In the best traditions of writing about games which are not very much like games at all, I want to write about Virginia. It is a first person story set in 1992, where player takes control of FBI investigator solving a missing person case in rural Virginia.
Alright, saying that player “takes control” of anything in this game is a strong overstatement. Games are supposed to give you control, right? Yet, I thouroughly enjoy this relatively new trend of toying with that notion. Like Dear Esther, The Beginner’s Guide, the aformentioned Virginia and little avant-garde pieces from creators like Stephen Lavelle. Maybe it’s better to call them “experiences” or something in order not to confuse the more conservative gaming crowd. In the title screen of Virginia, instead of New Game it says Take a trip. What a lovely way to start.
It’s easy to see that creators of Virginia were much more interested in cinematography than games. There’s little subtle details all around, but the moment when it hits you like a brick to the face is the jump cut. Games do jump cuts, but not like this! There’s a scene where you’re going to the basement downstairs in a big FBI office building, in a full-on first person control mode. You’re about to turn left and take the stairs down when the game just cuts to the next corridor, a minute or so into the future. A few seconds pass and then another cut - straight to the basement, where interesting things are about to happen. All of this was so simple, yet absolutely perfect.
Since that scene and throughout Virginia I felt a strong sense of the game being edited, like movies are and games are not. It takes away any lingering hopes of having control, you’re here on a trip and it’s too late to do anything about it. In a way, this shows ultimate respect for the player - every moment is meaningful, interesting and put there for a reason. Everything else was cut out. The price for this is that you have to trust the director and devote your full attention.
Another charming detail of this game is that there’s plenty of characters communicating between themselves, yet no spoken dialogue at all. Almost as if we’re looking into an alternative universe where all communication happens through gestures, facial expressions and other kinds of body language. I could see similarities with old silent films, though Virginia felt much more natural and capable of wider range of expression. It is also worth remembering the obvious reason why there is no spoken dialogue. That’s expensive. You have to hire voice actors, do lip-sync animation, do re-takes when the script changes and spend way more time on sound design. Being a low budget game, creators of Virginia had no such option and still came out strong.
There’s many other things to like about Virginia. Color grading, for example. Again, very film-like and much more emphasized than games usually do. Ambient orchestral soundtrack gives just the right feel to each scene. The story is very reminiscent of 80s and 90s Holywood. One particular turn it takes later was powerful and worth talking about. I could also say it’s unrealistic or not well researched, but that wasn’t the point. It tells what it needs to and leaves itself open to interpretation. That’s another way of respecting player.
One question I kept asking myself was “how would it be different if I put the controller down and Virginia played like a movie?“. It would be completely different. This tiny ritual of twiddling analog sticks to look around engages some part of the brain which is usally idle when watching a normal film. It transforms me from a spectator to participant, even if a powerless one. This intersection of cinema and games is almost completely unexplored and fascinating. VR industry was also trying to do something similar, but the results were mildly amusing to watch at best and nowhere near the quality and emotional impact of Virginia.