In a nice little coincidence, I played another adventure game/walking simulator this weekend after last week’s Gone Home (thank the Steam winter sale for that): Virginia. Heard some good things and was in the mood for a juicy bit of video game storytelling, so for five bucks, why not?
I was thrown for a bit of a loop when Virginia ended up being far different than I had anticipated. It’s only marginally an adventure game and closer in truth to an interactive movie in which your character follows a very linear story while you trigger the next sequence by finding whatever clicky is in the room. That’s it for gameplay; there’s no puzzles, no freeform exploration, and strangest of all, no dialogue.
That’s right — in a creepy mystery adventure game involving the FBI, a cult conspiracy, and ghosts from the past, there’s absolutely no dialogue whatsoever. There’s not even mouseover descriptions or inner monlogue. Even the sounds are muted save for the rather excellent but blaring soundtrack.
Instead, you play the game forced to pick up story cues from the environments, body language, and the very occasional printed reports you’re handed. It’s like playing a silent movie, and in a way, it works. It feels weird and isolating, but also rewarding to pick up on details enough to figure out a piece of the overall story.
Virginia is about a rookie FBI agent who is partnered up with an ostracized member of the agency and told to find a missing kid in a nearby town of Kingdom. Your character is given a secondary objective, which is to investigate your new partner for… something to bring her down. You would think that there would be a lot of investigation and clue solving, but that’s mostly a red herring for the real stories, which have to do with your past and your partner’s past.
As short and captivating as Virginia initially is, it also fails as both a game and a story. Abrupt cuts to new scenes are very common, constantly prompting you to reorient yourself to what’s going on (and to make things worse, half of them are dream sequences). It just keeps jumping all around the place, with the investigation taking more and more of a back seat to whatever baggage these characters are carrying.
There’s only so much story you can tell without dialogue, and one can’t help but think that this would have been a much deeper and much more interesting game if people spoke. Instead, Virginia is limited in what it can tell, and it decides to invest heavily into symbolism and esoteric sequences that can be interpreted just about any way you like.
Another issue I have with it is the rather abrupt shift in focus from the first two-thirds of the game, which mostly focus on very human issues, such as loss, racial prejudice, integrity/corruption, and friendship — and the last third, during which Virginia starts revving up the David Lynch weird-o-meter by throwing cults and UFOs and increasingly bizarre symbols at you. It’s frustrating that the game sort of hints that there is this big conspiracy in the town, yet it’s never explained, explored in any depth, or really impacts you. It’s just a garnish. And it’s actually not needed. I was far more interested in the backstories of these two women, their struggle as minorities in the ’90s FBI, their losses, and secret investigations. I wanted more of that, more of the partnership, more of the investigation, more character development. Ain’t nobody asking for ten solid minutes of dream sequences that deals with none of that (or does it? Dreams can be anyyyyything!).
The ending is a weird hodgepodge of nonsense, and I can say that with certainty because I’ve been reading up on interpretations of it, and just about nobody can agree on what this story is really about or what the finale is saying. You can all but imagine the game developers rocking back and forth in glee at how players will find themselves mystified and in awe at all of these red herrings and unanswered questions. “It’s such a great game!” this strawman gamer exclaims. “I have no idea what it means!”
It’s really, honestly, this:
Symbolism and mystery and some unanswered questions are fine in moderation, but when a storyteller figures out that if you just slather enough of this all over the place you don’t have to explain anything, then I get seriously annoyed. You can’t figure it out! It must be oh-so-deep and profound! Don’t be visibly confused or else you’ll look stupid when others talk to you about the game!
Like Gone Home, I don’t regret playing through this, but also like Gone Home, I was left majorly wanting. The part of the story I could grok was certainly fascinating enough that it could have been a great tale if told straight in the end. Instead we get murdered bison, UFOs, shattered masks, and roaring furnaces, all trying to outdo each other in inscrutability. Thanks but no thanks.