Welcome again to Discussion: [indie game] (spoilers!), our semi-regular, plot-spoiler filled adventure into the world of comparatively modern indie gaming.

Today’s game is Virginia, a 2016 release from 505 Games, which sees you in the role of Anne Tarver, a fresh graduate from the FBI academy, partnering up with a more seasoned agent, Maria Halperin, to take on your first case, investigating the disappearance of a teenager in the small town of Kingdom, Virginia.

As usual, we’ll keep further details for the discussion itself, and instead present you with the official trailer, a note that this game is short and broadly enjoyable, and an invitation to check it out for yourself, it you haven’t already.

And now, the ***FINAL SPOILER WARNING*** for the discussion below!



Rik: Right, so where are we with whose choice it was this time… was it possibly mine, but I was very indecisive?

Jo: We were between this and another one. I can’t remember why though.

Rik: We seem to be in a process of searching for walking sims of note that we might not have already covered, having possibly already looked at the biggest names.

Jo: I’ve had this one for a while. I honestly think I got it because it was free on Steam for ages.

Rik: Oh really?

Jo: It was either free or a pound or something. And I was in the ‘what else can I play that’s like Gone Home‘ phase of my return to gaming.

Rik: I think it was in a sale on GOG recently, that’s when I picked it up. It looked interesting, and fits in the mid-10s era of walking sims that we’ve been looking at, although I knew virtually nothing going in, except whatever blurb there was on the store page when I bought it. Which honestly I think is the way to go with these things sometimes.

Jo: Yeah, I absolutely agree…

Rik: Although that may run counter to the point of these discussions for anyone reading who hasn’t played the game…

Jo: There’s a chance that people just enjoy our witty bants (I was going to say hashtag ffgbants, but I actually cannot find the hash key on this keyboard, which is telling).

Rik: Is it an Apple machine you’re using now?

Jo: It is, of course.

Rik: That’s kind of like someone who is so hipster they’re off social media altogether… ‘I’m so off social media, my keyboard doesn’t even have a hashtag’.

Jo: Apple are too cool for hashtags.

Rik: Apple keep you focused on your work and creative projects by removing distracting keys that might be used on social media.

Jo: I’m not kidding, there really isn’t one on this keyboard.

Rik: I don’t think #ffgbants will catch on. Also, I think Stoo might exercise his veto, and he’d be right to do so.

Jo: If you’re here just for the witty bants, you came to the wrong place. Anyway, I digress…

FBI computer work, 90s style.


Play feature

Rik: So you didn’t know much about Virginia either?

Jo: No, nothing. At all.

Rik: The first thing that struck me was that the cutesy title screen was at odds with the game itself. There’s a map of locations and it’s quite cute and indie, but then you start the game and it’s all epic music and presented like a big important film.

Jo: Yeah, that totally threw me as well. I knew nothing about the game, but from the screenshots, trailer etc. there was a certain ‘serious’ vibe going on. So when the title screen opened up in this cute cartoony style I thought maybe I had it wrong. Then the game started like a Christopher Nolan film or something.

Rik: It was certainly intense, and definitely more movie-like than other games we’ve played.

Jo: Yes, I think even the menu says ‘Play feature’ or something.

Rik: And that feeling sort of carries into the game itself. I mean, this is one of the less interactive titles in this series that we’ve played. Even by the standards of so-called ‘walking sims’ (your objection to this term already noted!)

Jo: Yeah, it’s very pared back. Not quite to the extent of Dear Esther, but not far off. You’re very limited in what you can do. During my second playthrough I was a bit more thorough, trying to go off piste a bit more, and see if there were things I had missed first time around. In my first go I pretty much went along with it all. Like, ‘ok, I’ve got to go down this corridor and just ignore all the other doors because they don’t open’.

Rik: There’s virtually no need for exploration. My instinct is always to try and look around, if it’s easy. So trying to open those doors in the first corridor, for example. But pretty soon I got the message that it wasn’t that kind of game.

Jo: Exactly.

Rik: I was cursing myself slightly for not looking at the computer in your character’s apartment. But then, when I did, it’s all blank anyway.

Jo: You’re a bit more on rails than in the other games we’ve played.

Rik: There’s no attempt to fill in detail when it’s not needed. You don’t see anything that you don’t need to.

Jo: No, but I did feel like I had missed things.

Rik: And there are scene changes and cuts that are out of the player’s control, such as when you’re handed the file on your new partner. You don’t get to read it, because then it jumps to another scene. I think at that point I realised I had to go with it.

Jo: Me being me, I was convinced that I had done something wrong (not read it quickly enough, clicked the mouse by accident or something), but I did ease into it and realise I didn’t have any control over the scene changes at all. It was bit disorienting at first.

