Variable State’s debut title Virginia emerges as a strange, disorienting, and thrilling experience that differentiates itself through its distinctive presentation. It’s a two-hour long experience that is meant to feel similar to a film, only that in spite of its length, cinematography and editing, it boldly contains not a single line of dialogue. While it doesn’t offer much more other than walking around in terms of gameplay, it makes sure to constantly challenge the player through its puzzling story. It feels like a confident product that almost revels in how it subverts the norms of video games, which is what makes it so exciting to play in spite of its few flaws.
Virginia stars Anne Tarver, a newly-recruited FBI agent with the confidential task of investigating her partner on the job, Maria Halperin, as they work together to solve the case of a missing towns person. Since there’s no dialogue, the emotions behind the interactions between the two – as well as the rest of the cast of characters – are conveyed through the facial expressions and body language. Maria is initially cold and withdrawn from Anne, which is conveyed through her reluctance to look at Anne, how she walks out of a diner without waiting for Anne, and the physical distance she puts herself between the two.
Eventually, Maria’s demeanor with Anne changes as the two become closer and learn to rely on each other in their line of work. While the game tackles a mystery as well as themes like identity and power, its heart lies in the friendship between these two women at the front and center.
There’s so much significance in the portrayal of a complex friendship between two women of color as they navigate the mostly white and male-dominated world of their profession; that the depth and emotional weight of this relationship and their identities are conveyed without any dialogue is nothing short of a significant feat. Seeing their friendship unfold and go through trials and tribulations as they struggle with themselves, their past and present is without a doubt the most rewarding aspect of this game.
Virginia, while perhaps reminiscent of titles like Firewatch and Gone Home, differs in comparison because it is so linear. It offers little room to explore or investigate any items in all of the different rooms and corridors you will walk through – which is what you spend the entire game doing. Most of the time, you are only able to examine the one item that moves along the plot and brings you to the next scene.
The environments – especially rooms like the office of Anne’s boss or the house of the missing towns person – contain plenty of detail that I would have loved to explore and gain more out of rather than to just dismiss and move past. The ability to do deeper investigations could have made the player feel a bit more immersed in their role as an FBI agent and provided a bit more character to the people in the story other than Anne and Maria.
Scenes transition between each other through cinematic cuts that are at times equally elegant and jarring – much like Virginia as a whole. One moment, you’re walking down a flight of stairs when you’re suddenly smoothly transported to the middle of a hallway. In another instance, the music is reaching a high note in an ominous scene that doesn’t seem right or real, and the next you are looking at Maria drinking her cup of coffee in a brightly-lit diner as customers are coming in for their daily breakfast. Not only does the editing serve as a clever way of not letting any scene drag on for too long, but it also helps to unsettle the player even further as scenes go back and forth between the dream world and the real world – until the line between the two is eventually blurred.
Despite its linearity that offers little room for confusion as to where to go, the story is confusing due to its ambiguity; the mixture of scenes that are and aren’t real makes it difficult to follow after a certain point. The final moments are especially difficult to understand, and by the end I felt like I had experienced something worthwhile but that I also didn’t understand as well as I wanted to. I understood only pieces of the larger story, which prompted me to go back to the game for a second play through – which was no hassle because despite feeling lost, I enjoyed what I had experienced.
While Virginia’s story is a bit incomprehensible at first, it’s captivating enough to encourage you to go back to it in order to have a proper grasp on it. This game doesn’t need dialogue in order to make the characters feel real, and scenes are complimented by beautiful visual colors and an utterly superb soundtrack, so replaying it to gain a better understanding of its disconcerting story riddled with symbolism and secrets is a welcomed experience.
Virginia is a small game, but it’s also an important one; it’s proof that something uniquely enthralling can come from taking risks and deviating from the norm. While its ambiguity and restrictiveness in exploration isn’t for everyone, there is also the sense that it never tries to be a game that’s for everyone; it’s simply a confounding game that aims to provoke discussion and make the player care about its protagonists. There’s a lot of creativity in going against the norm, and there’s even more creativity in succeeding to tell such a complex story with the mechanical limitations of this game.
Virginia is absolutely worth playing for all that it accomplishes to do right in its mission to dare to be different, and perhaps being different is something that should be celebrated more often so that there is a wider, richer variety of stories being told.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game, which we were provided with.
Virginia achieves a level of complex and thrilling storytelling that is difficult to achieve without any words.