Let’s Review: Virginia

September 25, 2016


Virginia wasn’t what I expected. Where I was expecting a point & click adventure game in a similar vein to Deadly Premonition, I got a game primarily about a friendship between two women. There was still that mystery aspect there, but it took a back seat to this other, strangely more engaging, story. And I liked it. A lot.

There are a lot of references. The game stars FBI agents and takes place in ’92 and thusly has made all of the requisite X-Files references, as well as a few others from more recent media, including Welcome to Night Vale. Hell, Virginia basically is an X-Files episode, only Scully and Mulder are both black women and at one point Scully drops acid. It’s a really, really good time.

Without spoiling too much, Virginia tells a story that made me feel things. Lots of things. There was definitely some sadness there, a little bit of anger maybe, some heartwarmth and a good chunk of utter confusion. And it manages to do all of that without a single line of dialogue. I was a little bit iffy on the idea of a mystery plot with no dialogue. But it worked surprisingly well, especially when the narrative took its lens off of the mystery to more focus on Virginia’s true plot, the relationship between the two leads, which didn’t need dialogue.

The fact that the game completely works without dialogue is mostly down to its incredible soundtrack. As in, Virginia might have one of the best game soundtracks I’ve ever heard. It’s not just the music itself, but the fact that it fits in so well with everything happening on screen and the characters’ emotions. A lot of time and thought was put into the score here and it honestly really, really shows.

The game tells its story non-chronologically and there are a couple of scenes that are left up to interpretation as to whether or not they actually happened. There are also one or two questions left unanswered that I hope provoke discussion among fans, because I’d really like to talk about them with others.

Virginia is also short, clocking in a just around two hours in my playthrough. That’s not a bad length for something that cost me like $8 and that I really did enjoy. There doesn’t seem to be much in the way of replay value other than going back in order to find collectibles that you missed the first time.

The game is cinematic. Really cinematic. Despite setting it to the correct resolution for my monitor, it insisted on this somewhat annoying letterboxing effect and the options menu complains if you try to change the frame cap from 30. It’s obvious that Virginia really wants to be a ‘playable movie’, and it does ‘playable movie’ better than most others who have tried it. The story is almost completely on-rails and yet manages to be more engaging than most others of its niche genre. But I can’t help but think that going this route missed some of the potential that it had as a mystery game. The camera is sometimes wrested away from you and although the following shots are always beautiful, the game could have really benefited from encouraging the player to explore the environment themselves.

The big advantage that video games have over film is the ability for audience participation, whether that be by making massive changes to the story, or just dicking around with the environment for a bit in order to get a better grasp on the world you’re playing in. I think Virginia could have done a bit more of the latter. Don’t get me wrong; every scene is set up wonderfully and just looking around tells you a lot about the character that lives or works there. But that’s all you really can do, look around. The only parts of the environment are things that either advance the story or you can collect for achievements. There’s nothing you can ever interact with just for the sake of it. And that ultimately serves to make these obviously lovingly crafted game environments feel just a little bit empty.

Oh, and the game is bloody gorgeous. Variable State takes a low-poly, cel shaded approach to Virginia’s graphics and it works really well. The strongest thing the visuals have going for them is the colour palettes, which are a bit over the top, but that’s what makes many scenes so beautiful. At times it feels like you’re looking at the world through the distorted colours of instant film (which just so happens to be my favorite type of film!).

Virginia isn’t for everyone, but nothing is. And while I came in expecting a point and click mystery of the “small town with a dark secret” variety, I left with a story that I enjoyed a lot, and also one that I think might be a lot more important to tell. And although I think there is a real flaw there concerning the environments’ ability to tell a deeper story on their own, I really would like to recommend Virginia to anyone who’s interested in fun, creative new ways of telling stories with games.

And also I would like my own version of that giant stuffed buffalo. Do we even have buffalos here in Virginia?