The Problem With Virginia

In my latest gaming post about Dear Esther, I defended The Chinese Room against criticisms because I believed their I.P.’s nature as a videogame was justifiable. There is a lack of objective and system in Dear Esther, to be sure, but the dense artistry in the environment means that the sheer abilities to both linger and observe are essential. This is why criticism which suggests Dear Esther would have better been a film or book (Destructoid and Jim Sterling respectively) does not hold up, as it is imperative in a game so symbolic and visually dense that the consumer has the ability to proceed and absorb at their own pace.

I cannot say the same of Virginia. I have just finished 505 Games’ latest title, which I’ll admit I bought out of interest stemming from its controversy, and the main feeling that I have taken away from the experience is one of a glaring frustration. The nature of a videogame, what qualifies it and separates it from other media, is interactivity. If critics called into question Dear Esther‘s nature as a videogame then Virginia would be far from qualification by the same standards.

Virginia perfectly captures the essence of the ‘Press F to pay respects’ meme. If you don’t know what I’m talking about:

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The press F to pay respects meme arose after the release of Advanced Warfare. There was a certain ridiculous section in which a funeral scene required you to interact with the coffin in order to proceed. The meme that followed was a lampoon of a much more insidious trend which this moment in Advanced Warfare happened to exemplify: pointless interactivity in videogames.

As a rule of thumb, interactivity should only be made available when the player is presented with legitimate alternatives. What would the difference be if it was not necessary to press F? The cutscene that F initiates would have happened and the section would have progressed in the exact same manner. There is no legitimate alternative to not pressing F. The player can only walk around the coffin and observe the scene. If there was something worth looking at around the area, the option of interactivity would be legitimate, but the visuals of the funeral section in Advanced Warfare have a superficial value. There is no reason not to press F. As such, the interactivity is pointless, and while it may have been implemented to immerse the player into the role of the protagonist, it ends up conversely alienating the player by highlighting the interactive artifice of the game fundamentally.

Virginia is riddled with this problem. I cannot name a single interactive choice in which I was presented with more than one possible option. I was not free to choose the pace of the game as 505 might think, I was only free to press a button in order to progress. This infuriated me. As seen with Dear Esther, limited interactivity is excusable when the necessity to scrutinise the environment comes into question, but the environment here is sparse. You are launched into these cell-shaded Unity environments that are entirely devoid of detail. The domestic settings are devoid of any domestic artefacts and throughout the entire game there are no examinable items: diaries, journals, CDs. This would not be all that terrible were it not for the jump-cuts.

Yes, that’s right. The game has jump-cuts. While you are in the middle of traversing an environment at your own pace the game decides for you when you are done. This is, again, a fundamental failure as a videogame. A primary advantage that games hold over other media is the ability to linger, to comprehend at your own pace as you absorb the material on offer in a free space. I talk more about this idea here. This option to jump-cut the player into a different environment for a better pace of the game insults the player as it robs them of their agency, but it also could not be a more glaring example of how Virginia desperately wants to be a film or TV show.

This is the central problem with Virginia. It thinks that it can qualify itself as a videogame by having arbitrary points of interaction, but when the player is presented with no alternative interactive options it ends up producing an inverse effect, the player is alienated by linearity and a sense that they are not needed. Let’s be clear: the player is not needed here at all. I spent the last 20 minutes of Virginia slowly pressing through the ending with no hands free as I was simultaneously dipping pitta breads into a tub of low-fat hummus.

Virginia is an utterly passive experience. It is a glorified lengthy cutscene that is devoid of any narrative richness or environmental detail that might come to redeem it. I praised Inside for its ability to express a dystopian narrative silently, and this would be an example of where a silent narrative really does not work. Its ideas are expressed but they are expressed with only the limited clarity that is possible with complete silence. Inside was not a character piece, its emphasis was decidedly on tone and aura, but Virginia strives to be an introspective character piece with multiple interactions between characters. In Inside much of the exposition was environmental, visual cues prompted dystopian concepts in the mind of the player not in the sacrificing of words but as an arguably preferable alternative. Virginia‘s environment, however, is all too familiar for the player: a suburban town in a vaguely 90s Virginia. There is not the same potential for environmental exposition, there cannot be. The game’s concepts are overly-ambitious for the silent option because of this. And you could argue that the visual symbolism speaks volumes relative to the superficial narrative, but as an A-Level English student I really don’t see it. There is one motif: the death of nature (and by connotation, moral purity) by the hands of man. That’s it.

Destructoid writer Caitlin Cooke says of Virginia:

“Virginia sadly sacrifices the player’s ability to absorb what’s happening around them for the sake of cinematics, which makes it difficult to forge a connection with the characters or the story. This would almost be forgivable if the story had more cohesion, but sadly it falls apart towards the end”,

But also:

“However, it’s clear the creators put a lot of effort into the story”.

You cannot have both, and to me there is one clear reality. Virginia is not an admirable effort despite its extremely engaging score, and I cannot see a good reason why it deserves to be regarded as a videogame when it so garishly props the illusion of interactivity.

This should have been a film if it is to exist at all.

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16 thoughts on “The Problem With Virginia

  1. This quite thought provoking. There are a huge number of games in which interactivity is very much limited. I’m a sucker for branching narrative and alternative routes and I understand that making things in that way can be challenging resulting in swathes of linear games. This is fine, but a purposeless button prompt to simulate interactivity and impact on the world is not. Even Firewatch had a solid interactive element, with plot points that could be missed if you didn’t thoroughly explore.
    However, I’ll likely still pick up Virginia. I like a good story, interactive or otherwise, and this one gives me a Twin Peaks vibe, which is a series I’m a big fan of.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I would recommend picking it up if you’re a Twin Peaks fan and not against a walking simulator like I am. Also I hate that Firewatch isn’t on the Xbox One!!!

    Let me know how you get on, it’s a bit of a marmite experience it seems.

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  3. Very nice article. I recently played Dear Esther for the first time and did not like it at all. I’m certainly not against “walking simulators” and was actually excited to try it out. However, the inability to interact turned me off. The story and adventure itself was mostly uninteresting to me as well, so a lack of gameplay did not help. I am very interested in Virginia’s story, even if perhaps sparse. I had heard about the Twin Peaks-style that Virginia invokes and would appreciate a mostly non-interactive game that gave me a worthwhile experience. Even if the interactivity is fake and forced, a story that interested me would help.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you! Also yeah I agree that a story can make these experiences redeemable, and for me personally Dear Esther was redemptive. The fact that Virginia is getting praise from some critics is a testament for its potential to be enjoyed. But, like Dear Esther, resonance and not necessarily understanding can be fleeting. It didn’t resonate with me and I’ve even sat through Fire Walk With Me, but I would definitely recommend it to a fellow Peaker based off of favourable reviews that touch on the likeness.

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  5. Well I finally played Virginia. Your point on the silent protagonist issue is pretty spot on. It can work in games that aren’t all that plot dense, or when there are other characters to fill in the gaps. It doesn’t work here as your character carries out actions based on something they’ve figured out; if you haven’t figured out the same thing, then good luck keeping up!
    The plot was interesting, but pretty all over the place. It certainly has elements in common with Twin Peaks (the stunning music for one), but that doesn’t work too well then there isn’t enough dialogue to endear you to any characters.
    I’m glad I experienced this, but I’m also glad I picked it up for cheap, as I doubt I’ll go back to it.

    Liked by 1 person

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