Player 1 Disconnected: Exploring Virtual Sites of Subatlern Agency in Virginia
By David Leblanc | 13.11.2017
The year is 1992. David Lynch’s latest oddball noir melodrama is made into a feature film, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992). Only a year later, the pilot for serialized supernatural thriller X-Files (1993-2002, 2016) airs on network television. Meanwhile, in the fictional town of Kingdom, Virginia, the disappearance of the young Lucas Fairfax raises questions about the small town’s veil of normalcy. Independent game developer Variable State’s mystery thriller, Virginia (2016), emerges from the pop culture pedigree of 1990s paranormal detective fiction. In the first person adventure game, players embody fresh FBI graduate Anne Tarver. Assigned to a teenage boy’s disappearance, Tarver’s superiors also instruct her to keep a watchful eye on her new partner, Maria Halperin, who is also under investigation. During their time in Kingdom, however, Tarver and Halperin’s trust is tested as they uncover the small town’s conspiracies. Unlike the heteronormative and white protagonists in similar texts, Tarver and Halperin are women of colour and, as implied by the ending where they abandon their institutional commitments to drive off together, queer. They remain what neo-Marxist Antonio Gramsci coins as subaltern (Louai 5). That is to say, Tarver and Halperin occupy positions of subordination within the structures of both the FBI and the cultural canon the game stems from.
Virginia is unlike many story-driven games of its kind: players may control the protagonist, but their agency is effectively undermined by the interactive text’s adoption of cinematic formalism — jump cuts, crossfades, and montage, to name a few conventions of filmic language the game employs. By effectively limiting the player’s control over the game’s direction, Virginia aims to empower its marginalized subject. In reality, Virginia, an approximately 90-minute experience, plays more like a film than any game. It is in my discussion of the game as a cultural text indebted to the lineage of 1990s detective fiction and its exploration of subaltern subjectivity that I hope to show how Variable State attempts to realize the potential agency of its subject in rendering a virtual heterotopia. Virginia, for all its supernatural conspiracy and detective melodrama, ultimately aims to empower the subaltern.
Variable State’s Virginia emerges from the kitschy detective fiction of the early 1990s as a hypertext. Robert Stam, Richard Porton, and Leo Goldsmith define the hypertext in Keywords in Subversive Film/Media Aesthetics as “the relation between one text...‘hypertext,’ to an anterior text or ‘hypotext,’ which the former transforms, modifies, elaborates, or extends” the latter (47). The hypertext is, in a way, the least surprising development in new media, as their cultural antecedents and potential inspirations are often readily available. Stam et al. write that hypertexts like Virginia generate their own meaning by reconfiguring and reimagining the material it stems from, “not only through recognizable influences...the so-called ‘new digital media’ actually gain their cultural significance by absorbing and refashioning earlier media and artistic practices” (48). In this way, the hypertext does not only reference or allude to anterior works; it seeks to reshape cultural artifacts, using them as convenient shortcuts for contextualizing setting and atmosphere. In doing so, the hypertext can develop a new meaning out of past products, or in the case of Virginia, level a critique against them. Although, as I will show, Virginia shares much with the pop-culture canon it emerges from, the game nonetheless strives to disturb the otherwise predominantly white, male, and heteronormative agency cast in the paranormal detective fiction of the 1990s.
After a brief prologue where Tarver is inducted as an FBI agent and receives her first assignment to investigate Halperin, players navigate the Bureau building to a catacomb-like basement office where they find their new partner. Their introduction bears an uncanny resemblance to the moment The X-Files’ Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) finds Fox “Spooky” Mulder (David Duchovny), on whom she must conduct an internal investigation of her own, in his respective basement dwelling. In the sequence that follows, a long take tracking the pair’s drive through pastoral landscapes to the fictional town of Kingdom, calls upon the roadside tableau in the opening montage from Lynch’s Twin Peaks (1990-1) (fig. 1). And much like how the death of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) in Twin Peaks becomes secondary to the show’s oddball humor, Lucas Fairfax's disappearance in Virginia eventually falls to the wayside; making room forthe game’s interest in its character’s marginality. The game becomes the site of Tarver’s meditation upon her own condition and resistance to oppressive structures, all the while entertaining hallucinatory visions of alien abduction and small-town political conspiracies. Tarver’s vivid imagination and hallucinations, which the player navigates with an often tenuous grasp on what constitutes reality, summon the pop-culture scripts of The X-Files, Twin Peaks, or the science-fiction cult anthology, The Outer Limits (1995-2000).
