Storytelling without dialogue has excelled in 2016 (e.g. Playdead’s Inside), and Virginia follows suit. This game masterfully uses visual cues and a tremendous soundtrack to develop an engaging atmosphere and an intricate narrative.
The open-ended narrative is where the real triumph lies in Virginia. The rug is always pulled out from under you whenever you are lead down a path towards what seems to be the answer. This occasionally feels frustrating, but as the game progresses it causes you to think more deeply about your experiences. Making you consider and care about the why much more than the how.
SPOILERS AHEAD – Do not read if you have not finished the game. You have been warned.
A key theme in Virginia that makes the story relatable to the player, and does most of the leg work in terms of creating an emotional experience, is friendship — more specifically, the friendship between Anne Tarver and Maria Halperin. In a short game where this isn’t the central plot point and there is no dialogue, it is rather unbelievable how magnificent a job is done here in creating a relationship with ups and downs that induce real empathy.
From the start, Tarver and Halperin’s friendship is one of dishonesty, as a consequence of Tarver being asked to investigate her partner. In some scenes we see the development of a new, strong relationship, such as the frequent diner visits, car journeys, and even drunken nights in the bar that the pair share together. We even see Tarver getting a glimpse into Halperin’s home life when she wakes up on her couch and explores her apartment. Whereas in other scenes, Tarver is investigating Halperin behind her back and discussing her findings with the assistant director. This dishonesty begins to take a toll on Tarver, as we see her gradually find it harder to look herself in the mirror.
The dishonesty comes to a head when Halperin uncovers Tarver’s investigation into her. This leads to a break in the friendship, and we are given variations on the aforementioned activities that they shared with Tarver (taking a taxi to Kingdom on her own and sitting alone in the diner). This break serves the story well as the rift is formed just as we approach the chaotic finale. In an effort to fix things between her and Halperin, Tarver asks for forgiveness by visiting Halperin at one of their hangout spots. She throws away the file on Halperin and shows her that she recovered Halperin’s coveted necklace. Unfortunately, forgiveness appears to still be out of reach as Halperin hands Tarver a red envelope that was in her apartment. Had Halperin been into Tarver’s apartment? Was the dishonesty mutual this whole time?
These questions are never really answered in the conclusion, however their relationship does find peace. In the final visit to the diner after the two have somehow evaded jail and the mind-boggling penultimate scenes are over, Halperin appears and offers to pay the bill. Along with the feeling of relief caused by the preceding scenes, this action really seems to indicate a mutual forgiveness between the two and a feeling of the burdens the both shared being lifted. This is enhanced by the symbolism of Tarver resting the broken key down on the table that she has never let out of her sight since the very beginning.
Another theme in Virginia — and once again relating to the two main characters — is family and how they represent motivation for Tarver and Halperin. This is not so prominent for Tarver, as we are only shown the revelation that one of her family members (it appears to be her father) has been sick and is the reason why the broken key is presented as significantly important to Tarver. Family is presented as a clearer point of motivation for Halperin. In her investigating, Tarver discovers that Halperin’s mother, Judith Ortega, was also an agent that was investigated due to her ruffling the feathers of the upper brass in the FBI. This begs the question, “Is this also the reason why Halperin was being investigated?” And did she change her name from Ortega to be able to follow in her mother’s footsteps under the radar? Or, was it just so she could get on with her career without the burden of her tarnished family name? As with most questions in Virginia, these are never really answered, but it appears both characters’ families are extremely dear to them.
Mystery is a theme that is rife throughout Virginia and it is presented in both the traditional sense as well as in a more abstract way. The more familiar aspects of the mystery genre come in the form of the Lucas Fairfax case. We are presented with clues and dark revelations that appear to be leading towards a neat conclusion. This is where the commonly drawn comparisons between Virginia and the popular shows, such as Twin Peaks and The X-Files, emerge as not everything is as it seems.
Throughout the early stages of the investigation, Tarver experiences frequent hallucinations. However, they appear far more tame and explainable than what we see later on. These initial hallucinations appear to offer clues as to what may have happened to Lucas, such as his father boarding up his bedroom door and suspicious encounters with the male authority figures in the story who appear over-invested in your investigation. Yet, not of these clues or intriguing hallucinations actually provide any definitive answers. This then leads us into the climax where linearity and coherent narrative are thrown out the window.
The final stages add elements of mystery we have not seen so far in the story, such as the supernatural and extra-terrestrials. We are given a rather typical scene when it comes to small town mystery tales, in that it appears all the people you have encountered in this little town (regardless of their manner towards you, good or bad) are in a mysterious cult. In this case the cult is dressed in robes, wearing faceless masks, and surrounding a bison that is prepared for sacrifice. This revelation really comes out of nowhere. The purpose of this cult is never explained, nor their role in Lucas’s disappearance, leaving you with a sense of bewilderment.
The introduction of extra-terrestrials was another revelation from left field. Just when you think this may have explained what happened to Lucas, he appears to not actually have been taken by the aliens. This is very much in keeping with the rest of the story; leaving the conclusions open to the audiences’ interpretation and this begs the question, were these mysterious revelations also just hallucinations?
The different locations in Virginia are few and far between. However, most provide an intriguing backdrop to the narrative. Often providing clues to the mentality and/or backstory to different characters.
