All These Variable States

virginia_gameplay_screenshot

So, everyone likes Twin Peaks, right? Well, not everyone, because I know how weird and how strange it can be, melding a lot of stuff that was either too insane to be true what what was kind of groundbreaking, especially for TV.

A lot of entertainment since then, from TV like The X-Files (which you could probably consider a spiritual successor to Twin Peaks in a way) to the current wave of weird fiction podcasts, like Tanis (from production company PNW, aka “Pacific North West”, get it?) that all happen to take place in the Pacific Northwest, all have some root tracing itself back to that show, which basically helped establish that modern concept in fiction of weird towns in remote locations full of forests, full of secrets, and full of strangeness that crosses lines between the supernatural and the sci-fi, the humane and the inhuman.

The real problem with a lot of this tends to be my primary criticism with most of the world drawing influence from earlier works, which is that the wrong things are being drawn from influence-wise. If you’re going to be influenced by say, The X-Files, then the thing that really should be the impact and influence on you is not just internal government conspiracies revolving around aliens, but also about growing relationships and trust while encountering the unexplainable of the wide world, especially parts of the world that don’t usually get seen or are passed off as too mundane. The X-Files is as much weird horror as sci-fi in that sense, which a lot of “inspired-by” work fails to capture, in my mind.

Twin Peaks is the same, in that the idea of small-town weirdness in an imposing setting is a surface inspiration that often gets used as a fairly cheap-and-easy “spooky” look and vibe. However, the other elements of soap opera-drama, intense personal relationships that can damage and crack at larger things like plans and investigations, as well as the overall larger concept that you CAN’T explain or fully explore these supernatural things…all that seems to be lost in the translation of “inspiration” onto more current work.

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We played the first-person narrative game Virginia, from Variable State and 505 Games recently. I like weird video games, I like first-person exploring narrative-types, and claiming obvious references (mentioned above) is a cheap way to get me to check it out. The X-Files and Twin Peaks (rookie agent and disgraced veteran partner, small town surrounded by forests and a military base, supernatural elements, a missing child, secrets) are all over this game from the get-go, as you (the new agent) end up looking for a missing boy in Freedom, VA. The game’s minimalist to a T, almost to a fault, though not quite, which in a way is supposed to be part of its charm of nostalgia, being set in the 1992 as well. Hell, it works and sells, so why not? A lot of other video games these days in this vein seem to be on the same wavelength of near-past settings, which establish not only a plugging of story holes that a cell phone and interview could solve, but also establishing a visual aesthetic that is meant to deliberately evoke feelings and connections to other media (like TV and film) set in that area, albeit an evoking that only works so well with the minimal art style of the game.

I do like that you can actually see yourself in the mirror, though.

I guess if we’re talking about comparing to other similar games, Virginia is probably closest to Everyone’s Gone To The Rapture, where you literally move through the game simply to advance the literary narrative, with little to no actual “work” involved. It just plays out for you, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing (though Rapture was a game that I found boring and dragging personally) though it does require you to have something involved to make it stand out. Gone Home and Firewatch, the standards in this kind of game as far as I’m concerned, require a little bit of actual work on your part to figure out the narrative, solve some level of puzzles, and most importantly, they help you along in figuring out that narrative.

Virginia‘s main standout element, being entirely wordless with only minimal text, isn’t that big a deal for a video game, because ideally a video game is something where you interact and figure out through playing. You don’t need a lot of literary exposition, because the actions and interactions give that to you. However, Virginia‘s claim that there’s not much if any vocal/text communication but then still have some level of reading involved is where the flaws start to pile up.

There are a couple of mysteries within the overall story of the game, and the big problem is that with no one talking, you have to snatch at bits of text when they appear and devour them as soon and as quickly as you can. Because the game sometimes makes jumps on its own (even though you’re being prompted to act to move forward) you can’t read what’s available, and not catching every little thing all of a sudden creates massive gaps in your understanding. I spent a good 1/3 of the game assuming a character’s mother was in fact her wife/life partner, because I wasn’t allowed to look at a text document (provided for information) long enough to read it, and I couldn’t go back once the scene moved on. Didn’t see the dates related to the related character, lost the narrative thread. The screen changes, I’m forced to close the file folder, or the character looks away and the scene changes.

Oops.

That this happened a few times, all at what I later on realized were fairly crucial moments in the story (in terms of actually learning what’s going on) was probably my major complaint here. Things just moved on with little to no space to understand, to learn, to even move on your own. So much of the criticism of these types of video games is that they’re basically short stories or movies that you’re just along for the ride, and that criticism actually feels pretty apt when applied to Virginia.

If you’re going to include elements in your storytelling that require some level of independent thought and analysis, you still need to include some level of “jump-starting” to fill in the blanks that would start the reader/player down that road, and ultimately if you can’t take the minute or two it requires to grab that information you need to be able to continue forward with a story and then make your decisions and interpretations of the story, then what’s the point of giving someone that interpretative freedom?

When I teach literature, I semi-jokingly tell my students that in literary studies there are “no wrong answers,” which is a really simple way to introduce them to the idea of informed subjective analysis of material. Too often students are scared to give their own opinions when they start out doing this kind of reading and writing (college-level lit classes) so I encourage them to just throw interpretations out there, see what sticks. However, as the class eventually moves on, I introduce more basic concepts to help round out the “but”‘s of “there are no wrong answers,” which include the concept of context.

Context is king. Context is key.

Without even basic context of a story, or the story’s background, you can have all sorts of great connections and some real deep influences going on connecting your work to other works, and you have have a setting that’s rich with emotional punches, but it can feel like it’s too scattered across the board, which is what kind of happens to this game.

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I don’t hate Virginia. The more I think about it, the more I kinda like it quite a bit, especially in certain areas. I think the concept is really bold honestly, and mechanics-wise this could have been really great if a few things were fixed, because those few things really skewed (not ruined, not quite) the game away from being really great. Also, as I mentioned a bit when I wrote about my frustrations with prestige TV’s obsession with attaching homework as a level of even basic understanding of the story, having to almost immediately jump into external reading and analysis to not just understand the thematic elements but the very basic linear narrative of a work, then I start to feel like maybe we as creators have kind of forgotten the point of there being different storytelling mediums. Yes, good stories are universal, and Virginia is, when you put the work in, a really good story. However, is it best told as a game like this? I don’t know. It could work well in a bunch of other settings (which I sort of suspected might have been the origin here, but that’s another story for another time) and it’s not a bad game, but it’s not what it could be.

Ultimately it left me more frustrated than satisfied, though that frustration is a little tempered knowing that I can go back and try to re-understand better with another play-through. I guess it just depends if I feel like the work is worth it whenever I get around to it. I don’t know, it might be.

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