Virginia is More Than Just a Twin Peaks Pastiche

Reviewed On
PlayStation 4
Available For

Virginia is the latest “walking sim”, following in the slow-paced footsteps of Dear Esther and Gone Home. This first-person narrative game puts you in the shoes of Anne Tarver, a recent FBI graduate, who is assigned to a more senior partner, Maria Halperin. However, she is also charged with the mission of investigating her partner for internal affairs. Together, Tarver and Halperin investigate the disappearance of a boy called Lucas Fairfax, in Kingdom, Virginia. This all culminates in a surreal, noirish mystery, which unravels in a mess of betrayal, paranoia and intrigue.

It’s no secret that developers, Variable State, set out to make a gaming homage to 90s TV hits, such as the X-Files and Twin Peaks. It wears those influences on its sleeve, from the Lynchian surrealism and symbolism, to the score and the FBI agents out to solve a mystery in small town America. However, it also uses gameplay to explore the central themes of noir, delivers a nuanced story in an interesting way and doesn’t mess around, when it comes to diversity.

Virginia’s two leads are women of colour, but this isn’t central to their stories.

It can’t go unnoticed that Virginia features two women of colour in the lead roles.  This fact alone makes Variable State’s first game a landmark moment. The game also uses small details to illustrate the everyday hurdles Tarver and Halperin might face, as women of colour in the FBI in 1992.

As Tarver, getting ready for her first day of work, she decides not to wear lipstick. Cut to her in a lift full of her male colleagues and one turns to check her out. Meanwhile, Halperin, the only other woman, has been relegated to a basement office by an agency, which has discredited her. The story doesn’t dwell on these moments, in fact, some players might miss their significance, which is an indication of the nuanced storytelling.

The storytelling is at once Virginia’s triumph and its Achilles heel. The story is told without a single line of dialogue and it does that very well, in terms of establishing characters and their relationships with each other. The growing bond between Halperin and Tarver is particularly well told, but in the hope of delivering a spoiler-free review, I can’t really say more than that.

Without any dialogue or even audio logs and very limited text, Virginia relies on facial expression and gesture, which is a true feat with such such simplified graphics. The eyes are just black dots, but a look can still convey hostility or shock and these visual cues carry us through the relationship between the lead women.

There is little in the way of gameplay. In fact, player agency is almost non-existent, even for a walking sim. Much like its other inspiration, Thirty Flights of Loving, noted in the credits, the player is given a scene and a limited number of things to interact with to progress the narrative. In Virginia, each scene only offers up one thing to click on, indicated by a circle, which then becomes a diamond, when you approach it. Despite having quite detailed settings, such as an apartment or office, most doors and cupboards are not for exploring, which is slightly disappointing.

Come in, but don’t look around.

The taut storytelling sometimes leads to frustration, with forced camera angles meaning the player can’t even turn Tarver’s head to look around in some scenes.  This is a linear story with no room for deviation or exploration. In most games your choices make a difference, but in Virginia there are no choices. In some ways this plays into the theme of the noir protagonist trying and failing to cheat fate. We can’t change Tarver’s fate and neither can she.

What it lacks in interactivity, Virginia makes up for in atmosphere. There is a sense of menace throughout, as the mystery unfolds. This only increases, as dream sequences and surreal moments blur the line between what is real and what is imagined by the character.

Variable State also uses cinematic editing techniques, such as jump cuts to trim a lot of the dead wood that some people hate about walking sims i.e. the walking.  For instance, as you walk down a seemingly never ending staircase, it cuts to you standing outside a door. In another example, after finding a clue the scene cuts to you sitting in the back of a cab, moving the story along.

The cinematic editing creates a feeling of pace that some walking sims lack, but it also serves to unsettle the player. A seemingly ordinary scene is turned on its head by a strange camera angle or being juxtaposed against a contrasting image. This is all supported by a strong score, performed by the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, which drives the emotional scenes and builds tension. And in quieter moments, the main theme plays with the X-Files melody, whilst one scene is clearly the Twin Peaks theme with a few of the notes rearranged, which raises a smile.

Virginia’s clear nod to Twin Peaks

Whilst the storytelling is strong, when it comes to the central relationship between Tarver and Halperin, the surreal dream within a dream structure may leave many cold. The final act is the weakest element of the game and I’m not sure it quite hangs together. It’s trying hard to confound, in the same way that David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive might, but in the end it feels like Virgina’s kaleidoscope of images and symbols don’t have enough threads binding them together.

Virginia may not succeed in everything it’s trying to do, but its ambition has to be applauded. Whilst it does feel truly cinematic and delivers something different to anything you may have played before, not all aspects of the story solidify to create a satisfying ending. Despite this, it’s a game worth recommending because I think it will influence games to follow and I’ll definitely be looking out for future projects from Variable State.

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