The term “cinematic” is overused in video game criticism to the point of cliche. The label is liberally applied when a game’s world is realistically rendered, when its storytelling has the thinnest sliver of ambition, or when the publisher hires Hollywood talent for the voice-over.
The word has been nearly robbed of its meaning, but Virginia is cinematic — truly. The adventure game, from new studio Variable State, uses the language of film to tell its story. Quick cuts. Montages. Flashbacks. While Virginia is still interactive, like a game, it often feels like walking through a movie. Rather than watching from the seats, you experience the story through the eyes of the star.
Virginia puts you in the role of a fresh-faced FBI agent named Anne. You’re new to the job, and one of the first things you do is receive your badge. The story then fast-forwards to your first case: the disappearance of a young boy in the titular state of Virginia. You partner up with a troubled veteran, and rapidly the seemingly straightforward case unspools into a complicated mystery.
Input is fairly minimal — outside of movement, the game only uses a single button, letting you interact with specific things around you. Sometimes you’ll be able to open a door, pick up a case file to read, or sit down and drink a coffee. It’s reminiscent of so-called “walking simulators” like Firewatch or Gone Home, but Virginia differs in regards to how it deals with time and space. Like a film or TV show, the game makes constant use of camera cuts and montage. For example, when you’re walking from your apartment to a crime scene, the camera will cut from hallway, to parking garage, to cab ride, to crime scene, all in the span of a minute.
This concision of storytelling is familiar when watching movies, but it can feel weird, and at times jarring, in a game. One of few titles to offer a comparable experience is the short, experimental game Thirty Flights of Loving, which was one of the key inspirations for Virginia’s creators. But more traditional games take a very different route. If I want to walk somewhere in Fallout or No Man’s Sky, I experience the entire on-foot journey. The thing is, those journeys are usually pretty boring, a way of padding out an already lengthy adventure. Virginia simply cuts out the fat. After a few scenes, I acclimated to the technique.
It’s not just about streamlining the game, though. The cuts and camera angles are also an important part of how Virginia tells its story. The game is unique in that it features no dialogue whatsoever; instead, you piece together the plot by observing people and places, and occasionally reading files on a computer or slip of paper. The discovery works quite well, largely because of how the scenes are structured. Events, people, and locations connect through quick transitions from one scene to the next. One minute you’re holding a bill at a diner, the next you’re holding a wanted poster outside of a grieving family’s home.
That said, I wouldn’t call the story straightforward, though that’s largely by design. It may seem like a typical whodunnit at the outset, but Virginia is deeply weird, and it doesn’t waste much time pretending otherwise. The game is strongly inspired by surreal ‘90s shows like Twin Peaks and The X-Files, and it shows. (Yes, at one point a smoking man is sitting behind a big desk.) There’s lots of strange dreams and loaded symbolism, some drink- and drug-fueled trips, and at certain points what’s real and what isn’t is blended into a murky cocktail. Hard answers are hard to come by.
Virginia is strange and confusing, but also fascinating, and well worth experiencing. It’s not the first game to use these kinds of techniques, but Virginia feels like the most ambitious such game to date; it’s a deep, multi-layered mystery that uses the best of film and games to tell a fleshy story I’ll be chewing on.
For the first time ever, Virginia made me feel like I was playing a movie. It is, to say the least, cinematic.
Virginia is available today on the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC.