Editor Roundtable: Let's Talk About Virginia

We’re going to be talking all about Virginia, so MAJOR SPOILERS for the entire game basically.

Javy Gwaltney: Hey everyone! I played Virginia for review a few weeks back and absolutely adored the game for its surrealness and strong character relationships, as well as the the decision to have the characters interact with one another without a single line of dialogue. My fellow editors have had some time to play it, and we’ve decided to have a chat about Virginia’s strengths and flaws, and what makes the game so interesting. Let’s start from the ground up. What did you think of the game?

Elise Favis: I think Virginia does a lot of things that I admire. For one, even though it’s an interactive experience, what stood out to me was how cinematic it felt. The game utilizes jump cuts so that you quickly cut from one scene to the next, which I found added to the tense and at times troubling sensation the game provides. Similar to ‘90s TV shows like Twin Peaks, it also relies a lot on ambiguity and mystery, but I think that I at times also found that frustrating. I enjoyed the mix of realism and surrealism, but nearing the end it began to feel more convoluted, leaving me with more questions than answers.

Suriel Vazquez: Yeah, I’m not sure where that ambiguity’s sitting with me. On one hand, I like that it doesn’t force-feed you plot or other details. You have to pick up on that stuff yourself. And like you said, Elise, the jump cuts (which I think add to that feeling of not always knowing what’s going on) are a strong artistic direction. On the other, though, I got to a point later in the game where I wasn’t sure exactly what I was seeing, and it ended up dulling the impact of one of the game’s key moments: When the montage of your character repeatedly investigating her partners and getting promoted by getting them fired played out, I thought it was real. I thought that had been the twist: That your current partner was one in a long line of people you’d deceived. But after reading up on it, I realized that wasn’t the case. I guess I missed the cue telling me that was a dream.

I’m also a little frustrated by that ambiguity because it still seems to be under most people’s radars. Usually when a game’s plot confounds me, I hit up forums to see how other people interpreted it, or if I missed anything. But discussions of this game seem rare and rather short, so I was still left with a lot of stuff to sort out.

Andrew Reiner: I doubt even David Lynch could decipher this story. It made no damn sense. I’d love to hear how you pieced this narrative together, Javy. I’ve given it a lot of thought, and I can’t find two story slivers to connect into a thread. I’m even struggling to understand the significance of the repeated objects, like the robin and locket. I can’t remember the last time I was this confused by a story.

Javy: It seems like Virginia’s ambiguity is probably going to end up being the quality that sticks out to most people in both a positive and negative way. I for one adored it. I liked that I had to play the game multiple times to make sense of it. It’s fair for someone to get frustrated with that, especially since we’re talking about a 2-3 hour experience. However, I also like that Virginia has the nerve to do that and that it, at least for me, justifies those repeat playthroughs because I found new clues or secrets on each time through. Example: initially I thought the woman in your partner’s locket was her lover. However, during my second playthrough I began to piece together that she’s actually Maria’s mother – because of the locked room filled with crazy conspiracy notes, and the elderly-assistance equipment placed around the apartment – and that both Anne and Maria eventually bond together over troubles they have with their respective parents.

Reiner, I think you raise a valid frustration about being confused by the story. I’m curious to get your gauge on when a story is too confusing. Do you think that multiple playthroughs removing some of that confusion does the game a favor, or should someone be able to understand the majority of a game’s story on a single time through?

Reiner: That’s the big question, right? How many people will play through the game twice? If the developer knew most people would be confused upon completing their initial playthrough, maybe they should have advertised it as something that needs to be experienced more than once. The level of ambiguity here is distracting, and not in a good way. This isn’t a game that you can finish and immediately reflect on. Even upon seeing the credits roll, I was left with the feeling that I had just opened up a puzzle and poured its pieces onto a table – none of them connecting in a meaningful way.

I was waiting for a big reveal that would connect everything – or at least make some sense of the disconnected strands – but my confusion only grew in the game’s final moments as more ambiguity was introduced. I like a good mystery as much as the next person, but I don’t see how most people will be able to connect any of these dots, unless they play it numerous times. 

Elise: While I got frustrated nearing the end of the game by being unable to piece together what seemed like large pieces of the story, I think Javy brings up a good point that it’s a game that merits multiple playthroughs. It makes me think of games like Dear Esther or The Beginner’s Guide, that have predefined stories but can either be ambiguous or interpreted in many different ways. In that sense, I think the creators of Virginia were brave in a sense to even attempt this, without words to boot. There is a sophisticated story hidden underneath that ambiguity, and what stood out to me the most was the symbolism, through those weird out-of-body dreamscape experiences to the reappearing cardinal. The cardinal in particular was on my mind long after the game ended.

Suriel: I don’t mind having to replay the game to get more out of it, but Virginia has to make a hard sell on that front. When we think about “replay value,” we tend to think of it in terms of “what new plot lines can I explore? Can I take my upgraded weapons and characters through new game plus? Do I get a bonus item at the end of the game for playing on Hard difficulty?” If Virginia wants us to play it again, it’s asking us to do it for reasons that are out of sync with the language of games. One more thing it takes from cinema, I suppose. And I say “if” because even Virginia’s developers tell us – in a note you can read from the main menu, no less – that they want to make a “confounding game.” So I wonder if at least part of that ambiguity is intentional, and if Variable State doesn’t want us to linger on it. If I play through it again, or read a synopsis of what “really” happens, will it still be the beguiling game I think of it as now?

It reminds me a lot of the film/book Inherent Vice, where (as I see it), a lot of the intricate plot points and disorienting prose/cinematography feel like an attempt to leave the reader confused, to reflect the attitude of the main character. But hey, I’ve read and watched Inherent Vice twice now and still want to watch it again, so maybe down the road I’ll feel that way about Virginia. 

Go to page 2 to see us duke it out some more over this indie thriller.

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Source: Game Informer