There are certain games that give you the keys to their very expensive car and then they say, “it’s all yours, go on, have a bit of fun”. But where do I go? That’s up to you. What do I do first? You choose. They wander off leaving you to fail, explore and discover your own personal stories and unique gaming experience. Then there are other games that have such a fantastic, unusual, story to tell, that your role is simply just to be the spectator in the passenger seat. Maybe you can give a little help with the directions, but it still won’t affect the outcome of the journey.
Virginia is one of those games.
The game starts with you playing as a woman called Anne Tarver and she is staring into a mirror. The music is playing and the world feels uneasy. You put lipstick on and walk down a corridor. Everything feels wrong and men are waiting in line for something at the end of the corridor. What is it? What are they queuing for? You join them and wait to see what happens. This is how the game begins, nothing is what it seems. Welcome to the world of Virginia.
If I had to describe this game, and it’s hard because it is unlike anything I’ve ever played, I would say it’s a third person interactive story. Much like recent titles Dear Esther or Firewatch, but a hell of lot weirder, with a double helping of strange thrown in. Playing the game, which is set in 1992, I was instantly reminded of TV shows of the time like Twin Peaks or The X Files. But also it is very much like a Stanley Kubrick film with its unsettling and disturbing themes. There is a technique used here that really illustrates that emotion for me and that is the jump cut. For example, the way it is used is very clever and is also the beating heart of the game. In the ‘ordinary’, your character might be walking down a corridor, CUT, then some stairs, CUT, and then you’re in the room. In the ‘strange’ however, you’ll find yourself in a hotel room, CUT, then a cave, CUT, then a jail. It makes you question all the time what is real and what isn’t. Then we’ve got the experimentation with time and reality, but it’s all done in a beautiful, creative, brilliant way.
The story follows Anne, who is an FBI agent and is charged to work with a new partner who resides in the basement. She is also told by the FBI director to investigate her and any connections to a woman in the past. You both go off to the small town of Kingdom to examine the case of a missing local boy. And that’s about as straight as the story gets. It really revolves around you and the relationship with your partner, sharing beers together, driving to Kingdom, the realisation that’s she’s a friend and you can’t betray her. Then there is the strange stuff like UFOs, Buffalo sacrifices, red doors and bricks falling out of walls, revealing something else. This sounds like it might be too much for some people and that off kilter approach will get annoying. But I say no, because it’s so strong in atmosphere and rich narrative that it never gets annoying. I promise you it never ever gets predictable.
The gameplay is like I said before; you’re really just along for the journey. You can move and you can click on items to examine, but you won’t be deviating from the story the game wants you to see. I do think that Virginia could have had more interaction in it, maybe more choices to change the course of the story arc. There are secret items you can pick up and discover and it has some of the hardest achievements I have ever seen. So that‘s worth a replay on its own, but even without that I think you will really want to experience that story one more time. I did.
Now the audio included is key here and it doesn’t disappoint. The most amazing part of this narrative is that it is told without any dialogue, no subtitles…nothing. It just does it with characterisation, location and the best score I’ve heard in a long time. They got the Prague symphony orchestra to play the original score by a brilliant composer. It’s stunning and is the driving force of the game. Each string and musical note tells a story that a thousand words couldn’t portray. In the looks department, I feel the cartoon world and lush backdrops work well; I especially enjoyed the nightclub scenes. Once again the graphics, characterisation and backdrops tell the story very effectively, without words.
Overall, Virginia is a two hour story experience that is spell bounding and unlike anything else out there in terms of the way a game tells a journey. Actual gameplay wise it’s very minimal, and the fact that you can’t take full control may well annoy some people.
But I hope that after reading this review, you’ll find out whether it’s a game for you. Or not!