Is it a game?
Under The Radar is a series looking at those titles that we missed with a new take.
A Walking Simulator?
Is ‘walking simulator’ a derogatory term? As a description it probably places those games among the relatively recent spewing of Ironic Meta Joke Games™ – like Rock Simulator or Simulator Simulator 2015. I want to talk about Virginia and the idea of interactivity/passivity here, but first let’s get something out of the way. Prior to Virginia’s release, it was held up as an example of an SJW game, a negative label also applied to titles such as Gone Home and Life Is Strange – stories told from a female perspective. It’s hard to ignore the fact that some of the most critically acclaimed Walking Simulators have explored intersectionality. Of course, the obvious deflection here is that they’re bad games because they don’t function properly as games. Without wishing to get all ‘Pepe Silvia’ here, revulsion at the idea that what you do in these games denies them being games is a convenient and dishonest way to dismiss characters or a story that challenges your politics (that is, if simply playing a woman, homosexual and/or person of colour is something you personally find challenging).
That an arbitrary set of mechanisms not being present in an interactive experience is a foil for silencing games that aren’t about men getting revenge, evokes memories of a sudden broad interest in ‘journalistic ethics’. I don’t want to get too deep into the ‘anti-SJW’ brigade who are angry and afraid of straight-white-men-who-kill-people becoming a dying breed in video games, but it is worth mentioning before discussing Virginia. That you play as a woman of colour and possible lesbian is and isn’t integral to the story because everything that occurs is ambiguous, symbolic and deliberately designed to present dangling threads for you pull and then fill in the blanks yourself. By its very design Virginia is almost throttling in how tightly it controls your experience – something often labelled as a lack of interaction.
When is a game no longer a game?
By dismissively labeling titles like Firewatch, Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture and Virginia (to name just three) as Walking Simulators, questions are raised about what a game should or shouldn’t be but also about what it is to interactive with a game. Before we get into that I want to briefly rundown how Virginia looks and plays.
Heavily evoking late 80/90s television shows such as The X-Files and in particular Twin Peaks, Virginia has you in the role of Anne Tarver – an FBI Agent investigating the disappearance of a local boy. Alongside this case, you are also keeping tabs on your partner as part of an internal affairs investigation. While this probably all sounds fairly standard 90s thriller fare, it’s in Virginia’s presentation of its story that it leaves an impression. The entire story takes place without a single word spoken. The painterly art style leaves just enough scope on the faces of its characters to suggest how they are feeling. However, Virginia’s communication is intricately focused around gestures. The repetition of a case file thrown onto a desk, the application of lipstick, the hesitation or laboured movement of actions often rushed in a first person perspective all work in tandem to inform an overall mood that’s difficult to describe and should be experienced firsthand. Deliberately locked at 30 frames-per-second and with very little diegetic sound, playing Virginia is akin to a lucid dream or some kind of fugue state.
The way that Virginia so rigidly locks you into the experience actually works in recontextualising ‘gameplay’ and ‘interaction’. Virginia, perhaps even more so than any other Walking Simulator I’ve played is entirely un-gamelike. That is to say there are no systems of mastery, even in terms of a narrative reward. It isn’t a game whose story can only be understood by finding every clickable in its gamespace so that you ‘get’ it.
Instead, Virginia presents you with multiple different facets that feed into the way you’re supposed to feel about the game – as a grand conspiracy or a symbolic perspective on what it is to be an outsider in a place where you are expected to conform.
Is an interaction ‘Press X to pay your respects’, because of a prompt? Clicking to sip your coffee is there to answer an impulse (both in the game and outside of it as something for us to fidget with). With Virginia, interaction is constant engagement, at its most active depending on your ability to concentrate on and analyse the limited frame the game is allowing you to explore while you’re passively seated. Most games are so full of stuff and we move around in them so quickly that it’s difficult to comprehend them as anything other than corridors or spaces between markers. Virginia overwhelmingly important mise-en-scene – the props, the light and colours – IS the game.
Is Virginia Worth Coming Back For
Anyone interested in video games that challenge the form and welcome challenging art should play Virginia.