It will be hard to talk about Virginia and not bring up that now almost cliché question, “Are video games art?”. Virginia has been in development since early 2014 and is the first offering from Variable State. Virginia was inspired by such shows as Twin Peaks, The X-Files, and The Outer Limits. It’s important to note that in their own description Variable State refer to Virginia as Interactive Drama, but more on that later. Having just recently reviewed Event, I feel like I’m still in the proper mindframe to tackle something like Virginia, so let’s begin.
The most important part of Virginia is indeed the story. Like all games where the story is highly important, I will give just the basics as I certainly don’t want to be the one to spoil it. You are an FBI agent on assignment to do an internal investigation of a fellow agent. While with this agent you get sent to the fictional town of Kingdom, VA, on a missing person case. Along the way you get to experience some of that patented Twin Peaks and X-Files style mix of the weird and mundane (maybe The Outer Limits as well, but I somehow never watched any of those episodes).
Normally, when reviewing a game, right about now is where I’d talk about the gameplay. Although I’m a bit hard pressed to find much of anything resembling gameplay. Remember earlier I mentioned how it was important to note that Variable State refer to Virginia as Interactive Drama? There’s a good reason for that. Virginia is presented like a movie. In case you doubt that, it even starts off with the same typical title crawl and opening credits you’d find in a lot of films. The actual interactive portion of Virginia is relatively light, there are instances where you can indeed move and look around, but seemingly there is no choice in what to interact with. I can’t recall having any more than one thing at any given time that was available to click on.
Usually, what you are required to click on is plainly obvious. So obvious that it really just seemed like I was searching for a Next button. Yes, it’s slightly more interactive than that, but in functionality it’s essentially the same exact thing. I may have been tempted to just stare out the window a bit and refuse to do what Virginia wants me to do, but I physically couldn’t. What? Yeah, see Virginia has a rather large elephant in the room or, slight spoiler, a Bison.
So, the symbolic Bison in the room? That would be the camera. The way the camera is presented is that it’s basically latched onto your face. Now, that in and of itself isn’t exactly terrible, but when it’s coupled with rather fast camera movements, it’s absolutely stomach turning. Every time I looked down at a door knob to open it, my stomach went flying straight towards my throat. Also an interesting “feature” is the head bob like you’re looking down the sights of a sniper rifle in a shooter. Now, if you are trying to simulate looking through someone’s eyes, I get it, but latching a camera to a face basically ignores the fact that your eyes do indeed move independently and can adjust. It’s not impossible to move your head while still maintaining focus on the same exact spot.
I made it 13 minutes my first attempt before I had to stop. Being completely honest and up front about it, if it wasn’t for the fact that I had received the game for review purposes, I would have requested a refund from Steam for the very first time. After some time I gave it another go and managed nearly another hour before it became too much for me again, this time employing the technique of looking just to the side of my monitor rather than straight on. Using more of my peripheral vision helped but certainly didn’t eliminate the issue. Time to do something I often refrain from doing, and that is checking out some discussions online to see if I was alone in this issue. First thing I came across stated the same nauseous feeling but was coupled with a discussion on FPS. These are discussions that I normally want no part of, and this was no exception, but it was made clear that the game being set at 30 FPS was indeed intentional and a creative choice, this again will be important later.
Eight hours passed and I was still queasy. I don’t enjoy the fact that I feel compelled to talk about things outside of the game, but unfortunately this was all due to having played it as it was intended. The next day I decided to give it one last go. Although it was made abundantly clear that it was meant to be in 30 FPS and that everything was made for 30 FPS, I decided to take my chances and unlock the FPS. The game immediately let it be known this wasn’t a good idea. With nothing left to lose I decided to do it anyway, what is the worst that could happen?
Boy, am I glad I did that. With the FPS now set to unlimited, that stomach churning feeling no longer appeared. The camera moved much smoother, and I could finally stare directly at the screen. Finishing up the final hour of the story felt like something completely different, 1,000% more enjoyable. I would also like to note that not a single animation looked the least bit odd while the FPS was unlocked. Phew, what a relief.
Developer: Variable State
Publisher: 505 Games
Platforms: Xbox One, PS4, PC
Release Date: 22nd September 2016