It would be easy to compile a list of influences that inform Variable State's Virginia, sourcing its inspiration from "walking simulator" games like Gone Home and Dear Esther to the cinema of David Lynch and Stanley Kubrick, from dream logic to reality defying surrealist art. And yet, Virginia somehow manages to be unique, its own thing, a piece of interactive storytelling that demands little player input -- let alone, agency -- but that is always fascinating and often emotionally compelling throughout its more-or-less two hour running time.
Notice that I said "running time" and not play time. Thanks to its linear path, cinematic techniques like jump cuts, and scripted forward-moving momentum, every play through of Virginia will be more or less the same. There are no hidden objects or secret areas, no significant subplots that a careless player might miss. What happens will be the same for everyone. (What it all means...that's another matter. We'll come back to that.) Advancing the story just requires moving the cursor around the environment until a larger circle becomes a diamond, and quite often the developers wrest even that small amount of control from the player and simply jump cut into the next scene.
Like every good mystery, Virginia begins with a relatively straightforward narrative that by game's end has been displaced by ambiguous characters, bizarre imagery, strange flashbacks and flashforwards, and a palpable feeling of unease. Using an desaturated, cel-shaded visual style that manages to be simultaneously artsy, abstract and specific, Virginia tells the story of a newly-minted FBI agent and her partner investigating the disappearance of a boy. Entirely bereft of spoken dialogue, all of Virginia's story and emotional palette is communicated through subtle facial clues, gestures, and environmental details, all the more remarkable given its blocky and pared down art style.
Given the absence of dialogue, the game's music must do a great deal of the emotional heavy lifting, and Lyndon Holland's score is incredibly effective, moving between lush orchestral cues and more electronic and synth-heavy backgrounds. Holland's music does a great job of humanizing the characters and grounding the player and story in an emotional reality, even as the story begins to veer into the inscrutable. Throughout Virginia, there are moments of telling human interaction that are beautifully underlined by the score.
Make no mistake, the creators of Virginia have happily embraced the notion of their game being "strange and confounding," and in addition to arguing about what the game means, or even if it adds up to a satisfying allegorical meaning, a discussion of the game's faults might include the sometimes arbitrary strangeness that ends up distracting us from the more consistently used motifs. In other words, Virginia is sometimes just weird for weirdness sake, and it suffers from it. Games that are too self-consciously anything are usually less effective.
By now -- after Dear Esther, Journey, Everybody's Gone to the Rapture, Gone Home, and Abzu, just to name a few -- most gamers are pretty comfortable with the notion of a genre that requires little of them in terms of skill and coordination, but much in the way of thoughtfulness, imagination and an open mind and heart. Throughout much of its length, Virginia manages to steer its story in surprising and unexpected detours, giving us moments and images that defy the intellect and yet still resonate deeply. While its abstracted art style and ambiguity might be a barrier to some, Virginia is suffused with humanity and a few memorable mysteries.