Virginia review: film and games collide in cut-up noir

Jump cuts are meant to jolt. Unlike its flossy pawed siblings, the jump cut isn’t concerned with the appearance of continuous time and space. It places editing at the forefront, making you aware that what you’re watching is a constructed series of shots. Time is sliced. Diced. You skip from one moment to the next. It was famously used by Jean-Luc Godard in his New Wave masterpiece À bout de souffle, in a scene where protagonist Michel drives a stolen car.

Variable State’s adventure game Virginia, doesn’t use a jump cut, but it gets somewhere close to a gaming equivalent. There’s a great scene early on in the game where your character, FBI graduate Anne Tarver, descends the building where she works to find a special agent she’s been partnered with – Maria Halperin. In standard game parlance, you, the player, would be given the area of the FBI headquarters to explore, perhaps with an objective marker ushering you to the basement. In Virginia, you walk along an office corridor, then the perspective abruptly cuts to a staircase; you descend for a moment before the view cuts again to a basement.

It’s jarring, and not for the reasons it is in a film. There’s a clash here between two languages – interactive media and cinema. The expectation from a gaming perspective is that you control your movements through a given environment. And you do, to a degree, but this autonomy is pulled out from under your feet by a director who wants to give the impression of time passing. He wants to make the movement seem like a long trek; to emphasise the distance between Halperin from the upstairs world; to tell us something about her character and position, even before we’ve set eyes on her.

It’s an example of where Virginia does things differently to other games. Inspired by Brendon Chung’s 2012 game Thirty Flights of Loving, developers Jonathan Burroughs and Terry Kenny have borrowed heavily from film and TV. There are filmic edits; there’s a widescreen perspective; there’s an excellent, cinematic score from Lyndon Holland. From a practical point of view, these tools compensate for the fact that there isn’t a single word of dialogue spoken in the game. Halperin doesn’t tell us about her life, so it’s up to the game to display it through environmental storytelling, music and camerawork.virginia_2

Does it work? Yes and no. Some would argue that yanking control away from the player in this manner voids Virginia as a Game with a capital G – but that’s an unreasonable approach, brimming with small-mindedness about the shape a game needs to take. That said, play Virginia as a game in the traditional sense and it can be frustrating. For the first half an hour or so, I spent a lot of time walking up to doors and objects with which I couldn’t interact. I was in Gone Home-mode, searching for things to lift up and look at, only to be unceremoniously whisked into another scene. It took me a while to understand that most scenes only have one real thing to click on – as if my character, as well as the director, had aims and objectives I was not privy to.

Where this streamlining of action works well is during scenes like the one described. It makes sense for my character to head to Halperin’s office with purpose, not to dawdle around inspecting every doorknob she passes. I was onboard for the portion of control I had, and happy for a director to whisk me in a given direction. Where it doesn’t work as well is during scenes in which my character is inspecting a crime scene, or a family’s home. While the former case encourages me to approach the character’s interiority (I’m in a rush, so I have eyes only for the path ahead), the latter ends up creating ludonarrative dissonance (I’m supposed to be inspecting a scene, so why can I only interact with one object?).

When I spoke to Jonathan Burroughs last month, he said: “Virginia isn’t intended to be a game where the player expresses themselves. And I think that’s fine.” I, too, think that’s fine – in theory. Whether it works in practice is debatable. Can you claim not to cater to expression when you let the player control what the character sees? Can a player ever be a witness in a game they direct, even partially? Does editing between scenes end up creating a distracting antagonism between a player and the author of the game?

Regardless, the focus of this game isn’t for the player to make their own story, but to witness the tale its developers want to tell. I’ve consciously avoided talking about the story here, so as not to ruin what the game is all about. But suffice to say, it’s refreshing for its attention to relationships between characters, even though it nods perhaps a little too vigorously towards Twin Peaks. There is what I’d consider a misstep towards the tail-end, which causes the story to lose focus and clumsily reframes the surreal vignettes into something unsatisfyingly graspable. Overall, though, the story is gratifying for its care towards implications and glances over heavy handed exposition.

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That Variable State eschews clear narrative ties in favour of slippery symbols and inferences is to be lauded, but in many ways I wish the developers had gone further in this direction. Twin Peaks, let’s not forget, was deeply disturbing. While there are moments of disorientation in Virginia, the darkness of the game’s story could have been made more of, instead of just grazed against.

Virginia is absolutely worth playing, if only to see a game that kicks against the structures of games; importing languages from cinema and seeing if the hybrid can hold together. It doesn’t – not all the time, anyway – but these tensions are interesting to experience all the same. There are moments that frustrate in their unrelenting linearity, but there are moments that show a game can be made from interruptions, edits and jump cuts – less in thrall to the player and closer, perhaps, to the dizzy jolt of À bout de souffle.

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