Storytelling in video games is more complicated than it looks. The best games tell their stories with rules, what you can and can’t do. One genre that’s thrown that into rather sharp relief is the “walking simulator,” a style of game simultaneously lauded and shredded for being more a movie you walk through and click on than a game you interact with. Where, exactly, does Virginia fall?
Virginia strives to evoke the early ’90s. It’s not just set in 1992, it’s littered with little cues — from its FBI setting to the score’s nods to David Lynch’s favorite composer Angelo Badalamenti — meant to evoke the era. That includes the blocky, polygonal graphics, which feel more like an art piece you saw at 1am on PBS in 1995 than a modern video game. The basic story: You’re newly minted FBI agent Anna, supposedly assigned to find a missing boy in Virginia’s countryside, but really tasked with an internal affairs investigation into your partner. Needless to say, things get weird, fast.
The graphics are a bit at odds with the excellent score, fully orchestrated and performed by the City of Prague Philharmonic, and the game’s creative team decided to push it further by rejecting any voice acting; the story is told silently, through body language and animation. That becomes something of a problem when it gets a little too ’90s at the end, as you can’t keep track of who’s who and worse, why you should care about it.
You walk around. You click on things. Intentionally, this isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel, which is kind of the whole problem.
Virginia is in many ways a deliberately minimalist game. But just as you can’t shear off every last detail of a story and be left with anything identifiable, beyond a certain point its minimalism works against it. The lack of voice acting means the story can be difficult to follow, and figuring out what to click on next, which is all you do, is a matter of swinging the camera around wildly until your cursor shifts in shape, a nice touch.
The lack of mechanics is also a problem. Virginia isn’t so much a game as a movie on a broken DVD when you have to watch by clicking on each chapter. It even hurries you through the environments as if it were edited like a movie, a mildly disorienting feature at first. The game doesn’t build its story by interacting with objects. You’ve generally got a door to open, a bottle to pick up, or a shoulder to pat, and the movie continues. You can’t read the books, the picture frames are blank, the file folders are glued shut. It’s a pretty world in some respects, but a shallow one.
All of this would be fine if it were a particularly good or interesting movie, but unfortunately, it’s a mess. The game’s staff wear their influences, most notably Twin Peaks and The X-Files, on their sleeves, but they don’t grasp why, precisely, these shows were so groundbreaking, or for that matter what aspects of them haven’t aged well in the intervening years. The plot structure is a jumble, mostly driven by dream sequences and hallucinations, and this makes the ending, in particular, deeply unsatisfying, particularly as the game has an interesting story, about an FBI agent’s legacy and her struggles with being a woman of color in the very white and male 1992 FBI, that it summarily drops.
On the upside, it’s a fairly brief story. You’ll blow through Virginia in about one and a half to two hours.
As usual with short games, a lot is riding on how much you think your time is worth, as this game is only $10, but one doubts this will have much DLC. If I’ve got any complaint, it’s that the score, which is quite well done, doesn’t seem to be independently available from the game.
Virginia has a mystery at its center that’s impossible to truly investigate and a story at its heart that’s more pretentious than anything else. It’s difficult to dismiss indie games, because they’ve got passion at their heart, but Virginia can’t substitute that passion for better execution.