Platforms PC (reviewed), PS4, XBO
Developer Variable State
Publisher 505 Games
Release Date September 22, 2016

Disclaimer: Review code provided

I’m at a loss for words when it comes to describing Virginia. Truthfully, I’m at a loss for words when it comes to talking about the game at all. Describing it is easy. It’s a first-person narrative driven game. Virginia is a thriller set in the small town of Kingdom, where FBI agent Anne Tarver has been sent to investigate the case of a young boy who vanished. As Tarver and her partner Maria Halperin dig into the case they uncover conspiracies, hidden agendas and a laundry list of potential suspects.

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Virginia tells its story in a way that is quite unlike anything you’re used to. Unless you’ve played Thirty Flights of Loving (which is mentioned in Virginia’s credits as a major inspiration). The story is told through the use of quick cuts and no dialogue, relying on the characters and environments to do the storytelling. The editing if quite reminiscent of a movie or TV show and does help to keep the story going forward at a decent pace.

The way Variable State have chosen to present Virginia’s story is hit and miss. The quick edits that seemingly transport your character from one location to the next can be very jarring. One moment you’re walking down a hallway, the next you’re in the Deputy Director’s office, the next you’re walking down a set of stairs. While the game has been put together this way to give it an almost dreamlike quality, it can occasionally be incredibly disconcerting. It can be sometimes difficult to keep track of what’s going on. Again, this is intentional – the game is meant to be dreamlike.

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There is more I want to say about the story, but dancing around potential plot spoilers is quite difficult. Virginia is definitely a game that is best appreciated by knowing as little about it was possible before jumping in. Let’s just say that the chaotic nature of the way the story is presented is matched by the story itself, which tugs at various different plot threads throughout its two-hour running time. The story wouldn’t feel out of place in a David Lynch production, or as an episode of Twin Peaks.

The story itself, and its presentation, isn’t necessarily bad – how much you enjoy it depends very much on your personal tastes. It’s a noir detective story with a healthy dose of surrealism thrown into the mix. A lot of the story beats are quite vague or mysterious and Virginia trusts its players by tellings its strange tale in a very abstract way. It relies a lot on players drawing their own conclusions to what’s unfolding before them, very much in a similar vein to Gone Home or Journey (or Thirty Flights of Loving).

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The decision not to include dialogue adds to the dreamlike nature of the game, but can get a bit awkward from time to time. Most of the time it feels like you’re arriving in a scene just before or after a conversation, but there are a few scenes in the game where it feels like there should be dialogue and it simply isn’t there. There are even a couple of occasions where the lack of dialogue just doesn’t make sense, completely robbing you of the impression that you’re playing a dramatic thriller and leaving you feeling like you’re in some kind of weird Keystone Cops adaptation.

And then there are other moments where the lack of dialogue works completely, where words would simply get in the way or actively ruin the scene you’re in. There are some fantastically powerful individual scenes in Virginia. When the game is firing on all cylinders and the editing and lack of dialogue and imagery are all working it can produce some incredible moments. Virginia’s story is a good one and about much, much more than a missing persons case. I can’t wait to see the debates spring up about what it all means after it’s launched. It’s equal parts fascinating, emotionally resonant and deeply confusing.

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What works 100% of the time is the music – composed by Lyndon Holland and recorded by the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, the soundtrack in Virginia is exceptional. It rises when it needs to, bombastically carrying entire scenes. It also knows when to be subtle and hum along in the background, bringing the correct mood to a scene without overpowering the events on screen. It’s a phenomenal score and I highly recommend picking up the soundtrack edition of the game, should you choose to go ahead and buy it.

Virginia also looks fantastic. It’s a very stylistic game (which you have no doubt picked up from the screenshots scattered throughout this review) and the art style lends itself terrifically to the atmosphere. The way the game looks really adds to the surrealistic nature of the story Virginia is telling and makes the game look great. In particular, the various landscapes that you’ll come across throughout your time are a sight to behold.

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As for the way the game plays – it’s functional. From a gameplay perspective, Virginia is very minimalistic. Essentially you walk around and interact with various characters and objects in the different environments. It works for the kind of experience Variable State are trying to create here, but the game could have done with a little more incentive for exploration. You can explore, but there’s usually only one interactive thing in each scene, so there seems little point in actually looking around in the first place.


Summary

Virginia is a deeply intriguing game. It tells an interesting story with some really gripping elements of drama, although it sometimes feels as though the individual ways the narrative is presented are at odds with each other. The lack of dialogue and quick cuts between scenes works really well in places, drawing you right into the game. In other places it feels jarring, unnatural and ejects you from the experience. While the former examples definitely outnnumber the latter, it happens enough that it’s worth mentioning. For the most part though the story, characters, soundtrack, imagery and art style combine to form a fascinating game that’s well worth experiencing. 

7


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