Can a story be emotional and evocative if it’s too convoluted?
I never knew I wanted a game that nails the “90’s mystery cop film” aesthetic until recently. The blissfully esoteric indie title Virginia makes me unsure that I actually need one.
A child has gone missing in the fictional town of Kingdom, Virginia. You, as a new FBI recruit, attempt to uncover what happened in the quaint village, under the tutelage of a veteran agent. It’s a simple, effective premise that draws you in. The game begins normal enough, and slowly grows convoluted through a series of dream-like, trippy scenes. Soon, it becomes maddeningly difficult to keep track of fact and fiction.
Virginia starts strong and reels you in, before dunking your mind into a pool of mystery and confusion.
This is the underlying point of Virgina: the exploration of the faint line between truth and lies, imagination and reality. It’s a captivating concept that the game handles surprisingly well. Described best as a “walking simulator,” Virginia uses a series of jump cuts and interactable objects to tell its story. The title does so with no dialogue whatsoever. This technique is, for the most part, effective. The simple, polygonal art style allows you to draw conclusions easily based on the environment and character movements, without directly telling you the story.
However, this method becomes significantly less effective near the ending. While it’s difficult to explain precisely why this is without spoiling the game, I can say that it involves heavy use of the aforementioned “trippy scenes.” Virginia starts strong and reels you in, before dunking your mind into a pool of mystery and confusion. It smacks you with metaphor after metaphor, while interlacing various graphical and allegorical motifs. Virginia certainly wants to be as artsy and open-ended as possible, and with that it exceeds. Yet in doing so, it becomes unnecessarily cluttered and complex, exacerbated further by the lack of dialogue. The story takes a turn towards ambiguity, simply for the sake of ambiguity. Such a tale could still be effective, open, and mysterious with much less “over-the-top-ness.”
The experience hands you a myriad of puzzle pieces…some are crystal clear, while others are fuzzy or faded.
Nevertheless, Virginia is truly stellar in that it successfully evokes emotion when it needs to. Despite a constant tension in my head from the confusion, the game managed to keep me hooked with its use of mystery, visuals, and environmental storytelling. Clever twists dropped out of thin air with no fanfare, leaving me reeling in specific scenes. In times such as these, ambiguity can be a blessing and a curse.
Though each of these concepts have been better used in other indie titles (such as Gone Home), Virginia still manages to bring each idea together for a unique experience, albeit a complex one. Atmosphere and art style have a good hand in achieving this. Playing along absolutely feels like watching a buddy-cop mystery drama from the 1990’s, in its own charming way. Revelations, conspiracies, and scenarios dance their way onto the screen in a jarring fashion, and make you actually feel something. Quite a difficult task, for a game with no talking.
Virginia is that kid we all knew in school: unimaginably bright with the assignment instructions laid out in front of them, yet they, in some god forsaken act of defiance, decide to forge their own path. The experience hands you a myriad of puzzle pieces that can fit together in any number of ways: some are crystal clear, while others are fuzzy or faded. It frustrates and confuses, as you attempt to solve the story in a way that makes sense to you. And yet, no other game has dared to do such a thing before. In its attempt to confound, Virginia provokes a human response, as if asking you to look at its complexity and say “so what?” It’s an effort that is both pompous and endearing.