Virginia is a narrative game developed by Variable State out now for the Playstation 4, Xbox One and PC. It lasts about two hours and has no dialog, but it might just be one of the best stories I’ve encountered in games this year. Taking the role of a rookie FBI agent Anne Tarvers, you set off to investigate the disappearance of a young boy in Kingdom, Virginia. Your partner is the seasoned Maria Halperin. Anne’s not her partner by happenstance; Maria is under an internal affairs investigation. What starts as a small town mystery grows larger and larger as the narrative adds more and more complications. Odd dream sequences cross with shifting perspectives and frequent cuts to new scenes, creating a game with an every increasing sense of confusion.
The team behind Virginia takes time to make special mention of Brendon Chung’s work Thirty Flights of Loving as a major inspiration for how the game handles the narrative. Co-opting film techniques, particularly strong editing decisions, Virginia feels like a highly interactive movie. It is tightly composed, ensuring that players gets just enough information or emotion before snapping to a new scene and context.
In film theory, there’s a technique called the Kuleshov effect. It states that viewers project meaning between two cut shots. Show them a bowl of soup and cut to a man’s face? Well, the man must be hungry. Show them a corpse and cut to his face? Most people will say that he’s sad. Virginia knows how to use this effect well, offering smash cuts from the ashes of burning evidence to empty hospital beds or bouncing between Anne’s face reflected in a mirror before she is sitting across from her partner.
While Virginia offers some of the most cogent and aware editing I’ve ever seen in a game, the best thing about it might be the incredible score. Composed by Lyndon Holland and performed by the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, it elevates the game to soaring highs and is an indispensable part of the production. The score is the cornerstone that allows Virginia to express more raw emotion in roughly two hours than many games manage over the course of 60 or more.
This is not to say that everything works. Virginia is very picky about what the players sees and how they proceed. More often than not the game clearly conveys where to go next or what item to look at, but as I played I occasionally found myself standing idly, lacking a clear notion of what I should actually do to proceed. In a game that relies so much of highly managed pace and perspective, this can bring things to a grinding halt in a way that majorly detracts from the experience.
Occasionally, Virginia also seems too fond of its own cleverness. It is keenly aware of the techniques at play but can sometimes overuse them. I watched with bated breath as the game flashed forward in a stunning montage of Anne’s potential future only to given a case of intense narrative whiplash as the game brought me back to the present and launched me into a final sequence of blurred coherence. Every single moment was evocative but I was forced to question their validity such that I cannot concretely say if the game has a narrative that’s actually comprehensible.
That sounds like a damning criticism for a narrative game, but the title is so very careful to cultivate mystery and confusion into its structure early on that I don’t mind being left somewhat baffled. The ride was exciting. But something can be exciting while still being too clever by half. Virginia’s final act grows a bit too bold, more concerned with showing off technique than finishing the story.
Virginia managed to keep me on the edge of my seat in a way that few games have ever managed. Pulling from influences like Twin Peaks and The X-Files, it crafts a whirlwind tale full of strange fever dreams and gritty noir investigations. I know Anne Tarvers and Maria Halperin better than characters I’ve had lengthy dialog sessions with. Virginia is sweeping and emotional, hardly ever wasting your time. I’m damn glad I played it. Now, if I could only figure out what it all meant…