It’s done! The second part of my “Let’s Study Virginia” video is now live on YouTube.
If you just want to watch the second part, click the embedded video above. If you want to watch the whole thing from the beginning, click here. (I have also updated my original post so that the embedded video there autoplays the second part.)
Time will tell if I make more of these “Let’s Study” videos. Building up an archive of them could have real pedagogical benefits. The best option when teaching games is, of course, always to have students play things themselves. But one must consider the realities of constraints on access to specific platforms. If students playing a game is a logistical impossibility, it is undoubtedly a better to be able to say, “here, watch this video I uploaded onto YouTube that precisely demonstrates exactly the relevant points of this game,” than it is to say, “go find some footage of it on YouTube recorded by some random let’s play-er.” A strong case can be made that this sort of video essay work is the next best thing to having students play things on their own.
As before, full script below the fold, if for whatever reason that interests you.
We didn’t have a dream sequence on Tuesday, so Wednesday opens with one, keeping with the “tick-tock” rhythm of “reality” vs. “dream sequences.”
This police hat is something new. We don’t know what it means, but one clue comes with where it’s located: on Halperin’s desk, where her locket sat on Tuesday. We’re going to learn, throughout the course of this day, that locket’s connections to Halperin’s family history, and we’re going to learn by the end of the game the connection of this hat to Anne’s family history.
And now, a new image: a furnace. Located in what seems to be the stretch of late-night road where Anne and Halperin first encountered the bison. Lucas’ missing persons flyers strewn about.
Alright, I started right in with this video, but I want to take this moment here to review a few things.
In the last video I noted some common visual and auditory motifs in Anne’s dreams. Some of those have reappeared, and now we have some new ones. Previously, I mentioned the red door, the broken key, the red box, the sound of the heart monitor and respirator, and the bison. To these, we can now add the cardinal, and this furnace. The color red is a frequent visual theme in these objects, linking together the door, the box, and the cardinal. It’s a color that frequently marks the mise-en-scène of Virginia. So that’s our inventory of symbolically-laden objects, we could say.
To review another point from the previous video: I mentioned that there are three basic purposes that the cinematic editing fulfills in the game. The first is just the condensing of time: an ellipses will be introduced, to get us to a narratively pertinent moment faster. The second is associative editing. This also gets us to a narratively pertinent moment faster, but along the way it draws some sort of visual connection. We had instances of both of these populate the previous video.
Starting here in Wednesday—in fact, starting with the very next scene—we’re going to start finally seeing instances of the final type of editing: insert shots. Virginia is very fond of quick flashbacks, only a few seconds in length, inserted into the action in order to make an associative connection. It’s an aesthetically bold choice. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it … well, you’ll have to make up your own mind.
Anyway, that’s some prep for what’s ahead. Let’s move on!
Again in Cord McCarrin’s office. I can’t do anything but look around. It’s unclear if I need to do anything as a player to progress the events of the game, or if I’m just waiting patiently, as Anne is, for McCarrin to finish reading the report.
And here we get the first insert shot of the game: As McCarrin reads her report, Anne quickly recalls peeking at Halperin’s locket, and the brief, mysterious glimpse into her partner’s personal life that it offered her. I’m just going to out and say that I think that this is a tremendously effective use of the game’s first insert shot. It humanizes Anne, lets the player know that she thinks about the human consequences of her IA investigation, in just five seconds. It’s marvelously dense and efficient storytelling. This is building on Thirty Flights of Loving in a good way.
I just want to point out that Anne’s password has eight characters … this means that it could, theoretically, be trustno1.
Okay. I just praised Virginia, so I don’t feel bad about criticizing it here. This is a moment in which Virginia just utterly refuses to be a videogame, in a way that I, at least, find actively annoying. Virginia‘s interface for investigatory actions is simple: there’s just a single cursor, which turns into a diamond when you’re pointing at things you can click on. Clicking on the right thing advances the story. This section on Anne’s computer presents the perfect opportunity for the developers to make the most of this simple interface, to give the players something simple to do that nevertheless allowed them to feel as if they were doing something. It would be a mistake here for the game to ask you to suddenly start typing to communicate with the computer, as if we were playing Her Story. But the developers could have whipped something simple up, like the interface to Christine Love’s Digitial: A Love Story, where all you really have to do is click on a few keywords. It would give the players a chance to feel like they had contributed to Anne’s investigation in some small way.
Instead, all the player has to do is occasionally click somewhere in the vicinity of the computer screen at a few designated times to continue. And it is worse than that! So much worse than that. Because not only does the game not ask us to do anything but the most basic busywork, it also doesn’t even let us think and draw connections for ourselves. When, in a flash of insight, Anne remembers that Maria Halperin was once named Maria Ortega, the game shows us a flashback to her leafing through Halperin’s mail. The first insert-shot flashback was nuanced, subtle, and efficient. This one, occurring just about a minute later, is the opposite: it is truly gratuitous, robbing the player the opportunity to draw connections themselves. This was a frequent criticism of the game’s insert shots in its initial critical reception.
