Virginia (2016) is a first-person adventure game that was developed by Variable State. Cloaked in mystery and suspense, Virginia takes you back to 1992 to give you an inside look at the life of newly graduated FBI special agent, Anne Tarver.
The game actually kicks off with Anne preparing to walk the stage to receive her badge book. Enjoy the flashing lights and hearty applause for as long as you can—the world Anne is about to step into is a strange and compromising one. I’m not exactly sure the academy prepared her for the things she ends up experiencing, but I guess it’s a little too late to worry about that, isn’t it?
Play as Anne as she starts her first week of work at the bureau. Her first matter of business is to meet with the Associate Director, Cord McCarran, who gives her a more experienced partner to work with. In between puffs of smoke, McCarran also gives her a case file to look over: her first assignment.
And what happens to be Anne’s first assignment? Well, she’s tasked with investigating special agent, Maria Halperin—her partner. Yes, it seems that Maria has been exhibiting questionable conduct, which has raised some red flags with the powers that be at the bureau.
Your job is to observe her actions on the job and ensure that you report any unusual or suspicious activity. Under no circumstances should she find out that you are basically babysitting her, so keep ahold of that case file with her face plastered on it, okay? Not as though you would actually let the thing fall open right at her feet or anything…definitely not.
From the get go, Maria seems like a tough egg to crack. She doesn’t seem particularly friendly at first, but don’t let that get you down. Maybe she’s just shy…or hiding something that actually warrants the surveillance you are doing on her. Whichever the case, you’ll be seeing plenty of her in the days that follow, so try not to be too turned off by her secretive ways.
Besides, we’re not here to make friends. This isn’t social hour, it’s the FBI! You have work to do. I mean, aside from watching Maria’s every move. As far as she’s concerned, you two have been given the task of investigating a missing persons case in the small town of Kingdom, Virginia.
This picturesque, one gas station town is the primary setting for the game. It also happens to be where 17-year-old Lucas Fairfax has vanished into thin air, leaving his parents behind to mourn his disappearance…or not.
As the game and investigation(s) progress, bonds are forged, relationships are tested and personal integrity is called into question. Will Anne prove to have what it takes to prove herself to the bureau? Will she uncover what Maria is hiding? Will Lucas ever be found safe and sound? I guess you would have to play to find out, but is it worth you coughing up the money to do so? Keep reading to find out.
Yays & Nays
(+) Yay For A Beautiful Soundtrack
Without question, my favorite aspect of Virginia is its music. The game simply would not be what it is without it. As I started playing the game and realized that the characters never actually speak, I was really surprised.
I have played other games where there is extremely limited speech or no speech at all, but I can’t recall any that utilized the element of sound as well as this one did. Virginia perfected the art of telling a story through music. Without voices and dialogue, music is what breathed life into the characters. It gave the story depth and emotion beyond measure, so this is something that gives the game serious artistic value.
I actually played the game twice (consecutively) for reasons that I will discuss later. The first time that I played, I definitely noticed the music and loved it. However, I was so busy trying to figure out what was going on in the story that I sort of missed the full genius behind the music and the significance of its role in the game. Yet, when I played the game a second time and already knew what to expect from the game itself, I was able to focus more on the finer nuances.
From my perspective, Virginia wasn’t intended to just be a game where you run around looking for things and meeting objectives. I mean, yes, there is a mystery going on and yes, you are supposed to solve it. However, I think the writers were trying to create more of an experience than just a game. Music is a ‘feeling thing’, not a ‘showing thing’. It has the capability to influence your emotions, so I feel that Virginia really took advantage of that.
If you play Virginia to merely find clues and solve the mystery, I think you will miss the special, finer points of the game. However, if you simply go through the motions and allow the music to pull you into Anne’s experience, I think you’ll have a much better appreciation of what the game has to offer.
(+) Yay For Simplicity Of Gameplay
As much as I love a full-throttle game with all the bells and whistles, there are definitely times when I want to play something less frantic. Even though Virginia could be viewed as a game that lacks complexity, I really didn’t mind it.
