Yes, Virginia deserves to be called a game.
Whether you’ve heard of it or not, Virginia was released last year. By my recollection, no one was particularly looking forward to the title, and the game quickly slipped into the ether. It was reviewed highly by a few publications but, judging by its steam score currently sitting somewhere between a six and a seven out of ten, the user reviews have been mixed. At ten dollars for a roughly two-hour experience that even cuts like a film, experiencing Virginia requires the same amount of commitment as going to a movie theater. However, this game was one of the most engrossing releases of last year and, though it doesn’t exactly use game mechanics to tell its story, Virginia works more effectively as a game than it ever could have on the silver screen.
For the many who are unfamiliar, Virginia is a first person mystery game set in Kingdom, Virginia in the early nineties. Players investigate the disappearance of a missing teen through the eyes of recently-made FBI special agent Anne Tarver (though to say that players are the ones doing the investigating would be a bit of a stretch). There are three things that the controller does; the left analog stick moves the character, the right stick turns Anne’s head, and the X button (I played on PS4) can be used to interact with an item on screen that will advance the story.
Critics will say that Virginia defines the term “walking simulator”, an accusation that is hard to deny. But to leave it at this is to ignore the strengths of the game. If you’re in it for interesting gameplay, you will doubtless be disappointed, but above all else, Virginia has a story to tell and atmosphere in spades to back it up. It may be edited and directed like a movie, but being able to move your head really does add incredibly to the atmosphere. The style of the game is very hard to describe. It’s saturated with lots of color, and textures are sparse. There aren’t a lot of environments, but the game capitalizes on each locale in bringing the sleepy town of Kingdom to life. By virtue of this relative lack of areas, those that are included are intricately detailed and artistically crafted. Players can feel the early fall air, and the warmth leaving the town as colors begin to come in on the trees. The indoors are equally telling; each morning, Tarver and her partner get coffee at the local diner. If they take a look around, players are greeted with all of the sights of a small town restaurant; a friendly waitress, the meager postcard selection, even a campaigning mayor.
Perhaps the most distinct aspect of Virginia in motion is its cinematic style of editing; the game liberally cuts around unimportant or menial events and, just like a great film, each smash cut and fade enhances the atmosphere and pacing of the game. A very basic instance is encountered early on the game when players, as Tarver, enter the parking garage in Quantico on their way home. After a few steps out of the elevator, the game immediately cuts to the inside of the car, Tarver already on her way. This is certainly the first game I have ever played that features editing outside of its cutscenes, and in this way it blurs the lines between game and movie further than even Kojima has ever dared. This stylistic departure from the conventions of the medium is hardly a gimmick; the game truly does gain a lot. In having total control of the pacing, the developers were able to better sync the score with the action. The composer was one of three writers of the game, and the editing allows for the pitch-perfect background music to swell perfectly in-sync with the emotional beats of the game.
Virginia is as close a game as I have ever seen to truly being a movie where you can move your head, but I don’t hold this against it in any way. The team at Variable State knew what their goal was, and executed it without regard for the traditional confines of its medium. I would never praise Virginia for mind-blowing mechanics or tight gameplay, but everything in the game is structured to aid the conveyance of its beautifully emotional story, and, without giving anything away, it’s a story that I wouldn’t trade that for anything in the world.