Review: Virginia Silently Asks the Tough Questions About Gender, Identity & Power
Spoiler warning: While the Lynchian nature of Virginia means that it’s quite a difficult game to “spoil” in the traditional sense, please be aware that this article does contain light spoilers surrounding its events and themes.
I’m ashamed to admit it, but you can sell me almost anything by comparing it to Twin Peaks or referring to it as “Lynchian.” It’s an inherent weakness that I can’t fight, no matter how hard I try. But surprisingly, it hasn’t ever let me down and has served to introduce me to some pretty cool stuff, the most recent of which is Variable State’s phenomenal new game, Virginia.
Set in a small town in the early 90’s, Virginia is a first-person thriller about an FBI agent investigating a missing person case. It’s as much a cinematic experience as it is a game, with a disorienting narrative that jumps between timelines, as the boundaries between reality, dream, and fantasy become blurred. And while it has come to be pigeonholed as a walking simulator, a far more accurate description is lucid dream simulator.
With a description like that, it’s unsurprising that Virginia wears its Lynchian love on its sleeve, and is filled with clever winks and homages (particularly to Twin Peaks). It’s also unsurprising that those comparisons have factored significantly into both the marketing and press surrounding the game. However, it’s important to note that beyond the SEO goldmine and bandwagon hype, Virginia also develops and encompasses its own distinct identity, and can undeniably stand on its own two feet.
In fact, it is precisely those delightful moments of dissonance that cement my love for the game, causing me to be a fan of Virginia in its own right, rather than just a rabid Lynch fan looking for that delectable (but ultimately disposable) taste of Twin Peaks.
One moment, in particular, serves to capitalize on that familiarity, before jarringly reminding the player that this isn’t Twin Peaks: The Video Game, and we sure as hell aren’t Agent Dale Cooper. It involves us entering a roadhouse, which bears a striking resemblance to Twin Peaks’ own Bang Bang Bar. From the moment we enter, the game’s soundtrack swells with an Angelo Badalamenti-esque song, reminiscent of “Falling.” The source of the music comes as no surprise; in front of a red, velvet-draped stage, a band fronted by a chanteuse in crimson wordlessly croons along to the song. A spotlight focuses on her and the rest of the world seems to fade away. It feels as though a cosmic message is about to be delivered.
As with a lot of Virginia’s scenes, there’s an eerie feeling of familiarity and déjà vu. But this is undoubtedly the most blatant of the game’s homages; a lovingly rendered recreation of one of Twin Peaks’ most infamous scenes (it is, after all, where we finally find out who killed Laura Palmer).
As a fan of the show, it’s a particularly beguiling moment and one that causes me to abandon my typical playstyle. I normally take on a thoroughly investigative role in adventure games, meticulously looking at every item proffered before interacting with the object the game is clearly pointing me to. Instead, I ignore everything around me and head directly towards an invitingly empty table positioned straight in front of the stage.
Because of this strange transfixion, I neglect to notice the man next to me. The one slumped against a bar table—clearly getting plastered—his business suit disheveled and collar undone. Which makes it all the more shocking when he suddenly imposes on my view, stumbling over to me before brazenly leaning across my table. Even with the game’s minimalistic facial expressions, he oozes sleaze. With one low-poly eyebrow suggestively raised, he looks me up and down.
The real me—the one sitting in bed playing a video game on my laptop—physically recoils, and I accidentally knock my headphones off in the process. As I hastily put them back on, I watch my Virginian counterpoint’s dark, feminine hands appear before me, as she slips a recently acquired gold band over her left ring finger and holds it up to the man to deter him. He stares at the ring for a few seconds, frowning, before drunkenly waving us off and stumbling away.
We both breathe a sigh of relief.
My Twin Peaks fantasy is well and truly shattered. However, this is not a criticism of the game’s level of immersion; rather, it’s high praise. Because despite Virginia’s many allusions to those quintessential 90’s FBI stories like Twin Peaks and The X-Files, the player character is strikingly unfamiliar within this setting: a young woman of color.
Fortunately, this characterization is not cheap tokenism—just taking a role made for a white male and changing the gender and skin color of the character model. Instead, the player character’s identity permeates and informs every aspect of the game. It’s unwavering and inescapable; a constant reminder of the character’s place (or lack thereof) within the game’s setting.
Which is in stark contrast to most non-customizable games told from the first-person perspective, that typically treat the main character as a blank slate for the player to project themselves upon. Instead, moments like the roadhouse incident serve to remind players, “You’re not you. You’re not fantasy you. You’re Special Agent Anne Tarver. This is her story.”
From the second the game begins, your identity is clear, staring back at you from a bathroom mirror. And while I recently read that a main character looking at themselves in a mirror is one of the most popular (and clichéd) introductory paragraphs utilized by aspiring novelists, in a first-person game (particularly one that omits dialogue, such as Virginia) it can effortlessly provide a wealth of information to the player.
For example, within the first few seconds of Virginia, I can ascertain that I’m playing as a young, professional, woman of color. This is because I can physically see these things as I perform the game’s first piece of player interactivity: retrieving a lipstick from my purse and applying it in front of a mirror. I’m dressed in a business suit, with a formal hairstyle, and the dusky rose polish on my fingernails matches the color on my lips.
