Virginia – PlayStation 4
Platform: PlayStation 4
Developer: Variable State
Publisher: 505 Games
Release Date: September 22nd, 2016
The year is 1992. Fresh FBI initiate Anne Tarver is being sent out on her very first field mission to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a young boy in the small town of Kingdom, Virginia. Viewing the world through Anne’s eyes, the player sets out on a bizarre crime noir journey through time and space, exploring the dark secrets that hide within Kingdom, Virginia.
Virginia represents the debut project by developer Variable State. Taking control of Anne, the player interacts with the world in first-person perspective, walking around and clicking on things of interest. Virginia plays like an interactive novel, allowing the player to participate only in the sense that they can walk around, turn the main character’s head to look at things, and decide when it’s time to move on to the next part of the story.
As an adventure game, the primary focus of Virginia is its story. The story, for the most part, is fairly good and interesting. Part of Variable State’s mission statement was to craft a good detective noir story, and I would say they accomplished that. Playing as Anne Tarver, the player experiences and participates in a David Lynchian thriller where the enemy is nebulous and the stakes are relatively low, the atmosphere and key scenes drawing heavy inspiration from Twin Peaks and The X-Files. The focus on tone and pacing is pretty well done, making Virginia a very moody game that is good to relax with.
Most adventure and story-driven games are heavily reliant on copious amounts of expository dialogue to get the plot rolling. Not so with Virginia. In fact, this game doesn’t feature dialogue at all. One of the most distinguishing features that I noticed–which came as a complete surprise–is that no one talks. The characters instead rely on facial expressions and body language to help the player glean what is going on. I thought this was a pretty interesting take on narrative, lending a bit of freshness and helping Virginia stick out as a more gutsy project. The silence of this game is pretty eerie sometimes, but it goes a long way toward letting the player craft a mental narrative of their own as they witness the events that unfold before them. That said, I often felt that the facial expressions and body language weren’t always emotive enough for me to fully understand what was going on, and even by the end of the game there were at least one or two key plot points that I was still unable to make heads or tails of.
The second gimmick that is fairly unique to Virginia is the use of directorial jump-cuts that move the player through time and space in order to push the story along. The cuts are sometimes interesting and usually used to great effect in order to juxtapose two scenes, but they can also feel weird and unnecessarily jarring. For example, when walking down hallways (you do a lot of that in Virginia), the game will often cut to other hallway sections to simulate moving through the large FBI building, but this just seemed to disorient me more often than not, causing me to walk into walls and stuff like a clumsy fool.
Honestly, a lot of the jump-cuts could have been done away with and Virginia might have been more interesting for it. The pacing probably would have been smoother while also giving the player more time to invest in the world around them. All told, this is not a serious issue, but with a story-driven adventure game you want to impact player immersion as little as possible, and this problem could have been solved easily by locking or auto-performing player movement for a second after a cut to give the player time to acclimate to their new surroundings.
The biggest problem with the story from a gameplay perspective deals with interactivity. While you can walk around roughly where you want and look wherever you want, there’s really not a whole lot of things to do. The player can interact with very few items in the world, and about 90% of those things are tied to the story, meaning that there are not a whole lot of extra things to discover about the world around you. Because of this, Virginia very quickly feels like it’s running on rails, taking the player to all the stops that it wants to hit without giving them much autonomy over what they do and how the story progresses. Sometimes even the illusion of choice can go a long way toward further immersing the player, but Virginia is a little too obviously scripted.
And this issue is not 100% unique to Virginia, either. Within the past couple of years, a niche for “walking simulators” like Dear Esther, Everbody’s Gone to the Rapture, and Ether One has been growing, paving the way for an emerging genre that is still figuring out what it wants to be. These games often feature a tight linearity and few gameplay mechanics, simply providing a space for the player to walk around in while having bits of story shown or narrated to them. I like to think of these as interactive stories, except you can only interact with them in the shallow sense that you walk to the next place to activate the next bit of story. Virginia is a breath of fresh air in that the story happens around the player instead of being told to them, but it still seems to tow the line in the fact that your actions have virtually no impact on what happens.
The graphics are an interesting and pretty refreshing touch. Everything is shot in a filmic widescreen with bright, vibrant colors, stylized to the max. The characters have a cartoonish, blocky shape to their features, a facet that is extremely reminiscent of Firewatch (review here). Overall, Virginia looks pretty good.
My absolute favorite thing about the graphics is the dynamic lighting; sconces in hallways and hanging lights in kitchens, foyers, etc. will cast this weird sort of gradated glow on their surroundings that will change slightly depending on your perspective. I know, it’s not particularly realistic, but it’s really cool looking if you pay attention to it, building a more visually-striking atmosphere that invites you to hang around just a little bit longer.
That said, I’m not entirely sure if the cartoonish look is doing the atmosphere and story much justice. Tense situations just don’t carry the weight that they should when everyone has goofy, blocky features. To be fair, Virginia definitely has its moments where the intensity of a scenario carries its weight, but this is often despite the graphics.
I saved the gameplay for last because it’s my least favorite thing about Virginia. I’ve mentioned earlier that this game features very little interactivity, and this, of course, results in very limited and unsatisfying gameplay. Here’s how it works: you walk around, you point at things, and you click on them. That’s literally it. It’s such an unengaging way to have an adventure, it’s almost like just watching a movie. On top of that, there aren’t even a whole lot of things to interact with, leaving me as the player feeling a bit like a child in a candy shop with very strict parents who would slap my wrist or pull me away whenever I saw something I got interested in. Virginia presents a pretty rich world with seemingly many opportunities for gesture-based storytelling, but it doesn’t cash in on this potential. Even Firewatch had this cool thing where you could pick up a lot of items and throw them around and stuff. It didn’t do a whole lot but it made you feel more connected to the space around you, and the developers even included a couple parts where the way you interacted with them would influence the story in minor ways. I’m not saying that Virginia should copy the format of Firewatch, but the fact that it doesn’t have anything optional for you to do just makes if feel empty. More interactivity and options would have gone a long way toward making it a more memorable experience.
Virginia is a pretty short game, so this ended up being an equally short review. Eerily silent and contemplative, Virginia takes the player along a detective noir journey, investigating the mysterious disappearance of a boy in a small and secretive town. The story is relatively subdued, capturing the vibe of Lynchian crime thrillers for a rewarding and compelling atmosphere. This atmosphere is accentuated by the choice to forego spoken dialogue entirely, an interesting gimmick that, while it may not have been executed perfectly, will help Virginia at least stand out as a unique title. The story is interesting and progresses at a pretty good pace, though I didn’t much like the ending and even got confused once or twice along the way. Unfortunately, the gameplay does the story no justice, limiting the player’s influence in very artificial and blatant ways, which hampers any feeling of connection with the game’s vibrant and visually-impressive world. All in all, Virginia presents quite a few promising ideas, but it mostly seems conflicted, with no individual element feeling like it was really fleshed-out enough to reach its full potential. But, when taking its $10 price tag into consideration, Virginia is definitely not a terrible buy.
Nerd Rating: 5.5 out of 10
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