Virginia!

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We live in an age where so many games are beginning to appear under the derisive moniker of “walking simulator”, and I think I may have finally found one that really clicks with me in a big way.  I can’t say there’s much gameplay to Virginia.  And what I mean by that is that there’s not much challenge presented to the player that needs be overcome to progress.  Rather, the game takes place across a number of relatively rapid-fire scenes that largely advance with little input from the player.  Sometimes, all you’re given is a small area to explore with the scene ending when the player has found something to trigger the next major event in the story.  But often, the player isn’t even given full control of the main character, and instead just sees parts of the story acted out in front of her eyes.  The game doesn’t even do the Telltale thing of creating the illusion that player choice actually has an impact on the proceeding events.  It’s essentially just a first-person movie which frequently requires a little bit of interaction on the player’s part.

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I don’t hate this type of game, the kind that focuses so heavily on narrative that it doesn’t offer many traditional gameplay hooks.  But I do think with no real complex gameplay present, it falls entirely on the story of Virginia to make the game successful.  If that part isn’t more than just good, then, well, the game as a whole simply isn’t worthwhile.  I’m happy to say that Virginia left a big impression on me in this regard.  Despite being clearly derivative of two major inspirations, The X-Files and Twin Peaks, I felt the story it had to tell was both sincere and freshly intriguing.  

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Virginia tells the story of recently inducted FBI agent Anne Tarver, who has been assigned by her superiors under dubious motives to partner with and monitor fellow agent Maria Halperin.  As I mentioned above, Virginia has a clear influence from The X-Files, and fans of that show will immediately see the Mulder-Scully relationship as prototypical of that of Maria and Anne.  On their first joint assignment, the partners set out to the city of Kingdom, Virginia to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a local teenager.  The mystery in Kingdom more prominently features the game’s Twin Peaks influence, as Anne begins experiencing otherworldly visions that strongly evoke the classic ‘90s TV series.  

But despite the investigation in Kingdom being the catalyst for the story, I felt there was far more emphasis placed on the developing relationship between Anne and Maria, or at least that was the side of the story that I found more interesting.  I don’t want to delve too far into it, as I don’t want to spoil anything, but I felt that Anne’s internal struggle across the breadth of the proceedings gave way to a character arc that was far more poignant and sincere than is typical of video game protagonists.  Most games tend to tell grandiose tales of global salvation or extraordinary events, but Virginia’s more personal focus makes for something that has far more heart and feeling.

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The effectiveness of Virginia’s narrative resonance is heavily based in its rapid pacing of scenes and events.  Rarely does a particular scene last for more than a handful of minutes.  The speed at which the story moves means that there are no lulls or dips, and, instead, I feel like the player just gets a very concentrated experience that leaves a big emotional impression.  The swift movement of the narrative is accomplished with two bold storytelling techniques that I think most players will find peculiar of Virginia.  The first is that the experience is entirely non-verbal.  No words are ever spoken in the game.  Instead, the player must rely mostly on body language and context to understand the unfolding events.  The results are that the game doesn’t get bogged down in lengthy dialogue sequences, but it leaves many aspects of the story to the player’s inference.  I think the latter consequence, however, is also a favorable part of the experience, since it drives a sense of curiosity and wonder.

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The second major effect employed by the game are the jump cuts between scenes that were heavily discussed around the game’s release due to their technically impressive nature.  Transitions between scenes are immediate and seamless.  For instance, one moment you’ll be in your office at the FBI, the next moment you’ll be in a car driving through the countryside.  This is pretty unique in gaming, since transitions between environments usually require at least a short loading screen, while in Virginia the change is instantaneous.  This facilitates the fleet pacing that I think was essential to this game’s success.

Virginia only took me ~2 hours to beat (as counted by Steam), but I personally didn’t mind its brevity.  I think being able to finish the game without needing to take breaks was beneficial to the overall experience.  Virginia is ultimately one of those games that walks the fine line between being pretentious and profound, and I think for the most part it doesn’t falter on this point.  The non-verbal, expeditious story leaves a lot on the player to try to understand on their own, but I think it’s effective and creates a level of wonderment and sentimentality that I greatly enjoyed.

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Posted on December 5, 2016, in Essays and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. As it happens I played this at the weekend. I had a rather different opinion to you it seems ;-). I started writing about it but it’ll probably be a little while before it gets posted.

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  2. I’ve been looking at it for a while, but I know it’s the kind of thing I need to be in the right mood for. Sounds like you were really taken with it though, so I’ll add it to my ‘someday’ list.

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  3. I have not played this game. It seems interesting for a game to focus on storytelling and uses innovative methods to tell the story. The game also seems to be influenced by nineties science-fiction. The lack of dialogue does remind me of Lego Star Wars, where the characters need to describe the story without speaking.
    How much control does the player have? Can they move the character? How is the story described without dialogue? Is the game as strange as Twin Peaks?

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    • Basically, its just a one button game. You can move around and there’s a button to interact with objects and that’s it. In certain scenes, you can’t even really move because you’ll be sitting in a car or sitting in your office or something like that. The story is basically pulled entirely from the context of what is going on. At first I wasn’t sure I liked the lack of dialogue, but I really got into it after a while. And yes, particularly at the end, the game does get about as strange as Twin Peaks with some X-Files-style scifi thrown in.

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  4. At the very least this sounds like a good game for anyone looking for easy trophies.

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    • Well, you would think….but the game actually has a set of collectibles in it that are *really* hard to find. I specifically looked for them during my playthrough, but they were apparently very well hidden to me at least.

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  5. The X-Files comparisons have always had me itching to try this. Your thoughts on it have just amplified that feeling. Hope to get to this one soon.

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