Are you ready to take a trip? Because that’s the first and only choice you’ll have to make in Virginia, the first-person thriller from Variable State and 505 Games.
You play as Anne Tarver, a rookie FBI agent cast from the Clarice Starling mould. It’s 1992, your first day on the job with a new partner, veteran fed Maria Halperin, investigating the mysterious disappearance of a child. It’s a slow, brooding build as you question residents of backwater Burgess County, in Kingdom, Virginia. No-one knows where the boy is. Or at least admits to it. So your list of suspects begins to grow, while your shattered mind begins to expand.
Prepare for disorientation. At one point, out of nowhere, we flashbacked, hurtling back to relive the game’s opening sequence. Quick, jarring cuts straight out of ‘How to Direct Thriller Films 101’ define the game: One minute you’re scouring an office. You blink. You’re at the diner, looking over case files. Blink. Now you’re in the car home with your partner, almost side-swiping a bison. Get used to seeing this bison, by the way, along with the chirruping red bird you discover at the scene of a crime; they frequently pop up when you least expect it, furthering your utter confusion and acting as a motif you won’t quite understand.
Despite the obvious comparisons to Twin Peaks, the game doesn’t immediately throw surreal, Lynchian symbolism in your face. Rather, the mood builds slowly; every step you take, you’ll sense that something, something you can’t quite place, is deeply wrong with this town, these events.
Virginia is very much a ‘real world’ game, in the sense that, regardless of the acid-fuelled iconography, your character lives in a recognisable version of our world. No super detective vision, no free-running crim-hunting skills. Instead your broadly stylised character visits libraries and drinks damn fine coffee at the local diner. This is all played straight, making it that much more thrilling. Those comparisons – or influences, really – to noir-ish films and TV shows bleeds into every aspect of the game. It’s there not just in the Jerry Goldsmith-style score that haunts every scene, but in some very clever cinematic editing. Oddly this is one of the game’s strongest assets, creating suspense throughout and keeping Virginia’s pace in check. Perhaps it works too well, though, streamlining the game’s ridiculously short run time to around 2 hours. And there’s no replayability here. It’s like a book, all the pages stay the same.
Virginia is an interactive story in its purest form – you wander from place to place, searching books, studying documents, assessing the world for clues. It’s a point-and-click detective walking simulator, really, with the game deciding where you can go and what you can pick up; your job here is to piece together the story through the unfolding events you witness. That’s not as easy as just acting like you’re binge-watching House of Cards on Netflix – the narrative is almost obstinately oblique at times, stirring up suspicion between you and the other characters. Pay attention, Agent Tarver.
Pay attention because not a single word is spoken in Virginia. The story is told through visuals alone. A fantastic idea that sets the game apart, given how this is a plot-driven period piece with a big cast of characters. At times, however, this can be frustrating – if you miss a key character expression, say, or don’t have time to read all the newspaper then you risk missing a vital piece of the puzzle. Initially, we struggled with that insistence on silence (however awesome the concept is), losing interest as we sat in a car and watched two people in the distance nod their heads at each other. Thankfully, the game upped the interest levels, and we settled in for the ride.
It’s certainly distinctive. The painted artwork looks flat and crisp, like a collage of block-colour paper, giving it an almost cel-shaded animation appearance that’s completely devoid of minor details: Eyes are black spots, noses are simple lines. In still images, this may look cheap and choppy; in-game, it’s a very natural style that perfectly fits the unsettling X-Files vibe jamming throughout the piece.
Virginia is a sharp enough experience, but when it ends – leaving you adrift in a sea of loose ends and questions – you feel as if it was building to more than it was, as if it’s the dreamy first chapter in an episodic game series, or a proof-of-concept piece. That fast-paced editing and noir-ish mood is well executed, but it looks and plays, if play’s the right word, like what it is – an indie game crafted with passion by a small team with big ambitions. The lack of dialogue is going to put off some and intrigue others, and it might’ve been nice to see more gameplay mechanics featured, such as dialogue choices (or choices of absolutely any kind), but Virginia isn’t really a game, it’s a visual, interactive airplane thriller. On that score, it works, but it never quite lives up to its potential.
Virginia is available from the Store, priced £7.99
A surreal love letter to detectives and David Lynch.
Pros: An exciting idea, with a clear visual style and genius filmic editing that keeps the silent movie thrills coming when all else makes no sense. Modern noir films and TV shows cast a long shadow over this love letter to detectives and David Lynch.
Cons: A disorientating plot that risks devouring itself, even by the end of the trip. Severely limited gameplay and no reason to return to Virginia is disappointing. Incredibly short run-time barely manages to justify the low price tag.