Virginia is a strange beast. This is by no means a slight on the game as such, as the creators themselves describe the game: “as strange and confounding as their experiences developing it”. This indie title has been years in the making, with a core concept planned from the beginning and with development aspirations escalating alongside an increase in support for the title. Best described as an adventure game, it has a lot of common elements of the ‘walking simulator’ a genre that has become more widespread and well-received in recent years.
When playing Virginia, you will experience quite a few tried and tested tropes concerning the FBI, which have been used in popular media over the decades. The story’s introductory beats are extremely simple and instantly recognisable. As a newly graduated, and as such unjaded, agent you are commissioned by the assistant director to join the Internal Affairs division. Your first case, to team up with a time served agent to investigate them while also undertaking the active investigation at hand. As such, you join up with agent Halperin, who’s office is tucked away in the basement – a la Fox Mulder – to investigate the recent disappearance of a young man from Kingdom, Virginia. Your journey to the truth is a bizarre experience for several reasons, most prevalent of which is the utilisation of ‘dream sequences’ to draw parallels between the details unveiled in the investigation and your character’s moral dilemma as she begins to empathise with her ‘target’. These sequences, some of the in game music, and the core story give a feeling of homage towards David Lynch’s seminal cult series, Twin Peaks, with several parallels that can be drawn other than the trippy dream segments: FBI attend a small, rural town to investigate an unusual case only to find that the more you scratch off the veneer of normality that is applied over the town, the darker and more unusual the world becomes. It all sounds so familiar, doesn’t it?
The second and most jarring aspect of this experience is the lack of dialogue. This is not a case of minimalist interactions between characters, but literally all the characters are entirely mute. Not a word is spoken during the entire time played, with only readable files, and inferred emotional and reactional characterisation to guide you on what exactly is happening at any given time. This is achieved through what I can only describe as masterful utilisation of atmosphere. The music, lighting, animation and character direction all culminate in a game that you must feel and comprehend, more than understand. It is only later in the game that you realise the true story arc that you are playing out, and by the time this occurs you have enough investment in the characters involved to understand, if not fully empathise, with their motivations and beliefs.
Graphically, there is an old school hand crafted feel to the world. The angular character models feel more at home in Cruise for a Corpse or Another World, than a modern indie title, but even without the fidelity that most would come to accept nowadays, it is impressive how much they can convey with the raising of a simple, angular eyebrow. This lack of definition does not damage the game in any way, and does not detract at any point from the story it is trying to convey.
Like all true walking simulators, there is a lot of navigating from point A to point B to interactive with an object, and these actions can be covered several times, but Virginia has come up with quite a quirky and unique way to reduce the leg work involved in these sections. A perfect example is the long and tedious walk from the elevators of the FBI building, through the winding basement passageways to Halperin’s office. At key sections of the walk, the character will “teleport” and skip large sections of unnecessary movement. At first, this transition can be quite jarring, but it is soon natural to be looking around at your files one second, and sitting beside your partner driving out of town the next, or to transfer from walking down a dingy corridor in a building to only find yourself transported into a glade as you continue with your investigation. This reduces the inherent problem with walking simulators by eliminating a significant portion of the back tracking that is commonplace in these types of games.
Although there are collectable items throughout the game, the story itself truly only warrants a single playthrough, and while the short duration will not do much to dissuade those die hard completionists, there is little to convince the general gamer to return for a second burst. This is a single run title, with enough depth to enjoy in a single play through but not on multiple runs, but one that I recommend everyone experience, purely for the unique beauty inherent in the game.
Thanks to Xbox and Variable State for supporting TiX