As I’ve mentioned before, I believe the game was intended to be more of an “experience” and social commentary than a traditional game, so the limitations may have been fully intentional. This is definitely the type of game that asks you to feel, observe and ponder opposed to search and react, so this is something to keep in mind.
Overall, your main objective is to walk around, look around, stay on the lookout for objects or people to interact with and go with the flow of the story. The first half of the game is broken up into distinct days, while the second half of the game is a compilation of different events in time, both past and future.
Movement & Navigation
Although you are given the freedom to walk (or look) around on your own accord within each scene, you are still restricted to certain areas. For example, if they want you to focus on the bar, you can’t leave the bar and go walking off down the street. Irrelevant doors are locked, so it is very easy to figure out where you need to go or what you need to do in order to advance to the next scene.
When it comes to camera view, you have full control over Anne’s perspective a majority of the time. There are a few occasions when your range of view is slightly restricted, but for the most part, I found this aspect to be satisfactory. It was particularly humorous to be able to look down at the ground and see Anne’s toenail polish.
Interactions & Objects
While exploring Anne’s world, the cursor changes from a circle to a diamond to let you know when you’ve found something to interact with. As far as functionality is concerned, I think it was pretty easy to find the things that were critical to gameplay. However, there are not a lot of items or people to interact with throughout the game, which is something I accepted to a point, but I will talk about that more later.
As Anne goes through the game, there are a few things, such as flowers and other trinkets, for her to collect. Gathering these items and/or interacting with them in a certain way allows you to unlock the achievements of the game. However, the collectibles truly aren’t that game altering. You could very well play the entire game without picking any of them up and the ending would be the same (for the most part). Even though there weren’t as many collectibles as I would have liked, I still enjoyed watching them pop up in random places later on in the game.
(+) Yay For Character Diversity
I thought it was so cool to not only have the lead characters be women, but women of color. There were also other characters of various racial backgrounds. Although video games and other types of media have become more inclusive when it comes to featuring people from various backgrounds than they have in the past, I still don’t see many instances where people of color (especially women) are portrayed in a positive light and given central roles in games.
Instead of making them strippers, criminals, prostitutes or some other negatively viewed caricature, Virginia allowed Anne and Maria to be upholders of the law in an organization that has historically been comprised of one gender and race. I don’t know who had the idea to make this a thing in the game, but I totally applaud them for it—it was awesome.
Although race didn’t play a significant role in how the game unfolded, having two women leads changed the dynamic quite a bit. The story wouldn’t have been the same if the leads were two men. There was bound to be a special bond between two women partners simply due to them sharing the experience of being female in a male dominated industry and organization. Perhaps this kept them more loyal to each other than they would have been under different circumstances.
(+) Yay For The Characters Having Very Human Moments
I really appreciated the game’s focus on human nature. Like I’ve previously mentioned, there is no verbal communication between characters, so their actions towards one another had to tell most of the story. There were small instances throughout the game that I found to be particularly endearing or fascinating. On the surface, certain actions may have been viewed as unimportant and mundane, but I’m not sure that they weren’t more important than met the eye.
Small things such as cooking someone breakfast, taking one’s wedding ring off before entering a bar, caring for an ailing mentor, crying in a photo booth or eating lunch in a car told me so much about the characters and the situations they were going through. Showing the seemingly “insignifcant” events of the characters’ lives made them feel far more relatable.
Aside from that, Virginia did a surprisingly good job touching upon a whole host of themes that should have been difficult to effectively emphasize, considering the lack of speech. They somehow managed to portray loss, betrayal, sacrifice, infidelity, suspicion and blind ambition all through music and actions alone.
(+) Yay For The Dramatic Usage Of Time
Something that I really liked about the game was the way that it used and bent the concept of time. Virginia has a very cinematic quality in that regard. There are abrupt lapses in time that take you from walking down a hallway to suddenly riding in a car down a country road. It was a little jarring for me at first, but I soon got used to it and enjoyed the unpredictability.
There are also instances when you are required to sit and wait for something without being able to do anything except for look around. These awkward pauses felt just as uncomfortable as they are in real life and added to the game’s overall suspense.
