Virginia PC, PS4, Xbox One
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