For the last couple of console generations we’ve seen the big budget publishers abuse the word “cinematic” to justify things like stunted framerates and a futile obsession with photo-realism. AAA companies not understanding the difference between games and movies, and thus taking entirely the wrong cues from the medium of film, has become a running gag for the better part of a decade, and despite constant derision it doesn’t show any signs of stopping. Even being optimistic, it’s highly unlikely that this attitude is going to die out with the PS4 and Xbox One. Lord only knows how many more console generations are going to be dominated by the “cinematic” fallacy. But that’s the AAA industry. We’re all expecting it. ALL of us.

What I wasn’t expecting was for an indie game come out just a few short weeks ago that has also failed to understand that games and films aren’t the same thing. Sadly it seems that video games, big or small, still aren’t immune from even the oldest of AAA mistakes.

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Virginia is a first person mystery thriller that has the player assume the role of a graduate FBI special agent assigned to a missing persons case while also conducting an internal affairs investigation on her partner. Developed by newcomers Variable State Ltd and published by 505 Games, Virginia clearly takes a lot of its presentation cues from TV and film, going so far as to name the option in the main menu to start the game “Play Feature”. Thing is, as a feature it’s pretty solid. I’m not particularly attached to any of the characters, but the conveying of events without the use of dialogue is done pretty well and the story is interspersed with enough strangeness and intrigue to keep my attention. Not something I’ll ever feel the need to go back to, but I can’t rightly call it bad.

But that’s as a feature. There’s a reason I’m making that distinction, and that’s because, as everyone reading this hopefully knows, games are a different beast. The ability to interact with the game’s world – to physically place the audience in that world by granting them agency within it – is a whole dimension that media like TV and film don’t have. This automatic connection to the world is, if you’ll pardon the pun, a game-changer – one so powerful that it can trick people into thinking Heavy Rain is compelling. The extra dimension that games enjoy over TV and film makes it considerably easier to elicit emotional responses from the audience, but that’s a double-edged sword: it might make it easier to get players invested in the events on-screen, but it also amplifies the discomfort the player feels when they get taken out of the experience by something jarring.

For example…something like a jump cut.

We don’t think about jump cuts in TV and film because we know what we’re seeing is just images on a screen; we’re not actually there – we’re merely observing. Games, however, provide a tactile connection to what’s being depicted onscreen, and on a subconscious level we, being such a dreadfully egotistical species, perceive these events as being more important based on the simple fact that we can have an effect on them. In this way, the events on screen become just a little bit more ‘real’ to us. We still, obviously, logically know that it’s still a video game and not real life, but it’s as I’ve said: the effect is still powerful enough to confuse people into being invested in Heavy Rain. So when a game abruptly cuts to another scene without a word of warning, it’s a hell of a lot more jarring than if they were watching a movie.

In Virginia’s case in particular, this is not at all helped by the fact that sometimes the jump cuts occur at times when you wouldn’t even have expected them in a film. There’s a moment within the first five or so minutes of the game where the player character, one Anne Tarver, is heading out to her first assignment as a graduate of the FBI and decides to throw away her lipstick, expressing a sentiment that I don’t really get the context of but approve of nonetheless. After that, the player walks out through Anne’s apartment, and as she reaches the door the scene suddenly changes and now the player is in a car. Not only would I not have used a jump cut in the first place, but I don’t even feel like the jump cut happened at the right time. Seeing Anne walk through the apartment doesn’t add anything to this scene, not even to establish location since we’ve already seen the apartment by this point in the story. If anything, the jump cut should have come in the first few seconds immediately following Anne disposing of the lipstick. Instead the scene just continues, naturally leading us to believe that there’s still something that’s going to happen. Except nothing does. The player just walks through the hall, clicks on the door and is instantly in the back of a taxi. From an editing standpoint, the decision absolutely baffles me. Why go to the effort of showing Anne walking to the front door to leave the appartment if you’re just going to cut straight to her in a taxi anyway?

And of all the things about movies to emulate, why jump cuts? Why borrow the most boring transition in all of filmmaking? Even if it hadn’t been jarring, it wouldn’t have stood out. It’s just the default transition for when there’s not anything more clever that the director could do. In this case, there were plenty of more clever transitions that could have been used. If we absolutely had to see Anne walk to the front door, then the door could have opened up into the next scene – a transition that I seem to recall is used in a sequence not that long after the one I’m describing. Variable State clearly had the capability to use transitions that were both more creative and smoother than a jump cut, and yet there’s a fair few instances where they just didn’t. I can’t think of any good reason for why that is, but I can think of one reason that at least makes a kind of sense: they wanted Virginia to be shot like a film, and films use jump cuts.

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So we find ourselves in an all-too familiar situation in which a game tries to be “cinematic” without properly considering whether or not the cinematic aspects it’s emulating actually translate well into video games. Strangely though, the same voices that have bashed AAA games for this behaviour for nigh on a decade seem to not only be letting Virginia off the hook, but heralding what it does as some kind of revelation. This confuses me greatly, because frankly I think Virginia‘s misuse of cinematic convention is far more egregious than anything the AAA space has done. I can ignore the fact that a game runs at 30fps, and while photorealism eventually makes a game look dated there’s still a period for which it’s not a problem. But this – adopting cinematography techniques that even a layman such as myself could have told you wouldn’t scan – is, to me at least, the most spectacular example of a developer fundamentally misunderstanding how their chosen medium works.

If Virginia wanted to be a film, it would have been better off being a film Not only would the jump cuts have become appropriate, but the lack of any need to provide periods of interaction would also have allowed for tighter editing and thus better pacing. If Variable State were set on making Virginia a game however, then they should have given up trying to make it look like a film. Video games are their own medium, and we need to finally, decisively acknowledge that. I don’t want this conversation to still be applicable in 2026, not when we should already have put it to bed as it is. I do still appreciate Virginia’s story and some of the artistic decisions it made, but it’s inescapable that in trying to straddle the line between film and video game, it wasn’t the great experience it could have been had it focused solely on either. Variable State chased two hares and caught neither, and that’s a damn shame. So please, however futile it might be for me to say this: let’s try and make Virginia the last game ever to fall victim to this fallacy that should not still have been.

About The Author

Contributor

Found in a heavily sealed crate salvaged from a wrecked freighter somewhere in the pacific ocean, Josh was brought to Indie Haven where he now writes features that combine his love of video games with his fascination with the workings of the human mind. Holding that video games, much like any art form, are a form of rorschach test that can often provide interesting insights into onesself, he enjoys writing about the ways in which games interact with his own psychological quirks, especially when it takes him down bizarre and esoteric rabbit holes. He's also a regular on the Indie Haven podcast, where his patented Deep Thoughts take the cast to places no mortal mind should ever venture.

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