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Editor Roundtable: Let's Talk About Virginia

by Javy Gwaltney on Sep 30, 2016 at 09:23 AM

We're going to be talking all about Virginia, so MAJOR SPOILERS for the entire game basically.

Javy Gwaltney: Hey everyone! I played Virginia for review a few weeks back and absolutely adored the game for its surrealness and strong character relationships, as well as the the decision to have the characters interact with one another without a single line of dialogue. My fellow editors have had some time to play it, and we’ve decided to have a chat about Virginia’s strengths and flaws, and what makes the game so interesting. Let’s start from the ground up. What did you think of the game?

Elise Favis: I think Virginia does a lot of things that I admire. For one, even though it’s an interactive experience, what stood out to me was how cinematic it felt. The game utilizes jump cuts so that you quickly cut from one scene to the next, which I found added to the tense and at times troubling sensation the game provides. Similar to ‘90s TV shows like Twin Peaks, it also relies a lot on ambiguity and mystery, but I think that I at times also found that frustrating. I enjoyed the mix of realism and surrealism, but nearing the end it began to feel more convoluted, leaving me with more questions than answers.

Suriel Vazquez: Yeah, I’m not sure where that ambiguity’s sitting with me. On one hand, I like that it doesn’t force-feed you plot or other details. You have to pick up on that stuff yourself. And like you said, Elise, the jump cuts (which I think add to that feeling of not always knowing what’s going on) are a strong artistic direction. On the other, though, I got to a point later in the game where I wasn’t sure exactly what I was seeing, and it ended up dulling the impact of one of the game’s key moments: When the montage of your character repeatedly investigating her partners and getting promoted by getting them fired played out, I thought it was real. I thought that had been the twist: That your current partner was one in a long line of people you’d deceived. But after reading up on it, I realized that wasn’t the case. I guess I missed the cue telling me that was a dream.

I’m also a little frustrated by that ambiguity because it still seems to be under most people’s radars. Usually when a game’s plot confounds me, I hit up forums to see how other people interpreted it, or if I missed anything. But discussions of this game seem rare and rather short, so I was still left with a lot of stuff to sort out.

Andrew Reiner: I doubt even David Lynch could decipher this story. It made no damn sense. I’d love to hear how you pieced this narrative together, Javy. I’ve given it a lot of thought, and I can’t find two story slivers to connect into a thread. I’m even struggling to understand the significance of the repeated objects, like the bird and locket. I can’t remember the last time I was this confused by a story.

Javy: It seems like Virginia’s ambiguity is probably going to end up being the quality that sticks out to most people in both a positive and negative way. I for one adored it. I liked that I had to play the game multiple times to make sense of it. It’s fair for someone to get frustrated with that, especially since we’re talking about a 2-3 hour experience. However, I also like that Virginia has the nerve to do that and that it, at least for me, justifies those repeat playthroughs because I found new clues or secrets on each time through. Example: initially I thought the woman in your partner’s locket was her lover. However, during my second playthrough I began to piece together that she’s actually Maria’s mother – because of the locked room filled with crazy conspiracy notes, and the elderly-assistance equipment placed around the apartment – and that both Anne and Maria eventually bond together over troubles they have with their respective parents.

Reiner, I think you raise a valid frustration about being confused by the story. I’m curious to get your gauge on when a story is too confusing. Do you think that multiple playthroughs removing some of that confusion does the game a favor, or should someone be able to understand the majority of a game’s story on a single time through?

Reiner: That’s the big question, right? How many people will play through the game twice? If the developer knew most people would be confused upon completing their initial playthrough, maybe they should have advertised it as something that needs to be experienced more than once. The level of ambiguity here is distracting, and not in a good way. This isn’t a game that you can finish and immediately reflect on. Even upon seeing the credits roll, I was left with the feeling that I had just opened up a puzzle and poured its pieces onto a table – none of them connecting in a meaningful way.

I was waiting for a big reveal that would connect everything – or at least make some sense of the disconnected strands – but my confusion only grew in the game’s final moments as more ambiguity was introduced. I like a good mystery as much as the next person, but I don’t see how most people will be able to connect any of these dots, unless they play it numerous times. 

