Name of game, creator, platform.
I played Variable State’s Virginia on PC.
Virginia will appeal to fans of mysteries, surrealist films, and casual gamers who prefer narrative and atmosphere over intensive twitch skill.
Important Formal Elements of the game
The game plays is designed like a first-person film, with 42 surreal scenes compete with cinematic transitions. The sequence of events is highly linear, with choreographed events playing out more or less the same for all players. Requiring multiple player inputs for tiny gestures (such as grabbing, then opening, then reaching into your purse in the opening scene), builds the filmmaker’s pacing while suggesting player action. In turn, the surrealist style allows for the mystery to pervade all moments of the game. Any certainty with regards to the disappearance, your partner, and Kingdom, is knocked off balance: in many ways finding the lock to the key only reveals even more locks.
Type of fun game intended, and if it met its goals
Storytelling varies from the use of cutscenes, to minor player actions, to taking in the environment. Scenes flash between each other in tiny vignettes and it is up to the player to pay attention to the story being unfolded before them, recounted not in text but in body language and environment. At times, the use of minor player actions feels cheap, as if the “action” mechanic is tacked onto the scene to make it interactive, rather than the interactivity feeling part of the scene.
But the best mechanic for Virginia‘s mystery plot is being able to move the camera around and absorb an unfamiliar space for yourself. In one sequence, I awoke on my bed with apparently no action to fulfill. I kept moving the camera left and right until I turned and saw a bison right next to the bed. Moments like this instill the player with a sense of authentic discovery despite a choreographed, linear sequence of events.
The “dialogue” of this interactive film is in the cinematic soundtrack. Music gives momentum to player movement, it drives me to push forward and captures how the character feels throughout their investigation. At times, a scene would wait to end for the musical downbeat (as a film editor would do), which meant that there was unappealing hangtime as I waited for a scene to transition. The star of Virginia is the atmospheric use of lighting, color, and music to get you to wanna to sink deeper into the world.
Moments of particular success or epic fails
The denouement takes a wonderful change of pace from the disorienting jump-cutting from scene to scene. Instead, we are finally put in long environments where the music and tension can build as we just walk forward. We see an extraterrestrial light emitting from a long twisty cavern, but as we move forward it only seems to move forward. This created an excellent sense of drama before the game led to…
The less exciting conclusion. We end in a rapid-fire fever dream where mysteries are left unsolved. This is all well and good, except for almost all of the game’s conclusion, you are sitting watching a screen play out a movie in front of you, and occasionally pressing up on the joystick. The sequences are aesthetically impressive, but ultimately it made me feel like as the player I couldn’t handle the script, so I wasn’t allowed to act in it.
Things you would change to make the game better
While the cutscenes make effective use of gesture to convey plot information, they can at times feel like player autonomy and freedom is being hoisted away in service of a director’s preferred choreography of events. For example, at one point you are researching your partner Maria Halperin in a database. But when you click, you find that Maria’s file is incredibly minimal, since her other file is under a different alias. As a player, you may remember (aha!) that Maria had a different surname Ortega. But whether you do or not, you’re shown a flashback to when you were shown that information and clicking on the computer automatically searches for Ortega.
As a player, I want to be able to do things and influence the game world. Minor action buttons can set pacing but do little to make me feel like I’m actually acting in the world. Virginia could have made the mystery-solving elements less like following a script, and let the player figure out what they have to do next rather than just walk forward and click when told.