“The only missteps in this story,” Colin Campbell wrote in his otherwise glowing review for Polygon, “are occasional insistences on going back to meaningful scenes, props and memories that I felt unnecessary, as if the creators doubted my ability to follow simple narrative clues.” Paul Dean of Rock Paper Shotgun too wrote that “Its narrative can be heavy handed, with occasional unnecessary flashbacks reinforcing moments you already knew were significant.” I agree with these criticisms, and I feel that it’s very unfortunate that Virginia falls prey to these problems. As we’ve already seen, insert shots can be an extraordinarily elegant addition to visual storytelling if they tell us something about what a character’s thinking about that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to guess. But from here on in, too often insert shot flashbacks will be used to remind us of things any player paying attention won’t need reminded about.
I have more to say about the misuse of flashback insert shots, but I’ll save it for later. I don’t want to bunch my criticisms of the game so much near the beginning of this video.
After the session at Anne’s computer, we head to the archives to learn what we can about her mother, Judith Ortega. This process requires checking out some microfilm records (and if what Anne is looking at here is actually microfiche, I apologize to all librarians, everywhere). The game here, again, doesn’t expect any actual investigative work on our part. It hands us the most important articles and documents, presenting a perfectly-curated overview of Judith Ortega’s life. She was also an FBI agent, hired in 1968 as part of, quote, “the Bureau’s intake of go-getting female agents.” She eventually became a critic of the Bureau’s management, openly resisting what she saw as breaches of ethical guidelines. The powers that be, including J. Edgar Hoover, began to look for ways to discredit her, citing “unconventional methods” of investigation. And, eventually, in 1972, a mere four years into her time at the FBI, she was terminated following an internal affairs investigation into allegations including “misuse of FBI laboratory property” and drug use.
And then we get these unnecessary flashbacks, establishing … what, exactly? That Halperin cares about her mother, and is sad to have lost a keepsake related to her? Sorry, sorry. I just …
Anyway, I know that if I keep interrupting things, I’ll never finish this half of the video. But I have one more thing to say about this section. It has to do with this: [microfilm rushing forward]
What is this animation doing? Why is it here? Well, it’s here to accommodate for the speed of people who are fast readers—faster readers than the game has planned for. You see, the articles that pop up need to be timed to the music in a certain way, for dramatic effect. Clicking indicates that we’re done reading, but the next article won’t come up until the music’s hit its designated spot.
This leads me back again into the concept of program music, which I mentioned in the first half. Program music is music composed to tell a story in musical form. Take, for instance, Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. Now, this isn’t a pice of pure program music, since it does have words involved in the form of its narrator, but it nevertheless gives you the general idea.
In 1946, Walt Disney Animation Studios made an adaptation of Peter and the Wolf, as one segment of their anthology film Make Mine Music. And here’s the thing about the visuals Disney’s Peter and the Wolf: from a storytelling perspective, they are superfluous. Now, this isn’t to knock the considerable accomplishments of the Disney animators or anything, but the fact remains that the visuals are an accompaniment for the music, and not the other way around. Prokofiev’s composition already tells the story.
There’s often a similar feeling in Virginia of the visuals being a mere accompaniment for the game’s score, which really feels like the driving force of story. Unlike in cinema, where these two things can be easily wed, this creates some awkwardness, because it leaves the player feeling like they have to anticipate the music’s timing. In moments like the microfilm sequence, there’s a danger for the player to feel patronizingly led by the nose, while also simultaneously feeling embarrassed or confused when they “miss their marks,” and the game has to make up for their mis-timed performance.
Alright, I’ve criticized Virginia quite a lot in the opening minutes of this video. But do not fret: my criticisms are about to cease. Because we’re coming to parts of the game where I think Virginia really starts to shine.
This character, Mayor Bacon Fall, is a minor one, but one who picks up some thematic importance later on.
This dominion construction flyer is what the LSD came wrapped in. It, along with the flyer for the observatory in Lucas’ sketchbook, determines where we’re going to head next.
The statue in front of the entrance to the observatory is a woman in chains. Perhaps a slave? In any case, a foreboding symbol.
The one flower found in an indoor location. There’s another collectable here, as well: a sun-shaped broach that Halperin will wear later if you pick it up.
This part yanks control away from the player, to reveal a thickening of the plot.
In the previous video, I talked about my concept of “Chekhov’s locked door.” Here, we get “Chekhov’s automatic lockpicking tool.”
With the Fairfax family gone, this return to their residence feels more exploratory: a time when secrets actually may be divulged.
Over on the kitchen counter, we see the payoff to Anne picking up Edith Fairfax’s community college application: an acceptance letter. There’s two possibilities here. The first is that Edith filled out a second application sometime in the past 48 hours, and actually mailed that one in. The other is that Anne took the application she rescued from Edith’s trash, and sent it in for her, resulting in this unexpected acceptance letter arriving. The latter possibility is especially intriguing, as it tells us something about Anne’s impulsiveness.
In our previous trip to the Fairfax residence, players were railroaded into exploring Lucas’ hidden darkroom, because it proved to be one of the only things they could click on. There’s one designated end point this time, as well, but the game does a better job of motivating players to pursue it: It’s the previously-locked door at the end of the hall, now tantalizingly ajar.
A flower in here. There isn’t much else that can be interacted with. Again, Virginia reveals itself to be a game that prioritizes fast storytelling over adventure-game style player-guided investigation.
Where we’re being funneled to is Jared Fairfax’s desk. Once we sit down at it, the game at least gives us the option to attempt to oven each one of its four drawers. I suppose that, despite their usual minimalist approach to interactivity, Virginia‘s developers here realized that only allowing the player to interact with one drawer would make Anne seem too clairvoyant.
