Virginia manages to have an exposition dump without wordy exposition.
Developer: Variable State
Publisher: 505 Games
Release Date: 2016-09-22
Virginia is a neat game. It uses the visual language of cinema, specifically the “cut”, to tell an ambitious story about corruption, identity, and the politics of power. Yet it’s these very cinematic tricks that also handicap the game, limiting the ways in which it can express itself. Rather than work within those limitations to tell its story, Virginia shows us as much as it can within its allotted time, and then cops out with an exposition dump that tries to connect what we’ve already seen to its grander ideas of corruption, identity, and power politics. It’s a flawed game, but fascinatingly flawed.
Virginia doesn’t just want to feel like a movie. It wants to be as long as a movie as well. That means that it has a run time of just about two hours. If you rush you can get through it in 90 minutes. If you take your time, you might hit the two and a half hour mark. This length isn’t inherently bad, but the game’s desire to be wordless works at cross-purposes with this time frame. It takes longer to express an idea when you don’t use dialogue, so from the very beginning, time is not on Virginia’s side. Naturally, it runs out of time and rushes to fill in its blanks with an exposition dump of ideas.
But how do you do an exposition dump without dialogue? Virginia has a genuinely clever solution here: visions. The main character, Anne, a rookie FBI agent, takes some acid and has a series of drug-induced visions that play out as a symbolic montage revolving around five men: the mayor, the Assistant Director of the FBI, a preacher, and two military men. The acid trip is a clever way of showing these characters in situations that speak to those larger themes without actually incorporating those situations into the narrative.
That narrative sees Anne sent to the town of Kingdom, Virginia to investigate the case of a missing child. She’s also tasked with investigating her partner, Maria, who’s under suspicion of... something. The specifics of this subplot don’t actually matter in regards to the game's thematic interests. Naturally, the town of Kingdom hides secrets, and the game wants to use its dual investigations as a jumping off point to explore its larger ideas (G. Christopher Williams does a great job exploring this in his piece on Virginia).
For example, the priest is the father of the missing boy, and he’s sleeping with an underage girl. The mayor of Kingdom... might be corrupt. The military men from the nearby air force base are... there. Finally, the Assistant Director of the FBI is... probably up to something bad. This is where the running time hurts Virginia, it only has time to show us one specific act of corruption, and the rest is left for us to assume. As in: the mayor and military and FBI are corrupt because they’re a mayor, military, and the FBI, that is, men representative of power.
The military men and the mayor are particularly egregious examples of superficial storytelling because they’re very minor supporting characters, but they have very prominent roles in the acid-trip-exposition-dump. Williams points out in his article that they all have jobs that require social masks, so it makes sense for them to be in Anne's visions since their jobs speak directly to the larger themes that Anne is grappling with -- except that they have no narrative reason to be there. None of these three men relate to either of the main plot threads, neither the investigation of missing boy, nor the investigation of Maria. Hell, they’re not even really supporting characters. They’re background characters forcibly elevated to supporting characters. At least the priest has a purpose in the plot, being the father of the missing boy and all, and the Assistant Director of the FBI also makes sense in that he makes you investigate Maria.
Yet even those two men don’t really earn their positions within the acid-trip-exposition-dump. We’re shown them in symbolic positions of power, but the story does nothing to show what power these men actually wield (the FBI guy does at least give you a mission, but there’s no reason to assume he’s doing it for nefarious purposes).
Virginia has moments of clever game design, like an exposition dump sans wordy exposition, but in a better game. it wouldn’t have needed that exposition dump at all.