Anne Tarver stares at herself in the mirror, then reaches into her purse to apply some lipstick. She nods, perhaps approvingly, at this familiar mask she wears and then walks down a corridor. Something in Virginia’s soundtrack, performed by the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, hints that something is “off,” as does the ominous glow of an emergency exit as Tarver—and the players who control her—wait in line for whatever it is that lies just around the corner. Just as quickly as this foreboding dread is summoned, though, it vanishes, and Tarver simply walks across a stage: She’s graduating from the F.B.I., and this is the ceremony at which she receives her badge. And then, just as abruptly, that eerie sensation returns: a jump cut empties the auditorium of people and a previously unseen cassette player broadcasts the out-of-place sound of a beeping hospital monitor. Where is Tarver, really?
For the game’s remaining two hours, Virginia continues to weave between the real and the imaginary. Players are offered no real choices within this tersely edited walking simulator, and yet the contemplative nature of the game keeps things feeling unusually satisfying. That’s because you’re given the imaginative freedom to engage with what they’re seeing, more so than in Dear Esther, such that the game feels like an interactive studio tour through a detective’s dreams. Virginia is as much about the investigation of the missing child Lucas Fairfax as Twin Peaks was about who killed Laura Palmer; the fictional city of Kingdom, Virginia, circa 1992, is merely a place in which to cinematically brush up against the vast unknowable nature of humanity. The lack of dialogue serves only to intensify the many mysteries writ small and large, from the broken key Tarver carries with her, to the internal investigation she’s secretly carrying out against her partner, Agent Halperin.
The result is a game that’s both a slice-of-life drama and a surreal case study, and its 42 short scenes cover everything from spirit animals and cult rituals to late-night pizza orders and barroom flirtations. Without a single word of dialogue, Virginia still manages to clearly convey complex feelings of friendship, isolation, and betrayal, but leaves it to the player to decipher how much to read into all the symbolism. Perhaps the buffalo stubbornly standing in the road beside a military base is meant to signal the way in which the unruly Lucas was subdued by American might, and just maybe the red bird found and freed from his teenage lair suggests that Lucas simply fled from an abusive father. The constant jump cuts, dream sequences, and memory montages simultaneously serve to focus the action and blur expectations. Ultimately, even though players have little actual control over Tarver’s decision to grow up and throw away her protective lipstick, the front-row, first-person seat given to players makes for a haunting, intimate experience.