Virginia (2016) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Virginia (2016)

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I've been playing through Final Fantasy XV and, unless something drastic happens, the overall experience has been one of gradual madness sometimes begging the game to perform the action I want it to.  The least of its insane approach to player interaction is the driving, billed as a selling point, but one where you listen to the same inane conversations, answer the same questions, and assuming you want to take the wheel yourself are reduced to holding R2.  Last night I took an unskippable boat ride lasting about five minutes where absolutely nothing of note happened.  This isn't fun, nor insightful, and makes me wish more games realized that the chatter in-between long stretches of unskippable travel is a devolution of the art form.

Enter Virginia, that I played and completed before I picked up FFXV, and while I can't recommend it there are enough promising ideas in play that other developers might learn a thing or two.  FFXV hyped its travel and bonding experience while Virginia showcases editing and a thrilling mystery.  The effectiveness of both are shaky, at best, but when I know my destination and I'm controlling the player character the courtesy of cutting the boring middle part of walking to get to "the good stuff" is one I wish more developers would embrace.The problem with Virginia's approach to editing is that there's not a coherent perspective behind the choices of what images are shown and what aren't.  Editing is a way of creating multiple meanings behind seemingly disparate images but it requires a steady idea of whose perspective we're experiencing the story from.  It seems our perspective is that of Anne Tarver, the player character, yet that idea is put to the test with early dream sequences which the player controls a different entity observing Anne from the outside.  Is it Maria Halperin, the FBI agent Anne is supposed to keep an eye on?  Is it the spirit of editing itself by cutting mundane activities with shifts to Anne sleeping with animals around her?  Or is the editing perspective that of the maybe occult maybe multidimensional maybe UFO maybe government powers beyond Anne and Maria?

Unclear answers on all of those hypotheticals are why Virginia's use of editing is more admirable in attempt than successful in execution.  I'm grateful that I don't have to walk from my obvious starting point to the obvious ending point but without the clarity of perspective in the editing philosophy I might as well be watching a series of independent semi-interactive tech demos.  It's also unfortunate that the lack of a coherent editing perspective bleeds into the gameplay.  Cutting out all the boring travel parts of a game only to be trapped in a scene where I have to move the cursor over every object trying to figure out which one will let me advance is a recipe for frustration.  Traveling is typically busywork in video games, but so too is the glorified pixel hunt that is Virginia's method of waiting for the icon to change shape so that I can press a button and something will happen.It's similarly frustrating that there's little rhyme or reason to when one scene will shift to the next.  I could be exploring a room, finding the interactable objects, and making curious discoveries.  Then I see an object I can interact with, walk over, and suddenly I'm outside or back in the car.  The lack of clarity in what defines progress in Virginia's gameplay is another byproduct of the absence of perspective in the editing.

The most charitable I can be to the approach is that it's trying to convey the feeling of being trapped in a mystery beyond comprehension.  I'm just not entirely sure the story is comprehensible to anyone save the developers.  The question about maybe UFOs or maybe government powers being behind the mystery of Virginia was not one made in snark.  In Viriginia's final acts the screen floods with sacrifices, occult robes, mysterious lights in the sky, officials of different power structures staring at you, and since there was no stable editing perspective before it has the effect of frustration.  There are hints that the perspective is going to go wonky in a brief scene of Anne putting a tab of acid into an envelope in a way that will set off alarms to players familiar with Chekhov's gun.  Even with that familiarity, the deluge of every possible conspiracy angle being thrown at the screen at once bordered on parody.Editing might be Virginia's selling point, but the real success is in its use of silence and emotional minimalism in the character design.  One of Virginia's most obvious influences is Jonathan Demme's The Silence of the Lambs in the way men place pressure on women with their eyes.  Virginia takes this an incredible step further, not only showing how men in different positions of power quietly exert pressure, but pushing Anne to the point where she is replicating that gaze to her eventual subordinates.  That's where the scattered editing and lack of dialogue is used exceptionally well with the emotionally evocative character models.  After the blank hyperrealism of Horizon: Zero Dawn, it was a pleasure revisiting the subtle emotional shifts of Virginia in the rare smiles, arched eyebrows, and purposeful actions within each scene.

Had Virginia not fired the gun with the acid overload of the last chapter I might have gone a step further into a hesitant recommendation.  As it stands, there are fascinating aspects behind the idea of Virginia that need a firmer understanding of what editing accomplishes.  Even with that perspective, the disconnect between the "cut the crap" presentation and the stalled progress looking for the next clickable thing is a gulf too wide for me to jump.

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Posted by Andrew

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