Rik: How did you find the lack of dialogue? It was kind of a reverse of the usual situation in lots of these games, where you hear other characters’ voices but don’t actually see them.

Jo: I was ok with it from pretty early on. Thinking about it, I don’t know whether I wasn’t expecting any dialogue – perhaps got that impression from the trailer? Or maybe it was just clear from the outset that there wouldn’t be any dialogue.

Rik: I think maybe that was one thing that I did know about it. I ended up doing a bit of googling to see if the widescreen black bars were meant to be there or not (they are and can’t be removed I don’t think) and perhaps that was something else that was mentioned.

Jo: I just wondered if that was to make it seem more like a film?

Rik: I think you’re right.

Jo: I didn’t feel at any point like it needed dialogue either.

Rik: That’s how it’s been designed, and it works well. Especially as much of the first half of it is about the relationship with your partner who you’re investigating. It doesn’t seem contrived. Or no more contrived than not seeing any other characters, like in Firewatch.

Jo: I thought maybe it was going backwards and forwards in time.

Rik: There are dream sequences which threw me, but I didn’t get any time jumps at first…

Jo: After that first scene where you graduate and become an FBI agent, then it cuts to her being asked to investigate another agent – I thought maybe it was years later. But then I realised that it was actually on her first day?

Rik: I wasn’t clear that it was straight away, just some indeterminate point later. There’s the scene where you put the lipstick on right at the start, and then I think by the time you go to work, you chuck it in the bin.

Jo: Yeah, I thought that was perhaps some indication that after many years she was jaded by the FBI politics.

Rik: I figured that time might have jumped forward. I thought you meant jumping back and forth.

Jo: Yeah, I did! I thought it was going back and forth between Tarver as a new agent and then some years later when she’s jaded and doing this investigation into her partner. But it’s actually all happening at the same time, because before that first scene the text says ‘First Day’.

Rik: So maybe the abandoning of the lipstick is just part of having graduated and not having to do the same old dance quite as much in that respect – a small act of rebellion. Or maybe it’s just that the lipstick was for the ceremony, not work.

Jo: Yeah I think so. I was probably reading too much into the lipstick situation.

Rik: How did you read the first meeting between Anne and Halperin? Did you read the body language as annoyance at a rookie partner, or a suspicion that you’re a spy of some kind?

Jo: I thought rookie partner. Like, oh great, I get the work experience kid.

Rik: At first I thought, she somehow knows you’re up to something. Then I figured, it was because she didn’t want to babysit a newbie. But then seeing how the Assistant Director is so keen on spying, I went back to thinking, maybe she does suspect something.

Jo: But Halperin seems pretty devastated later on doesn’t she, when the file falls out of your bag?

Rik: Well she leaves you at a petrol station. Either way, it’s the classic, ‘I’m not going to let my guard down’; ‘Oh, I let it down, and now you’ve disappointed me’ scenario.

Jo: I don’t want to skip ahead too much to the ‘does she/doesn’t she screw her (and indeed everyone else) over’ dilemma, but I did get the impression there was a more authentic relationship there, beyond the deception. Do you think she was just getting close to investigate her?

Rik: I think these lines get crossed in such things. You need to do one to do the other, so it starts off as the same thing, I think.

Coffee and sandwiches in the car again.


By the power of matrimony, I repel you

Rik: I have to say I generally really dug the vibe of two FBI field agents working a case. The humdrum nature of it all: I’m not sure I’ve ever seen that world of motels and ‘waiting in your car with a sandwich’ done so convincingly before.

Jo: The whole thing seemed very appealing to me, and it did make me wish I had a job staking people out while eating sandwiches in my car. It could have gone totally the other way, and been an outright cliché.

Rik: It’s very X-Files, discounting any alien stuff, but in terms of the vibe of going to small towns in America and digging around. Not that the case itself is particularly all that interesting…

Jo: No, but you’re sort of poking about, puzzling over stuff in the diner. I quite liked all that.

Rik: Me too. But it wasn’t like I was desperate to bust open the case of the ginger bearded priest and the missing kid. It’s definitely background to you building the relationship and snooping on Halperin.

Jo: No, that was a bit secondary really. Towards the end, I was a bit ‘oh yeah, the missing kid’.

Rik: Once you fail to bust beardy I forgot all about it, until the end.

Jo: Yeah, same.

Rik: I always think quiet bars in the US look really appealing. You get back late from working a case, order up a beer…

Jo: Don’t even get me started…

Rik: (Use a wedding ring to stop men perving)

Jo: If only it was that easy – just pop a ring on, like one of Captain Planet’s Planeteers. ‘By the power of matrimony, I REPEL you!!’ and they ping backwards into a wall or something. But yes, the abandoned motels, rural gas stations, and local diners – it all ticks a box, and I can’t explain why. I just wish my job involved lurking at these places untangling mysteries, and not sitting glumly at a desk all day.

