The Virtual Life – Accepting The Mystery With Virginia

by Javy Gwaltney on Oct 08, 2016 at 10:20 AM

I'm diving deep into Virginia to talk about the game so uh SPOILERS AHEAD.

I’m going to be upfront with you. I’m not going to break down what I think the plot of Virginia, Variable States’ mind-bending interactive thriller, is about. As someone who spent seven years of his life reading attempted plot summaries of ambiguous novels by long-dead and stuffy academics, it’s just not a practice I find intriguing as a writer or a reader. After all, I think video games are capable of being beautiful things, and that art is not required to be coherent or polished to be beautiful. I will however be talking about elements of the game noteworthy, which means diving down into some interpretations of various events that happen in the game. These are not necessarily fact nor do they reflect the interpretations of other editors here, but are my own takeaways.

Right. Let's talk about protagonist Anne Tarver.  Like everyone else in the game, Anne doesn’t speak, so as players our entire understanding of her character hinges on our ability to process and interpret body language as well as the context of her experiences. When we first become Anne, she’s staring into a mirror applying lipstick, just on the verge of graduating from the FBI academy and becoming a fully fledged agent. She does not have Clarice Starling’s determined look or Dana Scully’s withering gaze; she’s a nervous mote of a person hiding in a blazer that might be just a tad too large for her. This is 1992. Anne is a black woman working in a male-dominated field, and we see this come into play several times throughout the game. This includes an elevator sequence where one of her colleagues turns to her with a skeptical expression, perhaps even a hint of, “I wonder who she slept with to get ahead?” in his eyes.

Former mayor of Ottawa, Charlotte Whitton, said, “Whatever women must do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good.” Whether or not you agree with the sentiment is beside the point; it’s a philosophy that Virginia embraces as reality in its setting and characterization of both Anne and her partner, Maria. Both women exist in a world where they have to burn themselves out just to earn a modicum of respect. And burn herself out, Anne does.

As the game goes on, her psyche begins to become fractured for completely understandable reasons. Not only is she trying to track down a missing child, but she’s also been ordered by her racist boss to spy on Maria as part of an internal-affairs investigation. There’s also the fact that some secret from Anne family’s past (perhaps something shameful her father did?) haunts her. Anne is caught in an intersection of highly stressful events that cause her to slowly unravel.

She doesn’t buckle under the pressure of it all, but she doesn’t exactly save the day, the reputation of her partner, or even earn a promotion for solving the case. Virginia’s climatic moment comes when Anne becomes self-actualized and learns to embrace her own values over the values of the agency she works for and the society she inhabits.

Instead of subjecting herself to a life where she plays Judas, constantly investigating would-be friends and screwing them over in order to work her way to the top of the food chain, she throws away her career and chooses the sanctity of friendship, riding off into the sunset with Maria and catching a glimpse of the missing child as he makes his way down a road, guitar and camera in hand. It’s an unconventional, even anarchic victory, with the most important characters in the story choosing to run away from the institutions that have trapped them in search of their own kind of happiness, each having achieved their own sense of clarity even if we, the players, are still fumbling around trying to understand the particulars of this bizarre, meandering tale.

Maybe that’s not a bad thing. Sure, I’m still not quite sure what the hell the buffalo symbolizes or why there was a UFO at the end. However, a story is often more than just one story; sometimes there are three or four jammed in there. And I experienced and understood the story I think matters the most, one about someone overcoming injustices and the perilous collection of their own anxieties to become a stronger person, not with a weapon, but with wit, perseverance, and hope.

Of course, none of what I'm saying here is intended to dismiss anyone's frustrations with the game for being frustratingly ambiguous, perhaps coming across as a wee-bit pretentious for refusing to offer any clear answers. However, I love the mystery at the heart of it all for the same reason that countless people love searching Dark Souls' Lordran for scraps of meaning. This storytelling method results in a kind of gameplay that exists beyond us tilting sticks on a controller or clicking a mouse, one that happens in our minds, with us trying to fit together puzzle pieces. I've played Virginia four times now, having devoted at least eight hours to the game as well as several sheets of notebook paper in an effort to sketch out what I can about its plot and the struggles of its characters.

I imagine that I'll be returning to the small town of Kingdom, Virginia, many times over – sometimes to relive Anne Tarver's strange odyssey toward enlightenment, sometimes to find another piece of the puzzle or retool an assumption I have about the story. I'll probably never uncover the game's deepest secrets but that's okay. Perhaps it's better that some mysteries remain locked away in a box. That way, there'll always be a reason to come back.