Just try and tell me that the score isn’t deliberately echoing the X-Files theme here.
The bar we’re about to head into is simply marked as the “Roadhouse” on the main menu map of Virginia. Seeing the sign, though, we notice that it’s actually named “Sojourner’s Truth”: another reminder in the mise-en-scène, along with “Tubman Street,” of our two agents’ status as Black women, and all of the history that entails.
Halperin deciding to ditch her wedding ring, for motivations we won’t extrapolate on.
Another feather here.
Opening up the doors to Sojourner’s Truth, we find ourselves in a bar that looks alarmingly like Twin Peaks’ roadhouse. It’s almost as if we’ve stumbled into the Twin Peaks set.
Can’t pick up beers or coasters … but their is a cloth napkin hidden by the entrance here. Picking it up makes it so the diner waitress wears it later as a handkerchief.
Nothing else to do but to sit down, and enjoy the music.
It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement that Halperin and Anne have. One cultural symbol, traded between them, inverted in this way to allow them to adopt the gender dynamics they want to adopt in this space.
And reverie takes over.
The box’s contents are a roll of film … and a dead cardinal?
Well, this has just been a lovely bit of Virginia. Again, we see the game’s influences, but they’re mixed and matched in such a way that they form something genuinely new.
Anne enjoying the concert, and then opening the box, is reminiscent of a famous moment in Twin Peaks, in which Dale Cooper sits transfixed by a Julee Cruise performance at the Roadhouse, only to have one of the otherworldly spirits intervene and announce that he’s missing another moment that’s occurring that exact moment. The band performing on the red-curtained stage is clearly modeled off of Julee Cruise and her band in Twin Peaks. The only real difference here is that, while in that scene, Cruise performs “Rockin’ Back Inside My Heart” and “The World Spins” (both from her album Floating into the Night), the song we hear here takes far more cues from “Falling,” Cruise’s song which became the main title song for Twin Peaks.
This eerie, mind-expanding moment in Twin Peaks has been imitated in other games going for a Lynchian vibe, including Kentucky Route Zero, which had its very own Julee-Cruise analogue performance. But what I like about this scene in Virginia is that it doesn’t just stop with the performance, and the opening of the box. Instead, we get these first-person glimpses of a night of drinking, and a blossoming friendship between Anne and her partner. There are some echoes here of the first-person drunken revelry that serves as a high point of Thirty Flights of Loving. But there are additional emotional layers here, too. This night of camaraderie is complicated for Anne, in ways that Maria is completely oblivious to. It is suggested that learning about the history of persecution of Maria’s mother will make it hard for Anne to do her job as an internal affairs agent. This beginning of friendship between these two women can’t make things any easier.
Anyway, a lovely moment, and one of the high points of the game. This continues into Thursday morning, which has some of my favorite spatial storytelling.
We awaken in Maria’s apartment, which is an all-around great character-building decision. Again, the direction we’re pointing right as we get up is important: not because it tells us where we need to go, but because it points our attention to the game’s second instance of Chekhov’s locked door.
Complimenting Anne’s feather collection, Maria has a butterfly collection.
The one interaction that’s offered in this room is to jiggle the padlock on the door, to make especially sure we remember it.
But not all doors are locked! Maria’s apartment has plenty doors that can be opened, leading to rooms that do quite a lot in establishing her character, and that of her mother. The doors to these rooms are ever-so-slightly ajar … just enough for the un-curious player to miss them.
In this room we learn a lot about Judith Ortega’s politics, through details like the posters for the Students for a Democratic Society and, on the opposite wall, civil rights activist Angela Davis. Angela Davis was put on the FBI’s most wanted list in August of 1970. She was suspected of being involved in the armed takeover of a courtroom, leading Richard Nixon to brand her a “dangerous terrorist.” (There she is there.) She was, however, later acquitted of all charges. Giving the timing of Judith Ortega’s dismissal from the FBI in 1972, I think that the game is making it pretty clear here that her dismissal had to do with her politics, and not legitimate wrongdoing. She acted on her conscience as a woman of color, and she didn’t toe the Hoover line. She paid the price for it.
Seeing all of Judith’s stuff raises the question of where she is. We get the answer in the next room over. I’ve criticized the game some for its lack of environmental interactions, but I do think that its use of passive environmental storytelling is truly inspiring. There’s so much said here about the emotional toll of becoming the caretaker for your aging parent in their years of declining health, with so little. It is elegant, and I found it to be deeply affecting.
Maria is making breakfast for us, and if we walk toward her it will prompt a scene. Before we do, though, I want to look in our last ajar door. I made the point in the first half of this video about how much videogames are in love with bathrooms. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen a videogame bathroom with the mobility fixtures we see here. This detail is very effective. So many people associate such fixtures with declines in their grandparents’ health … and then perhaps their parents’ health … and then perhaps their own. It might sound weird to say, but a toilet mobility bar is a memento mori—a simple and powerful shorthand for the realities of aging. Even those of us lucky enough to be able-bodied in our youth have futures of reduced mobility in to look forward to, if we live that long.
I’m really fond of the wardrobe choices made here. Maria being dressed down, in her FBI academy sweatshirt, does a great job of humanizing her, and making her feel approachable. From her early glares in our direction to her making breakfast for us now, the game has really sold me on our blossoming friendship.
