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Virginia review

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Virginia's an astonishing piece of narrative design, and a game that goes where few others are capable of following.

The world is a maze, and the minotaur lurks at the centre. What form will it take? I shouldn't really talk about it. Everything about Virginia is a potential spoiler, and I want to spoil as little as possible.

It's not even the plot so much as the manner in which things unfold that you'll want to come to entirely fresh. This daring headlong pelt of a narrative game has learned so much from the cinematic editing of Thirty Flights of Loving that it even gives it a reverent nod in the credits, but it has channelled that learning in a radically different direction. It's channelled it away from the breezy elliptical intrigue of Brendon Chung's box-headed crims (intrigue shot through with starbursts of beautiful sentimentality, granted) and towards a world of brittle relationships, difficult silences (how silent? the game is entirely without dialogue), and a brooding fixation on disappointment and complicity.

So, how much to say directly? A government agent pauses before a bathroom mirror, reaches for lipstick but then casts it aside after a moment's thought. Outside, in a landscape connected to the bathroom by fades and jump-cuts, a crime may have been committed in a small town. That's it for now. The rest is Virginia, a game in which the act of playing is as much about interpretation as it is walking around and investigating the people you meet and the places you go. A game in which there are no moment-to-moment puzzles, because the whole thing is a puzzle. The world is a maze, remember, and the minotaur...?

Instead, let's talk about why it works. Or rather, why it seems to work so very well. And the answer is surprising, I reckon. Virginia works as brilliantly as it does not just because of its plot, its characters, the elegant spareness of its colourful art, or even its boxset air of classy, complicated menace. It works because of a tiny piece of screen furniture that pulls everything else together - the game's only real UI to speak of. Virginia works because of its reticule.


Is this an adventure game? Not really, because there are no challenges to overcome in order to proceed, and there is no inventory, no use X with Y. But you certainly prod through its first-person world like you're playing an adventure game, and you benefit from many decades of thought into how players might want to interact with an adventure game in the first place.

Here, you interact via the reticule. As you move around the game's locations, the art direction polishing objects down to their smooth, low-poly Platonic ideals, you learn to keep an eye on the reticule at the middle of the screen. Most of the time, it's a dot. When you see something interesting, however, that dot expands to a small circle. Move in on the object and the circle eventually becomes a diamond, at which point - hey! - you can interact with it, opening a door, say, or tugging a loose panel away, or just picking up the check in a diner.

Why the circle, though? Why the middle state, in which an object is close enough to seem interesting, but sufficiently far away to be out of reach? The middle state, I think, is the key to all of this. Sure, it allows you to read a large, cluttered environment with a few passes of the mouse - and understand your placement in that world and your distance from things around you - but it also reminds you, again and again, of the one thing Virginia desperately needs to get firmly lodged in the back of your brain. This adventure, whilst pacy and cinematic, is largely internal. You are in someone else's body, and you are often in control of their limbs, but you have not been granted direct access to their mind, their thoughts. Some things will always be beyond you, and that is where the real game lies.

Hence the reticule. That circle is telling you that they - the woman who threw away the lipstick, perhaps - find this interesting. They have highlighted it for special attention. And the point at which the dot becomes the circle, but before the circle becomes a diamond? That's not necessarily just because things are out of arm's reach. It's maybe because they are still thinking about it all. We are perhaps witnessing a thought forming, and evolving, a thought that will eventually lead to an action that we will be called on to initiate. A thought that we, for the most part, will have to reverse-engineer, or, at worst, have a flailing guess at.

I know, right.

This is a game that wants you to think about the act of thinking. This is the space in which Virginia lives, I reckon, and it's a space that many games navigate, and yet most of them ultimately gloss over the fascinating problems it raises. Who are you in this game? No: how much of them are you? The answer in Virginia is never clear. At best I could say that you're an investigator inside the body of another investigator. You are keeping an eye on somebody who is keeping an eye on everyone else.

And it's completely thrilling. It makes every moment of the game into a set-piece, as you try to work out what you make of things and then, from that starting point, work out what they might make of them. It also allows Virginia to take such an unusual physical shape, to be expansive and even sprawling but also entirely linear. Corridors with ten doors that do not open but one that will? That's the annoyingly bodged reality of game design in most cases. It's a necessary glitch in the matrix. Except here the reticule reminds you that this corridor is known to the person you are walking down it. The other doors might open, but why would she ever want to open them? And if she doesn't want to open them, aren't they essentially sealed shut anyway? Equally, on the flipside of all this, when you need to make a real intuitive leap in Virginia - when you're exploring a large space and you need to find something that's unreasonably well hidden - you just follow the reticule, because they might know what they're looking for, and if they do know, there's still work for you to do in pondering how they know.

Intuition. Intuition is an interesting one. It's everywhere in the kind of TV fiction tradition that Virginia belongs to, but it's nowhere in most narrative video games where every player must be treated as a generic entity to be prodded through the gauntlet with tips, rewards, and brisk, formative punishments, like a sort of space chimp. It's a reminder that most narrative games do not have the ambition to do any justice at all to one central character - the player. (And if they do, they generally fumble it.)

Something pretty everywhere you look.

And yet look what intuition gives you when you get it right. It gives you Dale Bartholomew Cooper, FBI Special Agent on a dangerous mission to Twin Peaks. He's a figure that looms over Virginia, much as Twin Peaks itself looms over Virginia's town of Kingdom. And yet it can be hard to pinpoint why this is exactly. There's the agency, of course, and the investigation at hand and the coffee in diners and the occasional glimpses of the artfully inexplicable. But there's something deeper: that world that runs on intuition rather than reason, and wrapped up inside that world a wonderful and refreshing absence of ironic distance.

This is what people always get wrong about David Lynch. He's witty, perhaps, but he's never ironic, and he's never removed himself from the center of things to mock and smirk from the wings. He means it, every bit of it, and his strange world is all the more frightening because it does not seem to be strange to him. What would it be like to be inside that head, eh? And what sort of reticule might allow you to make the best of what you saw in there?

Or, to put it in other words, Virginia is a marvel crammed into a neat two-hour running time, and you must play it.

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