The opening screen of Variable State's new video "feature" "Virginia" welcomes players to a small town named Kingdom. It's laid before us as if it were a board game, with little trails leading to a cave or a gas station, a schoolyard or an observatory, all of it presented with the simple cheery look of a brightly filled-in coloring book. Come in, stay awhile and bask in the beauty of small-town life, it seems to say.
Press play, however, and things get twisted, and not with the typical things-are-not-what-they-seem subversion.
Indeed, the first sign that something is out of the norm comes from the word "feature." "Virginia" bills itself as a "feature" rather than a game because we don't play "Virginia." we experience it. The two-hour story unfolds like a digital hallucination — vignettes getting spookier, shorter and more tense as the journey develops.
"Virginia" taps into our love of the weird, the bizarre and the nostalgic — the video game world's answer to, say, "Stranger Things" and the return of "Twin Peaks" and "The X-Files" — and does so by distorting our idea of a traditional narrative, which, among other unusual things, is silent. There's no pesky talking here.
It is, ostensibly, the tale of a young FBI agent, Anne Tarver, who has been given the case of a missing boy as well as a role in Internal Affairs. Here, she is asked to rat out her co-workers, often other women or minorities. Case files flash on the screen, but then disappear before we can see any details beyond a face and a name.
We do see Tarver piece together clues, but "Virginia" quickly becomes less about the missing boy and more about the pressures placed on Tarver by her career. Alcoholism, loyalty and prejudice are hinted at. There are nods to early '90s touchstones such as floppy disks or abstract graphics or even hidden darkrooms, the latter always good for an eerily vintage vibe.
But more important than the retro vibe or any plot points is what "Virginia" has to say about how a story can be delivered.
When it comes to the emotional core of the story, the interactive environment gives us the illusion of control. We focus Tarver's gaze and signal where she should place her attention.
"Virginia" mashes-up the surreal with the mundane. A woman's morning routine soon gets upended. We cut from applying lipstick in front of the mirror to a graduation ceremony to a darkroom to a basement hallway. Later, there's an animal sacrifice, a supernatural occurrence and a missing boy. A car driving along the countryside clashes with a hospital scene or the sudden appearance of a bison in the middle of street.
It's influenced as much by David Lynch as by many recent independent video games. Variable State's Jonathan Burroughs and Terry Kenny even cite, in the end credits, "Thirty Flights of Loving," a small but trippy indie game.
After two play-throughs, I'm still not quite sure what happened but, in the interactive medium, enigmatic feels more curious than pretentious.
Unlike most video games, "Virginia" seems more interested in atmosphere than choice, choice being a relative term in gaming where too many developers provide a choose-your-own-adventure gimmick with multiple story strands that inevitably land you back at the same place. Here, the user triggers the next scene in the game. Look, walk and point.
There are no tasks to solve and no sudden A or B options to make. The story is fixed, but it's dismantled and re-arranged in such a way that keeps you ever on guard.
The player controls the camera and dictates when action moves forward, which allows the game to inhabit Tarver's point of view. We often feel as overwhelmed — and confused — as she does, traits that could be frustrating but here turn the narrative into something of a puzzle, especially as we relive moments or watch them remixed into a dream sequence from which we can't escape.
It's a game of little details. The case does come to an unexpected conclusion (or maybe it does; there's debate as to whether or not what Tarver witnesses is reality). Instead, it focuses on human nuances, even as the story gets more otherworldly. Tarver's relationship with her father, for instance, or the stress she places on her appearance, come to the forefront as the ground shifts before her and there are hints of alien life.
Especially unnerving is a scene at a bar. With the haunting music of a small Western trio on repeat, a drunk male makes unwanted advances to Tarver, which we witness from her point of view. You will feel sorry for anyone who has ever tried to have a drink in peace. Equally thoughtful: the mix of trust and apprehension Tarver has for her FBI partner, a cohort who seems to be clued in to the mysterious happenings of the small town but also in possession of beliefs that leave her labeled as a troublemaker by her superiors.
We can rush through "Virginia," or play it with patience. The game — or feature — is confounding or fascinating either way, a rare modern experiment in retro-tinged storytelling.
Developer: Variable State
Publisher: 505 Games
Platforms: Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Steam