You’re trapped in a holding cell at the institution that employs you. Your partner is to your left, an uninterested guard to your right. There’s no way out—or is there? You place a tiny square of acid on your tongue and watch as the world crumbles around you. The walls tear themselves apart and reform into a pathway where masked beings conduct a ceremony with a majestic buffalo. Aliens make a swift appearance in a field that you recently canvassed for clues. Reality is twisting away, but are the drugs to blame or your fragmented psyche?
This is Virginia, a new title from Variable State that can be described as a piece of surreal interactive fiction. Nothing makes sense the way it’s supposed to, or at all. This is the key to surrealism, a genre that preys on the fear of the unknown and injects the absurd into mundane situations. David Lynch perfected a film technique based on these tropes, with the term “Lynchian” spawned to describe the tales woven with threads of gossamer surrealism.
In fact, Virginia subscribes to many of the same techniques Lynch’s films. A harrowing exploration of an increasingly bizarre world that’s more akin to a film than a videogame, the game shunts players into the role of newly minted FBI agent Anne Tarver. She’s been assigned a missing persons case regarding one Lucas Fairfax, a local boy who’s vanished from the sleepy town of Kingdom. Working alongside veteran partner Maria Halperin, Tarver must sift through witnesses, material evidence and personal demons to reach a resolution. Everything seems normal enough at the beginning, but tiny aberrations in the narrative begin to spring to the foreground. Whether it’s a bad acid trip or the resurrection of a dead bird, it soon comes to light that, like the owls in Lynch’s television drama Twin Peaks, things aren’t what they seem.
The Lynchian aesthetic of Virginia shines through in the multitude of design aspects it has borrowed from the world of filmmaking. This is most readily apparent in the various plot threads that the game follows autonomously, independent of you. Much like a dream, in both Lynch’s movies and Virginia, exposition and resolution are hazy less important than the feeling of the moment. Symbology over continuity.
Rather than presenting a story that’s coherent as a whole, Virginia utilizes specific impactful moments intertwined with an item or an action. Recurring visions of a bison seen by Tarver could be interpreted as a signal to persevere in her new role as an FBI agent or something much more sinister. The appeal of Virginia and surrealistic works in general is that participants can take from the narrative what they want.
The lack of any spoken word in Virginia is another strong link to Lynchian filmmaking. Like much of the 1977 cult classic Eraserhead, communication between characters mostly happens nonverbally. The only clues players receive as to what’s actually going on are offered through body language or the written word in the form of FBI case files. This was the case with Blendo Games’ Thirty Flights of Loving as well, and it’s used to great effect here, going so far as to obfuscate the meaning of pivotal scenes throughout.
Then there are the jump cuts. Often, you’ll be investigating a scene and the game decides it’s time for you to be speeding away into the night, riding shotgun with your partner. What did you miss in the prior area? You’ll never know, because you usually don’t get a chance to go back. Although it’s played from a first-person perspective, Virginia is a story in which you’re very much along for the ride. In some situations, you’re even tossed about from narrator to narrator and forced to question whose viewpoint you’re experiencing.
Virginia is one of the only games out there that utilizes this type of cut as a technique to further the player’s journey through the unknown. The constant distortion of time and space, regardless of checkpoints or player interaction, creates a sense of claustrophobia and isolation. As the game progresses, these cuts come more frequently and detract from the player’s agency until the end, by which time it feels as though you have no control at all.
So what does it mean when control is stripped from you when you’re playing a video game? Games are meant to be controlled, after all, so without player input there’s not much left there to differentiate games from films. You can move around and pick up items at certain points, but in this way the game itself is both impeding the player’s progress and breaking the fourth wall.
As game-creation tools become more user-friendly, we’re experiencing more and more experimental breakthroughs in game design. Twine, for example, is an open-source tool that those hungry to create can spin interactive fiction with. And virtual reality platforms are providing a space for innovative player input that wasn’t available just a couple of years ago. Just about anyone can adapt a game-creation engine for their own purposes. A decade ago, Virginia may have been scoffed at. But as games become more respected as cultural influencers and valid art forms on the level of cinema, we’re beginning to see a revolution in the industry. It’s no longer bizarre to create games that buck traditional design constraints.
Although Virginia is among the handful of video games to successfully imbue the medium with Lynchian cinema technique, as the years progress there are sure to be more titles that leverage this tradition into a unique storytelling experience. With controls that transcend the 2D space, new creators entering the fold and more ways than ever to tell a story in the vein of Virginia, we need to see more experiments such as this one popping up. We’re nearing photorealism and a type of proto-reality in games already, so now it’s time to explore other, deeper realms.