Review: Virginia

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Whatever you’re assuming about Virginia right now is probably wrong. The store page and surrounding media buzz presented it as something in a specific vein, as a surreal thriller or Twin Peaks-style mystery. And while it has similar elements, it’s composed in a way that doesn’t add up to the same experience. Virginia isn’t about the mystery, but about the people drawn into the mystery, and the mysteries that make them who they are. It makes for a compelling story but one where the hook for many folks, the dreamlike enigmas, are really superfluous to the plot. Add to that some extremely limited player interaction (even for a 2-hour narrative-driven game), and you get something beautiful and moving that’s not going to appeal to many.

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Anne Tarver is a special agent with the FBI, freshly-recruited and tasked with an internal affairs investigation. She’s been assigned to Maria Halperin, a fringe agent looking into the disappearance of Lucas Fairfax from the remote town of Kingdom, Virginia. Right away Anne and Maria begin turning up strange clues to the boy’s whereabouts, and draw closer to secrets that the town’s inhabitants don’t want dredged up. But the investigation becomes a backdrop for the relationship between Anne and Maria, and the lengths Anne will go to for her assignment.

I won’t talk too much about plot specifics since that’s the real draw here, but the name David Lynch gets bandied about when talking about Virginia and I want to push back on that. Virginia is very clearly inspired primarily by Twin Peaks (along with his other films) but absolutely does not approach the material in the same way. Lynch’s work is heavily character-driven but those quirks and foibles are completely tied up in the supernatural curiosities that afflict the cast. In Twin Peaks the reveal of who killed Laura Palmer was a stark revelation unto itself, and also had major implications for all of the key characters. In contrast, the eventual reveal (if you can call it that) of Lucas Fairfax’s fate in Virginia is almost treated as a footnote in Anne’s story, and does little more than echo the themes of her tale.

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Understand that not only is the story here a very grounded, human one, it’s also a mostly inscrutable one. The decision to tell Virginia’s tale without dialog is a bold and very effective move for the aesthetic, but perhaps not the right one for the narrative. An absence of dialog takes emphasis off the characters and puts it on events, but in Virginia the characters are the key. Their secrets and neuroses and reactions are the focus, but you only get those details obliquely from the loose events that happen around them. It’s not a contiguous story either, but one told in very short vignettes of gameplay. You’re never going to take a full car ride anywhere, for example, you’ll just get a few seconds driving down one road, a few seconds turning onto another, and then suddenly you’re standing at your destination.

This gets at the real problem with Virginia, the gameplay. Mechanically Virginia seems to draw from the same well as Gone Home, allowing you to look around or roam some scenes for objects to interact with. However, there’s only ever one or maybe two to click on in a scene, and the one is going to move you right along the plot. There are no decisions to make or paths to take, you’re just playing straight through Anne’s story by way of linear vignettes. Not only is there little to do, but scenes will often smash-cut from mid-stride to a completely different location, not bothering to let the player finish whatever pittance of gameplay they have before them. You essentially have no agency when playing Virginia, aside from picking up the occasional feather or flower collectible.

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I’m not being particularly kind, and that’s because it always pains me to see a great idea trapped in a shoddy structure. The story of Virginia is a rich, emotional one, just obscured by some poor design decisions. It’s not enough to ruin the game for me, nor is the entirely linear interaction, but it makes it much harder to recommend. And that’s a shame, because I do love these games that challenge the player to draw their own conclusions. Many questions are left unanswered by the end of this one, chief among them being how much of the events you experience even actually happen. However, there’s plenty of narrative to dig into and form your opinions from, enough that I would consider playing through it again to re-contextualize what I saw.

The soundtrack is a big part of why Virginia works at all, featuring a spread of moody and soaring pieces that put your emotions exactly where they need to be for each scene. The title screen is a great example of this, a colorful hand-drawn postcard of the town to peruse while low, menacing, almost ambient music flows around you. Music definitely does the work of replacing the lack of dialog, at least on a visceral level. The graphics work for what it is but the blocky, shaded characters don’t really emote as much as they need to for a joint like this. I also got a surprising amount of flickering shadows and slowdown despite being far, far past the system requirements.

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Would I recommend Virginia? Yes, absolutely, as long as you understand what you’re getting. Suggestions of Twin Peaks and David Lynch won’t really prepare you for the relationships and soul searching that forms the core of the narrative. This is a game about secrets, but secrets of the heart, secrets that twist and break people from within. It’s not really about Lucas Fairfax or some unnamed darkness lurking in Kingdom, Virginia. It’s a story worth experiencing, even if it’s not the one you’re expecting and suffers a bit in the telling itself.

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