I'm a sucker for a good paranormal mystery. From Angel Heart to Twin Peaks to Gabriel Knight and beyond, there's always been something about the mundane meeting the mystical that I find irresistible. Enter Virginia, the debut title of Variable State that seems to scratch just that itch, telling a story of two FBI agents' investigating a missing persons case in Kingdom, a small town that hides more secrets than meets the eye. It's an intriguing premise that could make a great adventure game - but it didn't take long for me to realize that Virginia is anything but.
First, let's get this out of the way. Virginia is a highly cinematic game, and not in that marketing buzzword 'we want our game to sound cool' way. I mean the game is structured and presented like a movie, including an actual 'scene select' menu like those in DVDs in lieu of a classic level selector. To be more precise, Virginia likes to call old silent thrillers to mind, attempting to tell its mystery without speaking a single word. It's an intriguing idea and makes for a fun experiment, but it didn't take long for me to find a problem with this approach to telling the story.
Before playing Virginia, the fates had it that I would be watching the 1927 thriller The Unknown, a silent film that pulled off an intricate and nail-biting thriller going entirely off pantomime, and it made full use of character's gestures, expressions, and other subtle movements. I bring this up because, during the course of Virginia, I found it hard to discern just what a character was doing or saying more often than I would like - and this is where the game's simplistic character models really come back to bite it. While they look decent enough and meld with the art style, they have a very limited range of facial expressions, which makes it even harder to decipher what they're feeling, thinking, or talking about. The models don't have to be hyper realistic either - last year's Dropsy lacked dialogue, and instead used exaggerated sprites to portray a character's emotions. Virginia has no such stylized flair and just serves as a reminder why some games use dialogue in the first place.
Even when you get gripes with the pantomime out of the way, the story itself isn't anything to write home about. While they do have a whole town to work with, you'll only see a few choice locations, such as the diner, a local monument, or the house of the missing child's parents. I never really got a good feel for what the whole town of Kingdom was actually about, nor did I get anything resembling a good read on any of the townsfolk thanks to the aforementioned lack of dialogue and expressiveness as well as just a dire lack of screen time. And while trippy events do happen here and there, there's nothing very out of left field or shocking, and some of the dream sequences just make no sense, even when the credits have rolled.
As mentioned earlier, the only real upside to the character models is that they meld well with the art style, which is truly fantastic. While it is certainly short on details, it's used quite well - and when you factor in some impressive lighting, you do get something special. However, for some reason, it seems like Virginia is almost fighting against that art style, with a forced letterbox that makes the already-constrained field of view feel even more claustrophobic and makes the whole game just look very narrow and unnatural. This once again ties into the game's aspirations to be cinematic, but it appears to forget a very important detail - there's a reason why movies like The Blair Witch Project or Hardcore Henry weren't visually constrained like this. All it does is make players see less of this beautifully constructed world, or in my case, bug the hell out of them.
Still, there is one part of the presentation that doesn't feel wrongly restrained - the fantastic soundtrack, which I was very impressed to see was performed by the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, of all things. As to be expected from a full orchestral score in a thriller, it's sweeping and intense, and I credit it (and it alone) for the moments where I found myself engrossed in Virginia's drama.
This fantastic score does have a notable downside. It feels almost as if the game was paced with the music, using abrupt scene transitions to propel you further and further in the story without giving you much time to smell the roses. While there are certainly bits where you can actually explore some of Kingdom's locales, most of the time Virginia will drag you kicking and screaming from one bit to the next without warning.
You may have noticed that throughout the entire review I've hardly made a mention of gameplay, and that's for a good reason. Virginia is basically just an interactive movie, moreso than any title I've ever played in my life. Along with the aforementioned structure and pacing, Virginia doesn't actually have much to do besides walking around and interacting with plot-relevant items by clicking on them and getting a scripted animation, or hard cut to the next scene. The only other clickable objects are the odd collectible feather or plant here and there, but besides that, nothing. Nothing at all.
In Virginia, you will get the story Variable State is telling at the exact pace Variable State wants to tell it. It's truly a baffling decision, one that makes Dear Esther look like Unreal Tournament in comparison, and makes me wonder why they even bothered making Virginia a video game if they weren't going to take advantage of literally anything that makes the medium unique. Say what you will about the games of David Cage or Telltale, but at least they give players some amount of agency over a situation and the choices the character makes. The player at least has some amount of input in their character, and can even forge their own path based on what the character would do, or their own moral compass. You will find no such opportunities in Virginia.
As mentioned at the start, I really did want to enjoy Virginia, but it seems like practically every element of the game is fighting against that. It's a truly frustrating experience, one that doesn't take advantage of the medium in the slightest to tell its story, all while hoping that the amateurish plot and boring - if not occasionally incomprehensible - characters are enough to give it a pass.
Virginia was reviewed on PC via Steam with a copy provided by the developer. It is also avialable on PlayStation 4.
An interesting idea that has flashes of brilliance, but is hampered by baffling and counterintuitive design decisions.
- Fantastic Soundtrack
- Occasionally Fascinating Storyline
- Cripples Its Own Visuals
- Fails to Take Advantage of the Storytelling Opportunities Video Games Present
- Weak Communication of Character Motives, Emotions, and Thoughts