Comic book fans are more than familiar with the transfer of ideas between media. What was once “geek culture” has long since become mainstream, with comic books now dominating the best selling movies, tv series and (heaven forfend) video games. It works the other way too, with frequent comic adaptations of movies with varying degrees of success and artistic integrity.
The third side of this incestuous geek triangle is somewhat more strained. Video games and movies may have a long history, but its hardly a glorious one. Video game characters have regularly jumped to the big screen and then into a big pit of money and awfulness. The stylistic ticks of video games, meanwhile, have been somewhat more successful in their transition to film. The rise of cheap to produce “found footage ” films developed the use of first person perspective. Whilst the non-stop action of films like Crank have taken the use of video game ideas to a new level, by essentially being a live action game.
The transfer of ideas from films to video games, however, has been a bit more limited. When games become “more cinematic”, it usually means that we get more cut-scenes, or the action stops so we can revel in the voice acting.
Virgina, by developers Variable State, isn’t a game. You can’t win or loose. You won’t have your problem solving ability or reactions challenged. It’s an interactive story told through the medium of video games. It’s essentially a linear, point-and-click adventure, with a first person perspective.
Virginia certainly isn’t a movie. It requires the attention and interaction of the gamer. There are no cut scenes and there is no dialogue at all. However, it does use techniques I’ve only ever seen used in film and tv.
The plot, as much as there is one, sees two FBI agents investigating a missing person in a small town in Virgina in the early 90s. This plot, however, quickly descends into hallucinatory adventures and vivid fever dreams and it’s not long before the investigation becomes largely irrelevant and we are drawn into the private lives and motivations of the characters.
It’s a lazy and frequently made comparison, but Virginia clearly draws upon cult show Twin Peaks as an inspiration, with eccentric characters and hidden secrets in small town America. In fact, one scene features a musical number which is very reminiscent of the dreamy and out of place Twin Peaks theme.
Playing the role of recently inducted FBI agent Anne Tarver, the player travels through this dreamscape, never quite sure what is real and what is imagined, never sure if these scenes are in the correct order, or if the characters we meet are compelled by the motivations we first ascribe to them. We first meet, or rather become, Tarver as she prepares for the ceremony in which we will receive her badge. She stands before the mirror and takes a moment to apply lipstick. This is a societal expectation, but also a mask, concealing her insecurity. We make our way through the unprepossessing backstage area until we are finally standing before an audience, blinking in the spotlight, shaking a hand and accepting our new place in the world. Or this may all have been just a dream.
Movie-like editing jumps us between time and place. One moment I’m walking through an apartment building, the next I’m in a corridor in an FBI basement, searching for the broomcupboard office of my taciturn partner. I might be examining a confidential file for clues, when suddenly I find myself in a diner, watching the locals come and go and waiting for the waitress to bring me another cup of that damn fine coffee. It’s jarring at first, but soon I’m swept away, safe in the knowledge that none of this is within my control.
Scenes (and they are scenes rather than chapters or levels) are beautifully framed, the first person viewpoint taking the role of a steady cam, drifting past the anonymous office desks, or just watching the world pass as I sit in the passenger seat and my partner drives us into the wilderness. The player is guided with adroit clues in lighting and prop placement, so even when faced with a choice between turning left or right, I instinctively know which way to go. I’m guided also by the ingrained knowledge of movie tropes, which make my actions seem strangely natural. I know, for example, that a during the visit to the home of the missing child to interview grieving parents, one agent will taken the opportunity to search a bedroom and make a discovery. I travel through these scenes and find myself detached from this world and yet compelled by its familiarity and ease. I’m clearly out of place as a young woman of colour taking my first steps along a carer path dominated by middle aged white men. Is that why they stare at me as I pass? Do they know something I don’t, or are they watching for my mask of confidence to slip?
The complete lack of dialogue in Virginia doesn’t detract from drawing us into an intriguing, if almost incomprehensible, story. Instead, I’m required to search for the subtle clues and moments which move the story forward. So much is revealed in small moments, or easily missed . I learn more about my silent partner in her behaviour towards two items of jewelery, or by a quick look around her spare room, than I could ever have learned in a long conversation with branching dialogue options.
Virginia isn’t for everyone. It is confusing, demanding, often slow and frustrating. But, if you are interested in being swept away into a Lynchian world for a couple of hours and are happy to leave without having a clue what just happened, but knowing that it was in someway important, I would recommend it.