The photo Anne is developing here is of the statue of the woman in chains, outside the observatory.
But Maria’s photo is more interesting: Lucas’s father Jared Fairfax, embracing the teenaged Barbara Peikoff.
And so we bring him in. But rather than interrogate him, the cursor seems to indicate that the only thing we can do is let him go.
A nice bit of character animation that we can sort of “visually eavesdrop” on here, as a way of letting us know the shifting dynamics of the Fairfax family. If we watch long enough, we see the very disparate reactions that Edith Fairfax and Sheriff Taft have to the revelations here … which are quite telling. Should Taft really be so friendly with someone currently suspected of, at the very least, statutory rape against a high-school aged girl?
Another broach here: a moon, the compliment to the earlier sun broach. (I have to admit I’ve never discovered where this shows up later in the mise-en-scène.)
Apparently, Barbara is not talking, which is why we can’t hold Jared Fairfax.
There’s the payoff of the bar napkin, over there.
Anne recognizes that disconcerting statue of the woman in chains: Lucas was taking photos near the observatory.
This stakeout is, in true stakeout fashion, legitimately boring. In fact, I’m going to take a cue from the characters here, and get myself a sandwich.
As we follow the Mayor’s van in here, the setting sun bathes this area in a red glow. The color is not innocent.
Despite her badge, denied entrance by The Man. Just what is going on in the observatory, anyway?
The cut to us filling up our gas tank here seems innocent enough, but actually the game is going to take one of its sharpest turns right at this moment. Until now, the game has treated the agents’ investigation of Lucas Fairfax’s disappearance, and Anne’s investigation of Maria, with more or less equal weight. If anything, the Fairfax investigation seems to get gaining prominence: the scene immediately before seemed to indicate that we were stumbling upon some sort of conspiracy in the town! Surely, it seems like things are heating up on the Fairfax front. But something’s about to happen right here …
… with that, a potential friendship is lost. And, with alarming rapidity, the game is going to shift quite decisively away from Jared Fairfax’s story. This is, starting now, the story of Anne and Maria, and the moral uncertainties Anne feels about her job.
This dream sequence that ends Thursday is where the true themes of the game really crystalize. If pressed, I would pinpoint this very dream as the transition point where the game drops the pretense of what it has seemed to be about, and gets on to what it’s really about. And what it’s really about is power, and the moral responsibilities we have when navigating under it.
We’ve taken stock of the dream imagery many times already, but we have some important new additions this time around.
In the dream we just saw, it’s not just McCarrin who hands Anne the internal affairs investigation folder. It’s a group of five men: McCarrin, Sheriff Taft, Col. Emenegger, Mayor Fall, and Jared Fairfax. Following The X-Files, I like to call this group of five men, “The Syndicate.” In the game’s Steam trading cards, they’re visually linked together by virtue of sharing a green background on their cards. And, let’s be honest, that’s not the only thing that links them. The truth is pretty heavy-handed, actually: these are all men in positions of power, either at the FBI or in Kingdom, Virginia. Military power, law enforcement power, political power, intelligence power, religious power: they are, basically, the patriarchy, in a nutshell. And the fact that, in her dream, Anne is seeing Jared Fairfax—at this point, a suspected statutory rapist—next to Cord McCarrin, shows that she’s awakening to a disconcerting fact: her work serves the patriarchy. The work she does as a law enforcement officer isn’t going to keep a scumbag like Jared Fairfax away from teenaged girls. That’s not how this system works. These old boys have each other’s backs. No: her work is limited to spying on the fellow woman of color she works with.
Less heavy handed, but still of note, is the shot of Maria Halperin opening her locked door. This shot is very strange. Every other time we’ve seen a “mysterious ajar door” in one of Anne’s dreams, the glow that has been emanating from it has been red. But that’s not the case with Maria’s door!
I have some ideas as to why this is, which add a final twist to my “red is the color of secrets” thesis. But I won’t be able to get into those until the end of this video.
Another one of the game’s better use of flashback insert shots: We’re told what Anne is thinking about, and it’s not something we could easily guess. It then speaks to her motivation for what she’s going to do next.
A very protracted cross-dissolve back to Quail Trail.
Just as before, there are three flowers hidden in this grassy field.
Anne makes a very questionable decision here… Just jump off now! While you’re still near the ground! And then climb down the rocks slowly!
No, slowly! Not like that!
Okay. While Anne is unconscious here, the time has come to wade into some treacherous waters. Things in Virginia are about to get weird. But there is some question about when, exactly, they start getting weird.
And here I have to go into a whole rant.
In October of 2016, Allegra Frank of Polygon published an article entitled “What’s Going On at the End of Virginia?” The article is not a piece of critical interpretation; rather, it is a piece of reportage: Frank has dove through Steam and other forums to find some of the most interesting fan theories and interpretations lurking on the web, and uses the article to introduce these to Polygon’s readers. One theory she highlights, from NeoGAF user TheBigG753, posits that at this exact moment, when Anne falls from the tree branch, she is in fact dead. The rest of the game are her discombobulated dreams as she dies, some of them expressing her anxieties and others expressing wish fulfillment.
Reporting on fan theories is probably a fairly reliable way to generate some word count and get some clicks, and I understand why Frank would have put together the article for Polygon. And I certainly don’t want to seem as if I’m criticizing the forum users she cites for putting together their theories. Everyone is free to make fan theories! Go forth, and make fan theories.
