Virginia was one of the most interesting games I’ve ever played, and that’s saying something. I’ve been a gamer all of my life, but every once and awhile, there’s a game that comes along and just changes everything. Good, bad, or simply god-awful, these games manage to stick with me out of the sheer principle that they shattered the bonds of the genre.
It’s for this reason that Virginia is also one of the hardest games I’ve ever had to review as a gaming journalist here on PS4 Experts. Whatever I write, be it good or bad, it’s sure to cause some conversation. When you start this game, it doesn’t say “new game.” It says “take a trip.” So, shall we?
Narrative Whiplash: The Story of Virginia
I struggle to categorize Virginia, but I suppose for the purposes of convention we can call it a story-based exploration game, or if you must, a “walking simulator,” though I’m not a big fan of the term.. Its story totes the line between thriller, supernatural, and just plain existential.
As usual, I won’t go into too much detail here for obvious reasons, but let’s just start with the basics: Virginia is about an F.B.I agent named Anne Tarver who is searching for a missing person in the town of Kingdom,you guessed it, Virginia.
That’s the basic idea, but Virginia is going to take you to all kinds of places, and by the end, it’s going to get very intense, but also very weird. The game’s narrative structure is wonderfully edited and paced, but it’s taut to the point of snapping.
You’ll spend very little time actually walking in this game. Once you’ve seen what there is to see, it cuts abruptly to the next thing. This works well in terms of the story, because it keeps everything moving very, very fast.
To that same point, however, you don’t get many opportunities to stop and take in the situations you’re in. The game hurries you along through a two-hour or so story and doesn’t stop to explain anything. Quite literally in fact, because the game has zero spoken dialogue.
That’s right, there’s not a single word spoken in Virginia. It’s a bold move, but I’ll break it down in terms of presentation later in the review. For the purposes of the story, it’s remarkable how much the developers can tell you about someone’s thoughts and feeling solely through body language.
This is doubly impressive given the game’s simple art style. The animation here is superb, though, and it gives emotion and narrative where there really shouldn’t be any. It tells a story without ever saying a word, and that’s one of Virginia’s strongest traits.
That comes at a cost, however, when the credits roll. Much of Virginia’s story is steeped in lofty concepts and hypothetical situations. The final act in particular is a whirlwind of symbolism, metaphor, and plenty of moments where I shook my head in disbelief.
I’d like to think I’m pretty good at interpreting things, and I think there’s certainly a place for stories that force the player to really think and infer certain things for themselves. There’s an argument to be made here that Virginia does exactly that, but I’d like to play devil’s advocate for a moment.
On the other hand, Virginia’s extremely figurative and speculative plot leaves very little in terms of concrete evidence or answers. It sparks discussion, but in that fire we also see confusion, disappointment, and other emotions. Seriously, I had a maelstrom of emotions going through my head when I finished this game.
I would be lying to you if I said I “get it” now, because I don’t. That being said, I’m not angry about that anymore. In fact, it makes me want to play the game again. There’s a part of me that’s convinced that I missed something. A tiny detail, a brief and passing moment, something that will help me tie it all together.
Perhaps it’s there, or perhaps Virginia has me convinced of something that doesn’t exist. That mystery that still hangs in my mind when I think about it, is why this is such a hard game to review and assign a number to signify its quality.
It’s here that we hit one of the oldest concepts in gaming: is gaming a form of art? Virginia doesn’t play by anyone’s rules in terms of the story and its structure, but you can bet your sweet DualShock 4 that I could see this game in a museum in some far-flung future.
That’s the real rub here, and it’s been eating me up inside since I finished the game. This is, by all accounts, a work of art, and a great one at that. The most powerful pieces of art throughout history are the ones that trigger some primal question side of us, but leave us without a concrete answer to that question.
Just like any great work of art, there are people who are going to love it, and people who are going to hate it. Obviously this review is the best one out there (Okay, one of the best), but there are plenty of others I’ve seen that either praise this game or shoot it down from the get-go.
Great art is divisive, and Virginia certainly falls into that category.
What is a Game, But a Miserable Pile of Code
That Castlevania reference in the header isn’t just a clever double-entendre, it applies here. While I don’t think this is the time or place to get into the highly philosophical question of what defines a game, I do think the concept applies here.
Virginia is most certainly a game you can play and interact with, but very little of it is actually driven by the player.
Yes, you’ll move from point-to-point and during scenes you’ll press “X” to interact and continue the moment, but beyond a few collectibles, Virginia has you on a set path. It has a vision and a set direction to take you and you’re simply along for the ride.
This type of, dare I say, “light” gameplay is what really fuels the flames for those who don’t like “walking simulators.” Virginia is one of the most hands-off games I’ve ever played in that regard, but the same could be said of visual novels which offer even less interaction.
The point? It’s a game, but if you like to be in control all the time (possibly a deep-seeded issue there), then this may not be up your alley. For what it is, and what it seeks to do, the lack of interactivity makes sense.
Simple Art, Complex Music, and a Few Stumbles
Now, let’s talk presentation. We’ll start with the good: the art and the music. The graphics are very simplistic and the faces are even simpler. You would think that would be the end of any potential emotion or connection with the characters, but that’s not the case.
Developer Variable State took this very simple and blocky style and managed to inject a huge amount of life into it, more than a lot of games ever manage to achieve. How did they do it? Well, they had help.
The soundtrack comes to us courtesy of the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. I played the majority of Virginia late at night with a pair of wireless gold Sony headphones on, and let me tell you, this game lives and dies by its music.
It’s one of the finest soundtracks I’ve ever heard and that comes from the fact that it doesn’t just set the mood. No, without dialogue, this soundtrack carries the entire story. It handles pacing, emotion, and everything in between. Most music would buckle under such responsibility, but Virginia’s soundscapes are what elevate this from a well cut string of scenes, to a true piece of interactive art.
Now, there is something negative that needs to be addressed. The game didn’t hold a steady frame rate for me on PS4. There were several scenes where the FPS dropped to ludicrous amounts, given the fact that the game isn’t pushing the PS4 by any means.
It was never to the point that is ruined the experience, but I have to knock the score a few points, regardless of the artistic value, because there were times where it failed to meet the basic presentation one would expect from any other game.
Leonardo Da Vinci once said: ”Painting is poetry that is seen rather than felt, and poetry is painting that is felt rather than seen.”
If that’s the case, and gaming is indeed art, then where does it belong in that comparison? Virginia seeks to answer that question, and it does so with grace and beauty, even if it stumbles a bit in the technical department. Whether you’ll love it or hate it, that’s up to you, and how much you want to gamble $10 on the answer.
Me? I’m glad I spent it. I may not completely understand it, and it may not be perfect, but I’m glad I played this game.
Final Score: 8.5/10