A lot of games get called cinematic, Virginia is the real deal
“Cinematic” is one of the most abused adjectives in the game critic’s toolset. There’s a reason for it, of course. As the dominant mode of visual media, it’s natural that players reach for filmic comparisons whenever there’s a particularly impressive vista, or dialogue section, or action set piece. Most of the time, though, these comparisons are little more than limp gestures towards some vague sense of scripted grandeur, completely missing the subliminal grammar of images and edits that make up the language of cinema – a dark space full of dreams.
Virginia is a cinematic game. And I mean that. Having played through a demo of Variable State’s upcoming detective game, what leaves the biggest impression is the way that Virginia is structured around short scenes, with the player moving through an environment, interacting with objects before cutting to another space and time. There’s nothing in the way of inventory, or signposted objective markers. You simply pass through one vignette before being cut, much like a camera, into another.
For example, the character you play, recent FBI graduate Anne Tarver, starts at the front door of a suburban home. You show your FBI badge to the owner and the scene breaks to an interior; the owners are crying on the sofa and you peer into an empty room; you make a discovery, the camera cuts again; soon you’re in the passenger seat of a car, driving at night. All this is done with a widescreen perspective ratio, with absolutely zero speech.
I ask Virginia’s co-director and co-writer Jonathan Burroughs whether the wordlessness of these rapid scenes is indicative of the whole game. “That’s quite correct,” he tells me. “The decision was mostly practical at first, but proved to be a useful and desirable creative constraint. We certainly discussed using speech. But we had concerns about being able to do it justice, as good voice performance in games combines a variety of disciplines, be it writing, acting [or] the design of the dialogue systems themselves, all of which have to be to the highest standard to cut the mustard.”
As a point of comparison, Burroughs points to Campo Santo’s Firewatch – a game with a similar focus on narrative. Whereas that game decided to focus on spoken dialogue and avoid the challenges of representing other characters, Virginia takes the opposite approach – concentrating on characters as visual, not aural entities.
“It’s also worth noting that as well as using animation and editing to tell the story in place of dialogue, music increasingly became an important resource for us to help colour a performance from a given character,” adds composer and co-writer Lyndon Holland. “The music is broadly scored from the subjective point of view of our protagonist, and so in many instances it reacts and transitions in real-time to reflect her state of mind – similar in many ways to how a typical film score functions.”
While Burroughs characterises Virginia’s wordless scenes as a creative constraint brought about by limited resources, the result is an effective compliment to the game’s tenor. As the demo progresses, strange, seemingly symbolic images appear in otherwise normal scenes. A number of outlets have made the obvious comparison between Virginia’s mixture of small-town mystery and bizarre vignettes with David Lynch’s seminal TV show Twin Peaks. For me, the lack of speech lends Virginia an even deeper dreamlike atmosphere – one that’s made all the more potent with the brisk cuts between different scenes. It feels disorientating, as if the overarching narrative is based on the logic of the subconscious.
Playing the demo of Virginia for around 20 minutes is one thing, but running through the whole game without a real sense of control over the proceedings is another. I ask Burroughs whether there’s a risk that the array of short scenes could prevent a player feeling a sense of agency over the game.
“Virginia isn’t intended to be a game where the player expresses themselves,” he tells me. “And I think that’s fine. I’m very fond of expressive games, like
“Virginia isn’t intended to be a game where the player expresses themselves,” he tells me. “And I think that’s fine. I’m very fond of expressive games, likeSimCity or XCOM or chess, just as much as I am immersive games like Kentucky Route Zero. I think all art benefits from variety and creatives being given the space to take unconventional approaches.
“I think we risk imposing unnecessary limits on interactive art if we place emphasis on expressive agency above all else, as just allowing someone to participate in a story (as distinct from just being a witness, as you arguably are in film, music and literature) holds a wealth of opportunity for new experiences before you layer on mechanisms for personal expression.”
I disagree with the sense of being a witness in literature – reading is ultimately an act of creation – but Burroughs raises a good point about the limits of placing an emphasis on agency over everything else. Interactivity doesn’t necessarily mean mastery, and it’s interesting to see a game play with the effect of checking player control. From what I’ve played, Virginia manages to use this lack of agency to heighten the feeling of being lost in a story you can’t quite grip.
Instead of rationalising space and story, as both detectives and video games are wont to do, I felt compliant, subject to forces outside of my control. I felt like I was sitting in a cinema, alone – a dark space full of dreams.
Virginia will launch on 22 September for PS4, Xbox One and PC. You can play the demo for yourself via Steam.