Originally published on Trevor Trove on February 8, 2017
TL; DR(eview) – Virginia probably isn’t going to blow you away with its graphics or gameplay, but it manages to tell a compelling dramatic story without ever uttering a word.
Virginia has you playing as special agent Anne Tarver, a fresh out of the academy FBI agent, assigned to partner Maria Halperin on a missing persons case. The two of you investigate the citizens of the small Virginia town, looking for answers in an attempt to solve the case the boy’s disappearance. But working in the FBI, it would seem everyone has their secrets.
There’s admittedly not a lot to the gameplay of Virginia. It falls under the genre occasionally derisively deemed “walking simulator.” And most of the game is just that, walking around scene to scene and interacting with items or people to move the story along. There are some minor collectibles like flowers and bird feathers strewn throughout the game. Once collected, they will appear around your drab little apartment but you could go through the entirety of the two hour tory without grabbing a single one.
From the earliest moments, Virginia plays out like a movie, including a very cinematic introduction complete with opening credits played out over a dramatic score and vibrant hand-drawn scenes to allude to the small-town setting. From there, the game plays out somewhat like a silent film. Nobody ever speaks but interactions are often clearly conveyed through the simple use of gestures or minimal facial expressions. Many moments also play out on their own time, whether you the player are ready to move on or not. Even the limited written text in the game is often only presented briefly. For example, you might only pick up the gist of a document you’re holding before the scene changes and you can’t read it anymore. I loved this aspect of the story-telling because it forced the agency of the story. Often the genre is content to let you explore the story at your own pace but these moments insist on moving it along and, in turn, it led to me moving from point to point in the story, without unnecessary delay. This is echoed by the simple design. If there isn’t anything else to do or explore in a room, moving to the next interaction moment is the more appealing option.
Virginia is one of those games that I feel needs to be spoiled to be discussed properly so this is where the spoiler-free portion of the review ends. I enjoyed it and would recommend it if you’re open to a title that is more cinematic experience than game. So go play it and come back in a couple hours to read the rest of my thoughts below. Or don’t.
You were dead the whole time! Nah, just kidding. But seriously, the spoiler-y section starts now.
Prior to playing Virginia, I had heard vaguely that the game was a bit like an episode of Twin Peaks or the X-Files. And while I have not watched either show, I know enough about them both to understand what people meant.
Virginia relishes playing with the surreal. From playing through sequences where your character has an out of body experience to repeated dreamlike scenes, you get a pretty good sense of the toll that Anne’s job could be taking on her, as she is expected to spy on her partner and report back anything suspicious to her superiors. Coupled with that stress, Anne’s dreams also have a sense of prophecy in them, occasionally foreshadowing moments still to come in the story.
Throughout the course of the investigation, there are some lovely moments where you see the arc play out between Anne and Maria. Maria is immediately distrustful of her new partner and she’s been placed in an office at the end of a basement hallway so she’s probably got a reason to be distrustful. She catches you going through her personal things, further causing a schism. But as your investigation takes you off the beaten path, the two of you actually manage to build up a reasonably healthy rapport, unwinding at a bar and then with some good old fashioned beers on the top of a water tower. Maria even lets you crash at her place to sleep it off. But, orders are orders, and despite your side-investigation revealing that Maria’s grudge is very personal following the unceremonious dismissal of her own mother from the agency, you break back into her apartment to dig up the dirt that your superiors are looking for.
The game’s ending seems left intentionally ambiguous. Maria discovers Anne’s orders to spy on her. After a dramatic confrontation atop the water tower wherein Anne throws her files on Maria to the wind, she wakes the next day to knocking on the door, with law enforcement there to arrest her. We see Maria and Anne in adjacent cells before Anne beckons to be released and hands over her files. We then see a montage of Anne rising up the ranks of the FBI by reporting on agent after agent before ultimately landing in the Director’s chair that assigns those investigations. But still on her desk sits a bold red folder of the missing person’s case she and Anne didn’t solve. We also get a much more hallucinogenic sequence featuring you embodying many of the story’s ancillary characters for a moment here and there, as well as a ritualistic sacrifice of a buffalo. And a moment where you come across the missing boy in a field filled with a light from the sky beaming down, seemingly sucking him up into the sky, before the light disappears and you see a figure crawling up over a rock wall. The final moment has you drive by a boy that may or may not be your missing person, walking down the side of the road, guitar in hand.
My initial take away then was that this was that same boy, simply running away from a toxic home life to make a new start on his own. But even describing those sequences back now, I’m fully aware of visual moments I’ve left out and a new flurry of theories on what it all means are running through my head. I will always appreciate pieces of art that make me think and Virginia manages to do so with its strange, quiet story.