The video game format can accommodate a million different storytelling styles, from epic sci-fi adventures to small and emotionally intimate tales. The lo-fi triumph “Virginia” (rated M, $9.99) belongs in that second category, and it’s unlike any other game you’ll play this year.
“Virginia” is almost pure story, an experience that’s much more akin to interactive fiction than any traditional definition of video game. The first-person perspective and blocky, impressionistic art style lend a dreamy quality to the proceedings, in which you assume the role of rookie FBI agent Anne Tarver.
In a series of setup scenes, you’re assigned to the disappearance of a young boy in the small town of Kingdom, Va.. Complicating matters is the fact that you’ve also been asked, by the regional FBI boss, to keep tabs on your new partner, who is under an internal affairs investigation.
The story develops in short, relatively speedy set-pieces interrupted regularly by cut scenes and cinematic transitions. Your new partner is clearly keeping some secrets and the game provides tantalizing details and clues – a locket photo of a mysterious woman; a recently-used hospital bed in the guest room.
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The missing person case proceeds in parallel, generating even weirder leads: dead birds, a creepy priest and an old observatory on the outskirts of town. Anne starts having surreal nightmares that appear to be bleeding over into reality. The tone is somewhere between “Twin Peaks” and “The X-Files,” with nefarious and possibly supernatural events taking place in the shadows of Main Street, U.S.A.
Here’s the craziest part: “Virginia” has no spoken dialogue at all. Exposition is provided solely through images, sound and occasional text elements. When characters interact, you read their gestures and body language to get the gist of the exchange. For example, spying on a clandestine meeting at the old observatory, you might see an argument between the priest and another suspect.
Keep mental notes, observe everything carefully, and the pieces start falling into place. It’s surprising, actually, how the absence of dialogue changes the experience of moving through the story. It forces you as a player to engage with the visuals and sound in a different way. Every little thing becomes potentially significant. Some characters look you in the eye. Some don’t.
The beautiful musical score – performed by the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra – is an active element in the game. In some some scenes it’s big and orchestral, carrying the emotional weight of a key moment. In other sequences, it’s quiet and eerie, setting a tone of mounting dread. It’s a fascinating dynamic, actually: With no dialogue to anchor the emotional tone of a scene, the music winds up doing all the heavy lifting. It works well.
Lean and linear
Players used to taking a more active role in gaming may be frustrated by the lack of options available here. “Virginia” is extremely linear. In any given room or outdoor environment there are only one or maybe two objects that you can interact with. The controls are dead simple. Move around the area and investigate until your center-screen cursor dot changes into a circle or diamond. Click and watch the scripted encounter. That’s it.
The lean and mean approach might seem miserly, but it’s the correct one for this style of storytelling. The game moves along at a very brisk pace, and if you stick to the script, you can finish within two hours. The game is meant to unfold at the approximate pace of an arty crime thriller movie, and that’s what makes “Virginia” such a singular experience. It’s best played in one or two sittings.
That said, you can circle back and play again. The designers have included a limited collectible system of feathers and flowers as incentive for replaying. But I prefer to leave “Virginia” just as it is – an engaging and artful exercise in 21st-century storytelling.
“Virginia” is now available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Microsoft Windows and OS X.