"Cinematic" is a word that doesn't really have a place in the discussion around video games. It has often been used to describe games that attempt artistry through story-telling and visual panache, becoming particularly prevalent during the PlayStation and PS2 days as gaming entered 3D spaces and allowed for greater levels of spectacle and realism.
Games don't play by the same rules as cinema, but those developing games can, have and are entirely right to learn from the medium's form. Variable State's Virginia isn't cinematic, it's a game, but it does employ a number of cinematic editing techniques and a wide letterbox aspect ratio to tell its story in a stylish and captivating way.
Jump cuts, smash cuts and a healthy use of the Kuleshov effect give Virginia a unique feel, and are used well to coax players into a mystery involving an internal FBI investigation, a missing person's case and at various points, a buffalo.
The player is cast as Anna Tarver, a graduate FBI agent asked by the bureau's assistant director to find out more about her new partner, Maria Halperin. As the pair investigate the disappearance of a teenager in the small town of Kingdom, Virginia, Anna wrestles with where her loyalties lie and what kind of person she wants to be.
Full first person control of Tarver is given to the player. They can move and look wherever they please in the small succession of sets that make up the game. An action button is used to interact with certain objects, and that's the limit of player agency. There are no puzzles, no input is required during any action and there are no dialogue options. In fact, there's no dialogue at all, which only makes what Virginia manages to achieve all the more impressive.
What Virginia is will turn many people off immediately, but those people would be missing out on a distinctive, confident use of the video game form and one of the year's most captivating stories.
Often editing in games is cut and dry. A level or cutscene begins and later it ends. Scripted moments also impose the creative will of the developers to create moments or manipulate how the player feels (Metal Gear Solid 4's microwave hallway for example). What Virginia does can't exactly be called original, but it feels fresh because it utilises the kind of techniques that other developers should consider.
Earlier this year Firewatch used such techniques sparsely, suddenly cutting away from the action when the game had nothing else to offer on that particular in-game day. The player didn't have to venture back to the protagonist's bed because there was nothing to gain. This economic use of gameplay to better tell a story would benefit a large number of games, regardless of budget.
Virginia's cuts give the game a great sense of flow, but there are occasions when a sudden change of scene can have a negative effect. When the player is given some important written information there often isn't enough time given to read enough of it before the scene cuts away. The player is given free reign to look where they want, but the game doesn't account for that during these moments intended to explain things a little.
It's a case of the developers prioritising pacing over clarity, but not of them being wilfully obtuse. In Virginia's climatic moments however, Variable State can be accused of exactly that. The ending is a swell of cryptic imagery and poignant revelations, but not the lucidity that would have made Virginia a classic.
Variable State's story is pieced together slowly over the course of the game's two-hour runtime, from an ambigious mix of literal and abstract scenes. It's a shame that players aren't left with a clearer picture following the ending, but the everything up until that point sets things up excellently. The ending is certainly effective (thanks in large part to Lyndon Holland's superb, evocative soundtrack) but it bewilders more than it satisfies, and the ending of a, presumably, one-off story should do more of the latter.
Virginia is astounding in many ways. The way it conveys its meaning through visuals, character tics, a few hundred written words and one incredible score without uttering a single line of dialogue is remarkable. Confident and measured use of editing lends a sense of style, but Variable State's swagger turns to over-confidence in the final stretch and leaves Virginia on a befuddling rather than satisfying note.