US: 22 Sep 2016
While staring into a mirror in the first-person, you are introduced to the character that you will be playing as in Virginia, a black female FBI agent named Anne Tarver. The first thing that you will do as Tarver is click on your bag in order to get out a tube of lipstick, which Tarver will then apply to her lips. This is the first of many indicators that one of the central themes of Virginia is identity and especially how we mask and reveal it.
This first scene precedes a ceremony initiating her into the FBI. On stage, she shakes the hand of her boss and receives applause for her inclusion in the group, an occupational identity. However, shortly thereafter, as Anne awakens for her first day on the job and readies herself in the bathroom of her apartment, she once again takes out the lipstick, hesitates, and then discards the tube in the trash can, choosing not to continue applying this feminine marker of identity.
The dichotomy between these scenes make sense to me. Prior to gaining professional authority or professional security, choosing to fit in a conventional sense by adopting a particular appearance is common. It’s why you wear the tie to the interview if you’re a man or wear lipstick if you’re a woman. As an academic, Anne’s decision to discard a conventional marker and choose her own appearance to others is familiar to me. I have a job in which professional security is pretty much assured as long as you are willing to prove your credibility over time. One puts in one’s time by being what others need or want you to be until one gains tenure, earning the ability to represent yourself as you are only after you have proven professional competency, after you have worn the appropriate masks.
Ironically, though, as soon as Anne seemingly stakes out a claim for being her own person, her first assignment is given to her. She is assigned a partner who she will be accompanying on a missing person’s case in Kingdom, Virgina, but whom is also under investigation by internal affairs. Anne has a job to do as an FBI agent, to find a missing boy, but she has an additional job in which she has been assigned a mask. She will also be watching her partner as a potential snitch if that partner, a woman named Maria Halperin, shows signs of misbehavior.
The state of Virginia adjacent as it is to the city of Washington D.C., seems a perfect setting to explore the tension that exists between appearances, masks, and hidden revelation. Many of the game’s characters are men in power, the mayor of Kingdom, a military officer, a man of the cloth, whose livelihoods depend on rhetoric and keeping up appearances in order to establish and maintain their authority, political, moral, or both. Throughout the game, slippages in the masks of these two women and the male authority figures surrounding them are constant and prevalent, revealing hypocrisy, complicity with the system, and the desire to simply fit in and survive.
In a scene, perhaps midway through the game, we see how markers of identity and their implications shift and alter according to how they are used. When the two women, Anne and Maria, stop at a roadhouse after one of a number of long days on the case, Maria slips off her wedding ring and hands it to Anne before going in to talk to a man at the bar. Anne follows her in and takes a seat to listen to the roadhouse band. As a drunk sidles up to talk to her, she slips Maria’s wedding band onto her own finger and waves it in front of him, warding him off with this “disguise”, an inversion of Maria’s own similar dicarding of an identity marker.
With so many markers to mask or imply the appearance of “truth”, Virginia, which is at its core a story of investigation, becomes an interrogation of the difficulty and, perhaps, frustratingly impossible task of actually exposing truth or facts. After all, material evidence, like lipstick and wedding rings, constantly challenge and make evident that empirical truth implies interpretations and conclusions that don’t necessarily align always with certainty and proof.
It is no surprise, perhaps, then that the seemingly mundane story of locating a missing boy in a small town in Virginia gives up on mundanity and empiricism and becomes a champion of the symbolic. While many of Virginia‘s scenes are conventional police procedural, the game also exposes the player and Anne quite regularly to the symbolic riddles of visions and dreams that are related to the secrets at the heart of the story.
Indeed, after both Anne and Maria are arrested for defying internal affairs by destroying Maria’s agency files, Anne chooses to “escape” her cell by dropping acid, a drug that if we adopt the mindset of someone like Timothy Leary has the possibility of pulling down the greatest mask of all, reality itself.
In a game in which player interactivity is quite minimal (the player of Virginia only walks around and clicks on things once in awhile to advance a scene), it is in the latter scenes where player agency is required to really attempt to find answers to the game’s mysteries. Rather than being a game of clicking on clues to solve a mystery, the game favors interactivity that requires interpreting the images that assault Anne as she trips on LSD in order to really understand the implications of a symbolic universe.
It is within these scenes that a moment emerges that directly addresses the questions of masks and markers of identity and what truth they hide or, perhaps, reveal. While on her vision quest, Anne comes upon a seemingly occult ritual attended by all of the male authority figures that she has encountered during the case. All of them gather around a buffalo that is hog tied and ready for sacrifice, and all of them wear the same chalk white mask, indicating their solidarity with systems of power.
Anne additionally finds herself in that same chalk white mask, indicating her own decisions in many ways to become complicit with the power structure that these men represent and that she is approaching the altar with the sacrificial blade that will end the buffalo’s life. Following a few intervening scenes and visions, Anne’s hallucinations return her once again to this scene, but this time she doesn’t watch herself from some disembodied perspective. From a first person perspective, we and Anne, look down at the buffalo before reaching up and pulling the mask from her face. As Anne flips it over, she discovers that it is no longer the chalk white mask of the “cult of authority”, but a mask that resembles her own face.
This moment suggests the true nature of masks: that if one wears one long enough, that the mask begins to become one’s identity. If one depends on markers, to allow others to see and understand one’s identity through, eventually those markers come to define our identity and determine our self direction. This symbolic truth is the one that has been really haunting Anne throughout the game: who should she decide to be? In response, she drops the mask, shattering it as it strikes the ground.
The true prison that Anne finds herself in at the close of Virginia is her own face, the one she has slid on and off throughout the game, adopting different poses, different alignments with those around her, but never truly feeling comfortable or anyway free behind. The solution to the mystery of Virginia is solved by unmaking the mask itself.