The Backlog Swamp: Virginia

In which one brave writer wades into the thick, swampy waters of his backlog and plays a random game from it for an hour or two. Probably with little-to-no prior knowledge of said game, because he’s forgotten why he bought it.

I got the gist of what was happening, but I barely understood what the hell was going on in Virginia. Apparently, that’s by design. Or I’m just stupid. It could be a mixture of the two. It isn’t though.

Platform: PC

I presume I purchased my copy at some point. Maybe it was in a bundle. Backlog fog.

This was originally posted at r/PCGaming

What Is It?

It’s a single player first-person narrative thriller. We are FBI Special Agent Anne Tarver. A complete fucking idiot – I’ll get to this. She’s investigating the disappearance of a teenage boy. She’s also investigating the FBI agent she’s partnered with. Also a bird. Maybe. Also a buffalo. Again, maybe. Bloody hell. I don’t know.

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The game often shows us Anne, putting on lipstick, in a mirror. Deep.

What Do You Actually Do?

Well, it’s very much a walking simulator. So, if that puts you off. It probably won’t be for you. It’s not something I hold against it though. I’m down with the occasional narrative-wandering-around-kinda-game. Anne also occasionally interacts with things. Things.

The apparent “main” storyline is split into days of the week as the investigation progresses. At night Anne has surreal dreams that involve the case. I was only ever half sure whether something was or wasn’t a dream. It all seemed to blend into one after a while.

It only lasts about two hours, but I found myself taking a silly number of screenshots – 143. It looks lovely. Though screenshotting isn’t a part of the game. Or is it? I don’t know. This game is as confusing as a wedding dress made of shit.

So, Waddaya Think?

*Expect spoilers from here on in.*

I’ve completed it. That said, it only takes a couple of hours. What mainly kept me playing was the art style. I love it. The environments are low-ish polygon, and each object only has one colour. However, it’s all massively enhanced by the lighting. It makes the world look fantastic. Although the characters look like Lego people with human proportions. Secondly, I admit, a sense of curiosity. I wanted to see if it’s nonsense would start to make sense. I can’t say that it did.

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This buffalo is in Anne’s bedroom. It might have kidnapped the boy. And perhaps her too. I don’t know.

Excuses

Firstly. Before you get to the main menu, you have to “Press Enter to take a trip”. Okay. But wait. Isn’t this an investigative game? Not a holiday simulator. This seems like nit-picking. But I just want to make clear some of the reasons why I was, and am, so befuddled by Virginia. Even down to the tiniest detail. That being said. At one point near the end, Anne is in jail. She takes acid… Oh god. I’m so confused. Was this whole thing an acid trip?

Anyway. On the main menu is a letter from the creators. It’s basically a Thank You. But it ends with the sentence; “We hope it’s resulted in a strange and confounding game.” I don’t know that it’s strange. But it’s confounding. I guess one outta two ain’t bad. Though I’d argue “strange” is preferable than “confounding”.

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The letter from the creators
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The lovely main menu

Click To Progress, Or Maybe Not

The interactive parts of it add practically nothing to the experience. There are no choices to be made. There’s no exploring to be done. You can rarely stop and read things. Anne can’t stop and talk to people. When and what she can interact with seems entirely picked at random. At one point I had to click the mouse three separate times to eat three separate peas from a plate of food.

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Press F to pay… Click to eat pea

And the biggest problem with that, is that sometimes it moves on to something else with no input from you. So, you miss things. I didn’t realise Anne was investigating her partner, Maria Halperin, until half way through the game. Anne was suddenly in the passenger seat of a car, reading an Internal Affairs’ file about Halperin. I’d seen the file earlier. But when it appeared before, I hadn’t had time to look at it properly, the game pulled me to another scene with no warning. So I missed a seemingly important plot detail.

Oh yeah. The aforementioned car was Anne’s partner’s. So, Anne is the kind of idiot who carries round a file full of details about someone she’s investigating and spends most of the day with. Guess who finds the file at some point!

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Holy obvious-conflict-causing-narrative-device!

The other problem with these randomly chosen moments of interaction is that Anne will be performing an action with no input from you. Then the game will suddenly stop and wait for you to click on something. Confounding indeed!

