There are a lot of good things about Virginia, an odd little forensic narrative from developers Variable State. It proudly and rightly wears its 90s influences of The X-Files and Twin Peaks on its sleeves and every sleeve you see on the way. It has a strangely entrancing graphical style, one that evokes visually minimal but emotional provocative flair of something like Inside or That Dragon, Cancer.
But those, and so many other things, are just good. Great, even, to be fair. None of them, however, are the best thing about Virginia. No, that title belongs solely to a weird, deceptively brilliant move that sounds totally counterintuitive. The best thing about Virginia is that it tells you nothing.
Rather, it shows you everything, and it does so in an abundance of imaginative, impactful ways. The entirety of it—the setting, the story, the characters—are a nigh incomprehensible blend of the real and the imaginary, flitting between them a light side of recklessness. You step into the shoes and the…fractured mind of recently graduated FBI agent Anne Tarver, attempting to suss out the disappearance of young boy Lucas Fairfax.
The influences should be obvious at this point (you even have a partner and there’s a guy with a constantly lit cigarette), but it probably isn’t obvious why it all works. Those shows and its ilk worked a lot through dialogue, and this game has, well, none of that. And more than that, it rips through rapidly oscillating states of past, present, make believe, and supposition.
At this point, it should sound more like a schizophrenic, indecipherable mess than anything else. But it’s not. It’s so far from being any of that. This game works in subtlety in ways that, well, almost too obviously defy words. And within the genre of forensic narratives, it actually skews even closer to the “walking simulator” end of the spectrum, but it does so with panache.
It convinces you that there is a lot more happening with your actions and your very mild exploration, but that’s because of the weight it throws around in its narrative. There are no actual choices being made but every step you make towards the end of the story certainly feels like your own. If anything, you are poking a snowball, making sure it keeps rolling down the hill and growing into this powdery white boulder that smashes into your mores.
And it all comes together precisely because of its oddly vacant presentation—stilted reproduction—that gives you a canvas onto which you paint your perceptions. What did this character mean with that look? Was that a genuine smile or one that covers tracks? It opens you to ask and answer all of your own questions while delivering many of its own.
That, however, only functions because it has a lighthouse-level of clarity in its big moments. It moves with the specificity of a Buster Keaton classic where the grand gestures dictate the arc that audience is riding but everything in between is, more or less, subjective. And through a decisive, deliberate design, the game maintains it through its brief but potent two-hour runtime.
Well, that is until the ending where it collects the greatest tradition of its 90s television influences, which in turn makes it a source of the greatest storytelling staples, and throws it right in your face. All that deterministic narrative and open-ended interaction flips on its head and you are left wondering what exactly happened. You are stranded with one idea, but you can’t escape the paranoia that other’s will believe something different. But you aren’t alone. You have my unspoken word on that.