Existence under white supremacy is exhausting. It’s a sentiment I’ve been able to vocalize for years and a feeling I’ve known long before I caught grasp of the vocabulary. Achievement for a non-white person in the United States is seen as an incursion, an affront to the very institutions this crumbling society draws its power from. I was born into this mold as the child of a white mother and a Brown father. My fair skin elicited a sigh of relief, my given name was free of the burdens my father’s carried, and I spent the first 18 years of my life in a 98% white town, where I was taught to aspire to whiteness and brush aside those who couldn’t hope to be so close to the light. It was this upbringing that led me to connect with the game Virginia.
Virginia is a first-person adventure game from developer Variable State which was released in 2016. Within the confines of low-poly 1990s Americana, players are thrust into the shoes of Anne Tarver, a recent graduate of the FBI Academy who takes on her first assignment with veteran special agent Maria Halperin. The case? The disappearance of Lucas Fairfax, the 17-year-old son of a small-town Virginia preacher. While the new partners cooperate on the case, Anne has also been tasked with a secret, second case: an internal investigation of Maria. The veteran agent is attempting to expose a conspiracy deep within the FBI, and Anne’s superior, Director Cord McCarran, is keen to know what she’s uncovered. The two-hour experience is defined by players navigating the tension between seeking justice and climbing the ladder of the U.S. intelligence apparatus. The influence of TV classics such as Twin Peaks and The X-Files is unmistakable throughout the game, and while I’ve certainly enjoyed the antics of Dale Cooper in my life, I can relate far more to Agent Anne Tarver.
For one, players are not just observing Anne as they would Mulder and Scully. They are immersed in Anne’s life, from the day of her graduation to her (possible) ascendancy as the first Black woman to head the FBI. This basic aspect of interactive simulation leads players to a more direct role in the game’s exploration and plot. As I experienced Virginia, I fell further into Anne’s head because it frequently felt like my own. Our backgrounds may differ, but we both share a desire for personal achievement in the face of patriarchy and white supremacy.
During this short, interactive wonder, players see Anne’s careerism directly clash with Maria’s search for the truth. They learn that Maria’s mother is Judith Ortega, who climbed the ranks as the first woman of color in the FBI during the J. Edgar Hoover days,* until Hoover targeted her for a character assassination campaign. Judith attempted to expose the very conspiracy her daughter now doggedly pursues alongside the audience. Hammering this point home, Maria wears a locket around her neck that contains a small picture of her mother. What was once purely personal becomes political, as Maria’s passion for justice (accentuated by a lone room in her house full of left-wing books and protest materials) collides with her plot to redeem her mother’s name and take down those who’ve disgraced her….Stockholm Syndrome in broad daylight.Anne, too, is haunted by her past. Shortly before the events of the game, a scene plays out where we see Anne’s father on his deathbed. A former officer of the law himself, his final request is for Anne to burn a box that he has kept hidden in his closet for years. Afraid to peek at its contents and learn something about her father she may not want to know, Anne drops the box in a furnace without looking inside. It is never explicitly stated what the box contains, but I choose to think it holds information on the conspiracy central to the game’s momentum. Perhaps Anne’s father was a well-meaning policeman attempting to gather evidence on the Bureau’s secret activities, or maybe he was coerced into being a part of the cover himself. Did he want Anne to live in ignorance and sidestep the weight of his existence, or was he attempting to maintain his status as a role model in Anne’s life by removing something that could complicate her view of him?
This scene reminded me of my own relationship and interactions with my father. Having spent the latter half of my childhood as a single parent, my dad was obsessive in his search to find every possible way this world could endanger his two kids. He grew up poor in the housing projects of Chicago during the invasion of Vietnam by American armed forces. The rule of thumb was “keep on the straight and narrow, get good grades, always say ‘Yes sir’ to the boys in blue, and maybe you’ll survive, if you’re lucky.” And for far too many in his community, their luck ran out, or never existed in the first place. To assert your existence was to fade away. And those who didn’t fade away gifted their children with names accessible to white tongues, socialized them into white communities, and sent them to white high schools with white classmates who were more than happy to see these boys and girls as (almost) just like them.