Oh, and to add to my argument that Anne is a complete fucking idiot. There’s a bit where she decides to sneak into an air force base to retrieve a necklace. A small tree has fallen onto the high fence that’s there to keep people out. She decides to use the tree to climb over. The bottom of the tree is on the ground on the outside of the base. The top of the tree is in the air, inside the base. A reasonable plan. Except, instead of climbing just to the point where she can drop down on the other side of the fence. Anne decides to climb all the way up the tree. And then physics take over. It see-saws and she falls down a cliff. Complete. Fucking. Idiot.

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Let’s climb to the top of this tree! We’re gonna live forever!

SAY SOMETHING!

There’s absolutely no dialogue in the game. No voiceovers. No subtitles. And just to be clear, there are plenty of other characters. It’s not as if there’s no one to talk to. It’s just done as a cheap way to make it harder to understand. There are signs and other things with English on them. Language exists in its world. In fact, there’s a scene in a bar. There’s a band on stage. There’s a singer. I know she’s a singer, because she’s standing in front of a microphone. But she’s not singing. What does that mean?!

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Traa la la la. ???

The limited communication between characters extends to a raised eyebrow, a frown, or a flash of Anne’s FBI badge. In fact, when she first meets her partner. Anne walks right up to her and waves. She gives us a suspicious look. That’s it. What?!

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Pleased to meet you?

It makes it much harder to know who people are, what they’re like and what part they play in the story. At one point Anne finds a roll of film. She and Halperin develop it and get all excited about some of the pictures. It’s hard to see what’s in them, but they seem to be incriminating or a clue. Or. Something else. I only recognised one person in the pictures. A priest. He was hugging a woman. Scandalous! I’d seen him before at the missing boy’s house. The priest is arrested for some reason and then let go. Later, Anne returns to the boy’s house. At this point I spotted a big family portrait on the wall. The priest is the boy’s father. And the woman in the found film isn’t the boy’s mother.

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Father x2

It’s not unreasonable to say that I should have looked harder when I was first there. But I also believe the game should have done a better job of leading me to the portrait. By that point I was used to it suddenly changing scene before having a chance to properly explore a location. So I stopped bothering.

You Will Care About These People Because We Say So

Besides the central mystery there’s a couple of side plots involving a broken key that Anne keeps looking at. And also something to do with Halperin’s dead mother. The latter is more developed than the former. But really, it’s crowbarred in to try and make us and Anne feel sympathetic towards Halperin and not report on her. It’s never explained why Halperin is being investigated. Though it seems like it was because her mother was an FBI agent who discovered something she shouldn’t have. Maybe. Ergh.

It turns out the broken key Anne keeps looking at was given to her by her father while he was on his deathbed. He asked her to use it to open a lockbox. The key breaks off in the lock as she unlocks it. She removes a box inside the lockbox and burns it. Without looking in it. And because there’s no dialogue, we don’t find out what it was. I presume it was porn. I don’t understand why she kept a broken key to a box she incinerated.

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Daddy’s box o’ porns

On a positive note. Anne’s boss is called Cord McCarran. In his office there are a few power cords running across the floor. It’s a little thing. But it pleased me. Sadly, his suit appears to be regular suit material. Not corduroy.

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It’s funny because his name is Cord and there are cords everywhere.

TLDR

It might seem like I’ve been shitting on Virginia for being ambiguous. But that’s not my problem with it. There’s nothing wrong with something being hard to understand. Or, something that asks you to draw your own conclusions. It’s that the ambiguity doesn’t feel earned. If I removed all the dialogue from any other single player game, but kept the cutscenes, it’d be hard to understand too. This is the main reason, by far, that Virginia is so confounding and confusing.

The central mystery is uninteresting and by the end, it’s all but forgotten. It wants us to care about its two main characters. But they don’t have personalities. So, how can we?

Experimentation is so important to moving the medium of videogames forward and it should be roundly encouraged. But Virginia is, unfortunately, a failed experiment.

If you like the art style. It’s short enough to play through and appreciate it just for that. The music’s not bad either. But if you’re looking for an ambiguous, nuanced thriller, look elsewhere.

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