From wakeful clarity to illicit substance-induced hallucinations, Virginia mimicked various states of consciousness as well as the way we recall memories, so it was very interesting. The game cuts out various aspects of Anne’s life, blending together what is left like one long dream.
(+) Yay For The Art Styling (And The Nod To Film Noir)
Before buying Virginia, I had watched the trailer. At first, I honestly wasn’t sure if I would like the overall art style of the game. With it being a mystery, I was worried that everything would look too cartoonish to take seriously. After all, the characters do look quite similar to Wii Mii characters.
However, I came to really like the art in the end. Although the characters are quite angular and boxy, the overall style is painterly and expressive. I think the lack of realism actually allowed for more dramatization when it came to lighting and shadows—helping to better convey the game’s many moods.
The color red was periodically used in dramatic ways such as what you can see above. Although I am fairly sure they intended for this color to be indicative of a central emotion or theme, I have no idea what that specific thing actually was. I have some theories on what the red was meant to symbolize, but who knows if any of them will ever be confirmed. Still, I can say that the use of color was visually striking if nothing else. For me, it added a degree of drama and apprehension to the overall mood of the game.
Something that kept everything from feeling too cartoony was the attention to small realistic details. Take this window, for instance. If you’ve ever noticed a ray of sunshine coming through a window, you may have also seen the way that it illuminates dust floating in the air. I really appreciated how things such as this were captured.
Another thing Virginia did well was utilize shadows. Many of the scenes use light (or the lack thereof) to support the mood of the music and the things happening around you, which I really liked. Effective use of lighting can really improve the realism of a game that uses an otherwise unrealistic art style. And of course, any good mystery movie or game could always use some film noir flair, which Virginia nailed.
(+) Yay For Perfectly Capturing The Small Town Setting
A major contribution to the game’s overall mood was the setting. The sleepy small town feel was spot on. I mean, where else can you find people hanging out on top of a water tower or in a musty abandoned cave for “a good time”?
Having lived in a town eerily similar to Kingdom, I know there isn’t too much to do around places like that. You’ve got one gas station, one bar, a diner and if you’re lucky, a half decent high school football team. The pace of living is slow…like, really slow. It’s hard to imagine much of anything going on in a place like that–much less a potential crime.
Small towns often have some pretty curious secrets, despite their harmless looking exterior. This may be why the rural setting is so important to the game’s overall feel. Without the hustle and bustle of a larger city, I felt sort of disconnected, isolated and left out of the loop a bit. Kingdom’s small town essence left me feeling like an outsider looking in. It was as though something odd was going on around you, but you weren’t exactly invited to the party. You could observe, but not fully partake in anything or fully understand the town’s goings on because you weren’t a local.
Kingdom had that “everybody knows everybody” kind of a vibe, which sometimes made it feel homey and pleasant. I think this is what made the mystery behind the story that much more profound. One minute you have a warm and fuzzy craving for apple pie and then—bam! Something weird happens. The contrasts between the coziness of the town and the peculiarity of the events going on in it made me feel oddly uncomfortable. Perhaps this is what they’d intended.
(+) Yay For The Subtle Comical Touches
Virginia is hardly what I would consider a humorous game, but there were a few things that happened that made me actually laugh aloud. They definitely weren’t funny in a slapstick kind of way, but in a “that’s unfortunate” kind of way. Take someone getting hurt, for example.
It is never truly funny when people injure themselves, but I couldn’t stop laughing about the way Maria was holding the ice bag to her head while there was an option for Anne to sip her coffee. Never mind rushing to see if Maria was feeling okay—just sip your coffee like nothing is wrong. This particular scene seemed so dismissive that it was actually kind of funny.
Then you’ve got the drunk guy at the bar who is checking out Anne. I mean, look at that face. He clearly liked what he saw, but Anne was not having it. His reaction to the diss was nearly as funny as his desirous glances. Though this part of the scene wasn’t necessarily important, it was a nice change in mood to have a humorous exchange with another character.