Elise: While I got frustrated nearing the end of the game by being unable to piece together what seemed like large pieces of the story, I think Javy brings up a good point that it’s a game that merits multiple playthroughs. It makes me think of games like Dear Esther or The Beginner’s Guide, that have predefined stories but can either be ambiguous or interpreted in many different ways. In that sense, I think the creators of Virginia were brave in a sense to even attempt this, without words to boot. There is a sophisticated story hidden underneath that ambiguity, and what stood out to me the most was the symbolism, through those weird out-of-body dreamscape experiences to the reappearing cardinal. The cardinal in particular was on my mind long after the game ended.

Suriel: I don’t mind having to replay the game to get more out of it, but Virginia has to make a hard sell on that front. When we think about “replay value,” we tend to think of it in terms of “what new plot lines can I explore? Can I take my upgraded weapons and characters through new game plus? Do I get a bonus item at the end of the game for playing on Hard difficulty?” If Virginia wants us to play it again, it’s asking us to do it for reasons that are out of sync with the language of games. One more thing it takes from cinema, I suppose. And I say “if” because even Virginia's developers tell us – in a note you can read from the main menu, no less – that they want to make a “confounding game.” So I wonder if at least part of that ambiguity is intentional, and if Variable State doesn’t want us to linger on it. If I play through it again, or read a synopsis of what “really” happens, will it still be the beguiling game I think of it as now?

It reminds me a lot of the film/book Inherent Vice, where (as I see it), a lot of the intricate plot points and disorienting prose/cinematography feel like an attempt to leave the reader confused, to reflect the attitude of the main character. But hey, I’ve read and watched Inherent Vice twice now and still want to watch it again, so maybe down the road I’ll feel that way about Virginia. 

Go to page 2 to see us duke it out some more over this indie thriller.

Javy: What about the heavy symbolism that runs through the game? We’ve got buffaloes, lockets, birds, locked boxes. What did you all think about those motifs? I found them fascinating, especially in how they tie into Anne’s slowly fracturing psyche as the game goes on. The buffalo in particular is vexing to me, and I’m still trying to find meaning in it.

Elise: Yeah, I really loved those symbolic moments. I especially enjoyed the cardinal’s appearances, especially that dream-like moment where Anne finds the bird in the morgue. It first appears dead, but then comes back to life. For me, the cardinal symbolizes truth, and that Anne would feel like she was near to grasping it, but it would always slip out of her fingers. Both her and Maria (from what I understood) never solved the case of Lucas going missing, and there was a looming controversy or conspiracy at the bureau that I think the higher-ups were trying to cover up.

Was Lucas’ disappearance somehow intertwined in that? Did he see something he wasn’t supposed to see? It seems like Anne was near to figuring it out, but it would also mean betraying her partner Maria. So I think the bird represents those fears and how she never really grasped the truth completely. Meanwhile, I have no idea what the buffalo is about either; perhaps those cult-like moments at the end of the game where the buffalo is stabbed represents her thoughts of betraying Maria. There is a lot to reflect on here – even her dreams were symbolically disturbing, especially those out-of-body moments, which felt like a near-death experience, and I thought could tie into her depression from her job’s weighty pressures. I think what’s great about these tidbits is that there isn’t really one right answer, but this is what I got from it.

Suriel: My guess is that the cardinal was a symbol of trust. I believe we first see the cardinal in the cave Anne and Maria are investigating. That scene ends up with Maria being hit on the head with a wooden beam. So I think Anne’s associating the two (the cardinal and Maria being hurt), and so we see her trying to reclaim the cardinal (and Maria’s trust) over the course of the game, but it always dies before she can reclaim it. I think this ties into the subplot of Anne betraying her partner by digging into her past, which culminates in the dream where she works her way up the ladder by betraying her partners.

As for the buffalo, and I’m still trying to work that one out. Something is definitely being killed in the scene where people from across the town are gathered in masks – I’m just not sure what, specifically, it’s trying to signify.

Reiner: The reanimation of the cardinal was one of the coolest moments in the game. I thought that it showed us that she may have been hit by the beam in the mine as well, and had fallen into a coma, or maybe she was dreaming the entire thing. We later see her take a tab of acid or some kind of drug, so all of this could be hallucinations. I have no idea, but if it is symbolic of something, I do like how often the bird is sewn into the story. There’s also the chance she is a huge sports fan, and her favorite teams are the St. Louis Cardinals and Buffalo Bills. You can laugh at that if you want, but given how loose this game is with its narrative, I’m sure I could find a way to argue this ridiculous point just as believably as the “trust” angle.

