Through the last few console generations, cinematography in games has become commonplace in a medium that used to suffer from the lack thereof. Games like The Last of Us, The Uncharted series, and the Metal Gear Solid series have brought cinematography to the forefront of popular gaming. Great games with great direction are readily available and accepted by the community warmly. But to a certain effect, the cinematic feel can be limiting when it comes to implementing it into video games.
Gamers have become accustomed to long drawn out cut scenes or extensive dialogue sections in Metal Gear Solid, The Order 1886 or any game developed by TellTale Games. A trade-off of sorts occurs with these types of games; if a developer chooses to deliver exposition and plot via cut-scenes or dialogue, they do it at the cost of the player’s agency. Taking control away from the player is universally looked down upon mechanically for nearly every video game of the last few generations. The exception being that the player agency is away by a trustworthy party. We trust Hideo Kojima to deliver us a solid — if sometimes confusing — plot in a specific way.
The Great Balancing Act
However, there’s always a balance to plot delivery, and over the last two decades, developers have challenged that formula. If you’re taking control away from the player, make it worthwhile and make it as short as possible unless you have something very important to say. That is until Variable State rolled onto the scene with their narrative-driven game, Virginia — all without saying a single word.
Virginia at a glance isn’t anything new to gaming. That is until you sit down and experience the game for yourself. It’s a first person narrative-driven game, with only a few items to collect and several areas to explore. But Virginia doesn’t differ from the crowd in its wordless presentation. Games like Journey delivered their stories in a purely visual fashion, with no dialogue. Where Virginia breaks the mold is by having actual direction, in a near-literal sense. What I mean by this statement is not that Virginia has cohesive themes or genre tropes that self-fulfill the type of game that it is.
It’s not that Virginia has cohesive themes or genre tropes that self-fulfill the type of game it is. It, in fact, can be weak at times on those fronts. Virginia provides a controlled experience, helmed by an invisible director like a film.
Respecting a Player’s Time
The areas you occupy can switch in an instant via a jump cut to music. You may not get to the end of a hallway or finish reading everything on a document you picked up as the orchestral strings swell and the game transports you to a different scene.
Films don’t waste time watching characters walk or drive to destinations in real time or as a character reads something at a real speed. Variable State doesn’t waste time in Virginia. Especially for things that are not plot-centric like driving, walking, or needless conversation. Virginia clocks in anywhere between an hour and a half to two hours — about the same amount of time as the crime thriller films from which Virginia draws inspiration.
This controlled approach is unlike anything else in the narrative exploration genre. Variable State set up probably the most interesting take on the genre, or in games in general over the last ten years. Virginia controls what they show while still allowing the player agency in the scenes. The feel of the experience may feel intrusive to gamers at first, but Virginia has a story worth telling.
Variable State altered what gamers perceive as exposition and plot delivery. They’ve done it in a way that may spearhead things for adventure games to come. Narration and direction continue to evolve in video games as players age and become more open-minded to alternate experiences.