Release Date: 22/08/2016
Played On: PS4
Available On: PC / PS4 / XBO
Time Played: 3h 14m
Progress: 100% Complete
Developer: Variable State
Publisher: 505 Games
Virginia is a prime example of how a tight narrative can drive excellent pacing amongst a drapery of beautiful visuals and music. As far as so-called 'walking simulators' go, this may be the best title you never played.
Unsurprisingly, the game is all about story, so if you're a mechanics focused player who isn't into the experiential side of the medium then it's probably not for you. If you like the sound of a tight Twin Peaks meets X-Files narrative with ambiguous and abstract themes, then take a look up your alley, because Virginia's there.
There's no dialogue in the game, so it's up to the player to figure out what's going on through character interactions and the occasional file to read and draw conclusions from. You're playing an FBI Agent who is tasked with investigating the disappearance of a boy in the small town of Kingdom, Virginia. However, before you get started, the boss gives you the order to also investigate your FBI partner on the case, for reasons that are never explicitly outlined.
The first half of the game is all about getting to know characters and locations as you're guided from place to place. The story is completely linear and there are no divergent paths or side missions, aside from a few collectibles that can easily be found by adequately exploring locations.
The linear narrative means that the developers are able to tightly pull you through the story, often using jump cuts and the passing of time to drive the pacing forward. Other times you're left to explore an area before moving on, or limited to a slow walk down a long hallway to bring the pace back down. This tight control of the pace and flow of the narrative really allows the writers to stretch their story telling muscle and pace the game perfectly.
On my first play-through, I diverged a little and explored here and there, finding some bits and pieces that helped flesh out the characters and their role in the story. On subsequent play-throughs I took the time to read everything and look everywhere for any little clue, which helped enhance the final act significantly. However, don't stress over finding everything right away, because the story will leave you with questions that may require another playthrough to even glimpse an answer.
Honestly - the first time I completed the game, I felt confused and a little frustrated - that feeling you get when you feel like you're too dumb to understand all the symbolism and abstraction, of which there is plenty.
Despite the confusion, this up-for-interpretation nature of the story is what I found most compelling, as I pieced together more information with subsequent playthroughs. I'm trying not to talk about anything specific, as it needs to be experienced first-hand, but let's just say that the final act will make you think about everything that came before in a different light. Playing the story again is like re-watching Fight Club after you know the twist - it's a different experience.
With all this in mind, Virginia manages to walk that fine line between abstraction and understanding. The story is compelling and I really felt some strong emotions about the other characters I encountered, as well as the fate of the player character's silent protagonist. In fact the entire cast is silent, using body language and environment to convey meaning instead of dialogue, which I found complimented the mysterious and surreal experience nicely.
Special mention has to be given to the overall presentation, which adds the cherry to the top of a very fine cake. The art is stylised and simple, while allowing characters to be expressive amongst beautiful and colourful environments. The animation is handled deftly, while the aesthetic maintains a low-poly and cartoon-ish feel, that helps set the world apart from its otherwise realistic landscape.
Ultimately though, give the soundtrack a gold star. Virginia would be missing an essential part of its soul if it were not accompanied by the rousing orchestral soundtrack composed by Lyndon Holland and performed by the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. There are moments in the game that took my breath away as the editing and music conspired to land focused and deliberate beats in the story.
It's clear from the start that Virginia is the game that the developers wanted to make; bringing to life the story that wanted to be told. From expert pacing and editing, to beautiful art and music, this compelling story is one that I have no trouble recommending.