How 'Virginia' Found a Voice Without Dialogue
Variable State's new game, <em>Virginia</em>, is a mystery inspired by <em>Twin Peaks</em> and <em>The X-Files</em>. But unlike those shows known for their banter, the characters in <em>Virginia</em> don't say a word.
"Death is nearing." That's what's written above the TV in gold balloons inside the west London home of Jonathan Burroughs, co-director of Virginia. He's a big guy, tall and broad, towering above me with his wide shoulders wrapped up in a gray sweater. He's softly spoken—not just quiet but thoughtful. At times, stiflingly so. Jonathan will go down trains of thought before checking back on himself, apologizing in the process.
Virginia is set in 1992. A young boy, Lucas Fairfax, has just gone missing. As you walk into the house of his family, Lucas's parents are crying, being consoled by their priest. Members of the local police force stand around stoney-faced as you start to investigate the crime scene. Your name is Anne Tarver, an FBI special agent—an African American FBI special agent. Your partner, Maria Halperin, is also a woman of color. It shouldn't matter, but it does. I'm struggling to think of the last time a game centered on the relationship of two non-white women.
"We thought it'd be so much more interesting to tell a story that was about a friendship. They're not sort of, they're not necessarily..." Burroughs pauses. "I'm trying to think how best to describe what it is we're reacting against. I think there's probably a tendency, particularly in police procedurals, to have a prominent woman character who's portrayed as flawed. And we sort of thought, well what if they're just competent, relatable, like a mundaneness to it, just ordinary women."
Image courtesy of Variable State.
I've had little over a week to digest Virginia and the first shot of Anne Tarver hasn't left my mind. Who you are is revealed uncompromisingly right at the beginning of the game, and it's a viewpoint you'll revisit many times throughout: Anne staring dishearteningly at the mirror.
Partly, the image holds as much weight as it does because of the nature in which it's revealed. There's no ambling up to the mirror as there are in most games. No shuffle toward it, and no awkward player framing of their reflection. It's a stark. CUT. And you're there. A composition of clarity without an excess of noise. Burroughs talks excitedly about Brendon Chung's Thirty Flights of Loving, the first game that really utilized the jump cut in video games. "The simplicity of it is part of the beauty," Burroughs enthuses. "There was something about Thirty Flights that was, like, pulling up the floorboards. It's like you can see the paint strokes as well."
The use of the cut in Thirty Flights of Loving places a total emphasis on story in its 15-minute playtime. Scenes are juxtaposed breathlessly with one another allowing it to hit emotional notes that few other games try, let alone prove able, to muster. "I guess, you know, games are often about having objectives and waypoints and mastery of skills. They tend to use a certain kind of storytelling, which I think tends to have a specific bandwidth of emotions it can illicit. But Thirty Flights of Loving had things like poignancy, it had tender moments, and thrilling moments. There was betrayal and the suggestions of romance. But these were simple human moments."
Virginia continues this focus on the small details of life. That might be getting drunk and dancing to the band at the back of a bar, or it might be tossing your lipstick aside as you stare yourself down in the mirror the morning before work. But the game does so without a single utterance from any of the characters, instead focusing on their physical performance, brought to life by animator and co-director Terry Kenny. Burroughs explains that it was a decision made, in part, to ensure the narrative is constantly pushed forward without the breaks in tempo that dialogue would inevitably bring. But he also believes it deepens the relationship between you and the characters on screen. "I think in a weird way it brings you closer to the characters," Burroughs tells me. "Because, like reading a book, you completely internalize, you create in your own mind how they would sound if they were to talk to one another. That's your own thing."
Despite shunning dialogue, Virginia still manages to cover a huge amount of thematic and emotional ground in a short space of time, a result of not only the expressive animations but also the tight editing. Through its use of cuts the game excludes much of the physical traversal that's usually required in video games, traversal that can often dilute dramatic impact. "Games are so fixated on unbroken real time," Burroughs says thoughtfully, before bemoaning the protracted length of current big-budget releases. "Time is precious. It's kind of sad because a two-hour film, or two hours spent with a book or a record, can be spectacularly engaging and enriching. And that's often not the case in games. And games can be... They can be all those things, but they tend not to be."
Burroughs is hoping that through creating such a strongly authored game, Virginia might get closer to those elusive, magical moments one has with film or a book. Editing, and specifically the use of the jump cut, is just another way of creating meaning, albeit in a manner not often used in games. "Certainly, a scene can encapsulate something by you arriving in a particular way and in a particular time, that has meaning. And then how you leave the scene and how the scene chooses to end, that's significant," says Burroughs. "At times it was like editing a film. We had a bag of scenes and then the order that they were placed in would change sometimes, certainly their relative length would change as well. The weighting of the scenes relative to one another was important, and something we had to play about with."
One scene, where you discover the hidden dark room of Lucas Fairfax, is followed by a dissolve to you and your partner driving along a country road, the hazy dusk light offering a moment to reflect on the developments of the previous scene. Your partner brakes abruptly, stopping just in time to avoid a bison that's crossing the road, but throwing you forward into the glovebox. The dark room, the road, and the bison appear in such quick succession that you're left scrambling for the answers, Anne's physical disorientation matching your own. "We were always keen for there to be enough ambiguity in the story. It's a game that can be left open to interpretation, both in the meaning and in the emotional meaning."
Image courtesy of Variable State.
But with Virginia the ambiguity inherent to the story evolves from one of the most tightly authored video games of recent times. It stands in contrast to the two heavyweight notions underpinning a lot of modern video game design—player freedom and player expression—the right to go anywhere and the right to do anything. With this in mind, I ask Burroughs if he's worried about how players will react to a game where they essentially have zero say in the proceedings. "Yes, I think it does worry me," he says before adding. "Perhaps I am doing games a disservice by making a game where player choice is diminished. I do worry about these things. I've devoted hours of anxiety to this specific topic."
But for all the talk of cinematic language and the emphasis on a linear, authored story, should Burroughs not just have made a film? "I think there is a suspension of disbelief that occurs and I think you feel closer to what's happening. That wall breaks down in a way that it doesn't if you're sat watching a film. Walking around the room and controlling the camera is enough, I think, to break that down as opposed to sitting in the auditorium or the cinema and watching something prerecorded." Burroughs pauses for the final moment in our conversation, steadying himself. "I dunno, I don't make any apologies for it. I think Virginia is a game, absolutely, and could exist, could be interpreted into another medium, but it would be a different experience, it would be a different thing. But for all the choices made and all the decisions taken, this is the form it ultimately took. And that is its correct form, for good or for ill."
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