instead on internal struggles and a dream imagery in the story of the dark heart beating beneath the small town of Kingdom, Virginia.
The game explores identity, freedom, gender, race, and oppression in a melancholic, understated way. Virginia is pointed and poignant, whereas other games (I would argue) have worn their hearts more openly but ultimately emptily. When the time comes for Variable State to shed more light on their mysterious ‘Project 2’, I’ll be there to welcome it, ready to scratch a new itch for intriguing and unconventional storytelling in games.
Virginia will absolutely not be to everyone’s taste, but if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to sit right back down and play through Virginia again, freshly armed with the experience of knowing what to expect — and on the lookout for supporting evidence for my own personal theories on the game’s open-ended meaning.
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