Like Dear Esther, Gone Home and Firewatch before it, Virginia has sparked a wave of tired arguments about whether or not it’s a videogame at all. As with those earlier titles, the discussion tends to be dull, only intermittently worthwhile, and over-use the term ‘walking simulator’.
I don’t want to argue about whether Virginia is a game, even though it is. Here’s a more interesting question: should it be?
The not-a-game brigade typically charge that Virginia can’t be a game because it’s interactivity is so limited. As an FBI agent chasing down a missing person in the early ‘90s, you can control where your character walks (though not always).
You can control where they look, again, not always. You can choose what they interact with. …you get the idea. And that’s it. Three basic types of interaction, each only permitted intermittently, and none with any serious impact on the way the story plays out.
Games are in many respects defined by their interactivity – it’s the chief element that stands them in contrast to other audiovisual art forms like film. By having even the limited interaction that it has, Virginia earns its place in the medium. But when the interaction is so stripped back, so devoid of meaning or impact, the bigger question is why it’s interactive at all.
To be fair to the game’s creators, it’s clearly a question they considered themselves. “Yes, I think it does worry me,” co-director Jonathan Burroughs told Vice when asked if he was concerned about player reaction to the title. “Perhaps I am doing games a disservice by making a game where player choice is diminished.”
He goes on to argue that “controlling the camera is enough” to break suspension of belief better than film can, to make the player “feel closer to what’s happening.” And to be sure, games with minimal interaction can achieve exactly that.
It’s one of the chief strengths of Firewatch, which powerfully inserts its players into its beautifully realized virtual world. But that game also worked because it allowed players to shape its central character, to respond in his voice, to move around his world freely, almost physically placing them within it. This all makes it especially ironic that it was announced this week that Firewatch is to be adapted into a film.
Virginia can do none of that. It is, much like Dear Esther all those years ago, a linear, albeit confusing and complex, story that could be adapted into a film without losing any of its distinctive qualities.
It doesn’t push games further. It holds them back. It ignores the very things that make games games, not films, that allow the medium to tell stories never possible before, or make players feel things that film never could. This is a game that wants so badly to learn from cinema and TV, to adopt their greatest strengths, that it forgot to learn from other games too.
Virginia is a game. But there’s no good reason that it ever should have been.