Javy: Do you think Virginia does anything better than other “walking simulators” like Firewatch, Dear Esther, and Gone Home? While I love all three of those games, I think Virginia’s embracing of thrillers like The Silence of the Lambs and Twin Peaks means there’s a structure and pacing that’s always pushing you ahead in a way that the genre hasn’t had until now.

Reiner: It trims the fat better than most walking simulators. The jump-cut technology is wonderfully used. All too often in walking simulators, you spend most of your time walking, and eventually stumbling upon points of interest. In Virginia, most of the moments matter. Those simple moments of walking often carried tension or drama. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see more narratively-driven games use jump cuts to get the player to the key moments quicker.

Elise: The other walking simulators you mention all have a distinct tricks they use to tell their stories: Firewatch puts emphasis on snappy dialogue, Dear Esther uses narration, and Gone Home has the player to explore their surroundings to tell its tale. These techniques, at least today, aren’t exactly noteworthy, and I think that’s what makes Virginia stand out because it’s a wordless narrative. You’d think that its absence of dialogue would make for a simple story, but Virginia challenges that perspective entirely by providing something sophisticated. Reiner makes a good point about jump cuts, and I think Virginia expects more of the player than those other games. Not just because of its ambiguity or replay value, but because even looking away at the wrong moment can make you feel like you missed a story beat completely.

Suriel: The jump cuts do feel like part of a shift in the way games like this tell their story. If you look at the games you mentioned chronologically, you end up getting a pretty clear trend; I think Dear Esther is by far the “slowest” of the bunch in terms how you move through its story, Gone Home feels a bit more eventful because there are overt “moment” in the discoveries you make, and Firewatch actually cuts from one scene to the next, condensing three months into about three or four hours. I don’t want to correlate “fast” and “good,” (I think Dear Esther tries to convey something very different than the other games on this list), but I definitely think Virginia’s jump cuts make it more digestible, ambiguous plot notwithstanding.

For some reason, I kept expecting the game to shift your perspective to another character’s. I wonder if that has to do with the way jump cuts tend to remove that sense of intimacy you get from embodying a character for a long, uninterrupted stretch of time. That’s something the game’s partial inspiration, Thirty Flights of Loving, did, and I think there’s room for the jump cut idea to grow using multiple perspectives to tell a story.

Javy: So, the ending. Virginia’s biggest question mark. What the hell even happened there? I know I’ve got my own theories (but I’m saving them for my column). What about y’all? Can you make heads or tails of it. Is there anything that stuck with you about it? Any questions you’re left with that you want to know the answer to?

Suriel: I have several half-cooked theories about it, and most of them tie into the other two topics we’d discussed: the ambiguity of the game’s plot and its use symbolism. I don’t feel too confident about most of them, but I do have one about the box at the end, the one Anne uncovers using key we encounter several times over the course of the game, which appears broken right up until the end. Anne throws it into the fire before we’re able to see what’s inside, leaving us to speculate about its contents. That ties back into my theory that Variable State wants to keep much of obfuscated from the viewer. We tend to see the denouement of a film as the character finally coming around to the “correct” conclusion about the themes the director wants to convey, which leads me to think the burning box is maybe them asking the audience to have the willpower not to inquire further.

Elise: That’s definitely an interesting theory, but I disagree. I think Variable State keeps things overtly ambiguous to prod us to look deeper and make our own assumptions. As for the box, I personally wondered if that was a scene that happened earlier, that maybe it was a haunting memory for Anne because she never looked inside before burning it. It seems like in the end, she makes the decision to actively look for the truth rather than cover it up. Outside of that, the ending left me mostly confused, once again wondering what was real and what isn’t. Why is there a UFO in that split-second scene? Is that Lucas we see walking down the street in that final moment in the car, or am I just crazy? I think, at least, that Anne decided to stand by her partner Maria, rather than betraying her, which she contemplated through the entirety of the game.

Reiner: I just have to ask Javy, what the hell actually happened in this game?

Javy: Forget it, Reiner. It’s Buffalotown.