Placing things within a larger context, however, the Polygon article is part of a general push toward normalizing what Film Crit Hulk has called “left-brain puzzle logic” as the “correct” way of interpreting media with ambiguous or innovative approaches to storytelling. This is Hulk’s term for modes of interpretation that proceed from the “assumption that a story only need to make a very intricate kind of logical sense and not much else.” It’s about getting the pieces to fit, about “solving” the narrative. The solutions are usually pretty stock: This part of the story is a dream. This character is actually dead. This part of the story is a dream that a character has upon their death. Usually, the only tricky part is figuring out the exact points where the storytelling shifts.
I’ll just out and say it: I’m fairly allergic to this type of interpretation. It’s a mode of thinking that sees ambiguity as an enemy. We could say, in effect, that Virginia has no traditional combat, but its storytelling ambiguity forms the sort of “final boss” that needs to be defeated. To come up with an interpretation that explains away every ambiguity in a logical way is to “beat” the game. It’s like the storytelling equivalent of a sliding-tile puzzle, or something.
However, I have to add a major caveat here. Because despite my own personal preferences, looming over this discussion is the fact that Virginia is deeply influenced by David Lynch. And David Lynch is one of the foremost proponents of this kind of approach to storytelling ambiguity. He loves to flaunt the idea that his films have “solutions” that observant viewers will be able to decipher. We even get things like this insert in the original DVD edition of Mulholland Dr., where Lynch himself pulls viewer’s attention to ten details he claims will “unlock” the answers to the film’s ambiguities. And, at this point, the film’s been pretty well deciphered. Pretty much everyone agrees that the bulk of the film is a dying dream that Diane has, recasting herself as “Betty,” to assuage her guilt over ordering a hit on her lover, Camilla. The film is just arranged in such a way as to make this interpretation difficult to happen upon. One could pretty easily re-edit it to make it clearer that the bulk of the movie is a Wizard-of-Oz-style “you were there, and you were there” dream.
Now, I happen to think that Lynch is one of the great art film directors working today. But I simultaneously think that there are corrosive consequences to his winks toward “solvability” in his output. His rhetoric sends a set of expectations to his audience, that even the most obtuse and twisty experiments in narrative can be “untwisted.” And that’s fine, if his viewers go on to watch “faux art cinema,” like Jacob’s Ladder or Vanilla Sky, where everything is in fact wrapped up with a bow at the end, explained away as the dreams of a dead man. But it serves audiences less well if they go on to watch, say, Apichatpong Weeresethakul’s Syndromes and a Century (2007), or Claire Denis’ The Intruder. Personally, I think that Lynch’s work sits right alongside the output of these directors as some of the world’s great art cinema of the early 21st century. But I think his rhetoric does a disservice to viewers who otherwise might be open to moving on to other challenging directors. Instead of nurturing an appreciation for ambiguity, it fosters a need to hunt it down and kill it.
Wow, that got long-winded. The point of all of this is: I’m not particularly fond of the trend of “click into place to solve” interpretation of narratively ambiguous works that have gained ground over the past couple decades. But I recognize that, sometimes, it’s what the creators intend, so we can’t entirely escape it. So: I do have a theory of where we transition away from the base level “reality” in this game. It is not here. I do not think that Anne dies here. I have reasons for thinking this, which I will explain later.
Admittedly, this burst of red is strange. Is something paranormal going on at the Air Force Base? Or is this a dream. Again, I stand my my position that it is not. Make of that what you will.
Our path here is clear. The locked is located on the outcropping of rock in the center of this circular field. Is seems extremely unlikely that Leonard’s throw was able to deposit it exactly here. It seems more likely that it was deliberately placed by … someone else.
We’ve now collected all ten flowers. We still have two feathers to go.
The order in which Anne does things is strange. Making the very risky move of retrieving Maria’s locket seemed to indicate that her primary goal was to patch up their friendship, to assuage the guilt she feels over ruining this woman’s career. But we cut directly from her peering at the photo of Judith Ortega to her in this elevator, on her way to collect more information about Maria. She is still committed to doing her job … or so it seems. In any case, we get the distinct feeling of her being conflicted, to the point where her motivations change from minute to minute.
Here, the reappearance of Chekhov’s lockpicking tool. And, of course, our next stop is the second Chekhov’s locked door of the game. In both of these locked doors, we’ve seen the rule of threes in effect: first Anne encounters the locked door, then she sees it opened in a dream, then she opens it herself. There’s a lot of redundancy here to make sure we grasp the importance of these locked door.
The charges of “unconventional methods” and “misuse of FBI laboratory property” against Maria’s mother might have been trumped up, to silence her political dissent. But we see in this room very real evidence that such charges could be accurately leveled against Maria. This room looks like what might result if Fox Mulder, Harry Caul, Egon Spengler, and Doc Emmett Brown collaborated for a few months.
We never learn who this mustachioed man is, at the center of Maria’s conspiracy web. We, as players, might be curious. But, to Anne, it doesn’t matter. She has the proof she needs that Maria is misusing Bureau resources to conduct unsanctioned investigations, investigating perhaps what she saw as the conspiracy to discredit her mother (although it’s hard to say for sure).
The game has elided unimportant story elements so frequently so far that it’s able to play a clever trick on us here. For once, what we don’t see is actually important, and it sets up a later reveal.
