Virginia is an unapologetically cinematic beast. A first-person narrative game from developer Variable State and publisher 505 Games, it sees players operate—with minimal interactivity—from behind the eyes of Special Agent Anne Tarver, a newly minted FBI agent tasked with visiting the town of Kingdom, Virginia, and investigating the disappearance of local teen Lucas Fairfax. You walk around locations in town, moving Anne’s gaze across the scenery, occasionally clicking on objects to interact with them and move on to the story’s next beat. Outside of a few minimal collection side quests, it’s an entirely linear experience, with very little—outside of the camera’s movement—placed in the player’s direct control.
That’s not a bad thing. In fact, those brief sops to more traditional tasks—which mostly involve scouring crime scenes for random flowers that Tarver uses to decorate her home—get in the way of one of Virginia’s most impressive feats: It feels like every player-driven pivot of the camera, every step forward and nervous backward glance, is part of the script. When the player surveys a new crime scene or glances down at their feet while riding in the passenger seat, it manages to feel like something that they, as Anne, are choosing to do, rather than a random, thoughtless twitch of the mouse.
The game uses a couple of tricks to pull this off—some big and flashy, some far more subtle. Variable State does a fantastic job of drawing the player’s eye wherever it wants them to go. One early dream sequence demonstrates how well this works: First, a desk lamp draws the player’s attention to the seemingly normal left side of her bedroom, giving the illusion that she’s simply woken up. Then, sound cues pull them back to the right, where an enigmatic buffalo has intruded on the normal setting, seemingly summoned from the ether. Just as that registers, red light flares from the left again, giving players just enough time to turn back and glimpse an open door that’s backlit with eerie crimson brilliance before the sequence suddenly cuts out.
Those dramatic edits are the biggest guns in the game’s cinematic arsenal. At any given moment, a scene in Virginia can jump ahead without warning, a technique Variable openly acknowledges it borrowed from Brendon Chung’s Thirty Flights Of Loving. But where Thirty Flights uses its abrupt edits to disorient or tease, Virginia uses them for a far more traditional purpose. In film, we rarely watch every step of someone heading down a staircase or driving to a new location. Instead, the editor gives us just enough to understand what’s going on, and then cuts away to something more interesting. Virginia operates the same way: We don’t need to watch every step as Anne descends to meet her new partner, Maria Halperin, to understand that she’s been relegated to the lowest dregs of the FBI. Instead, all we need are a few turns around a spiral staircase and a cut to a desolate basement for the game’s meaning to be made clear.
Speaking of Halperin, she manages to be a surprisingly strong and fleshed-out character, despite the fact that the game expects you to bond with her—and everybody else in Kingdom—without a single spoken word to help the relationship along. One of Virginia’s boldest choices isn’t just that it’s a two-hour, player-prodded movie. It’s that the film in question is a silent one. Variable gets away with this by providing a decent amount of reading material to fill in the plot’s more obscure points and putting its talent for visual storytelling on full display.
Virginia’s characters have big expressive cartoon faces, ideal for showing off emotions. (It turns out that you can pull a surprising amount of feeling from a mug that wouldn’t look out of place on a Nintendo Mii.) Meanwhile, their body language is a far more nuanced affair. The game introduces you to Anne, for example, by having her stare into a mirror on the day of her FBI graduation. The weariness and anxiety is evident in her heavy breathing, her tired eyes, the slump in her shoulders. It’s uniformly excellent acting (in the comic book or animation sense of the word), with the game’s figures expressing their emotions despite the lack of speech.
Is all this well-assured storytelling supporting a story worthy of being told? After all, Virginia occasionally threatens to drown itself in references, with Halperin as the Mulder to Tarver’s wet-behind-the-ear Scully and Kingdom a stand-in for David Lynch’s quiet, ominous Twin Peaks. (Acknowledging that debt, the soundtrack intentionally tips its hat to Angelo Badalamenti’s score for the classic show.) Even the game’s big bravura sequences—both of which occur near the end—feel like they have their origins in other works.
But Virginia is more intimate, more personal than its initial “quirky mystery” trappings suggest. Anne Tarver isn’t just a cypher or a face for the roving camera. She’s a real character, and the game expresses her personality in dozens of little ways. (I might quibble with the immersion-breaking hunt for flowers at an active crime scene, but seeing them pop up in vases at Anne’s apartment as the days progress is a lovely touch.) Virginia is as much about her psyche as it is Halperin’s struggles with authority or Lucas’ disappearance, and it’s all the stronger when it digs into that psychological realm.
“Lynchian” is a loaded term. In the right hands, it implies a deeper meaning behind a series of surreal images and events, an understanding that peeks from behind cryptic dream sequences and improbable happenings. In the wrong ones, it implies little more than a creative team that’s watched far too much Twin Peaks. Virginia lands on the better side of that divide. I won’t claim to understand the symbolism behind every moment and sight, but that hasn’t stopped the game from convincing me that said meanings do exist and lingering on them long after its short run time has come and gone.