Why are adventure games important? Because if the current state of the industry is anything to go off of, the adventure genre seems to be the only one capable of telling a story that can rival film and literature. Developed by Variable State and published by 505 Games, Virginia is an adventure mystery game with a cinematic narrative set in, you guessed it, Virginia. So does Virginia do right by the adventure genre?
In Virginia, players assume the role of Anne Tarver, a newly admitted FBI Special Agent. Anne is partnered with seasoned investigator Maria Halperin in the task of uncovering the mystery of a missing young man in the secluded, idyllic town of Kingdom, Virginia.
Unfortunately revealing anymore of the plot would be giving too much away. The story is told masterfully. Beginning fairly simple and straightforward, Virginia slowly spirals and twist into a convoluted web of intrigue. Thankfully, in this instance, "convoluted" is a positive rather than a negative. If the plot had been completely straightforward with no ambition to delve into the strange and abstract, we would be left with just another detective adventure. And when I say strange, I mean strange. Virginia's story is not for those expecting a run-of-the-mill mystery adventure or just another popcorn flick. Even Sherlock Holmes himself would be stumped by the final act.
Although the story is incredibly original, Variable State aren't afraid to admit that their narrative inspirations stem from detective television shows such as Twin Peaks and True Detective, and it shows. The Twin Peaks inspirations are front and center with Virginia's beautiful melancholy atmosphere and sprinklings of film noir. Without giving anything away, occasional surreal moments bleed into the plot that invoked happy, dark memories of NBC's recently cancelled Hannibal.
Without a doubt, the one aspect of Virginia that impressed me the most is that the entire story is told without a single utterance. This means the story is told through the environment and character reactions rather than painfully obvious dialogue. Even though the graphics are stylized like a fine painting, a character's facial expressions are detailed enough to easily observe basic emotions and thoughts. This is a narrative style I hope more developers adopt, but for now, Variable State made it work perfectly for Virginia.
Simplistic, yet beautiful, Virginia features a painterly art style steeped in an air of mystery. From the tiny details of a confidential FBI document, to the rural townscape of Kingdom, Virginia never fails to impress with its simple visuals.
To add to the cinematic feel of the story, Virginia is letterboxed like a film or a high budget T.V. show. Unlike other games that have toyed with this idea, Virginia's letterbox is never intrusive or distracting. In fact, just like a T.V. show or film, you will quickly forget that it's there. If that wasn't enough for you screen junkies, Virginia also recommends to the player that they keep the framerate locked at 30. Luckily, this is easily changeable in the options and runs just as fine at higher framerates. I replayed it at a locked 30fps, and besides some eye strain, I didn't notice any increased immersion. I do attribute the letterbox to increased immersion though, and I'm happy that it was there.
What more could be added to this mysterious world? A hauntingly beautiful soundtrack. How lucky of us then that we got exactly that. On top of providing a tone as a backdrop for a scene, the soundtrack also helps further the narrative. With the exclusion of voice acting and dialogue, the soundtrack lends a hand in telling the player what emotions Anne is feeling at a given moment. The symphony will ramp up as Anne is about to discover something or the music will slow to disheartening crawl as a situation becomes hopeless. The soundtrack for Virginia is one that I want to own.
Gameplay definitely sits as the weakest link of this chain, but if you have played any adventure game before, you know that's a statement applicable to just about all of them. Virginia is played entirely in the first person with the ability to interact with story centric items. While the story and graphics are incredible, the gameplay is remarkably linear. You are always put on a set path that you are rarely ever allowed to deviate from. I found this to be disappointing. The world that Variable State created for Virginia just begs to be explored.
Other than some feathers and flowers, there are no bonus items or documents for you to find. A note between two characters discussing the state of the town or current events, or really anything, would have only helped to add more life into Virginia. That's not saying the town doesn't feel like a real, living breathing place, but much more could have been added. The runtime isn't all that impressive either. I played through Virginia twice and manage to clock in at just under two hours each time. The asking price isn't very high so depending on what you think, this may be easily forgivable.
So does Virginia do right by the adventure genre and storytelling at large? Absolutely, yes. Virginia is a game that can be held as literary art. With all the makings of an unforgettable experience executed nearly perfectly, Virginia is certainly worthy of you time and money. We may never get a proper Twin Peaks game, but until then, Variable State has us covered with Virginia.