Rik: I think the current circumstances, with everyone being locked down still, makes such things seem even more appealing. Did you get the impression that Halperin was married? Or it was just her fake ‘repel men’ ring that she lends you? There’s no sign of her living with anyone when you’re in her place.

Jo: I did debate this quite a bit. Was there a former spouse? But then there’s nothing really to suggest that. Her house is a bit of a question mark, because there’s a locked room, an abandoned bedroom of sorts, and then the hospital room.

Rik: There’s signs of an aged relative. The stair lift…

Jo: I did wonder, and I don’t know what gave me this idea, if perhaps she’d been involved with another agent before…

Rik: Nothing romantic happens with Anne, though? I had a ‘passed out on the upstairs sofa’ vibe.

Jo: I wondered if there was a potential romance, but I can’t say why.

Go, Planet!


Not a case for Mulder and Scully

Rik: At this point you sort of think you know where things are going, in a general sense, anyway.

Jo: Yeah.

Rik: What did you make of the locals who give you trouble? I was so surprised about getting beaten up.

Jo: Isn’t one of them the girl who got off with ginger priest?

Rik: Yes. Is that possibly the source of the tension?

Jo: But then why do they drive up to you in the petrol station?

Rik: Possibly they are bigots then? Two non-white, female agents, in the 90s… [NB: The game is set in 1992]

Jo: Good point.

Rik: And I wondered if they were just against you investigating, generally: ‘We don’t take kindly to folks from out of town looking into things’…

Jo: I wondered that too.

Rik: But I was going to say I completely did not recognise the guy who gives you the finger as the guy standing near the crime scene later.

Jo: I recognised him, but not the girl who copped off with ginger priest, until my second playthrough.

Rik: And this is really silly, but I thought they were stood there like Mulder and Scully and were fellow agents. Or just a nod to them anyway. But then he pushes you over. Whoops!

Jo: And Halperin gets him. Then when Tarver pats him down she finds his wallet and knife. And then they go back to the police station, and Tarver reviews it all and puts it in the evidence bag.

Rik: Except for some naughty drugs.

Jo: Except one tab of what I assume is LSD. Which she puts in an envelope to save for later.

Rik: Yummy yummy!

Jo: An after dinner treat.

Rik: Sticky toffee pudding? And a coffee? Nah, I’ll just stick with the drugs.

I’m sorry, but they do look like Mulder and Scully. Don’t they?


Fire walk with me

Rik: So, obviously you know the moment when Anne is discovered is coming. She’s not very careful with her bag, for one thing. Do they not teach that at the academy?

Jo: I did wonder if it was really necessary for her to carry that file around all the time – surely she could leave it behind? Not least because she has to cart that massive briefcase around to keep it in (which also doesn’t close properly).

Rik: And this is when the game starts to get a bit more wacky.

Jo: Yeah, I think you’re right. You’re following it reasonably well, until things start to get a bit weird. Because it’s also at this point that you find out about Halperin’s mum… Oh, wait, this is what made me think she had a former partner. Because of the name change: Ortega/Halperin.

Rik: I wondered whether the name change was because of her mum, so that family association was hidden to the casual observer.

Jo: Ah, yeah, that would make sense.

Rik: But the file gets discovered, there’s a falling out, and then you decide not to dob her in. Although I wasn’t clear what exactly she had been doing wrong.

Jo: I wondered if maybe the locked room and secret files were still being used by her mum? Like, was she still working on something? Or was Halperin trying to figure out what happened to her mum? I don’t know, the wheels started to come off for me a bit here.

Rik: Possibly that’s what you’re meant to find out about. Whether she’s still looking into what happened to her mum. But do you get anything on her?

Jo: There’s that chart on the wall, in the hidden room, with all the files, and some guy’s picture on the wall…

Rik: Isn’t it the Assistant Director?

Jo: Taft?

Rik: No, Taft’s the sheriff.

Jo: I’m not going to lie, I got really confused about who was who. Also, what role the Mayor played in it all. And that guy with the baby.

Rik: Ah, so you break into her apartment before spilling the beans (or not), that’s right. I did not know the significance of the military guy, or why the sheriff kept turning up. Like you say, it all gets a bit strange at this point.

Jo: Yeah, so you go to the apartment and start picking up the files, and then it cuts back to the FBI office, then it cuts again to giving Halperin the file back. It then goes pretty weird and you see two possible scenarios. One where you spill the beans, and get rewarded for befriending/investigating people…

Rik: Including Agent Singh. Poor Agent Singh.

