I’ve always liked the conceit of telling a story without any words, instead relying on setting, design, and animation to convey depth. Games like Inside, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, and Journey all elevate their storytelling by eschewing words and dialogue to create something that touches you emotionally.
Regretfully, Virginia doesn’t succeed in it’s noble attempt to use a word-less game that can envelop the player. While it makes an admirable try at using nonverbal tricks within its camera work and sound design, Virginia struggles to evoke a coherent theme or story out of its silence.
That’s not to say coherence is Virginia’s goal. Through a long string of stream-of-consciousness scenes, you take on the role of FBI agent Anne Tarver. Nominally, you are tasked with investigating a disappearance, but you are also ingratiating yourself with your new partner to look for signs of disloyalty or sedition. The story takes semi-supernatural turns, involving some kind of sacrificial cult, time-skipping, and alternate realities. But it’s never made clear if this is actually happening or if it’s the product of some kind of fever dream. The game is clearly attempting to evoke a David Lynch-like mindset, trading in Twin Peaks for a suburb in Virginia.
And, in a very Twin Peaks fashion, the plot gets more intricate as you delve into the forces that lurk underneath the surface of the town. The game plays with differing perspectives on the same event, Rashomon-style, and tries to convey your character’s inner thoughts through these vignettes. The problem is that lack of exposition hamstrings your ability to know what perspective you are in at any given time and the visuals don’t aid in understanding anything about the plot or character building that it is aiming to convey.
It’s possible that this is the point, a la Syriana, where the convoluted plot is less about what’s going on plotwise than it is a deep immersion in an incredibly complex world. In this sense, Virginia conveys the complexities of the main character through its vignettes — She is more than her work, and her own past haunts her. But there is something lost when it sets up the Chekhov’s Gun of the case of the missing youth and then abandons it without ever really providing a coherent answer around what happened to him. There’s no sin in denying plot resolution, but it seems to flit away from that instigating mystery rather quickly, with little significant progress ever made.
As a collection of aural and visual moments, the game is fantastic. The flat-shaded characters remain expressive while allowing brief moments of subtlety. The music is undeniably fantastic, the score a constant presence that shifts and crescendos alongside the game’s events. It is easily the most evocative part of the game — an otherwise pedestrian scene of drinking in a bar is made sinister as the score shifts to a minor chord.
I really wish I could see what others see in Virginia. It’s received high praise, and made the shortlist for the IGF Award for Narrative. But to my eyes it seems a muddled mess. Not without its high points and sequences that tilt towards depth, but once the game ended the memories of the time I had spent with it faded quickly. It was pleasing to the eyes and ears, but my mind craved more. I will probably give it another shot at some point, but for now it fills the niche of a serviceable yet banal pulp novel that gathers dust on my shelf.