Vir­ginia PC, PS4, Xbox One

EDGE - - GAMES SECTIONS - De­vel­oper Vari­able State Pub­lisher 505 Games For­mat PC (tested), PS4, Xbox One Re­lease Out now

From the start, Vir­ginia makes no bones about what you should ex­pect from it. It states its in­ten­tions boldly and plainly with the de­fault op­tion on its main menu: Play Fea­ture. Th­ese two words will likely pro­voke trep­i­da­tion in some play­ers. Videogames’ en­dur­ing ob­ses­sion with movies has yielded mixed re­sults, but this isn’t the prod­uct of a frus­trated film­maker. It bor­rows lib­er­ally from the vis­ual lan­guage of cin­ema, yes – as well as ju­di­ciously pinch­ing a few tools from its edit­ing suite – but it has the hyp­notic qual­ity of a wak­ing dream. You may not be fully in con­trol (and Vari­able State doesn’t pre­tend oth­er­wise) but this first­per­son ex­pe­ri­ence is all the more po­tent for af­ford­ing the player a pres­ence within its world.

As newly re­cruited FBI agent Anne Tarver, shad­ow­ing the more ex­pe­ri­enced Maria Halperin as she in­ves­ti­gates a miss­ing-per­sons case in the small town of King­dom, you’re made to feel more like a per­former than an ob­server, even if your job in­vari­ably dic­tates that you’ll do plenty of watching. Oc­ca­sion­ally, that leads to an un­com­fort­ably voyeuris­tic sen­sa­tion that sim­ply wouldn’t ex­ist in a pas­sive medium – such as when Halperin com­forts the sob­bing mother of the dis­ap­peared, while you’re en­cour­aged to snoop around their home. The gen­tle bob of the cam­era as Tarver walks adds a phys­i­cal­ity that’s of­ten ab­sent in first­per­son games where the cam­era has a fric­tion­less glide; when an un­ex­pected in­tru­sion causes Tarver to sud­denly crouch be­hind a rail­ing in the lo­cal ob­ser­va­tory, the cam­era drops with her, and you may just find your­self fol­low­ing suit.

If the let­ter­boxed pre­sen­ta­tion frames the hand­some low-poly art beau­ti­fully when the cam­era’s fixed (and gives you plenty to gawp at when Tarver’s free to look around), Vir­ginia com­mands your at­ten­tion less by the way it’s shot than the way it’s cut. Be­fore the cred­its roll, there’s a sin­cere ex­pres­sion of grat­i­tude to Bren­don Chung for his pi­o­neer­ing use of cin­e­matic edit­ing in the peer­less short Thirty Flights Of Lov­ing, and its in­flu­ence is ap­par­ent through­out. The re­sult is a story that moves at a rol­lick­ing pace, even dur­ing the mo­ments of an in­ves­ti­ga­tion where you’d or­di­nar­ily ex­pect it to drop.

Jour­neys start and end in sec­onds. A sur­veil­lance job from dawn through to dusk is over in two cuts. In most games, a dead end would re­quire you to go back the way you came; in Vir­ginia, the snip of an ed­i­tor’s scis­sors makes for a re­fresh­ing ab­sence of culs-de-sac. It deftly avoids that gently stress­ful sit­u­a­tion in other games where an in­vis­i­ble hand is strain­ing to guide you to­wards the next story trig­ger. On the oc­ca­sions Vir­ginia gives you a lit­tle space to wan­der, you can re­lax in the knowl­edge that the in­ves­ti­ga­tion will bar­rel for­wards as soon as it needs to and you’ll be thrillingly yanked some­where else. The story might be over in a lit­tle more than two hours, but there’s barely an ounce of fat on it.

More un­usu­ally, it’s a hu­man drama where peo­ple are ac­tu­ally present. You’re not ar­riv­ing af­ter the fact, dis­cov­er­ing their story through let­ters and au­dio logs, but sit­ting along­side them, shak­ing their hands, walk­ing, danc­ing, eat­ing and drink­ing with them. And yet you never hear any­one speak. Mood and emo­tion is con­veyed in­stead through body lan­guage and fa­cial ex­pres­sion, and it soon be­comes ap­par­ent that you don’t need the re­sources of a Naughty Dog or a Rem­edy to cap­ture dis­may, anger and silent ac­cep­tance. One of the most qui­etly dev­as­tat­ing mo­ments in­volves a char­ac­ter sim­ply shak­ing their head sadly. And it’s not just vis­ual cues that de­ter­mine the dy­namic of a scene. Vir­ginia makes a strong case for in­volv­ing mu­si­cians more di­rectly in the sto­ry­telling process, with Lyn­don Hol­land’s out­stand­ing score, by turns sin­u­ous and soaring, prov­ing one of the most cru­cial pieces of the nar­ra­tive puz­zle. There are nods to An­gelo Badala­menti (the score was per­formed by the City Of Prague Phil­har­monic Or­ches­tra in the same build­ing where Badala­menti recorded the sound­track to David Lynch’s Lost High­way) and what ap­pears to be a brief melodic hat-tip to Mark Snow’s X-Files theme, but oth­er­wise it’s in per­fect har­mony with the needs of the nar­ra­tive, height­en­ing the ten­sion and emo­tional im­pact to hair-rais­ing, skin-prick­ling ef­fect.

While it’s not as overtly a pe­riod piece as, say, Gone Home, it does get some mileage from its early-’90s set­ting. A shared love of The X-Files and Twin Peaks ini­tially brought co-direc­tors Jonathan Bur­roughs and Terry Kenny to­gether, but for the most part the con­nec­tion has less to do with sur­real mo­tifs or un­ex­plained mys­ter­ies so much as a sim­i­larly ap­peal­ing old-fash­ioned vibe to the in­ves­tiga­tive process. The ab­sence of mo­bile phones or the In­ter­net means we get to hear the sat­is­fy­ingly tac­tile clack of an old PC key­board and the gen­tle whirr of a mi­cro­fiche reader. It’s here, while Tarver sifts through old news­pa­per ar­ti­cles to fol­low up a lead, that Vir­ginia smartly taps into the so­cial prej­u­dices of the time – most point­edly in the lan­guage used to un­der­mine the achieve­ments of a suc­cess­ful black woman. It’s a theme skil­fully wo­ven into the nar­ra­tive in un­ex­pected and mov­ing ways.

As it ac­cel­er­ates to­wards the fin­ish, a dis­ori­ent­ing 11th-hour change of di­rec­tion proves equal parts pow­er­ful and per­plex­ing. It’s a dizzying leap that drags you along for the ride, even as your mind races, for once strug­gling to keep pace with the shifts of scene and per­spec­tive. Af­ter a sec­ond and third play, it’s still hard to know what to make of it. But if ques­tions linger, then so does Vir­ginia’s spell: the am­bi­gu­i­ties of this lean and out­ra­geously en­thralling drama will haunt us for some time yet. Given its in­flu­ences, we imag­ine Vari­able State would be de­lighted about that.

One of the most qui­etly dev­as­tat­ing mo­ments in­volves a char­ac­ter sim­ply shak­ing their head sadly

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