Virginia is a game that lends itself to spoilers. It is full of nuanced movements, emotionally charged silence, and stunning storytelling. It hit me right in the chest. It delves into parts of human life which we often shun, and parts we wish to embrace. It effortlessly brings us close to characters who do not utter a single word, leaving us hanging on their faces, their expressions, and gestures.
Because of this, it plays like a movie. It is not what I would call a conventional game, as there is no real game-play here. You are taken on a narrative adventure – one which is stunningly crafted and presented, mind you – that will leave some gamers muttering ‘walking-simulator’, and others still thinking about the games heavily weighted two hours for much longer.
For those who enjoy this kind of experience, it is near enough perfect. The story is told in complete silence, with not one line of dialogue uttered. The only sound is that of the score, which is as beautiful and filling as the narrative itself.
The entire score was preformed by the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, and was composed by Lyndon Holland, who is also responsible for the games’ sound effects. In a narrative without words, the sound of the game takes a place front of stage, becoming much more important than it is in other titles – and more prevalent than the player will first realise.
Take, for example, one of the first scenes of the game: you are breathing, heavily, as you stare at your own reflection. You carefully apply your lipstick, the empty bathroom echoing your movements loudly back at you. As you exit, nothing accompanies you but your footsteps, thud thud thud behind you. It fills your ears, pulls you in, and creates a sense of building anticipation that you can’t really explain until you’re met with applause, and a chubby white-haired gentleman hands you your FBI badge before smiling at the shimmering crowd.
It is here that you are first given a spoonful of story: you play Anne Tarver, a freshly minted FBI agent racked with personal baggage and newly assigned to two tasks: finding a missing boy in the sleepy Virginia town of Kingdom with the help of your partner, Special Agent Maria Halperin; and conducting an internal affairs investigation against a suspicious employee: Special Agent Maria Halperin.
Such a premise allows for awkward moments and tense, ill-fated chemistry. Each nuanced emotion, every knowing glance, shared coffee, and moment spent between the two Agents is undercut by a sense of betrayal. You are playing this woman. She is befriending you, trusting you, and you are secretly documenting her movements to aid your own career agenda. It is heartbreaking, in a way; the yellow file with Halperin’s photo appearing just in time to undercut a moment of sincerity, and friendship, encompassing to one of the best scenes in gaming this year towards the stories end.
This emotionally-charged tale is only made more prevalent by the way in which it is fed to the player. Virginia is told through a series of first person vignettes, with frequent cuts transporting you from the warm comfort of your bed to the cold evening air. You are in an elevator, and then in a car, then sat at a desk. Each cut creates a momentum to propel the story forward, with scenes frequently juxtaposing the previous. The story moves with a frequency that leaves you knowing you have limited time. You must pay attention to each small detail, each movement, each sip of coffee. Missing a second is like skipping a cut-scene.
It is these details that make Virginia such a fantastic game. We see the parts of peoples’ lives they would rather keep quiet, feel such a connection to these characters who we never hear speak, fill with emotion at the reality of it all:
A husband and wife who sleep in separate beds, shared companionship over coffee, a father who cannot hug his son, people who dance the night away and take in the stars. We are only given a snippet of these characters, but their environment fills them to bursting.
Virginia comes as the first game developed by Variable State, an independent British studio founded by Jonathan Burroughs and Terry Kenny. Released on 22nd September 2016 on Xbox One, PS4, and Steam respectively. The game began production in 2014, with much of the game being written, developed, animated, and made by the two founders and Holland, the scores composer. With no Studio to call home, the Developers worked remotely, coordinating through Skype to bring Virginia into fruition.
Help came from other hands, of course, but it is impressive that such and impactful and thought-provoking tale breathes life off of the backs of just three.
Of course, this is a game that is not for everyone. It’s short, the achievements are odd numbers, and you only use the analogue sticks and the a button.
But if you are one of those looking for an experience, for a story that will encapsulate you, hit the heart hard, and leave you wondering – this is the game for you.
All images sourced from Virginia’s Steam Page : http://store.steampowered.com/app/374030/
Header image sourced from Variable State : http://variablestate.com/press/sheet.php?p=virginia