505 Games’ recently released Virginia is as close to arthouse as possible for gaming in 2016. It is a first-person “walking simulator” starring a pair of black female FBI agents investigating a disappearance in 1992 Virginia. All gameplay takes place on rails in a collection of first-person scenes. Characters are cartoony and blocky, yet have no dialog. Virginia mimics a David Lynch-esque cerebral mystery thriller all set to a gorgeous score, beautiful lighting, and a very unique style of gameplay. It is also full of strange, ethereal twists and recurring images: a broken key, a red robin, and other totems continue to appear throughout the story.
Keep the Story Going
Virginia is almost literally a video game movie. At the length of two hours and a price tag of $9.99, the game has the length and cost of a typical film. The game relies heavily on editing and pacing to present its story. Your role is to merely walk forward and reach the next scene. The player is not solving the mystery central to the storyline; we are just watching the events unfold.
So, is Virginia a game? At no point do players make choices during their two hours in this game. You cannot fail Virginia. You also cannot really win. For a “game” as we know them, this seems all wrong. But interactive fiction does not need to be challenging. They typically are. But movies typically tell stories, yet plenty of great films avoid having plots altogether. Virginia is just the latest of a new kind of gaming media. These are a growing kind of art that we should not ignore.
The Stigma of ‘Art Games’
Games like Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture and Gone Home received a lot of press upon release. Gaming websites that typically would only cover the latest FPS or AAA mega-blockbusters were taking time to cover little art games. Unfortunately, this has been met with a lot of stigma. To a traditional gaming audience, a game is a very specific kind of experience. And as all media seems to be going through a very tough time defining boundaries politically, art games often become targets. A small group of people attacked Gone Home both for its subject matter and gameplay, or perceived lack thereof. Jim Sterling did an entire video where he called right-wing detractors of Virginia “idiots” using as much nuance as you would expect out of him.
Right now, gaming as a medium is fortunate to be small enough where experimental titles can still get big press. By comparison, indie and art movies are locked away in media ghettos, where you just won’t see the kind of press that Doctor Strange attracts given to something like Moonlight. That’s unfortunate. Meanwhile, if you follow games media even a little bit, indie titles can become big points of discussion. Virginia is the kind of game that isn’t for everybody, but it is something worth considering as a unique kind of interactive film.
Does Virginia Have Gameplay?
Well, that’s the question, isn’t it?
“Gameplay”, broadly defined, is the interactive portion of a video game. You input something and it causes a change in the game world. For most games, gameplay is everything. Players must use either their problem solving or twitch reflex skills to pass each test until they reach the end. Virginia has none of that. But it does have gameplay. It is still interactive.
Virginia has “gameplay” in that the player must complete certain actions. If they do not “play” the game, the story does not continue. The only possible failure-state comes if the player simply does not play out the role of FBI agent, Anne Tarver. You could just force her to stare at a wall and the game is over. Nothing can happen.
All Virginia asks of its players is to walk the character — who is herself largely an observer — forward. You must select the right object that needs to be interacted with for the scene to end. That object can be another character, a door, or often enough, a recurring metaphor like a broken key or boxed robin. Some scenes do not even have that, leaving Anne just as a camera watching events unfold. Ultimately though, in terms of challenge, Virginia is piss-easy. You can “solve” most sections of Virginia by just selecting a door and walking through it.
There is no element of player creativity behind acting out the role pre-designed by the creators. You are on a single track through the Virginia ride. There is no getting off. There is also nothing wrong with this kind of game design.
“Walking simulator” is such a dismissive term for a genre. Personally, I hate the term that we have come up with to describe largely gameplay-less games. The only other genre I can think of saddled with such a bad name is “torture porn.” Even though “walking simulator” was coined by its detractors, it is a term that has stuck, for better or worse. I prefer a fairer description like “non-competitive ludonarrative,” but I can see how that could be seen as a little pretentious and probably won’t catch on.
Editing and Narrative
The most groundbreaking parts of Virginia are not even in player control. The game uses editing and cuts in a very fluid way, moving the narrative forward, just as a film would. You spend most of the game in a daily loop of investigating the town with your partner, repeating moments and locations. The edits create a sense of routine, movement, and time passing. This is all very technically impressive. You experience no load times or slow-down after the cut tears away to a new location.
In an early moment, the FBI sends Anne Tarver down to work with (and spy on) Maria Halperin, an agent under suspicion. Halperin’s office is all the way down in the basement, a la Fox Mulder. Typically, most games would create the entire FBI headquarters and have the player walk the entire distance from one office to another. In Virginia, however, that passage of distance and time is conveyed by cutting three times. You move through a hallway, then cut to a stairway, then cut to a corner before Halperin’s office.
The flow of the story is kept up by removing the unnecessary detail of showing every step. Additionally, the cuts increase the player’s view of how much distance exists between Halperin and the rest of the FBI. The mystery and tension of her character grows with every edit.
“Filming” a Mystery
A lot of Virginia takes place in the small moments between major events. You sit in a car driving along highways with Halperin driving. You eat breakfast at a typical diner. By repeating the same routine, you grow to trust Halperin. Meanwhile, every other character in the game might just be part of some crazy conspiracy against you.
The edits also leave a lot to the imagination. One night, Anne goes out driving with Halperin. When we come back to her, she’s at Halperin’s home, having spent the night there. You can infer whatever you want from the details not shown. Later, as the game grows stranger, the cuts break our perception of reality. Players see several possible endings. What is a dream and what is really happening? By the end, you have no idea.
However, Virginia, in classic David Lynch fashion, is not about the stated mystery. There is a missing boy in this town. What happened to him or who took him is irrelevant. As the game becomes increasingly bizarre (a magic buffalo keeps appearing), you realize this is more about Anne’s place in the FBI. You are investigating her psychology as she is asked to make a terrible choice. By the end, you are literally walking through her own subconscious. The journey from the “real world” to inside Halperin is completely seamless thanks to Virginia‘s cinematic style and edits.
Limits of Traditional Gaming
Video games with a challenge are great. We all know that. There is nothing more fun than an afternoon spent with Link tearing through dungeons or racing with Sonic the Hedgehog at ludicrous speeds through loops and obstacles. But this is not everything interactive fiction can be. “Ludonarrative Dissonance” was a word that floated around a few years ago and is a problem we still haven’t solved. Too often games based on violence are telling stories that do not fit with the point of the game.
I look at games like Deus Ex: Mankind Divided and wonder, what does killing have to do with everything else it is trying to do? Mankind Divided wants to tell a story of a sci-fi apartheid but ignores those themes to create a murder fantasy. The gameplay and the story never align. Tomb Raider‘s remake was a gritty tale of survival, up until the point that Lara Croft obliterated hundreds with a machine gun.
If you want to tell a quieter story about more serious subject matters, maybe challenge isn’t everything. Not every movie needs to be an action film. Virginia has no distractions of difficulty. The storyline is confusing enough to understand. Even after two playthroughs, I still do not fully grasp everything that happens in the game. Earlier this year, Firewatch presented a similarly intense psychological tale without any really challenging gameplay.
Perhaps that kind of game is boring for some players, and that is fine. Nothing should be for everybody. But for me, I’m intrigued by the possibilities of a gaming arthouse scene. Let’s never stop experimenting with this medium.