by Jed Pressgrove
“Play Feature.” With this main-menu item, Virginia directors Jonathan Burroughs and Terry Kenny imply their game is a movie waiting to come to life. To their credit, Virginia often incorporates the cut, a common film technique, while you play as protagonist Anne Tarver; most movie-wannabe games reserve cuts for a cutscene, when players tend to only have the option of watching or skipping the scene in question. As such, Virginia’s editing is refreshing in some cases, as when you walk in a hall and suddenly find yourself in a stairwell, knowing you would have arrived there anyway without the cut. Sadly, this good idea can’t save the game’s brutal combination of no dialogue and a rambling plot, which touches on everything from a missing-person case to the dehumanizing effects of internal investigations to a secret society, with metaphors to spare.
At the beginning of Virginia, it’s hard not to think of David Cage’s Heavy Rain (remastered earlier this year) when you take control of FBI agent Anne Tarver as she looks in a bathroom mirror. Besides their obvious debt to movies, both Heavy Rain and Virginia ask the player to engage in mundane activities like getting ready for the day. Such events in Heavy Rain suggest a universality that connects us as human beings, with Cage’s constant requirement of timed button presses serving as a commitment — equally inspiring and laughable — to the repetitions of life. Burroughs and Kenny take a different approach to the mundane in Virginia, putting a little circle in the middle of the screen that represents the center of the player-controlled camera. As Tarver, you look around until that little circle becomes a diamond, which indicates you can press a button to make something happen.
So in the bathroom in Virginia, you press a button to open Tarver’s purse, and you press that button again to apply her lipstick. Compared to similar sequences in Heavy Rain, one could say this action is mercifully brief, but it could have been absent without compromising the tale. In other scenes, you have to advance the story by drinking coffee, which comes across as a weird excuse for the player to move that little circle around to find the diamond. With this throwaway action, it’s almost as if Burroughs and Kenny are struggling to find a reason for Virginia to be a game rather than a full-length movie feature.
With its lack of dialogue, Virginia begs to be compared to silent movies, but this comparison exposes the storytelling of Burroughs and Kenny as cinematic amateurism at best. On the simplest level, Virginia’s plot has too many wacky details, some of which are nothing more than dreams or hallucinations. Given Virginia’s normal-looking town hiding a sordid underbelly, Burroughs and Kenny clearly enjoy the work of David Lynch, but mimicking Lynch in a silent-movie context makes no sense with this story, especially without intertitles to clue the audience in on basics like character relationships and motivations.
Virginia also needs more diverse visuals. As mentioned before, the cuts in Virginia often serve to reduce the time it takes the player to travel, but it’s not compelling to watch this idea multiple times while Tarver rides in the passenger seat of a car for whatever reason. Burroughs and Kenny also utilize flashbacks that, in addition to recycling old imagery, can lead one’s brain astray in a dialogue-less game where events of the present are not always clear. Here we arrive at a wicked irony: while Virginia, with the usage of cuts, presents itself as a game that trims unneeded material, it still seems monotonous and confusing.