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Virginia Review (PS4)

virginia6-noscaleThe trek down into the basement of the FBI building to the little cupboard office might be a bit too on-the-nose, but when Virginia is evoking (rather than directly referencing) The X Files and Twin Peaks, it makes for an engrossing game experience. We’ve all shot a million aliens, but within the realm of games, we’ve solved far too few small town mysteries.

Virginia isn’t afraid to nudge wear its influences on its sleeve, but it’s also happy to misdirect and confound you. From the opening moments you might be thinking aliens, the paranormal or ghosts or cults, but often the dreamlike and the mystical are representations of the turmoil of the characters rather than otherworldly threats. The setting, the story and the characters are evocative and come together to make a spooky, intriguing experience, and that’s why Virginia feels so much like a classic 90’s mystery TV show.

In terms of videogame influences, it’s closest to Dear Esther, Gone Home and (most especially) Firewatch. Yes, it’s one of those games Steam users call “walking simulators” (as opposed to “gunning simulators” like Battlefield). This is a linear story (with some choices? I’m not actually sure) and its most striking feature is how it’s edited. Like Thirty Flights of Loving, Virgnia features jump cuts in the middle of gameplay. They work brilliantly, and they help pace the story. They make the experience from beginning to end feel utterly compelling. There’s no fat; no superfluous scenes and no let up in the story. The editing of the game is supremely cinematic and I expect more and more AAA games will start to use jump cuts in this fashion in the future to propel the story along.

It’s also completely devoid of dialogue, but manages to convey a complex story through imagery, flashbacks, clever editing and an evocative score. It’s a mighty achievement, and it’s almost completely successful. At the very end the lack of exposition starts to damage the narrative and I found it hard to follow the plot, but on the plus side I was more than willing to go through the whole thing again in an attempt to piece the mystery together more fully.

I alluded to the score above, but I really need to come back to it here again. The main theme is the finest piece of game music I’ve heard this year, and the soundtrack as a whole is excellent. Lyndon Holland deserves every award there is for audio in games. He has created a masterpiece.

virginia-steam-demo-screenshots-06I’ve tiptoed around the story of Virginia because I think it’s short, engrossing and full of lovely little moments you should experience fresh. Although I’d recommend it wholeheartedly, it’s with the proviso that you forgive its little flaws. Performance is pretty poor on PS4, and while the lighting is pretty good, the detail level is (intentionally) very low, so it’s a bit disappointing that it runs so poorly. It’s certainly not the kind of game where you need a great frame rate – you’re mainly walking around and looking at things – but a patch to polish up the performance on PS4 would be very welcome.

The very end of the game is unlikely to satisfy everyone. I’m still piecing it together, but I can’t escape the feeling that the pay off didn’t match the setup up. Very David Lynch I guess.

Still, criticisms aside Virginia was the most engrossing game I’ve played this year. I powered through it in one sitting, but I am still thinking about it days later. And I will play it again and again. For the setting, for the story, and most especially for how wonderful Virginia sounds.

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