Getting Lost in Virginia
When reviewing any game, it's important to consider what it seeks to achieve as an experience. At its core, Virginia is a cinematic experience, or a "first-person interactive drama." Whatever you call it, Virginia undoubtedly falls into the same category as games like Dear Esther and Firewatch - and in this category, storytelling is everything. With this in mind, it's only fair to start a review of Virginia where it really counts - its plot.
Virginia picks up with Anne Tarver, the character whom the player will control for most of the game. She is a brand-spanking-new FBI agent who, on her first day of work, is given two assignments by the Director of the FBI. The first is to investigate the disappearance of a young boy with the help of a more experienced partner, Maria Halperin. The second is to investigate Maria Halperin herself. It is this series of events that Variable Games cites as the principle plot of the story:
Virginia is a first person interactive drama. It is the story of a recently graduated FBI agent and her partner as they seek to uncover the mystery surrounding the disappearance of a young boy.
In reality, the plot is hardly concerned with the case of the missing boy. It serves only as a backdrop for the tense relationship between Anne and Maria and related events. In other words, its sacrifices the straightforward whodunit quoted above in favor of a complex character study. This turns out to be the most damaging criticism of Virginia. Because the game lacks dialogue entirely, the player must interpret the motivations, emotions, and personalities of ever-silent Anne and Maria to piece the story of their relationship together. While this approach to storytelling sounds interesting in theory, it often leads to confusion as the player struggles to make sense of the plot's rapid twists and turns. The story of Virginia is its most critical element, yet by the time the credits roll, its significance is as mysterious as the characters within it.
For what it lacks in storytelling, Virginia succeeds in delivering some truly spectacular visuals - details like tall grass swaying in the wind and autumn-colored leaves blanketing the horizon look incredible in Virginia's cel-shaded world. The musical score is rich and varied, often complementing the character of game environments to create a dense and immersive atmosphere, which is the game's greatest strength. There are several moments during the game that Virginia will smother you with its magical vibes, and in some ways, that experience alone is worth the $9.99 pricetag.
Gameplay in Virginia is limited to character movement, camera movement, and a single action button. Anne must interact with specific objects in the world to continue the story, yet exactly what she must interact with and how is sometimes a mystery. This occasionally leads to frustrating moments where the player cannot find the necessary object to interact with. During my first playthrough, I wandered in circles inside of a certain bar location for about five minutes before I was able to continue. By then, the beautiful music had become repetitive and the solemn atmosphere stale.
Virginia also has a bad habit of ripping players from one scene and tossing them into another without warning. This is presumably for dramatic effect, but it happens so often that one rarely has time to acclimate to an environment before a new one is presented. Not only does this interrupt gameplay to a frustrating extent, but it contributes to the disjointed and confusing nature of Virginia's plot.
Overall, Virginia is a beautiful, creative, and sometimes frustrating experience that will last about two hours total. While it ultimately fails to create a cogent or captivating narrative, it is a valiant effort on the part of Variable State to create an immersive experience using refreshing and innovative methods. If the collective talents at Variable State produce a more complete experience in the same gorgeous package, they could have a winner on their hands. Until then, I'm going to play something else.
Copy purchased by myself.