“There’s always fear of the unknown where there’s mystery” ~ David Lynch
I played Virginia this week and to the surprise of no one, I loved it. However, I’ve been struggling to think of something coherent to say about it for a review. I’ve decided instead to discuss the game through the lens of ‘the uncanny’, and compare it to the work of David Lynch. Virginia has been compared to Twin Peaks a lot, and I’ve no doubt the developers are Peaks fans. In stating this comparison so often without explaining it, I feel we lose a way of understanding the weirdness of this game, especially for those too young to be aware of the TV series or its cultural impact. Please note, I’ll try to avoid it, but there may be some Virginia *spoilers* here, so you have been warned. Also I highly recommend listening to this while reading this post, taking a break every so often to sip your coffee, stare off into the distance and click your fingers along with the music. David Lynch would approve.
I should first define what I mean by the uncanny. The uncanny is a sense of dread or fear felt when you see or experience things that are familiar but in a distorted way. Think of how we use uncanny when we describe a strange resemblance between two people. Or when we talk about our discomfort with technology that aims to mimic the human, but somehow misses, as the uncanny valley. Much of the defining work on defining the uncanny comes from Feud in his 1919 essay ‘The Uncanny’:
The subject of the “uncanny” is a province of this kind. It undoubtedly belongs to all that is terrible—to all that arouses dread and creeping horror… The “uncanny” is that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar. How this is possible, in what circumstances the familiar can become uncanny and frightening.
The uncanny has made appearances in literature and art, most notably in gothic novels. Freud’s definition draws from the German word for the uncanny,unheimlich. Heimisch is the German word for homely, to feel at home, native. Inside humans there is a specific fear that comes from seeing things, places or people we feel comfortable with distorted into something ‘other’. It’s why many children (and adults) are afraid of the dark – the landscape of our bedrooms are transformed in the night into unfamiliar places where anything or anyone could be hiding in.
David Lynch is a master of using the uncanny – his films fill me with fear like no others do, and worst of all I can’t explain why they make me feel this way. If you’ve never seen Twin Peaks, or any Lynch films, I suggest you settle in for some great viewing. Seriously, Twin Peaks changed my definition of what is scary. In short: Twin Peaks tells the story of the murder of a teenage girl in a small town. Lynch and his team create a sense of a darkness lurking under the suburban brightness through the use of the uncanny. There are long panning shots of empty rooms, and other seemingly ordinary objects which become unsettling under the camera’s gaze. Clearly, David Lynch and the Virigina devs have learnt the art of the uncanny.
Twin Peaks is filled with doubles: the struggle between good and evil, characters mirroring and opposing each other, and even a television show tracing the plot of Twin Peaks itself. When playing Virginia you’ll also find yourself seeing double. The game opens with the player character Anne Tarver looking at herself in the bathroom mirror -a scenario we see repeated in the game. In the second half of the game, Tarver has a preoccupation with masks and those who wear them. There is something deeply unsettling about the thought of our own image become strange or ‘other’ to us. It’s a common trope to speak of not recognising the person in the mirror, especially when we are shocked by our own actions. Even the symbolism of doubles is one easily understood, Jekyll and Hyde has a long legacy in popular culture. It’s no wonder this is the territory of the uncanny.
Reflections goes hand in hand with the repetition in the uncanny. Freud states:
It is easy to see that here, too, it is only this factor of involuntary repetition which surrounds with an uncanny atmosphere what would otherwise be innocent enough, and forces upon us the idea of something fateful and unescapable where otherwise we should have spoken of “chance” only.
Throughout the game we return to the same spaces, even the same scenes again and again. This creates a familiarity with these spaces, which makes it all the more notable when something changes in these spaces. Seeing something out of place, or ‘other’ in a space where we know it doesn’t belong can be disturbing to us. There are plenty of these moments in Virginia: a father nailing his son’s door shut, a flower growing indoors, a bird on an autopsy table. While these images on there own may not have us hiding behind the sofa, they do make us (or me at least) feel unsettled.
Many of these spaces, like the one pictures above, are everyday, familiar scenes. In the more dreamlike sequences of the game, these spaces become distorted and frightening through this inversion of their use. The above room is one very reminiscent of the uncanny scenes in Twin Peaks which often corrupt the image of the family home, linked here is a terrifying example of this. In Virginia, the image that most unsettled me was the buffalo- its tendency to appear at unexpected times, in unexpected places, really made me feel uncomfortable, which I imagine was exactly the point. The appearance of the repeated images (the bird, the family home, the diner, Anne’s apartment) in unusual places is a prime example of how the uncanny functions in this game.
I don’t think I’ve said everything I want to say about Virginia, for such a short game it’s got so much to it. I’m still thinking about it since my first play and I’m sure I will play it again a few more times. I know Virginia is not for everybody, and some people may struggle with the lack of meaning presented in the game. So, in closing I will leave you with this quote from David Lynch, a man infamous for refusing to explain his work:
I don’t think that people accept the fact that life doesn’t make sense. I think it makes people terribly uncomfortable.