A delayed payoff: McCarrins secretary, Ms. Paul, is now wearing those red glasses, the very first thing we picked up in the game.
Anne rubs her ring finger here. She’s remembering, perhaps, the night that she and Maria made a mutually beneficial trade, passing a symbol between them to get what they both wanted. I am very grateful that the game doesn’t feel a need to flash back to that moment here. Instead, we get this cut that is broadly associative.
We’ve been to the water tower once before in the game, at the end of Anne and Maria’s night of bonding. It wasn’t as clear then, though, where we were.
A feather: the final in the game.
She didn’t deliver the files to McCarrin.
Really? You think we don’t remember this? Well, I guess it reveals that they’ve both been snooping in each others’ apartments.
Okay, so: not to delve into “left-brain puzzle logic” too much, but for what it’s worth, my take on the game’s narrative is as follows: it is at this exact moment, between Friday night and Saturday morning, that the game’s narration becomes fundamentally unreliable. This is not the same as saying, “it’s all a dream from here on out!” Because saying such a thing would mean positing that the game is playing by those rules, and it’s just not anymore. Rather, we should say that it is no longer at issue for the game whether we’re seeing Anne’s “reality” or Anne’s “dream.” Up until this point, the game’s narration has been clear in establishing this division. After this point, it couldn’t be bothered anymore. The game’s just operating at a level where it no longer sees this distinction as necessary, or interesting.
Why here, and why not earlier—say, when Anne falls off the log? The reason I’ve chosen this exact point has to do with collectibles. The game has been very consistent on this point, up until now: Collectables are in the real world. One of the telltale signs that Anne is dreaming is that she can never pick up collectables when she’s in a dream. Since collectables have an impact on the real world, this makes sense, I guess.
After the fall, we still have a bunch more collectables we can grab: three flowers, and the final two feathers. I think this is a pretty good indication that the game still wants to maintain the boundary between “real world” and “dream” throughout the entirety of Friday. Once we pick up that final feather at the top of the water tower Friday night, though, all bets are off. With all of the collectables over and done with, the game is free to play extremely fast and loose with the distinction between “reality” and “dream,” mixing them up freely. This is, I think, precisely the reason the game wraps up with its collectables by Friday night, despite the fact that Saturday is quite long.
Anyway: here we go. Saturday. The final day.
Cord McCarrin is displeased. Is this a dream? Again: it doesn’t matter. The game has stopped caring about this distinction.
And here it is, the final tour through Anne’s apartment, and the final payoff showing us the environmental effect of the game’s collectables. In case you’re wondering: no, this does not disrupt my theory about Saturday, in the slightest, for two reasons. One, I am precisely not saying that everything in Saturday is “a dream.” I’m saying that Saturday is where the game stops caring about the distinction between literal “reality” and everything else, and plunges deep into the unreliable corners of Anne’s consciousness. Also, even if Saturday is a dream in its entirety, this isn’t actually a problem, at all. The very first time we see the effects of collectables on Anne’s apartment is in the out-of-body experience that leads into Anne’s Tuesday-morning dream. It’s established by this point that collectables have an effect even on the dream versions of game environments. So, there.
This, I think, is at least partially an unreality. If Anne shirked her responsibilities as an internal affairs agent, surely there would be severe consequences down the road. But they wouldn’t include being placed in a jail cell in Kingdom. And they wouldn’t include The Syndicate assembling to gawk at her. Even if we assume that Anne is actually getting in trouble for trespassing at the Air Force base, that still doesn’t explain why the Mayor and Jared Fairfax would be gathered around her cell. They are there because they represent Anne’s conception of the powers-that-be. In her mind, they are metonymically related to whatever force would come down to punish her for refusing to do her job.
What happens next is quite astounding. We frequently celebrate videogames’ potential for branching narrative. Multiple endings that adapt to player choice are often considered to be the very height of “interactivity.” The player makes no decisions in Virginia. There is no choice involved. But the game looks the player right in the eye and asks: “is that really any reason to not have multiple endings?” Because Virginia does have multiple endings. They’re just different from how videogames normally do multiple endings. Virginia‘s endings are not some concrete future brought about by the player’s actions in the world. They are imagined futures, as Anne works out different possibilities in her mind, envisioning possible branches of her story.
And so here’s one possible flash forward.
Anne re-collects her evidence on Halperin. She presents it to McCarrin. He is satisfied. She is re-instated, and even promoted.
Her friendship with Halperin is over. But she makes other friends in the Bureau. Her friend group is ethnically diverse: a Sikh agent, a Black agent, and … Jonathan Blow. She plays poker with them every Friday.
But then she gets another file. She has to take down the Sikh agent. Another agent of color, suspected, and dismissed.
A new office. A new friend. A new assignment. A new career, ruined.
Everyone she meets, she ruins. Or, at least, all the agents of color. Oh, no, I guess some white agents, too.
Old friends now hate her. But that’s okay: she’s got what it takes to climb the ranks.
Until finally, she has become McCarrin. Now she is the MC at graduation ceremonies.
I think it’s very important here that the young agent in her former shoes appears to be an Asian woman. The old guard of the white male boy’s club may have aged out, and retired. But their system of suspicion, power, and conformity remains locked in place. These women have been fully assimilated into it, their diverse faces serving as masks for the same structure lurking underneath.
