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Virginia (PC) artwork

Virginia (PC) review

"There is no gameplay. Only Zuul."

Before I ever put a single finger to my keyboard, I found myself locked in a conundrum of what genre Virginia fits into.
See, I really don’t like the term “walking simulator”; though the phrase has since slipped into common parlance when discussing games like Virginia, I feel that it comes with the implication that games like it are inherently a silly idea - or worse - dull by their very design.
So perhaps the term “mechanically light” would work better here, though that would lump it in with things like Pinball Arcade, Angry Birds, Pako Car Chase Simulator and even Minesweeper.
Which is a pity, really, because there’s better gameplay to be enjoyed in any of the above mentioned games than in Virginia.

Right from the developers’ logos, Virginia put me on the wrong foot with the presence of two big, black bars at the top and bottom of my screen, which couldn’t be toggled on or off, no matter how hard I combed through the game’s limited options menu.
Perhaps I should have seen the writing on the wall when the game decided it wanted to be at an aspect ratio almost exclusively reserved for cinema, but when the game informed me that it was designed to be played at 30 FPS when I tried to unlock the framerate, I feel as if I should really have just closed it and ran for the hills.
Now, I’m by no means one of those PC guys who only plays games at 60+ FPS, but the way Virginia instantly says “look! Just like a film!” to me is a real issue, and is ultimately its downfall.
But I played it anyway, because this game promised to be weird, and I like weird.
Unfortunately, the weird in Virginia mostly comes from the fact that it simply doesn’t have any voice acting, or any voices at all, eschewing so much as a single text box in favour of miming from characters that look like they were ripped out of Interstate 76.
Which, incidentally, is also more fun to play.
Of course, I did enjoy creating my own dialogue for the characters - which inevitably revolved around endless variations of “let’s do lesbian stuff” - but after a while, it became clear to me that without dialogue, there were details that I was missing, and that was going to affect my enjoyment of the game significantly.
Sadly though, even with dialogue, I’m not entirely sure if it would be possible to fix all the issues I have with the story itself.
The town of Kingdom is presented to the player as a little pocket of weird, where weird things happen to weird people, but over the couple of hours play time I spent there, I saw nothing of note that was particularly strange or unusual.
Instead, all the expected oddness goes on in the player character (Anne)’s mind, which I feel is to the detriment of the narrative.
Had the game committed to making a bizarre and interesting world to explore, then perhaps I would feel better about my time with Virginia, but as it stands, it commits something akin to the “it was all a dream” sin so reviled by creators of fiction in all of its forms, all but negating some of its more intense and strange sequences through one means of hallucination or another.
Besides that, there are plot threads that seem to be left dangling until they get resolved unsatisfactorily in the end of the game, while others seem to just fizzle out or otherwise don’t have any clear connection with the plot at all.
It’s not all doom and gloom on the narrative side of things though; having Anne be a model train enthusiast was a neat bit of characterisation and there was some satisfaction to be had in seeing the sleepy town of Kingdom at different times of day.
Of course, it would be entirely remiss of me to fail to talk about what I regard to be the game’s greatest strength by far, which is its utterly incredible soundtrack.
With none other than the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra behind it, Virginia’s soundtrack is absolutely brimming with sweeping pieces that simply ooze intrigue, danger and wonder, and it deserved the BAFTA it got without a shadow of a doubt.
Go ahead and listen to it. Your day will almost certainly be made measurably better by doing so.

Perhaps you might be wondering where gameplay factors in in all of this though, and that’s sadly where the rub lies.
It is also the source of my conundrum at the start.
Coming back to that point, I would like to take a moment to confess my love for the unfortunately-named “walking sim” genre, which has gone in a few short years from being a tiny smattering of titles that could well be called “Gone Clones” to a fully-fledged staple of the indie scene.
To me, the idea of totally eschewing videogame staples like scores, lives, health, levels (in both senses) and oftentimes any kind of threat in favour of presenting a narrative, is both a bold and commendable movement, and I find the often clever use of the limited remaining mechanics to allow the player to experience the narrative first-hand creates an experience truly unlike any other medium.
But as with anything within a genre, there can be good and bad examples, as well as fringe cases where a game only fits one genre by not really fitting into any others, or where a game takes the core themes of a genre and takes them to their logical endpoints.
Virginia is a clear case of the latter, taking the core theme of “minimal gameplay mechanics” to the point where I have to ultimately decide that there actually isn’t any gameplay in Virginia at all.
That wasn’t a decision I came to lightly. It took some serious thought, and I feel that maybe if the story had engaged me more, then I wouldn’t be saying this, but ultimately, I have arrived at no better a conclusion than to say that Virginia does not actually have gameplay and thereby cannot truly be considered a game.
After about half an hour with Virginia, it became clear to me that the gameplay involved therein, consisted solely of walking to a thing that I’m supposed to interact with, and pressing the interact button.
With the exception of a couple of plants and feathers to find, the entire game plays out as nothing more than three hours of finding the button to make the cutscene continue: there are no rewards for finding things, there is no way to get a different ending, there are no dialogue trees, there are no objectives, there are no optional characters to talk with, there is no way to examine objects.
There is, in fact, an overbearing lack of any actual interactivity.
After much deliberation, I eventually had to entertain a hypothetical, to reach my conclusion on if Virginia was even a game at all, which was “if a game such as this were to auto-play itself, performing the minimum of tasks required to reach the ending, with the player sitting back, merely watching, would the player miss out on anything?”
I decided that if the player would miss out on some meaningful element of the game, then the item in question qualifies as a videogame, because interacting with it enhances the player’s enjoyment of it.
As such, I reached the conclusion that Virginia is not a game, on the grounds that were I to just sit back and watch, my experience with it would not change at all, or even be improved.
The most interesting thing about all of this, is that I actually had a far more engaging time dissecting Virginia and wrapping my head around what to call it than I ever did while experiencing the story it was presenting to me.

So, with all that said, I’m not at all sure if Virginia can even be graded on any sliding scale. Were it a film or a radio play or a book or literally any piece of non-interactive fiction, then I would probably rank it fairly low, on the grounds of its poorly executed story, but with the medium it has decided to present itself with, I have to wonder if N/A qualifies.
If N/A isn’t a valid grade, then I must surely rank Virginia in a vacuum, because Virginia is only really interactive in the same way that watching a movie on a scratched DVD is interactive, where the only way to make the movie continue is to get off the sofa and smack the player every now and again.
Which makes this especially puzzling, because that would be a rubbish way to watch a movie too, wouldn’t it?
In the end, I can only say I was left disappointed with Virginia and while I urge you to listen to the soundtrack, I can’t ever actually recommend that you play it, or not play it, as the case may be.

Either way, I’ve scratched my head on this one so you don’t have to. You’re welcome.


Flobknocker's avatar
Community review by Flobknocker (July 22, 2018)

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