Variable State's debut draws on cinema and games in equal measure, and the results are impressive.
As soon as the credits roll at the end of Virginia, the developers waste no time in name-dropping Blendo Games' Thirty Flights of Loving, and we'll waste no time here. Brendon Chung's narrative-driven adventure has clearly inspired Variable State's debut game in a number of ways, chiefly among them being the voiceless cinematic delivery of story beats coupled with a relative lack of physical collaboration with the player. TFoL was an important game, a trailblazer in many ways, and with Virginia building on those ideas and with such style, it'd be fair to call this another genuine stepping stone as the line between cinema and gaming continues to blur.
That being the case, Virginia is likely going to prove divisive, because there isn't a huge amount of meaningful interaction with the controller (although what's there is elegantly done, with the reticle blooming into a small circle when pointed at something you can interact with, becoming a diamond when you're close enough to actually use it). Arguably the majority of interplay between game and player comes via the latter's imagination, with Variable State giving the player plenty of room to interpret events as they see fit. This will probably also divide opinion, because there's no definitive conclusion to be drawn from events, and the developers are content to leave things open come the end. We think we know what happens, but given its nature, it's hard to be sure.
The ambiguous ending works, though, because of the nature of the story. Virginia is a mystery about two FBI agents investigating the disappearance of a boy from a rural town in the US. To be fair there's a lot more going on than just the aforementioned mystery, but given the nature of the game we're going to steer clear of plot points where possible. What we will say is that ideas and atmosphere are drawn from both games and cinema/television, and the inevitable small town Twin Peaks comparison is justified, but we also detected a touch of The Sopranos in there (or indeed any of those HBO-type shows that use surreal dream sequences to explore the subconscious mind and allegory).
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Notably Virginia doesn't use spoken dialogue at all, and communication between characters is left to body language and gesture. There's the odd moment where this design decision - which feels overtly theatrical - doesn't feel natural in the context of the story, but for the most part it works and Variable State does a good job of communicating a range of scenes, and distils complex emotional moments into subtle and impactful moments. A lot of atmosphere is delivered via the soaring musical accompaniment that represents one of the standout elements of the game. It's an elegantly written arrangement and it's beautifully performed, accentuating certain plot points wonderfully. It felt reactive, which in stroke makes it more than just background noise. The music is a tool that has been put to good use, and the narrative is more powerful and more engrossing as a result.
Another technique used to powerful effect is the editing. There's a strong cinematic influence at work here, and scenes are often explored and developed by thoughtful editing and quick and cleverly positioned cuts that speed up movement by taking us from location to location. It both looks good and allows the developer to keep the experience lean at the same time, and although it doesn't feel like a particularly pacey game, it does have good pacing. The cinematic framing of many scenes also allows the cel-shaded visuals to shine, and the sometimes sombre portrayal of rural North America benefits gratefully from the clever use of colour.
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Virginia's two main characters are both female (although you see through the eyes of only one of them), which sad to say makes it the exception, not the norm, but it's another thoughtful decision that shows the careful consideration that has gone into every facet of the game. Given the FBI link and some of the imagery in the game, Silence of the Lambs springs to mind more than once. The influences are writ clear, but that doesn't mean that there aren't surprises to experience. There's plenty of eye-opening moments, and you'll often find yourself questioning what is real as the lines are often blurred.
So much thought has gone into the narrative; what is revealed directly to the player, and what is implied or left open to interpretation. There's nothing definitive here, and it's refreshing to be given so much freedom to explore a story on your own terms. From a mechanical perspective it might not offer much in the way of autonomy, the way you move and interact, but at least that isn't a trend that continues into the story. Your exposure to events ensures a growing understanding of circumstances surrounding the mystery. However, we're also fully aware that some people won't appreciate its ambiguous nature, and the not-knowing will no doubt irk a few (although for what it's worth, we found a second play-through clarified a lot).
It's hard to shake the feeling that Virginia won't be for everyone, that some people will question the lack of interaction or bemoan the on-rails approach to gameplay, and that's fine, no game can be everything to everyone. Virginia sits a strange place where it borrows ideas in almost equal measure from gaming and cinema/television, and the resulting experience may well prove divisive. But that's not the case for us. We thought it an interesting and worthwhile experience that reaped the benefits of some very clever design decisions. Perhaps Variable State could've been a bit tighter on the leash when it came to guiding us towards some of the less obvious story beats, but that's a fairly tricky tightrope to walk and on the whole we thought they did a good job. This a strange, obscure and challenging piece of interactive entertainment, but at the same it's also intriguing, thoughtful and full of heart. You might not have hold of the wheel for most of your journey through Virginia, but doesn't mean that you should expect an easy ride.