And … a regret. Two regrets. A broken key. And a red, unsolved case file. A boy, Jared Fairfax, who was never found, because she was too busy climbing the ladder.
And a friend’s office. Empty, still, after all these years. And a locket. Retrieved, but never returned.
Or, maybe not. The future is unwritten.
Okay, I have to admit that I don’t like this next bit. The game has already been playing fast and loose with notions of “reality”—much to its benefit, I think. The fact that it specifically needs to motivate its sense of unreality in the next portion, using the excuse of a drug trip, strikes me as lazy and unimaginative. As with some of the flashback inserts, it’s as if the developers suddenly forgot that they had previously assumed their audience to be intelligent.
That said, the way the trip begins is undeniably cool.
Back at the abandoned mine. I like the visuals of this sequence … even if I do wish that games would find a vocabulary other than “travel through this trippy tunnel” as their go-to “druggy” imagery. We’ve seen it many times before. Would it be too much to ask to put together something more startlingly associative?
The red slatted door, for the third time.
The carpet here is littered with maple leaves. They aren’t a visual symbol that we’ve seen before in the game. I take them as a sign that we’re now in the seat of power of The Syndicate: their five-point shape represents the five members of The Syndicate, and the five forms of structural authority they represent.
The game switches here from Twin Peaks and X-Files references to a distinct True Detective Season One vibe: Men in power, doing unspeakable things in the shadows, with an air of pagan spirituality.
They demand the sacrifice of Anne’s dream guide.
Here, we’re in a section that I like to call “Sympathy for the Devil.” In this part of the game, Anne takes a few moments to empathetically place herself in the shoes of all of the members of The Syndicate. First, Sheriff Taft, who we learn builds model ships. The wooden woman we found in the morgue was one of his model mastheads.
In this section of the game, these men are humanized … although that doesn’t mean that Anne forgets their role as symbols of patriarchal power. One common theme that repeatedly surfaces in this section is the emotional brokenness of these men. They are fastidious to the point where they are incapable of tenderness. They require the women that surround them to play the roles of nurturers, so that they can pursue their single-minded projects of masculine power.
Sometimes, this takes the form of hiding their emotions, as when the mayor shamefully cries while hidden by the curtain of a photo booth.
Sometimes, this takes the form of literally, physically passing off certain duties to the women around them, because their socialization has rendered them incapable of performing them. Here, Col. Emenegger’s son passes off his infant child to a (presumably female) onlooker. While we’re holding it, we witness that the Col. is incapable of even hugging his son in public: instead, the son initiates a salute, as a compromise.
Ms. Paul is more than Cord McCarrin’s secretary. She seems to be the only person that he can intimately confide in. As one of the only women we ever see working in this building, it is no surprise that this duty falls to her.
Here, we spot her for a moment, taking on nurturing duties of McCarrin, whose stress leaves him in an infantile state.
In an associative cut, we move on to Jared Fairfax, getting head. Except, he’s not giving head. This seems to be a more innocent moment, where he’s tenderly comforting Barbara.
Well, so much for comforting. He has a reputation to protect, and so she must be discarded. Edith Fairfax looks on. She must have known something was going on.
The Syndicate’s masks here are, unsurprisingly, white. There’s a bunch that could be said about the use of masks as symbols in the acid trip sequence, but rather than say it all here myself, I’ll instead direct you to G. Christopher Williams’ very good article on the subject in PopMatters. I think what is clear, though, is the theme of the performance and conformity while operating within systems of power you’ll never fully be integrated into because of your identity: a theme that has been with us since Anne first pondered the use of her lipstick, and got into the line of men to be processed.
And here we are. The key to so much of the game’s imagery. Anne is at the hospital bed of her father, a former police officer. We hear the beeping of his life support monitors. Anne has followed in his footsteps, into law enforcement. He approves. He wants her to have something. He gives her a key. He gestures towards the closet in his room. It has a red door … with slots. We’ve seen this door three times before.
Inside, one box stands out. It’s a red box. It looks sort of like a ballot box, or a card receiving box. Anne unlocks it. The key breaks.
Inside the box is another box. And inside the other box? We’ll never know. Perhaps Anne herself never looked inside. Perhaps she didn’t have to, because she already knew. In any case, it’s kept from us. (The box with unknown contents is a frequent image in surrealist cinema and television, from Lynch’s Twin Peaks and Mulholland Dr., all the way back to Salvador Dali’s and Luis Buñuel’s Un chien andelou.)
And now, The X-Files takes over. Lucas’ drawings and the Air Force base blend together in Anne’s drug-fueled imaginings, and the imagery takes a startling turn.
And now, another alternate ending. This one is happier. Is it the “real” ending? No such distinction is upheld. We could say, at the very least, that it’s Anne’s most “optimistic” vision of the future.
Halperin has returned to us. We have returned her necklace. She picks up our bill, this time. Anne lets go of her key, finally. And, as we drive out of Kingdom, Virginia, we see someone. Someone walking and hitchhiking his way out of town. Someone who looks a lot like Lucas Fairfax. And we let him be. He has his own road to travel.
Okay, so: to wrap up. Interpretations are a dime a dozen, so I won’t offer anything belabored here. I do, though, want to offer some thoughts on the significance of colors, if nothing else.
