A Cinematic Ride
Virginia starts with a simple command: “Press enter to take a trip.” Those words are the perfect introduction for an experience that I didn’t expect, and one I never thought I’d enjoy as much as I did. Virginia isn’t really a game in the traditional sense. There isn’t any skill involved. You can’t fail. There are absolutely no choices to make, and your interaction is limited to walking, looking, and interacting with predetermined objects and people. Virginia is a two hour long ride that pulls you along at breakneck speed to experience the surreal, emotional, and admittedly sometimes confusing story the developers want to tell.
I really want to talk about the plot. After all, in a game like this the plot is what’s going to separate something memorable from a dull droll, but doing so would be a disservice to the very sense of intrigue and tension that makes Virginia worth playing. I will say that that for a good portion of the game, I just didn’t get the plot. The experience was framed with sweeping music, repeated moments of visual symbolism, and pensive moments that all pointed towards a grand narrative, but the actual case of FBI agents investigating a missing child just didn’t match what the game seemed to think I should be going through. However, as I continued the game, it became clear that this was only partially true. Yes, the actual central narrative, about a boy that’s gone missing, is never really given its due. There’s sort of a resolution, but there’s no meaningful reveal that gives that arc weight or purpose. Instead, as the game continues, it becomes clear that this mystery isn’t the reason this story is being told. This isn’t an experience about finding a lost boy, it’s just one that happens to take place with a missing person’s backdrop. The last 15 or 20 minutes of the game take a sharp turn, and retroactively changed my opinion on a story that I had, up until that point, considered fairly run-of-the-mill. That being said, the main story still could and probably should have had a bit more substance and meaningful closure.
While we’re talking about the plot, the story is told without any dialogue whatsoever. I understand that quality voice acting can be hard to come by- especially in a small game developed with a small budget- and taking it out completely avoids the immersion-breaking cheesy or uneven vocal audio that has all-too-often plagued indie titles trying to tell a serious story. It also forces the spotlight onto the animation and music, allowing them to shine- and they both do a fantastic job. After all being said and done, however, I’m not really sure if the decision was worth it. Yes, it’s a huge testament to the game’s writers, composer, and animators that the game was able to tell anything near a remotely cohesive and compelling story through low-poly character models, music, and occasional text. On the other hand, I can’t help but feel that the game would have benefitted a great deal from limited dialogue. There were some moments of confusion, some of which I eventually worked out and others I didn’t, that would have been cleared up with one or two lines of dialogue. There are also some really, really important plot points, some within the first few minutes, that go by in a flash without another real mention, and missing them will mean some serious confusion later on. I think a few lines of spoken word, used sporadically, would have kept the attention on the nonverbal, while adding some much needed clarity and distinction and the appropriate moments.
Play That Funky Music
The controlled, guided presentation of Virginia allows the music and pacing to connect with much more intention and purpose than in a traditional gaming experience, with beats, crescendos, and tempo changes matching scene cuts, animations, and visuals on a moment to moment basis. The music was recorded by the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, and they deserve an incredible amount of praise for what they’ve done. More so than the writing or animation, it’s the music which maintains the cinematic feel of the whole experience, and is one of the keys to the deep sense of atmosphere that kept me interested. My review copy of this game came with a download of the soundtrack, and it’s one of the few that I’ve already listened to multiple times through. The minimalist, vibrant art style also worth praise, but for as beautiful as the environment and backdrops frequently were, the lack of detail does sometimes make it hard to differentiate characters. In the beginning there are some quick cuts and timeline leaps that had be a bit confused as to who exactly I was looking at.
Virginia is a really, really cool little piece of media as long as you know what you’re getting yourself into. I can understand why people looking for something more along the lines of a Telltale title, expecting choice and branching narratives, would be disappointed. However, from the opening credits that come into frame one at a time to announce the composer, director, writer, etc., it becomes very clear that Virginia has been designed from the ground up to be more of a movie with light interaction than a true interactive experience. If you’re ok with that, there’s a beautiful, unique, engaging experience to be had. It’s got some serious flaws, but despite them it’s still a game that I just can’t stop thinking about.
Breath taking music, moments of intense emotion, brisk pace, unique.
A few lines of dialogue would have nullified some confusing moments, and the main narrative gets pushed to the side as other elements are brought forward in the back half on the run time.