To the powers that be: just because I write about visual novels all the time doesn’t mean you have to send every minimal-gameplay narrative observation-novel my way, alright? We’ll call them Mignon, as in the filet, and I already trudged my way through one recently in Dear Esther. You’re killing me here. I’ve slowly plodded about and looked at more things than the entire visitor base of the Smithsonian over the past week or so.
Looks like we’re not about to buck that trend, however, so let’s talk about Variable State’s Virginia, the latest and greatest Mignon on the scene.
Virginia follows Anne, an FBI agent going through some tough times who’s assigned to a missing persons case in the small town of Kingdom, VA. She’s teamed up with Halperin, a less-than-pleasant partner dealing with personal issues of her own, and sent out to Kingdom to find young Lucas. The search goes in some pretty bizarre directions, though if you’ve seen Twin Peaks or played Deadly Premonition you’ve got an idea of what Virginia’s going for.
This is a Mignon, and chances are you’ve had that dish before, so you know how it goes: you walk around and look at stuff. There’s no combat, you can’t lose and in fact the game’s “progression,” such as it is, is basically an illusion – the game is set up into scenes like a DVD and you can freely skip to any of them at your whim. Sometimes there are very minor segments where you can walk around and explore, but you’re on a fixed path and generally aren’t allowed to do anything you aren’t expected to do. All of that is pretty standard for this sort of game, really, and it’s also the sort of thing we’ll criticize other genres of games for doing.
Virginia adds some of its own spice to the recipe, though; most notably, there’s no dialogue in the game whatsoever. A lot of Virginia’s story is intended to be conveyed via context clues and non-verbal communication. Rockstar’s LA Noire tried something similar a few years ago, using much more advanced graphical technology and a drastically larger budget, and opinion on that attempt was fairly tepid. Here, it results in some confusing moments for the sake of steadfastly maintaining what is essentially a gimmick.
This combines with the game’s aggravating habit of rushing you through scenes; Virginia would like you to appreciate its smaller details, particularly in the absence of any spoken exposition, but that doesn’t stop the game from forcing you into a new scene before you’re ready. Transitions are sporadic at best, and this goes in both directions; at one moment you might be trying to read a critical bit of evidence when you’re abruptly slammed into the next scene, while in another you’ll be expecting a transition before gradually realizing that it’s not coming until you look around and click on something.
Again, this is the sort of thing we’d criticize other games in other genres for doing. Final Fantasy XIII still eats shit to this day for largely consisting of long corridors that you walk down in one direction followed by cutscenes. Mention Metal Gear Solid and someone will inevitably bring up how they don’t enjoy the series because you spend more time watching it than playing it. A narrative that doesn’t flow as it should and the presentation of false choice are things that any non-Mignon game would have to answer for in reviews.
Here, we have moments where your character can wander around Lucas’ home, aimlessly failing to accomplish anything until you find just the right spots to investigate. We have critical bits of plot that vanish while you’re reading them. We have interesting environments that are abruptly denied to you; an early scene at FBI Headquarters consisting of a hallway with numerous locked doors is representative of much of the game to come. Say what you will about Gone Home, which wasn’t exactly the greatest game ever to grace the planet either, but at least it offers an interesting exploration opportunity that helps draw you into the experience.
You could say this is acceptable because it’s all an intentional decision on the part of the developers. Maybe it is; I know some people are into this sort of thing, though I don’t know if the successful execution of questionable decisions necessarily makes the decisions any less questionable. Experiments are a great way of exploring a medium and determining what works and what doesn’t, but we’re unusually loath to suggest that experiments might produce results we don’t care for – such as, perhaps, the concept that a game about walking down hallways and periodically searching for something to click on while characters pantomime dramatic moments might not be the most gripping experience.
Naturally, the fact that the game stars a woman of color is going to draw some interest as well, and predictably this leads to moments where the game Confronts Serious Issues as is the style in 2016, but the key point is that it’s predictable; you know this is coming from the second the game loads up with your character staring into the mirror showing that she is, in fact, a woman of color. Your first act as Anne is to put on lipstick, a classically female moment transparently intended to distance Virginia from the macho guns-blazing sort of game, because of course it is; at one point Anne is harassed by a pair of white teenagers with no option of doing anything about it, because of course she is; the strained relationship between Anne and Halperin could be attributed to Anne’s race, because of course it would, but Halperin’s also (apparently) going through a divorce and in any case you can’t ask what her problem is because nobody speaks and you don’t make your own decisions.
Is it really possible to feel as if you’re living the experience of a woman of color when your agency over her actions is essentially nil? You’re watching her, not living her life; the camera just happens to be in her head, and the game offers you essentially no chance to divert from its set path. I wouldn’t say it sinks to the level of condescension, as attempts by video games to make this sort of statement so often do, but I wouldn’t call this aspect of Virginia a subtle or clever bit of social commentary either; it’s the same sort of 101-level criticism that has come to define certain aspects of modern gaming.
Frankly, it’s difficult to even care about what happens to Anne because your chances to better understand her are so brutally truncated. She is a video game character playing her part in a video game that really would have been happier as a film.
Personally, I don’t see any reason this couldn’t have been a film; I have some theories about why it’s not – particularly relating to how criticism of this sort of game is still considered a faux pas throughout much of the hobby – but even then I don’t think Virginia presents a compelling enough case for what it does. It’s an iffy art-school film that’s presented as a video game. As filler on a film festival schedule, I doubt it would have held my interest either. It’s probably not worth walking out of the theater over, but it’s definitely a good chance to hit the wine bar.
Oh, and the icing on the cake: Virginia runs into micro-stuttering at times, at least on the PS4 version that I played. This is a game built purely around spectacle that only runs for a couple hours; it’s not the most visually intense game out there, but you also aren’t really doing anything outside of exactly what the developers expect you to do. One would hope that a rock-solid framerate and graphical experience would be high on the list of priorities here, perhaps even above making sure all the doors were locked, but no such luck. At least the music, performed by the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, is fantastic and memorable.
I’m not the sort to say that there needs to be less of this sort of game – and yes, it’s a game, if only so we can compare it to other games. The industry doesn’t have a set size; it can accommodate all sorts and there’s plenty of room for anyone who wants to make a game and try to sell it. Bring on the narrative adventures if that’s what people want to make!
At the same time I’m not going to encourage anyone to play something I didn’t think was all that worthwhile, and I’m not going to pretend that there’s value here when there isn’t. The bottom line is that despite being made from a sacred cow, Virginia is a Mignon that’s a little undercooked. You might just want to send it back to the chef.