Virginia is a game that’s largely come out of left field. Released quietly to digital marketplaces, indie studio Variable State’s debut is a highly cinematic detective mystery set during 1992 in the fictional quiet American town of Kingdom, Virginia, which has been rocked to its core by the disappearance of teenager Lucas Fairfax.
It’s also one of the few titles released this year that has managed to genuinely surprise me. Which is great! Though it also makes for a difficult review. Virginia is a game best experienced knowing as little as possible going in, so if this is a title you’re especially interested in I have half a mind to tell you to go play it before reading this. However, if you’re on the fence, perhaps this review will sway you.
Taking place in first person, Virginia’s portrait of ’90s mid-Atlantic America possesses a colorful and striking lo-poly aesthetic: its landscapes stark and clean, its character models light on detail and resembling a 3D approximation of characters from a Daniel Clowes or Charles Burns comic. Players step into the shoes of recent FBI graduate Anne Tarver, assigned to the Fairfax case alongside her new partner, dour veteran agent Maria Halperin. Anne and Maria’s partnership begins as an uneasy one; matters not helped by the fact that Anne has secretly been assigned to carry out an internal affairs investigation against Maria.
With its recent-past Americana setting, paranoid character-driven mystery, and unique visual style, Virginia may sound similar to Firewatch at first blush. Though they do share characteristics, the two games could not be more different: Whereas Firewatch was pushed forward by its hefty dialogue, Virginia contains no dialogue whatsoever. Anne, Maria and the residents of Kingdom are completely silent, leaving the player to glean meaning and context through body language. A subtitle option exists, which initially seems to be an accessibility option for the hearing impaired, but also provides a unique extra layer of insight as the story unfolds. Being a narrative-based game devoid of dialogue requires attentive audiovisual direction, and Virginia succeeds greatly; its story unfolds in a masterful example of “show, don’t tell.” Unusually, it also happens to makes frequent use of the jump-cut to trim extraneous material, a technique that — aside from Brendon Cheung’s Thirty Flights of Loving (which Virginia’s credits cite as an influence) — I’ve not seen used in game design.
Virginia is unapologetically cinematic, and as such it skips along at a good pace; its two-hour duration contains no wasted scenes or filler. And yet, its nature as an interactive experience allows for quiet moments of exposition via exploration. A sequence partway through the game sees Anne stay the night at Maria’s home after cutting loose with a few beers. As Anne wakes up in Maria’s spare room, the player can go straight downstairs to have breakfast and continue the story, or they can take things a little more leisurely and explore Maria’s home. Doing so shows that the apartment has been kitted out with mobility aids and adaptations; an empty profiling bed and a switched-off respirator in a back bedroom gives a glimpse into Maria’s former status as a full-time carer for a departed loved one. These optional moments of environmental storytelling make Virginia feel all the more intimate in their subtlety.
On the flip side, the soundtrack — composed by Lyndon Holland and performed by the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra — is very well done but perhaps a little too bombastic in places. The ominously building strings that reached a deafening crescendo as I looked at a microfiche in the library only served to amuse me more than anything else. But, rare ill-fitting moments aside, Virginia’s score is excellent.
Much of the discourse around Virginia has compared it to cult TV titans such as The X-Files, Twin Peaks and True Detective. These influences can certainly be observed: The bar Anne and Maria drink at is an obvious homage to Twin Peaks‘ Bang Bang Bar (replete with a silent Julee Cruise), and the narrative occasionally veers off into surrealism due to a number of very Lynchian dream sequences. Despite this, these comparisons are somewhat disingenuous — and I mean that as a compliment. Unlike its inspirations, Virginia’s mystery is not its core, but rather a framework constructed to explore a courageous demonstration of two women of color working for an establishment that despises their identity. It makes for an intensely personal and powerful experience — supernatural mysteries are a dime a dozen, but there’s nothing else quite like Virginia.
Although one’s path through Virginia is straightforward and unbranching, the narrative itself eventually unfolds non-linearly, and by the late game it’s easy to become disoriented and lose track of the order of events. This ambiguity works especially well for Virginia’s ending: a collage of conflicting and disconnected scenes that challenge the player to decide which, if any (or all), of them can be taken as “true.” It’s a great way to conclude the story, and one that is in keeping with the game’s dreamlike atmosphere.
Intense, painful, and deeply thoughtful, Virginia is an incredible experience that manages to speak volumes without ever uttering a single word. But I’ve said enough: Play it.