Virginia

I played through the game Virginia this afternoon. It was 100 minutes long, and by God, it was a powerful experience.

I picked it up because of a strong recommendation from game critic Jon Denton.

After playing, first reaction was that I should recommend it to everyone alive. But after a moment of thought, I had serious reservations–maybe nobody should play this. I’ll just write my reactions and thoughts here. There’s no real need for me to write a full review. Just watch Jon’s. Then, maybe you want to play the game–I recommend it! Just be warned, it’s heavy stuff. Then read this.

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The game packs a powerful punch, emotionally. It does so masterfully, within its restrictions (first-person perspective, no dialogue). It uses cinematic techniques, animation, motifs, clever editing…

Is this not manipulative? That’s a topic I’ve been pondering recently. I wrote about it this week. I’m not saying it’s something malicious. But it’s a powerful demonstration of the developer’s skill in playing with human emotions. And this is not an ordinary skill, this is not a part of normal human communication. (We didn’t evolve to be able to handle this… maybe we’re playing with fire.)

But a feeling is just a feeling. It happens, you get over it.

Is specific content here objectionable? There’s a tricky thing. My understanding of the plot is still very fragmentary! I’ll say this: going into a detective story, you should expect bad stuff to happen. And it’s a subversive tale. (Some would automatically place a good or bad judgement on that. Not me.) It has a PEGI rating of 12. They neglect to any warn about the portrayal of drug usage. Oops! And LSD, man, can’t that permanently fuck up a person’s brain? (Personally, the intensity of this experience, caused as it was by mere interactive audio-visual content, helped reaffirm my conviction that really I don’t need drugs…)

As for genuinely dangerous manipulative media, perhaps the ones about which we should be most concerned are ones with no heavy emotional impact, stuff that just passes though without evoking any strong reaction that might prompt one to stop and seriously examine what you’re putting into your brain.

Interesting how role-playing bad actions can evoke a feeling of guilt. The theme of conflicting obligations hit home with me. What if my employer asks me to do something wrong? It will happen sooner or later.

On the game’s challenging nature, here’s something. In a typical game, challenging puzzles or action sequences block or slow down your progress. Virginia doesn’t have any of that.

But there is a serious challenge here: figure out what the hell is going on. And this challenge doesn’t slow down the pace. Regardless of your lack of understanding, the game moves forwards. Sometimes the pace is relentless. Then the game ends. But that challenge persists. It can no longer have any meaning within the game, because you’re finished with the game. The meaning has moved… outside of the game, into the attempt to intelligently talk about the game after you’re done with it.

In this way, reality contaminates the game experience. I should be wholly immersed in what’s going on in the game. But I’m already getting distracted by the effort to formulate coherent thoughts about it so I can look smart on the internet.

And those jump-cuts, eh? Very unconventional for games! Unceremoniously wresting you from one scene and placing you elsewhere, for the sake of story progression, and controlling the pacing. (I do still need to play Thirty Flights…)

I think harsh jump-cuts could be a valuable tool to use in more traditional, challenge-focussed games. There is a needless slavish attachment to continuity. Sometimes, skipping past dull stuff is the right move. As an advocate for shorter games, this could be an effective method to cut the fat.

This isn’t a review, but if it was, I’d end it with a 5/5 rating.

Okay! Other stuff, somewhat related:

What I’m playing now, Obduction. A quite different sort of game, still broadly within the same genre (first-person adventure).

Kathleen Stock on Fiction and the Emotions