These indicators will continue to remind me of my identity throughout the game, whether it is occurring in reality, dreams, or fantasy. Mirrors in particular feature frequently, and as well as grounding me and reminding me of Anne’s identity, they also serve as an insight into her frame of mind. In one scene, when presented with the familiar lipstick, clicking on it prompts Anne to throw it in the trash, rather than apply it. Much later in the game, she will return to it, brandishing it like a form of cosmetic armor, and even further into the game it will be replaced with a bottle of pills and the reflection of a dour woman plagued by self-loathing.
Similarly, the dynamic lighting of the game means that I’m seldom without a shadow, and therefore, a reminder of my identity. In one particularly affecting scene, after listening to my high heels clack down a corridor, I survey an empty office, and the only thing visible on the once filled walls is my silhouette; a stark reminder that I was the one behind its vacancy.
But as well as establishing and reiterating who our character is, the game also serves to show us our place within its world. Much like the opening mirror scene, this occurs almost immediately, and on reaching the end of the first corridor, I take my place in a line of suit-clad men and begin diligently progressing forwards on cue, despite not knowing the final destination. On the wall beside me, their silhouettes are projected, looking like the shadows of clones. When I reach the end of the line, I am greeted by one of the few women I will encounter in the game, a secretary. She directs me onto a stage, where a man shakes my hand and passes me my FBI badge. I’m at my graduation ceremony, standing in front of a crowd of entirely male faces. My outsider status is clear.
Similarly, on my first day as an agent, I find myself in an elevator, dwarfed by my male colleagues. One notices me out of the corner of his eye and turns to look me up and down, before smiling warmly—I can’t help but wonder if Anne smiles back. We reach our destination and the men exit purposefully, their confident strides like well-rehearsed choreography. In contrast, I have no idea where I’m supposed to go, so I fumble along, heightening Anne’s sense of not belonging. There’s not a single other woman around, and when I approach the men’s desks, they treat me like a ghost.
But it’s not just within the FBI that I’m treated as an outsider or targeted due to my identity. Once my partner (a fellow woman of color) and I begin investigating our missing person case out in the real world, we are almost always both the minority gender and minority race, no matter the setting. It’s an isolating experience, but it extends beyond always feeling like the odd (wo)man out, we are also treated in ways our male counterpoints never would be.
In one instance, early in the investigation, I am sitting in a car at a gas station while my partner pays for fuel. While nosily poking around in her belongings, the sound of bass-heavy speakers encroaches on my soundscape. A car has pulled up beside me, and someone is knocking on my window. I look up, only to see a young male give me the finger before the car speeds off. As the real me frantically moves her cursor around to do something—record a license plate, jump in the front seat and chase them, or at the very least give them the finger back—Anne just sits there, helpless. Later, when attempting to question the same young man, he inexplicably lashes out and pushes me to the ground. Once again there’s no option to fight back, Anne just meekly remains on the ground, while her partner roughly grabs the guy as he tears her necklace off. By the game removing any interactivity beyond picking myself up and dusting myself off, I end up feeling just as powerless as Anne.
Which is unsurprising because, at the end of the day, beyond the central mystery and disguised under disorienting dream sequences and mesmerizing symbolism, this is ultimately a story about men and the power they wield.
It’s also a story about moral choices, and whether or not Anne will facilitate and perpetuate that power, or fight against it.
This is because Anne isn’t just investigating a missing persons case. She’s also investigating her partner, Maria Halperin, an alleged renegade agent relegated to a basement office so inconvenient and tucked-away that it makes Fox Mulder’s look like a penthouse. Maria has secrets of the familial kind, but so does Anne, and while one involves the exposure of truth, the other involves its concealment. One lands you a crappy office and an internal affairs investigation, while the other puts you on the fast track to a cushy directorial role.
It’s not an unfamiliar scenario, as we discover, with some of the game’s only written words taking the form of old FBI documents perused via microfiche. They tell a story of a woman who, even when winning an FBI award for meritorious achievement, is defined by her role as a wife and mother; her husband’s moral influence credited for her success. She is said to have set a “high watermark amongst her lady contemporaries,” and is considered a “role model for law abiding colored women.” But these microaggressions are the least of her worries. Further files suggest a conspiracy. A woman’s potential to disrupt a decades-old paradigm and the steps taken to silence her.
You justify to yourself that these acts are nothing more than the product of history. Decaying black and white remnants of a different time. Things are different now, you assure yourself. Only, they aren’t. History is repeating itself, and you play a role in its potential perpetuation. Powerful men haunt your dreams and reality. You’ve succumbed to them once—burying an unknown truth—will you do it again?
In one reality-bending scene, we inhabit the bodies of some of these powerful men, and see beyond the masks they wear. We witness their secrets and shame; a police officer’s anger issues, a politician’s feelings of fraudulence, a military officer’s damaging detachment, and a priest’s unholy vices. In amongst them lies an answer to a question, but it was never the one the game was asking.
Instead, the question is one of identity.
A woman standing in front of a mirror, asking, “what kind of person am I?”
It’s always there; unwavering and inescapable.
Virginia is available now on PC/Mac, PS4 and Xbox One.
(images via 505 Games)
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Nico is a freelance writer from Sydney, Australia. You can find her on both Twitter and Tumblr. She always appreciates recommendations for new Twin Peaks-esque/Lynchian things (particularly as she impatiently waits for season three).
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