There are two specific areas in the FBI offices that play a prominent role in the narrative. Firstly, there is Halperin’s office. The position of her office, in the basement, is very much representative of her stature in the bureau. We are told that she has been in the job a while, so why is she cast aside in such a way? It appears this comes back to Tarver’s investigation into her. Upon first glance, a reasonable conclusion to drawn is that Halperin has been given such harsh treatment due to her mother’s (Judith Ortega) time with the FBI. However, it is unclear whether the FBI know her identity due to her changing her name some time ago. Therefore, presumably, Halperin is in the position she is from following in her mother’s footsteps in regards to ruffling feathers within the bureau.
Kingdom itself is a rather interesting yet common setting for this type of genre. It is very much a shared trope across similar TV, films, and games to have a story set in a small, quiet town, here everything seems relatively normal, but there are strange things occurring under the surface. More specifically, the locations in the Kingdom setting also add value to the narrative. Many of the areas you visit during the game are often very similar upon first glance in terms of layout. This along with the jump cuts to stop you truly exploring the areas, this means that you really get a sense of being trapped.
For a relatively short narrative, you encounter many characters with varying personalities and secrets in Virginia. In the game, you play as Anne Tarver. A hard character to understand at first, Tarver often seems like she is just as much along for the ride in the story as we are. Therefore, we primarily get a sense of her character from others’ interactions with her, her consequent actions, and her surroundings.
At first, Tarver appears nothing more than a recent FBI academy graduate who is focused on the job. This is all we really see of her; she collects her badge and begins a case. However, we begin to get a sense of loneliness as the story moves along. Beyond work related scenes, Tarver shares scenes with barely no other characters. Furthermore, the scenes in which she is alone are often drawn out monotonous sequences that really promote a sense of seclusion. This is even reflected in her apartment which is representative of the typical lodgings of a loner that we are presented with in similar stories, e.g., half unpacked boxes, empty food containers, and clothes lying across the floor.
Tarver really breaks free of being a one-dimensional agent-type in the later third of the narrative. We do receive glimpses of some emotion in the items she frequently looks longingly at, but it is not until the dishonesty of investigating Halperin behind her back begins to take a toll that we really see her express her feelings. It starts with her routine of looking in the mirror and applying lipstick. She does this several times in the story but it seems to become more and more difficult. It culminates when she throws the lipstick down and refuses to look in the mirror in a scene after Halperin has discovered her deception. In Tarver’s first real act that goes against the grain, she meets with Halperin and disposes of the case files, in the hope that this will lead to forgiveness.
One characteristic of Tarver that is unclear until the conclusion is her motivation. Beyond completing the tasks assigned to her by the FBI, we aren’t shown emotional reasons for her behavior. The extent of this is her perpetual carrying of a broken key which turns out to be crucial in her backstory. Throughout we are given clues relating to illness and family, but Halperin appears to be the focal point. However, in the chaotic climax we learn that the broken key (intact when she receives it) is from a man in a hospital bed, who one could assume is her father due to the parental theme throughout the piece, but it is unclear.
This goes some way to explaining the connection between Tarver and Halperin, as well as explaining to us some of the visions that Tarver was having related to the broken key (such as the furnace and the dead birds). Yet, while this does elaborate on Tarver’s history to an extent, it is still left open-ended as we don’t know what the man in the hospital bed had really requested of her and why it affected her so much.
Conversely, we are shown in much more detail the potential motivations of Tarver’s partner, Maria Halperin. From both Tarver’s perspective and the audience’s, Halperin often appears a tough nut to crack. She initially appears dismissive and cold towards Tarver. However, the case does appear to bring them significantly closer. During Tarver’s investigating into Halperin, we uncover that she used to be named Maria Ortega and that her mother, Judith Ortega, had been under investigation during her time at the FBI also.
It is unclear whether Halperin changed her name to not be preemptively judged due to her mother’s past or if it was merely to go under the radar, possibly to continue the ruffling of feathers that landed Judith in hot water. The latter is more likely as through her distress when she loses the necklace which includes a photo of her mother as well as when Tarver puts her hands on it, we see that she deeply cares for her family. Even going so far as to have a hospital bed in her apartment that was presumably for her mother. Furthermore, the sheer fact she is under investigation also supports the notion that her motivations to lie in continuing her mother’s work.
Throughout Virginia, there are no concrete answers given to the questions that naturally arise as you play through this vague and engaging story. However, the ending takes your theories and puts them in a narrative blender. While a revelation that a cult was possibly behind mysterious goings-on in a small town isn’t something uncommon in the horror/thriller genres, there really was no hint of this direction in the story that preceded beyond clues of collaboration between the male authority figures in the game. Furthermore, the appearance of extra-terrestrials is also extremely outlandish and the story doesn’t offer up any possible connection between the two crazy revelations. As previously said, interpretation really is the crux of Virginia and, due to the baffling nature of these occurrences, you have to consider they may have also just been hallucinations.
The final scene is a lot more grounded than the bedlam that preceded it. There is no conclusion given to the Fairfax case or detailed explanation regarding Halperin’s and Tarver’s motives, but what we do get is a resolution in their relationship. The sense of calm the game induces after the frantic previous scenes matches the story perfectly, as we get a feeling of peace and letting go between the two friends.
A less ambitious narrative would have provided us with the finite answers that we wanted, but thankfully Virginia takes the risk of believing there is value in interpretation and that the emotional roller-coaster will leave you rattled, but satisfied.