Jo: And some guy who was just getting a drink at the water cooler.

Rik: ‘Step away from the cooler, please’.

Jo: ‘Sir, I’m going to need you to put down the plastic cup’.

Rik: And you’re addicted to pills, wondering about the case with Halperin that you never solved. And go to visit her (miraculously still vacant) office.

Jo: I kept writing down ‘broken key’, because I was sure that was going to give me some indication of what was happening in what order, but it didn’t.

Rik: Second time around I ended up just writing down what happened at the end. So you drop the acid after imagining informing on Halperin, then you go in the caves, then there’s the masked scene with the bull, and it turns out you’re killing the bull. At some point I feel like you’re seeing it from different people’s perspectives… which is kind of a callback to an early dream sequence when you wake yourself up.

Jo: You flash back to the [missing boy] Lucas case, and there’s a scene that suggests ginger priest’s wife knew all along. And then you’re at the side of the hospital bed in Halperin’s house.

Rik: But is it your dad or her dad?

Jo: I don’t know! I just couldn’t work it out.

This is the kind of thing you’ll be seeing in the last 30 minutes or so.

Rik: You have the key that he gives you earlier. But the house and room looks like Halperin’s. Then I was like, am *I* Halperin?

Jo: Then you cut to the field at the observatory, and there’s a UFO, and someone comes out of it. I wrote down [the name of Halperin’s mum] ‘Judith??????’ Judith, or someone, comes out of the spaceship. I don’t know. It got weird. I can’t piece enough bits together to feel like I really got a handle on it.

Rik: I think there’s a theory that when you fall searching for Halperin’s locket that’s all a dream from that point until the final bit where you see someone walking away at the observatory. I also wondered why Halperin wouldn’t search for the locket herself if it was so important.

Jo: I was trying to keep track of Tarver giving her the locket back. But does she?

Rik: Hm, good point. Is that not shown? In my head it’s all part of when she tosses the file off that balcony.

Jo: Yeah, I thought initially that she gave it back with the file, but I don’t think she does. She just throws the file away. (Which is not a very secure way to dispose of confidential info, btw).

Rik: Maybe she goes back and puts it all in the shredder later.

Jo: Ok, so I wrote down that she still has the locket after the first flash back/flash forward, where you are supergrass, and you light the cigarette and look at the unsolved case file, then it cuts back to the jail. She still has the locket at that point.

Rik: Also I noticed either when you first get locked up or at the jail, there are too many people there.

Jo: Oh really?

Rik: Like, I think the priest is there for some reason. It makes you doubt whether that bit is really happening.

Jo: Maybe it’s like Inception: it’s a dream within a dream within a dream. I haven’t read any reviews or theories, but I have seen Twin Peaks / David Lynch mentioned a few times.

Rik: I’ve never seen Twin Peaks.

Jo: I only watched it for the first time last year, and I enjoyed it for the most part. But it is also quite bonkers. And a lot of it I didn’t understand.

Rik: So I read this, which disregards most of the drug trip bit and sees Anne and Maria reconciled at the end, seeing the missing boy, Lucas, hitchhiking out of town as they leave. That’s a fairly optimistic reading of the ending. I also read this, where the developers say the ending is not meant to be optimistic at all.

Jo: Yeah, I mean it’s all fairly ambiguous, isn’t it? I don’t think there are any hard and fast answers, really.

Rik: No, it’s not meant to have them, I don’t think. I wouldn’t say that I felt the ending was optimistic though, although I don’t have a particularly good explanation why.

Jo: Overall, I did enjoy Virginia, but I can’t definitively say what happened. I like that it got me thinking, though.

Rik: I enjoyed it too. I do think the ending is a bit of a left turn, then a steady escalation into ‘Huh?!?’ With each scene change at the end I was losing it more and more.

Jo: I definitely felt like it was all going to come together, but then it just fell more apart and then ended. I hoped I would understand it a bit more second time around, but I didn’t. I just picked up a sunglasses case and some flowers, which I didn’t do first time around.

Rik: It’s definitely at the artier end of things, but not as annoying as Dear Esther. The bits I understood more were those that come before the very end.

Jo: Yeah, same. And it did make me want to go on some kind of stakeout. And drink coffee in a diner. And stakeout the mayor. I don’t know that it’s something I’d return to though.

Rik: Maybe after a long break I might. Was there anything else you wanted to add?

Jo: I don’t think so. I think we covered everything. How about you?

Rik: No, I think that’s it. We both didn’t quite get it, but didn’t mind. Stick that on the box! [Rik, games don’t have boxes anymore – FFG reader].

Virginia is available on GOG and Steam for £6.99.