How many games claim to be ‘cinematic’? How many of those actually achieve that? Not just filling cutscenes with emotion and explosive set pieces, but presenting a game in a similar manner to films in terms of cinematography? It’s not just rare, it’s almost mythological. Virginia bridges the gap between cinema and videogames in a way I’ve never seen before. Virginia is something unique, and is damned bloody beautiful for it.
You are Special Agent Anne Tarver, freshly recruited to the F.B.I. and thrust straight into a missing person’s case in the otherwise uneventful town of Kingdom, Virginia. To say much more than that would betray what is to follow, and would give you far too much information. Honestly, go in as cold as you can for Virginia, it really does help suck you into its world, and lines you up for a genuine surprise in how it handles.
If you really do want to go in with as little knowledge as possible beyond the plot summary above, don’t read anything after this paragraph. Even then I’m going to be incredibly vague. I will tell you here and now that Virginia is something you simply must experience if you have an appreciation for leftfield 80’s cinema (despite the game being set in 1992) and the like. It’s beguiling, compelling, and captivating. It is deeply indebted to Independent Cinema, Twin Peaks, The X-Files and a smidgen of Stephen King and – like another, quite thematically similar game out earlier this year; Oxenfree – it plays to the strengths of its influences whilst making its own mark on the adventure game genre. Basically, Virginia is fantastic, so just find a way to play it, and become engrossed in something different. Off you go now. For those that want a little more depth on the subject, read on.
Virginia’s gaming roots are without a doubt in the modern adventure game, and walking simulators if you will, but the blend with cinema makes a very unique package. You have some control from scene-to-scene, but you are not on the kind of journey where you’ll be reading endless notes and collecting knick-knacks (though there is something sort of like that present in a more limited manner). No, in Virginia the game is tighter in how it dishes out its control. It does cite itself as an Interactive Drama first and foremost after all.
While you are playing as Special Agent Tarver, you will feel a connection to her story throughout the run time you inhabit her, yet the reality is that you are the director, dictating the actions and reactions of Tarver, always trying to guide her into the next scene as stylishly as you can.
That’s not an easy feat the first time round. You’re unsure of the rules, the controls, and the level of interaction you have with the world. The opening scenes are baby steps, a requirement to learn the process and perfect it next time. Virginia may be short, but it definitely requires a second playthrough at the very least. There are little things you’ll miss first time around of course, but there’s a strange fascination to be had with lining up shots just right, pacing them into the next camera cut as close to perfect as you can. The only slight downside is that a controller isn’t quite as quick and responsive enough to pull it off as a mouse and keyboard would. It can feel a tad wonky in fact as you get used to it. This is, however, the most major and minor of my criticisms of Virginia.
That part about camera angles and perfect framing is where the cinematic angle is strongest. There are moments that require nothing more than a turn of your head, or taking a few steps forward, before it cuts away to a later scene, and it’s so bloody impressive to watch in action. An effective, yet shockingly simple thing when you think about it, but as I stated before, what games out there actually do it? Virginia’s creators are unashamed of the game’s obvious love letter to a certain style of cinema, that being the work of David Lynch, and they have clearly pulled that off. Virginia exudes a dreamlike quality to its story, always leaving you unsure how much is based in reality without becoming ludicrous in the abnormal it does show.
It’s also admirable how such simplified visuals have been made so effective. The hand drawn art style, all pastel shades and clay model facial characteristics, sounds like a rough ride in theory, but developer Variable State makes it not only work, but make it seem strong. The facial and body expression may be limited, but you always get a sense of how characters are feeling. The game also keeps audio to just general noises and an absolutely gorgeous musical score by the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. So there’s no dialogue at all, which just makes the whole thing feel like quite the achievement for weaving a very twisted narrative out of visual cues alone.
I’ve played Virginia through twice already, simply because I wanted to go back. It’s only a couple of hours long at best, but the experience you get out of it is so different and glorious that it’s spot on lengthwise. It will have its detractors of course, understandable considering how it plays, and how some have a hang up about anything like this not being ‘a game,’ but I personally believe this to be a special game. One that keeps looping it’s key scenes in my head over and over. I could say so much more, but I even consider the little I’ve already said to be too much for the uninitiated. I suppose the most important thing to take away from this is I’m in love with Virginia, and I’d love nothing more than for others to share in that adulation.