It always stings a little when you get your hopes up for a game and it disappoints you upon release. Sure, there are different tiers to this; for instance, it's hard to find a recent game that upset more people at launch than No Man's Sky. But often that initial letdown leads to hyperbole; there are titles that fall short of expectations that still excel in some areas, and this applies to Virginia – an experience that's not overtly awful, but just nowhere near as good as it could (and probably should) have been.
For those who don't know, this is a first person mystery adventure title where you assume the role of FBI Agent Anne Tarver. The events of the game take place across what appears to be a week, starting with Anne getting her badge, and her first assignment. This assignment sees her keeping an eye on someone else within the organisation – a sort of Internal Affairs investigation – as Detective Maria Halperin looks into a missing persons case. The premise, alongside the rural look of the game's setting and the music, help set the title up to essentially be a video game version of cult classic Twin Peaks – surrealism and all.
The problem with the narrative, however, is that large swathes of it are borderline incoherent. Whereas a show like Twin Peaks definitely gets into some strange and confusing areas, dialogue and exposition can be used in a pinch to give things a modicum of coherence. Unfortunately, Virginia is a game without dialogue. All of the narrative events are conveyed through gestures, context of the environment, music, and in select number of instances, text. This is a problem. While some of the scenarios are very easy to gauge – a missing persons poster is pretty obvious, for instance – lots of the events taking place, particularly the game's numerous surreal, dreamlike scenes, make borderline zero sense.
Now that's not to say that these scenes aren't really cool and interesting to behold, but they lose a lot of the impact when you have no explanation for what's supposed to be happening. Maybe we just didn't get it, but most of the title's narrative elements miss their mark. Weirder still, most of the events that did seem to make a degree of sense almost always ended up being dreams of imagined scenarios, so these events technically never happened. Which is a shame, because one such scene towards the end really made us care about the things that Anne was doing in her line of work.
Not only that, but of the events that we were able to discern, not much really happened. By game's end – just north of two hours – we felt like we had just finished playing a prologue for a larger game. Except the title was finished.
Even the environments themselves are a disappointment. To be fair, from an artistic direction, the game's beautiful; the rural Virginia town of Kingdom is really delightfully presented – minus the character models, which look like Miis or Xbox Live Avatars – and many of the environments are gorgeously presented to the point where we had a lot of fun just looking at things. Which is good, because there isn't actually much more than that to do.
A lot of the time, we're fond of the "walking simulator" genre – and there are some great examples of that format working undeniably well – but the mystery surrounding this game is screaming out for interactivity. It's actually quite frustrating to only have one thing to interact with at any one time – well, apart from collectibles, that is. For seemingly no reason, you can collect flowers and bird feathers that Anne will then dress her house with. But for a title focused around a mystery, the game's shockingly short on actual investigation and interaction.
To add insult to injury, the game often transitions between scenes abruptly just so that they're tied to the soundtrack. While this is an excellent idea in principle, it doesn't really work, and this is a major shame, because the title does have a phenomenal soundtrack, with many Twin Peaks homages. One comes courtesy of a band in a bar, who play a song that we swear used the same melody as the main theme of David Lynch's classic.
Variable State's Virginia is by and large an unsuccessful attempt to make something interesting. An absolutely incredible soundtrack and great environmental art fail to lift the game from a bog of issues. There are some severe technical issues here, but real criticism should be pointed in the direction of the oftentimes incomprehensible narrative, which needed to be much stronger given the general lack of interactivity elsewhere.