Words. Words are quite useful. Have you ever tried ordering a Big Mac without using words? Actually, MacDonald’s have those self-service things now like Argos so that’s not a good example, but imagine trying it at a different food establishment without self-service things. It’d be really difficult, because words are useful. We use words all the time. I am using words to write this, and you are reading them. Words are good. Words are also good for storytelling. People say a picture paints a thousand words, but that is not true unless you literally paint a thousand words onto a canvas.
Developer: Variable State
Publisher: 505 Games
Reviewed on: PlayStation 4 (Review code provided by publisher)
Enter Virginia, a game based almost exclusively on the strength of its story but without any dialogue. If you look at descriptions of the title on the various places you can download it from, it’s pitched as a mystery involving a missing child. This is something of a misrepresentation, but at the same time it would be difficult to go into much else about the story without entering spoiler territory (if it were possible to spoil the plot of a game without any definite plot). Nevertheless, it contains themes, ranging from sexism and racism right up to the really serious issues like almost running over imaginary buffaloes. I don’t get paid enough to argue with people on the internet (in fact I don’t get paid anything for this really), so I’m wary of touching aforementioned topics with anything but the very longest metaphorical barge pole. Despite this, I will venture far enough to say that I actually thought these issues were presented and treated with particularly great thought and subtlety. As there is no dialogue at all, it would be pretty difficult to force anything onto the player rather than their own interpretation for the most part, and indeed this deliberate subjectivity seems to be what’s causing a stir between those famously rational folks on the internet. These issues are certainly there, but how much stock you put in them is up to you.
In fact, this is both a strength and weakness of Virginia. It’s possible to identify a narrative of sorts, but it’s frustratingly vague, a situation not aided by the lack of speech. There’s actually a sequence very near the end of the game that appears to tie everything together and provide a very brief summary of the future that had me believing this was the real ‘point’ of the story, until it is quickly revealed afterwards to not be very important at all. Elsewhere, there’s a serious amount of suggestion and imagery involving animals that could mean any number of things, and how much you get out of this may well depend on how much you ‘dig’ things like Twin Peaks.
I was slightly disappointed. There’s a lot to like about Virginia; the intro sequence with various mock watercolour scenes, beautiful yet eerily devoid of people, and a fabulous orchestral/synth score, are almost enough to carry this on its own. The music continues strongly throughout, and in the absence of speech is really one of your main cues for determining the mood and atmosphere. Visually, the in game experience at times threatens to undermine the gravity of the situation with a very simple, cartoony style, perhaps through necessity rather than intention. There’s also a few snags on the frame-rate at times, particularly when you’re in areas such as grassy fields, in which the amount of movement trips things up considerably. Despite this, it certainly stands on its own as an original art style, and it’s unlikely anyone picking up indie titles like this is doing so to see the best rendering or grass blowing in a breeze, or whatever.
Another point of consternation appears to be whether this is really a game or not. It’s a valid argument; there is literally no point in Virginia where you can ‘fail’ as such. The game is probably best described for the sake of comprehension as a ‘walking simulator’, along with the various baggage that term carries, so there’s no puzzles or even mild peril. At no point can you die or have to restart from a checkpoint; you are essentially playing through a film, with very limited possibilities for interaction, limited to basic movement and a single press of an action button to investigate or move things. I don’t quite understand why people have such an issue that this sort of thing exists really. If that’s not for you then that’s fine, there are many other games to play that will scratch your itch for action or whatever it is you want. Meanwhile, those people that want this sort of experience can play this. The two can co-exist; the presence of one doesn’t affect the availability of the other.
However, if you are lured in by the possibility of a challenging point-and-click adventure or dramatic hunt for a victim, this is not for you. Despite it’s brief run time (about the length of a film), it moves at a sedate pace. Even the menus are glacially slow, if beautifully drawn, in a small-town America style. But the haphazard nature of the story (it really does get a bit odd) and sheer obliqueness of it all will deter many.
That said, I didn’t dislike Virginia. I was disappointed at the lack of definitiveness and resolution to the matters presented, but the atmosphere and style of the game, as well as it’s brief meditations on society in 1992, stayed with me for some time after I finished playing, and provided a lot to think about. This is far from everyone’s tastes, and I would recommend doing some investigation before parting with any money to consider whether this is going to hold your attention or repel it, but if sedate thrillers that offer more questions than answers are your thing then you’ll find a short but sweet package on offer from 505 Games here.