What ho, chums! This week I was excited to read about the new game Virginia – or rather to read a tiny bit about it and then completely avoid reading any more for fear of spoilers (it appears that the game relies heavily on keeping its surprises hidden). Yes, Virginia is yet another must-buy indie game to add to the many notable recent releases, such as Firewatch, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture and The Witness. We truly are spoiled for choice when it comes to quality indie titles these days…
Anyway, the Eurogamer review of Virginia compared the game to Twin Peaks, that wonderful early-90s TV show helmed by David Lynch:
Intuition. Intuition is an interesting one. It’s everywhere in the kind of TV fiction tradition that Virginia belongs to, but it’s nowhere in most narrative video games where every player must be treated as a generic entity to be prodded through the gauntlet with tips, rewards, and brisk, formative punishments, like a sort of space chimp. It’s a reminder that most narrative games do not have the ambition to do any justice at all to one central character – the player. (And if they do, they generally fumble it.)
And yet look what intuition gives you when you get it right. It gives you Dale Bartholomew Cooper, FBI Special Agent on a dangerous mission to Twin Peaks. He’s a figure that looms over Virginia, much as Twin Peaks itself looms over Virginia’s town of Kingdom. And yet it can be hard to pinpoint why this is exactly. There’s the agency, of course, and the investigation at hand and the coffee in diners and the occasional glimpses of the artfully inexplicable. But there’s something deeper: that world that runs on intuition rather than reason, and wrapped up inside that world a wonderful and refreshing absence of ironic distance.
This is what people always get wrong about David Lynch. He’s witty, perhaps, but he’s never ironic, and he’s never removed himself from the center of things to mock and smirk from the wings. He means it, every bit of it, and his strange world is all the more frightening because it does not seem to be strange to him. What would it be like to be inside that head, eh? And what sort of reticule might allow you to make the best of what you saw in there?
Or, to put it in other words, Virginia is a marvel crammed into a neat two-hour running time, and you must play it.
I came to Twin Peaks fairly late on, after I’d seen several of David Lynch’s films, and I was amazed by how ahead of its time it was. Well, perhaps ahead of its time is the wrong phrase – there’s very little like it out there even now. The mix of the mundane and the downright weird, the humour weaved into an overarching theme of terrifying malevolence, the characters so far along the scale of quirkiness to be almost caricatures… It’s simply brilliant. Watch it, if you haven’t already.
Anyway, reading this reference to Twin Peaks inspired me to take a break from planet exploration and dive back into Deadly Premonition: Director’s Cut, a PS3 game that’s heavily influenced by David Lynch’s show. And I mean HEAVILY influenced, right down to the coffee and the Log Lady (although here she’s got a pot).
In some ways, it’s a hard game to love. ‘Rough around the edges’ is too kind a way to describe it – it basically looks like a PS2 game, with production values so low you can see the joins held together with sticky tape. Driving around town is a good example – the cars have a top speed of about 50 mph, and once you reach it, you’re treated to an engine-sound loop that evokes an asthmatic lawnmower, cycling endlessly over and over. And the handling is simply atrocious, like fighting a supermarket trolley with a bent wheel.
But if you can look past things like this, the game is an absolute gem – especially if you’re a Twin Peaks fan. The writer and director, SWERY, has meticulously recreated the TV show with recognizable but different-enough-so-they-don’t-sue characters and locations, and exploring it all is a joy. The dialogue is deliciously bizarre, especially the interminable monologues about Hollywood B movies from Dale Cooper stand-in Agent Francis York Morgan.
And speaking of B movies, Deadly Premonition is one of the last of a dying breed of ‘B games’. This type of ‘middle-budget game’ was everywhere back in the PS1 and PS2 days, with cheap and cheerful titles like Destroy All Humans! doing pretty well. But since the PS3 era we’ve seen the rise of the console indie scene, which has split the market between AAA titles and low-budget, super-cheap indie games. This has killed the market for mid-price games stone cold dead. Games like Dark Void and Dark Sector, both of which I enjoyed despite their flaws, simply wouldn’t get made now.
Still, at least the spark of originality is burning brightly in the indie scene. And we have a new love letter to Twin Peaks in the form of Virginia. It’s just a shame that the constraints of indie budgets mean this particular letter is necessarily short – by comparison, Deadly Premonition is more like a love encyclopaedia.
“Do you feel it, Zach? My coffee warned me about it.”