This is what we carry at all times. We are forced to walk a tightrope between assimilation and self-identification. We are told to be ourselves…but not like that. We are told to speak up…and then silenced when we do. To thrive in the American Empire is to invest in a cult, something that Virginia knows all too well. And as players reach the end of the game, with Anne locked in the FBI’s jail with Maria for collusion, they get a glimpse into a few possible futures for the main character.
In one of these scenarios, Anne asks to be let out and hands over the file she has compiled on her partner to Director McCarran. We don’t know what becomes of Maria, but within the chronology of this path, she isn’t seen again. Anne is commended for her work, tries to put the past behind her, and begins to grow close to her co-worker Shagat, a Sikh man whom she invites over for a poker night and can’t seem to take her eyes off of. All is blissful, until McCarran assigns her a new task: investigate Shagat. She follows through with the investigation after a period of stress-induced vomiting, and Shagat is removed from the bureau. Anne receives a promotion, and the Director assigns a new job to his willing accomplice. The first four people Anne investigates are all people of color, and the cases begin to blur together as she eventually becomes Director Tarver. Alone, depressed, and experiencing a nasty addiction to some sort of pills, Anne takes solace in the fact that she, and she alone, made it.
Another scenario plays out, and Anne is slipped a tab of acid by Maria through the bars of their cells. The drug takes effect, and she slips through the walls of her cell only to find herself walking through a cave. At the end of this cave is a horror scene, where a mass of people wearing white masks are centered around a sacrificial bison. This same creature appears in hallucinations Anne experiences throughout the game. At the front of this gathering are Director McCarran, Reverend Fairfax, and a host of other white men in positions of power that Anne interacts with throughout the game. They politely ask her to impale the bison, a reference to the mass hunting of the creature in the 19th century by white settlers. In some visions, she does as they ask. In others, she appears to grab her own hand in an attempt to stop this cultish ritual.
None of these endings are definitive. According to Jonathan Burroughs, one of Virginia‘s writers, there is no true ending. He has his own ending, someone else on the team may have another, and mine could very well be different from yours. But to me, all of the endings are something of the same experience. To be a non-white person and ascend to power in a white supremacist society is Stockholm Syndrome in broad daylight. It may not be as obvious as white masks surrounding an impaled bovid in an isolated cave, but it is cynical veneration all the same. We can wish for whiteness and take white words as gospel, only to end up in a position where we may be thrown out with the trash at the slightest hint of resistance to this cruel game.
On July 6th, 2016 in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, 32-year-old Philando Castile, a Black high school cafeteria supervisor, was murdered by Jeronimo Yanez, a 29-year-old Latino police officer. Castile was pulled over by Yanez, informed the officer that he had a legal firearm on him, and said that he would slowly reach for the license and registration which Yanez asked him to procure. Yanez shot him in cold blood. In a jury trial later that year, Yanez was acquitted of all charges. I don’t think Yanez was identified as white by the judge and jury of that courtroom. But he performed the duty of whiteness well enough to be found not responsible for Castile’s death. In the future, Yanez could be pulled over by another officer of his ilk and find himself in a similarly harrowing situation.
The “Director Tarver” part of Virginia ends with Anne handing a file to a recent graduate, an Asian woman. She tells this new agent to investigate an old friend of hers as she sits back, taking a labored drag of her cigarette just as McCarran would do. The cycle of oppression will continue so long as there is a dominant group in power and an oppressed minority willing to dirty their hands for them. This is Virginia‘s greatest lesson.
* This is historical fiction, of course: the FBI only had three women who were agents in the 1920s. All three were forced to resign as Hoover consolidated his power, and from 1929 to 1972, there wasn’t a single woman who worked as an agent at the FBI.