I couldn’t put the controller down when
playing, nay, experiencing Virginia. Playing doesn’t feel like it would accurately reflect what I felt with Virginia; there was no button mashing but rather a thrilling story delivered to you in the form of a video game. The video game might be what encapsulates Virginia but there’s a whole lot of inspiration in here that stretches far beyond the veneer of a video game. Everything that’s been put into this game, the art style, the carefully orchestrated scenes to even the hauntingly beautiful soundtrack amalgamate to create a story that I’m desperate to dive straight back into.
Virginia puts you in the shoes of an FBI special agent named Anne Tarver who attempts to solve a missing person investigation of a young boy in rural America. The game is set-up as an investigation into this small-town as you wade through the young boy’s life in an attempt to discover what happened in this seemingly idyllic little town of Virginia. The game is presented in a cel-shaded art style that is both striking and unnerving at times whilst the entirety of the game is wrapped in cinematic editing that ever drives the game forward and immerses the player in such an uncanny fashion that it will seem ever more ambiguous.
From the very outset, it’s clear that the developers have honed the art of craftsmanship with Virginia. Players are immediately treated to a wonderfully picturesque menu screen that will hide subtle allusions to some of the themes you can expect to find in the game itself. It certainly isn’t impactful on the game or its contents but it’s a pleasant surprise to see such care and attention to detail in something so simple as the menu screen. From here, you will also find a heartfelt letter from the creators.
In the very first moments, you will instantly recognize an unspoken captivation to every scene in Virginia. Quite literally, in fact, since the game distinctly features zero lines of dialogue. This might seem odd if you’re first hearing about it but rest assured, the entrancing and captivating storytelling on show will actually make you grateful that there’s no dialogue to interfere. The game is immensely satisfying from the very get-go as you assume the role of agent Tarver as the game beings in media res as you take on an active role in this investigation whilst you buckle under the beauty of the editing work.
A lot of what drives the story is the excellent editing style that the developers have adopted. As the week progresses, each day seems to become more and more fragmented and there’s a lot of unexplained events/visions/dreams (I’m still not 100% sure what to identify some of them) and it definitely feels like you’re almost losing touch with reality as the week in which the events progress unfold. In almost every scene there’s an unseen but noticeable felt mirage that seems to be concealing the truth from you. It’s almost as if these scenes, which often come towards the end of the day but can still emerge earlier, exude eeriness in a way that induces an almost inexplicable feeling of uneasiness. This game will unsettle you.
Entering the mind of an FBI agent must be an unsettling and perhaps even disturbing point of view. After all, FBI agents often see the worst of crimes and the mind has to find a way to process all of this. Murder and acts of gruesome horrors are commonplace and this, one would imagine, have a damaging effect on someone’s psyche. I get the sense that this is the environment that the developers wanted to emulate; you’re not some badass who-gives-a-fuck cop, you’re a person who seems to be going through some serious issues. It’s disturbing to get this sort of insight, and it’s only possible thanks to the masterful and unique editing done by the developers. I seriously can’t praise this enough, I’ve never witnessed a video game edited in this way and that’s perhaps why it was so startling from beginning to end.
The style or ‘graphics’ as one might coin it, are devilishly simple in Virginia. The simplicity makes it even more striking then that so much emotion and atmospheric imagery can pour out of these scenes. Every scene has a focus, a purpose, something that the developers want you to see or feel. There are no inconsequential scenes. I haven’t figured it out yet, perhaps I never will, but there’s an ever-present feeling that there’s something bigger at play in this story. It gives a sense that there’s no time to sit back and digest what you’re seeing; this story is ever moving forward and you’re stumbling along for the ride. You will questions what’s authentic and what’s not and even what timeline or chronological order the events you witness are in but ultimately, it’ll be an experience like none other in video games.
All of this ultimately ends up making a game that feels almost dreamlike. In fact, it reminded me a lot of True Detective, in particular, season 2. Even if you recently watched Stranger Things, you might notice a few similarities with Virginia in the subtle and sometimes explicit otherworldly allusions to the masked reality that we cannot actively perceive. This whole feeling that something could be hiding around the corner definitely adds to the suspense that runs throughout most of the game. One might get a fourth-wall-breaking sense that the developers are slowly peeling back the mystery and everything that unravels is for you to behold and try your damndest to make sense of it all.
Lastly, it has to be admired just what an impressive soundtrack it is that’s interlaced throughout the entire story. It’s composed by composer Lyndon Holland and recorded live by the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra at the renowned Smecky Studio. However, none of that really matters. What’s of importance is how stirring it is and how impactful it can be in a multitude of scenes. There might not be any dialogue but the music exceedingly makes up for this. It’s not just that it’s beautifully recorded or of such a high standard; it’s that it fits so perfectly with the mood of the story being told. Virginia’s emotive soundtrack rises and drops off, but there’s a sense that even when dormant it could surge right back up. That’s how quickly the tempo and pace can change. The timing and pacing done to ensure that the soundtrack is not only responsive but inseparable from the events unfolding the game is something truly to be admired.
WARNING: Spoiler discussion
So, are you ready to talk spoilers? So far, I have to admit I’m really not sure what to make of it in terms of whether I actually ‘solved’ the case. I have only gone through the game once (I earned around 5 of the achievements) which means that there’s still a bunch of secrets that I didn’t find in my first playthrough. However, here’s some spoilery screenshots that might help piece together the conclusion:
The red door is a repeating metaphor apparent across many scenes in Virginia. The red door is often seen as a symbol of mystery. In terms of dream interpretation, to see a behind the door suggests that you are moving toward greater enlightenment/spirituality. Perhaps then, it is the red door that holds the answers? Also, if you open the red door, then it means that you are confronting some uncomfortable emotions. It’s possible that the red door that frequently appears in this game is a gateway to psychological trouble for our agent or even something otherworldly? I’m not sure, that’s why I would love to wait for fan theories to emerge and pour over all the little details.
Here’s another theory to consider, there’s a cult-like group of police officers, citizens and even the Mayor of Virginia that are behind the missing person and perhaps even a lot more. Is the little town hiding a dark secret? It’s worth noting that there was a wave of fear of Satanic cults that was prominent in the US in the 1980s and into the early ‘90s. In the screenshot I captured above, there definitely looks to be a ritualistic element to the scene, almost like a sacrifice. This could be a Wicker Man style conclusion and the characters shown definitely act creepy in earlier scenes so it is entirely possible.
Another possibility that emerges is that there’s a supernatural element to all of the events that have unfolded and that aliens, of some sort, are behind it all. We ‘see’ the missing boy being transported by an alien ship but can we trust this? After all, the being that comes down to greet him looks perfectly human. Perhaps she’s someone who also went missing?
I don’t know.
My brain is fried.
I’m going to wait for fan theories but for now, I’m going back to playthrough the game again and try and figure out some answers by myself.
Virginia is priced at $9.99 in the U.S. or £7.99 in the U.K. and is available now on the PC, PS4, and Xbox One.