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Posted on Mar 3rd 2017 at 08:00:00 AM by (zophar53)
Posted under Virginia, adventure games, walking simulator, narrative

While the post-holiday game release drought seems like it's getting shorter and shorter every year, I feel like it doesn't provide enough time to catch up on big name titles from the previous year as it used to. Thankfully, even in the midst of the fantastic games we've already seen in 2017, not to mention the fact that the Nintendo Switch and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is happening this very morning, some of the games I wanted to squeeze in were smaller indie titles that I actually have been able to make time for.

One of these was a little gem by the name of Virginia. If you're not familiar with it, it's a narrative-focused, walking simulator-like game similar to something like Gone Home. Sporting a not-quite-cell-shaded visual style and a complete lack of dialogue, I was very interested in giving it a try and seeing how it compared not just to Gone Home, but also Firewatch, which regular readers of this site may remember as a game I had some pretty big issues with when I played it last June. I'm in the minority with my opinions on that game, but I appreciated what it was trying to achieve and was hoping for at least a similar experience from Virginia.

All it takes is watching a trailer and you get a feeling for what this game has in store. Taking place in the small town of Kingdom ("the grandest little town in Virginia"), you play as newly-inducted FBI agent Anne Tarver. You team up with your new partner Maria Halperin to investigate the disappearance of a local boy. In the process, you'll investigate several different areas, make decisions that can have minor effects on how things play out, and uncover some ugly secrets, not just about the town, but within the FBI itself.

Without any bit of dialogue or narrative text whatsoever, the developers used many other methods to get players invested. First off, the look of the game is immediately striking, and goes from being bright and colorful during outdoor scenes to dark and foreboding when indoors or to build tension. It's a quite effective palette and was always interesting to look at.

One of the most divisive things about this game is the way it progresses. Virginia's tale is very direct. You can't open any doors except the ones that lead to the next story bit, you can't zoom in on anything, and you're only allowed the freedom to explore in a few specific areas. While this will turn away some gamers who prefer more open-ended games, I didn't mind it here as it kept things tight and made me feel like each discovery was important. And even though I couldn't investigate every single nook, cranny, and book in a character's house like in Gone Home, that doesn't mean the settings lack personality. Throughout the game, subtle changes take place for those who notice, most notably in Anne's apartment. I actually preferred this approach because it allowed me to get a feel for who Anne is in a more natural way as opposed to turning things into a game of systematically clicking on every single piece of furniture to make sure I didn't miss anything.

One thing about the overall presentation I found most intriguing was the fact that Virginia uses a cinematic style to move the story along that I can't recall ever seeing in a game before. Rather than having you travel to every single location in a continuous path, the game uses abrupt jump cuts to move from one scene to another. This can be a bit jarring, and again will not be to every gamer's liking, but I found it intriguing. Like the narrow scope of interaction, I felt that it worked well to give each scene gravity and cut out the fat. Moving from one place to another in a game is more often than not a tedious and boring experience, consisting of large chucks of time just walking or driving to your next mission. But having the game jump cut right from the presentation of your FBI badge to an elevator about to deposit you in your new office space was unique to me and kept me from getting bored. I came to embrace it, especially as it also helped keep the intrigue up when it showed me things that were more mysterious.

Finally, one of my favorite parts of Virginia is the soundtrack. In keeping with the cinematic theme of the rest of the presentation, it was recorded live by the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, and is a beautiful accompaniment to each scene, whether the mood calls for rousing inspiration or sinister suspense. Together with the general look of the game and FBI investigation that's taking place, it's pretty clear what kind of feel the developers were going for. They've listed shows like Twin Peaks and True Detective as influences, but the biggest homage I detected was of The X-Files. Anne's partner's office appears to be in the basement of the FBI office building, several tracks in the musical score sound eerily like they were composed by X-Files composer Mark Snow, and as the story progresses things get weirder and weirder. Naturally, being a huge fan of the adventures of Mulder and Scully, this gave me all kinds of familiar warm fuzzies.

"Sorry, nobody down here except the FBI's most unwanted."

I had a really enjoyable time with Virginia, and while I didn't like it as much as I did Gone Home, I got a lot more out of the story it was trying to tell than I did out of Firewatch. In Firewatch, I kept feeling at odds with what the story seemed to be giving me, the dialogue choices I was being presented with, and the teases of a twist to the story that never panned out. With Virginia, not having the story spelled out for me made things more intentionally ambiguous, even obtuse at times. I'm always fascinated by a good story that holds my interest and leaves some room for imagination. By the time I got to the ending, the main story was pretty apparent, but some of the later cut scenes and what they hinted at kept me noodling about the more subtle messages and ideas for quite a while afterward. I don't have a very creative mind in general, so I always love when a game comes along that can spark my brain into over-analyzing its story. A big part of my frustration with Firewatch was that it kept getting me so close to that feeling, only to abandon the ideas I wanted to explore in favor of Henry's awkward not-quite-relationship with Delilah and an ending that I didn't feel was seeded early enough to get me to pay close attention to, let alone get invested in.

A dark, sinister-looking FBI man smoking a cigarette. I wonder if it's a Morley.

In the end, if you're a fan of narrative walking simulator adventures I encourage giving Virginia a shot. The colorful visual palette is nothing new at this point, but the other ways in which it sets itself apart from games of its type and enigmatic story offer a rewarding experience for those who are open to that sort of thing. I'd love to hear what you thought of the game and how it compared with similar titles you've played, so feel free to share in the comments. And if there's any other story-focused walking simulators you'd like to recommend, I'd be very interested in hearing about those as well.

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Good review/write-up!  I like the graphical style, and the narrative style intrigues me.  I haven't played Gone Home or Firewatch, so this would be a new thing for me, but it sounds a bit like my experience with the indie game Brothers last year, in that, the narrative isn't spelled out, but hinted at, and is told visually throughout the game.  I like that subtle approach, and thought it worked well for that relatively short game.
@MetalFRO: Brothers was fantastic. Definitely another game that was very lean and meaningful without any wasted time. I felt it was fairly predictable how the story was going to play out, but when I actually got to the ending sequence it was no less powerful. Virginia's ending doesn't get emotional in the same way but it's still pretty interesting.

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