Virginia: Review for Xbox One
I first played Virginia as a bare bones proof of concept sort of thing way back in 2014 at an EGX Rezzed event. Even then it caught my eye, and I made it one of my favorites from the show and wanted the publisher I was working for at the time to chase them down at once. When speaking to the developers at the event, it was clear they had an idea about where they wanted to go with Virginia, but were vague on whether they had a strong story to go with the demonstrable aesthetics. Being that this was primarily a story game, a lot hinged on what came next.
Now two years later it’s been released for the Xbox, PS4 and Steam. Did the writing hold up? Did the narrative shine through the stylized walking sim? I delved in the 2 hour cinematically contained experience once more to find out.
The blurb for Virginia is a “single-player first-person thriller set in a small town with a secret. Experience a missing person’s investigation through the eyes of graduate FBI agent Anne Tarver.” On the outset this is all well and standard, however it quickly became apparent within the first few minutes that this wasn’t really about the case you were trying to solve at all. Peel back the layers and we are now experiencing life in the 1990s – as a minority employee for the FBI. Experiencing the awkward ‘first day’ elevator ride with men who don’t really emote much confidence; meeting the investigative partner who is less than delicate in her attitude towards the new girl. Hints of a difficult past and Anne’s struggle for her position are subtly scattered about the tale, but just apparent enough to warm the player when they are noticed. I’m reminded of Clarice Starling more than once before the credits role.
To have this game actually be about Anne rather than her first case to solve was refreshing and inventive. To have it no where in Virginia’s summary spiel is all the more surprising. The places, times, scenes, all seamlessly shift before our eyes as we skip back and forth along the narrative. Cutting out the boring walking… in a walking sim so to speak. As the story unfolds it is clear that the missing person investigation for Virginia is becoming a minor backdrop for Anne’s own demons.
Anne has real difficulty switching off from her work, it’s obvious this first case is important. A proof of worth, perhaps. Surreal vision sequences intermingle with work and her own personal burdens. Self-doubt and underhand due diligence niggle at our realities, and mundane encounters during the day take on symbolic thought fragments. When there is only us as voyeur, we see a very different side to Anne. As the stress and pressure increases for our protagonist, we experience more dream-like scenes with elegant poignancy. Towards the final act the familiarity becomes so vague and hallucinatory that I struggled (and still do) comprehending what was unraveling. This is only mildly disappointing from a point of closure (or lack of). Because for me it didn’t matter so much whodunwut, but that we witness first hand who this woman we’ve been all along… actually is. The combination of techniques on show make you feel equally vulnerable and quite special.
That is not to say the game was perfect. A few too many times the control was taken from the player for too long; a camera position lingered too obviously; a medial ‘tap A to continue’ task was just too mundane and unnecessary. The game is such that achievements feel tacked on and the need for me to replay the experience wasn’t there. However, the involvement was novel and condensed enough, and the musical score carried the narrative beautifully in an otherwise silent world.
Tech Scorpion Review: The price is fair for a strong first game by developer Variable State, and I look forward to seeing what they do next.