By now you may have read a number of gaming critics tripping over themselves in praise of Virginia, the debut game from developer Variable State and the latest in a long line of so-called ‘walking simulators’. In response to the outpouring of praise from the gaming press, there’s been an equal (and equally predictable) push from some quarters to challenge Virginia’s very existence, dragging up the old ‘Is it a game?’ debate that Dear Esther kicked off all those years ago.

It’s the sort of discussion that’s inspired passionate argument from both sides. But they’re both wrong. Virginia is unequivocally a game – it’s just a really fucking terrible one.

The last time I hated a game this much it was Stardew Valley (literally the worst, FYI). For the entire 2-hour running time of Virginia I sat on my sofa fuming, gripping my PS4 controller with rage, swearing loudly to anyone who would listen (in this case, my frankly bemused flatmate), and wishing I could be doing literally anything else.

This was, to be clear, not the response I’d expected to have. I like most ‘walking sims’ (with the notable exception of Dear Esther). I love Twin Peaks, to which Virginia owes unashamed influence. I was intrigued by the trailers. It looked like it was unequivocally my sort of game — so much so that as soon as the review code came through I cleared out my schedule in the rush to get the chance to play it. I couldn’t wait. So how did it all go so viciously wrong?

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You step into the shoes (and viewpoint) of an FBI agent in the early ‘90s. You’re investigating a missing child in a small town, but you’re also investigating your own partner, unbeknownst to them. You can walk around, look around, and interact with a handful of specific objects, each of which propels the story forward. That story is, for reference, both linear and nonlinear: linear in the gaming sense, that the player cannot alter or control it; nonlinear in the traditional, that it is told out of order.

Much has been made of Virginia’s liberal use of a trick that’s old hat to cinema, but supposedly entirely novel to gaming: the edit. If interactivity is the defining element of the videogame, the edit is the defining element of film. It’s what differentiates film from recorded cinema, allowing it to break the rules of space time, focus viewer attention, draw rapid associative links through implication alone.

“This is a game that doesn’t know why it’s a game”

In Virginia, the edit is for the most part reduced to the jump cut, used simply to move rapidly from one location to another. You’re walking down a corridor when all of a sudden you’re in a stairwell. You’re at a crime scene, then suddenly in your car on the way home, the connective tissue eschewed entirely. There’s nothing wrong with this in principle, and it’s a technique film has been happily dependent on for decades. The problem is that in film, the edit depends on and is built around the raw footage available. In Virginia, even the meager camera controls allotted to the player are enough to disrupt the process.

A good film edit carefully leads the viewer’s eye. It’s part of why the editing in last year’s Mad Max: Fury Road was so rightly praised, meticulously ensuring that every cut was built around a focal point at the center of the screen, helping the viewer adjust to the otherwise rapid, disorienting edits. That’s impossible in Virginia, because the game has no idea where I’ll be looking before it makes each jump, what will be my focal point at any given moment. The result is that it’s jarring and disorienting every single time, forcing the player to re-orient themselves constantly. This doesn’t feel like masterful cinema, it feels like a high school film project.

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Virginia looks to cinema for inspiration, but doesn’t seem to know how to translate that to the gaming world, or play to the medium’s strengths. Take its other major stylistic innovation: the complete lack of dialogue. Not a word. Again, plenty of films have employed this trick for some or all of their running time (hell, go back long enough and they all did, for obvious reasons). But they benefit from something Virginia does not: actors. Y’know, human ones. With faces. And the ability to emote.

A good actor can convey character without a word — often more than they could with dialogue. By contrast, Virginia’s blocky, polygonal characters, visually striking as they are, can’t get much further than ‘angry’ or ‘sad’. They’re blank automatons, rendered mute, dumbly navigating the world. They can’t convey character because they have none beyond their initial visual design. It’s not a question of leaving space for interpretation, as it offers barely anything to interpret.

And without characters to ground the disjointed plot, dominated by dream sequences and hallucinations, there’s nothing to hang onto. There’s no depth, just a void, a nothingness, a gaping expanse of pseudo-profundity and cod-Lynchian visuals (hint: if everything is a metaphor for something, nothing is a metaphor for anything).

“This doesn’t feel like masterful cinema, it feels like a high school film project”

This is a game that doesn’t know why it’s a game, that doesn’t seem to want to do any of the things games do well, and has been sold chiefly on the things that film does far, far better. Still unconvinced? Look no further than the game’s menus, modeled directly after DVDs, letting you pick scenes to jump into. Or the letterboxing effect used to create a more cinematic aspect ratio. Or maybe that fact that instead of ‘Play Game’ you have to select ‘Resume Feature’ (as in, ‘feature film’). Guys, just make a film if you want to make a film. That’s OK! The Firewatch guys are, and it’ll probably be great. Games are great, but they’re not just films that let you push buttons every now and then, and they require a different approach.

With a week away from Virginia, I’ve cooled somewhat. I can look back and see it as a bold experiment, trying something few games have before, testing techniques new to the medium. But if it’s an experiment, it’s a failed one. With luck, other developers can learn from its failures, employ cuts and dialogue in ways that suit the medium better, avoid the pitfalls that Virginia stumbles into. And maybe next time around, the resulting game will make me feel something other than blind rage and abject disappointment. That’d be nice.

About The Author

Executive Editor

Dom thinks too much, acts too little, and probably needs to get out more, to be honest. He writes about games, films, and life and stuff.

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