Last Friday I played Virginia by 505 Games. It came to my attention after reading Polygon’s glowing review. I can’t say I’m an extraordinarily busy man, I work part time, I go to school part time, I have a girlfriend part time. But it adds up and these days I generally either play smaller indie games or something that’s easy to pick up and play if only for a few minutes like Overwatch.*
Asides from the occasional triple-A title (Uncharted, Mirror’s Edge and Deus Ex being the most recent ones), I’m generally the pretentious fuck that raves about the indie art games that make Kotaku wet and myself insufferable at parties. So Virginia seemed made for me. But I walked away extremely disappointed.
It’s barely a game; extremely linear, nothing to explore, no choices to make, an entirely on-rails experience; minimalist to a fault. The story itself is fine. You play rookie FBI agent Anne Tarver. Partnered with agent Maria Halepern, you’re tasked with solving the disappearance of a young boy in the titular state. Complicating matters, you’re also tasked to spy on your partner for an Internal Affairs investigation on her. That’s the setup, but as any other review or article on Virginia mentions currents run deeper than that. Comparisons to the X-files, Outer Limits, and Twin Peaks have littered the pixels spilled on Virginia.
Virginia is not paced like most games. Segmented into thirty-odd “scenes” most transitions Jump cuts, flash forwards, symbolic callbacks, and well-crafted montages. Virginia as a story is edited well. I would also even say it’s well-written. Though there is no dialogue, there’s an interesting story, nice character development and even some tender moments of nuanced emotion. But there’s no game there. I feel like it was never meant to be a game, but for economic and political reasons the only way this story could come to market is as an indie game. It would even be better as a movie/short if only because players make terrible cameramen.
But the Virginia we were given is a game, and as a game it disappoints. Linearity can work well. You may sacrifice the agency of the player, but you don’t have the strange divorce between the character you play and the character as presented by the story. The polar opposite of this is how about every Grand Theft Auto protagonist is an anti-hero in every cutscene, and history’s greatest monster when control is given back to the player. But you need to give a player something to actually do. And asides from collecting a handful of optional trinkets that you sometimes see in later scenes (maybe, and only as decoration), there’s nothing but “press A to continue”.
Gone Home and Firewatch are essentially very linear games with very little to do, and they’re both amazing. Both seem like open worlds. But between finding the various keys you need to open up more doors in Gone Home‘s mansion, and hiking equipment you accumulate in Firewatch, there is a strict path of progression laid out by the developers.
There’s not a lot there in Gone Home, but the little there is fantastic. Explore a new room, get a little more insight of the family–your family–that lives there, and come across a series of notes, letters and diary entries. But you find them. In Virginia a man hands you a dossier, in Gone Home you find your sister’s dark room or read the concert fliers in her room. It may not seem like much a difference, but the mystery and resolution of Gone Home is mine, Virginia’s isn’t.
It feels slightly mean to then compare it to Firewatch if only the scope and ambition of Firewatch is so much larger. I was actually mulling about bringing in Life is Strange into the conversation but that would be too unfair. Disregard Firewatch’s technical superiority. Stripped down, you walk around, there’s a mystery, you find clues, but the interactive dialogue system elevates Firewatch to a game we’ll be talking about for years. Not much concretely changes in gameplay or outcome, but you create an honest-to-god relationship between two characters.
Firewatch and Gone Home‘s use the interactivity of video games to accomplish something, and Virginia ignores that capability. I can’t recommend anyone to play Virginia, but if you were interested, then watch a playthrough online. You’ll have the same experience.
*Though Overwatch is easy to play in the sense that I can invest time in 15 minute intervals, not easy in the sense that I’m good in anyway. There are twenty-two characters in Overwatch and I’m terrible at all of them. I’m kind of proud in a perverse way.