In the first half of this video, I said that “In Virginia, red is the color of secrets.” And I stand by this. Taking stock of things, it’s the color of the closet where Anne’s father keeps his secrets in, the color of the box within that closet that the secrets are in, the color of the envelope Anne secrets the acid away in, the color of Lucas’s secret darkroom, the color of the bird in the teens’ secret hideout, and the color associated with Lucas’s father’s secrets.
But we have to ask ourselves why it’s not the color of Maria Halperin’s secret. My guess is that the color red is being used to tie some secrets together, while excluding others.
So what does red link, if not “secrets,” in general?
I think it links four things. Or, rather, four people.
First, it links Anne to her father. Red was the color of her fathers secrets. It is also the color of Anne’s secrets, and a color that is generally associated with her career, as an officer in an intelligence bureau (the guards of secrets). There’s a father-daughter link that’s created with the visual language here.
Secondly, it links Lucas Fairfax with his father. Lucas has his red secrets from his father. His father has red secrets from the public.
What we have here is a multi-point analogy. I don’t think for a moment that we’re supposed to see these parent-child relationships as “the same.” But we are supposed to ponder their connections.
On the surface, Anne’s relationship with her father seems much healthier and happier than Lucas’ relationship with his father. Anne obviously respects her father. His career in law enforcement seems to have inspired her career in the Bureau.
But there’s reason to believe that Anne has misgivings as to whether, in imitating her father, she has followed the right path. We never learn what’s in her father’s box, but obviously it’s bad. Was it evidence of his corruption as an officer? Was it child pornography? What it something she found emotionally unbearable? Or was it something that she was worried might hurt her career if it ever came out? We don’t know. But we do know that it’s been a dark mark on her memory of who her father was. Since her father’s death and her incineration of the box, she’s kept the broken key with her.
Lucas’ relationship with his father is the mirror image of this. Rather than following in his father’s footsteps, details like his hidden electric guitar and the booze-filled hangout cave makes it clear that he’s rebelling against his father’s conservative religious ways. He’s not just a garden variety rebel, either. His photographs helped him get real leverage on his father. They’re something he could use to seriously cut ties if the need came.
I think there’s something in Lucas that appeals to Anne. At this particular moment, dealing with the moral complexities of the Maria Halperin situation, she is, as I said before, coming to grips with the way in which her work serves the patriarchy. The contents of the box left her unsettled, and her investigation of Maria is making her question the power structure’s she’s enmeshed within. Suddenly, following in the footsteps of the family patriarch doesn’t simplistically feel like the good idea it once did. In Lucas’ teenaged rebellion, she has found an unlikely parallel to the moral problems she’s grappling with. They’re separated by age, race, and gender, but his story has arrived at the right time for her to ponder some things. She finds the Halperin case distressing. She finds Lucas’s case compelling. We see this even in the color of the respective case files: the missing persons case has a red file. It’s part of the same connecting tissue as all this red family baggage.
As I noted before, Lucas’ actual fate kind of drops out of the game, as it makes its sharp turn into Anne’s misgivings about destroying Maria’s career. But Lucas remains a kind of symbol of hope for Anne. In the games multiple, hallucinatory endings, she gives him a couple different happy endings. In one, he escapes on a UFO. In another, he leaves town, guitar case slung over his back. We could debate which one of these is “real,” but I don’t think the game’s interested in making that distinction. What we should focus on is the fact that Lucas escaping and getting a happy ending has become important for Anne.
Maria’s secret room is green, because she doesn’t belong to this nexus at all. She, too, fell under the sway of a parent’s career. Notably, though, it was her mother’s, not her father’s. And unlike Anne, who has begun to see herself as in a cog in the machine of patriarchal power structures, Maria has inherited from her mother a rich history of anti-authoritarian thinking, and a keen awareness about how her chosen career can destroy women like her. Maria and her mother certainly have their own secrets (just who was that mustachioed man, anyway?), but their secrets, and their struggles, are quite different from Anne’s.
I don’t want to push this whole “red vs. green” color mapping too far, because any visual system is bound to fall apart under duress. But I do want to point out that the UFO that rescues Lucas doesn’t have red lights. It has blue-green lights. It is, if you’ll forgive a pun, a “mothership,” removing Lucas from the cycle of patriarchal power. His savior, too, is not a bug-eyed alien, but quite clearly a human woman.
Who is this woman?
Now, it’s stunning to me that the developers would go through the work of crafting an entirely new character model just for this one silhouetted glimpse. But that’s the conclusion I’ve come to. At first I thought it was the diner waitress, since she seems to have a handkerchief on her head. But the diner waitress’ hair is in a long, high ponytail, and this woman’s hair is in a short, low bun or knot. Her tight hairstyle is more like something worn by the singer at Sojourner’s Truth. But she’s not wearing a dress like that! She clearly has sleeves, and even a belt. She’s not Edith Fairfax, and she’s not Anne; she’s not Maria, she’s not Judith Ortega, or Ms. Paul, or the rookie agent, or the barmaid at Sojourner’s Truth … and that’s all the women there are in this game. She’s someone new. But her role is clear: Anne imagines her as the means of delivery from the power structures that bind both her and Lucas.
Well … that’s it. Thanks for studying Virginia with me! There have been some good parts … there have been some bad parts. Overall, I think that, despite its faults, Virginia will probably go down as an important landmark in the history of interactive movie-style games. Thanks to Variable State, for giving us something to talk about. Keep playing, and keep thinking!