(-) Nay To The Loose Ends In The Plot
SMH. I feel like I’m having a bit of déjà vu here. Like I discussed in my Until Dawn review, there is nothing more frustrating than when an otherwise good game suddenly has its plot go out into left field right at the end. Although I can’t say that Virginia’s ending was necessarily awful, there was a very definite point at which the train jumped completely off the tracks.
The plot not only careened off the path, but it dove into the bushes somewhere and ended up in a totally different atmosphere. The bottom line here is: some things were not clear at all. Everything was fine when the storyline stayed in the realm of the realistic, but once the supernatural got introduced into it, things got downright dubious.
There were a few loose ends in the plot (especially towards the end), which I’ve spent a ridiculous amount of time trying to figure out. It’s hard to describe the specific things I had a problem with without giving critical game points away, but I think certain things could have been executed much better than they were.
Considering how fundamentally simple the game was, I was a little surprised that I could play the entire game and still not know what the heck had just taken place. This is actually why I had to play it twice in a row. I wanted to see if I had missed something critical, but even after playing it a second time, there were still some major questions left unanswered:
Who was the man with the baby?
What was in the box?
What is up with all these bison?
Hey! Wasn’t that thing dead a second ago?
How did HE get in here?
Why is that church guy so creepy?
Is Anne even awake right now? Is she dreaming? Is she tripping?
Is any of this real?
Am I real?
Did I really just spend money to be confused? Isn’t confusion usually free?
Although I give the game credit for trying to create an air of mystery via devices such as color symbolism, a lot of the things that were done never came full circle. Despite being interesting, the jumps in time and lapses in memory made it very difficult to ascertain what was going on. I don’t know if this was an oversight or done intentionally, but one thing is for sure: There is no Ah-ha! moment.
Meanwhile, I am still waiting for one.
I can see many people not liking Virginia simply due to the fact that the ending (Was it really the ending?) didn’t make clean cut sense. Some people like their games to be very black and white with an obvious resolution, but this is definitely not one of those games.
I have my own ideas about what took place, but unless I ever talk to the creators, I may never know if I came close to what they intended. I’m sure the game makes sense to the people who imagined it and that it would make sense to players if it was explained (perhaps it already has been), but the game itself leaves much up for debate.
I still enjoyed the game, I just wish I hadn’t had to short-circuit my brain trying to figure things out.
(-) Nay To The Lack Of Interactive Objects & People
Although I don’t find the lack of interaction to be a huge annoyance, I do wish that more objects had at least had a simple animation. For example, while wandering around Anne’s house, it would have been nice to be able to select a toilet and watch it flush. Or, maybe selecting a nonessential character could have prompted them to at least nod their head in acknowledgement.
It wouldn’t have been necessary for every single object in a scene to be interactive because it can actually be quite distracting to play games that do that. However, I do wish there had been a little more going on in this department because it would have helped the game feel less barren and robotic. Everything felt sterile and staged like I was in an observation room being watched through an invisible two-way mirror. Nothing felt real. Could this also have been done on purpose?
Who knows? Not I, that’s for sure! 😛
Overall, I really enjoyed playing Virginia. Plot continuity is pretty much key in any story-driven game, so I have to be fair in saying that Virginia was a little shaky in that aspect. With a few minor tweaks, I think the game could have been a masterpiece.
All the same, there are so many things that it did really well. I can’t quite place my finger on it, but there is something uniquely special about Virginia. Despite the lack of clarity, I hugely enjoyed the experience of stepping into Anne’s shoes and engaging in her world. The experience was heartwarming, disorienting and unsettling all at the same time. I kinda love it.
If you are the type of player who doesn’t want to have to think too hard and/or doesn’t enjoy potentially confusing experiences, Virginia will probably annoy the heck out of you. However, I would definitely recommend it to anyone who is looking for a relatively quick play that is a departure from the ordinary. Between the intriguing and mysterious world and the highly engaging soundtrack, Virginia is worth experiencing at least once…or in my case, multiple times.
If you’ve already played Virginia or plan on playing it, I’d love to know what you think. It would be interesting to compare other people’s ideas of what happened to my own. ‘Til next time…stay golden ❤