Virginia – A Lynchian, trope-busting puzzle to unravel
By Sam Smith
Contrary to what you might think, this isn’t an autobiographical game about John Denver, but a psychological thriller in the mould of Twin Peaks. And really, the word ‘game’ here is somewhat misleading, as Virginia removes nearly all semblance of agency from the ‘player’ and make you feel as though you’re merely along for the ride.
Virginia straddles the line between game and film quite nicely, though it will divide opinion, of that I’ve little doubt. Rather than save points, you have chapter selections, and even on a first run-through, you’ll finish it in around 90 minutes, a similar length to a taut thriller.
“It will divide opinion, of that I’ve little doubt”
What starts as a fairly run-of-the-mill procedural concerning the FBI’s search for a missing boy in a close-knit community, soon snowballs into something much larger. As your partner begins to uncover your real motives, it becomes a meditation on individual’s complicity in a larger system and how much control we truly have over our own destinies. Heavy, man.
Virginia’s blocky cartoon graphics are juxtaposed nicely with the seriousness of the story, in a style reminiscent of Chris Ware’s graphic novels, or the indie game Firewatch. From viewing stills, I think a lot of people will be misled into thinking the story is going to be light and bouncy, when in fact it’s nothing of the sort. Because of the simplicity of the graphics, character’s faces remain expressionless, which makes certain story elements hard to decipher.
“At first I felt a bit short changed but, after a while, I actually found it quite refreshing”
Another aspect of Virginia which took some getting used to was the fact there’s no dialogue, either spoken or subtitled at any point during the game. At first I felt a bit short changed but after a while I actually found it quite refreshing as it meant I was focusing more on the character’s body language to attempt to follow what was going on. It’s amazing how much a story can say when it chooses not to say anything at all.
The story itself is very oddly paced, and seemed to consist of almost equal parts build-up and conclusion. It felt that just as the game had finished setting everything up, it was just as eager to then slowly reveal the denouement, with virtually no middle act to speak of. The end result feels quite rushed, as though they couldn’t quite decide which path to take the story down. The ending as well will divide those that choose to stick with it, as it does get VERY, dare I say it, Lynchian?
“I couldn’t drop any spoilers even if I wanted to; I’m still trying to unravel it myself”
Predictably, it doesn’t offer up any concrete answers, instead allowing the player/viewer draw their own conclusions about whatever the hell they just experienced. Some may argue that this was an easy cop-out (no pun intended) on the part of the developers, because it shifts the responsibility from them telling you what happened, to you doing all the guesswork. There are no neat loose ends tied up here, though you do discover what happened to the missing kid (possibly, unless that was meant to be a dream/premonition/acid flashback. I got kinda lost, TBH). I couldn’t drop any spoilers even if I wanted to; I’m still trying to unravel it myself.
The combination of no dialogue/no facial expressions/screwy endings in Virginia does make for a hard going experience and you don’t get the reward of a satisfying story ending. It’s genuine uniqueness is by far its strongest selling point, but it does tip over into self-indulgence through heavy-handed symbolism and over-use of time jumps, amongst other things. If it could have reined in the pretentiousness a little, it would have felt less like the sort of thing a Media Studies student would masturbate to. And that’s the difference between this and other indie games; most of them I could explain to the average Call of Duty player, but this one I wouldn’t even bother with. I’d just hand them a Twin Peaks box set and walk away.