In another scene, Tarver downs a tab of acid – a stamp marked by a red sparrow, a leitmotif in the game — and navigates a lucid hallucination wherein she finds some resolution to her personal turmoil, and even uncovers (or, rather, imagines) an occult sacrificial ceremony reminiscent of the ritualistic orgies from Stanley Kubrick’s final film, Eyes Wide Shut (1999) (fig 2). Virginia’s textual references produce meaning beyond mere intertext, which only reference the anterior text; the game’s hypertextual sources are effectively reshaped and rearticulated in the way its characters are positioned in dialogue with them. Variable State may render an environment and atmosphere not unlike David Lynch’s oeuvre or the science-fiction of series like The X-Files, but the black female protagonists that investigate Kingdom and the narrative paths they take remain the means by which Virginia attempts to undermine the white heteronormativity of its cultural antecedents. It is as though Tarver and Halperin are not only tasked with a missing persons case, but are effectively meant to indict the normative traditions that populate Kingdom.
Virginia features two women of color that emerge as unlikely figures in the predominantly white, male, and heterosexual canon that early 1990s detective fiction the games interpellate. Save for the skeptical Dana Scully in The X-Files or even FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) in Silence of the Lambs (1991), Virginia’s source material of paranormal detective fiction lacks representations of women and moreover, women of color, in law enforcement roles. When Tarver and Halperin finally drive off together, the game does not explicitly announce the queer subtext, but it nonetheless enacts a queering of the hypotexts and the characters’ abandon of the hegemonic structures (e.g. heteronormativity) that oppress them. The difference inscribed upon these texts is, incidentally, difference itself. Variable State’s placement of marginalized persons in leading roles obfuscates the game’s already oblique narrative of political conspiracy and alien abduction. Such casting affords players the ability to focus on the characters’ relationship and how the fictional town of Kingdom — a postcard version of white, middle class, ‘small town America’ — understands them.
Virginia’s leading characters can be understood as subaltern subjects. The conditions of subalternity, according to Italian neo-Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci, “refer fundamentally…to any ‘low rank’ person or group of people in a particular society suffering under hegemonic domination of a ruling elite class” that denies their status as “active individuals of the same nation” (Louai 5). As Tony Bennett notes in New Keywords: A Revised Vocabulary of Culture and Society, “race, ethnicity, and culture have become central to the politics of difference” (86). “Theorizations of sexual difference,” he argues, “are characterized by efforts to develop autonomous definitions of ‘woman’ and ‘femininity,’ unhinged from their binary relationship to ‘man’ and ‘masculinity,’ in which they are inevitably locked into the position of inferior or subordinate counterpart” (85). Virginia acknowledges — confronts, even — the racial and gendered subalternity of its character. By allowing players to embody these subaltern figures, Virginia engages in what Stam calls “centralizing the peripheralized,” or “self-subjectification” (200). In the game’s opening sequence, for example, players control Tarver as she gazes in a bathroom mirror, reluctantly applying lipstick before the FBI induction ceremony. The mundane scene, an overtly feminine-coded moment of personal intimacy, introduces players to the character as both subject (looking) and mirrored object (looked at). Later in the game, Tarver and Halperin stop at a gas station upon their arrival in town. With Halperin going inside to pay, players silently wait as a teen-filled convertible skids to a halt next to their window; a teenager leans toward Tarver and makes offensive gestures at her — players can do nothing in return. The ambiguity of the harassment — whether it stems from Tarver’s womanhood, black skin, or as is suggested by the game’s ending, queerness — is unresolved.
Virginia forces the conditions of powerlessness upon its players. A later scene set in a local inn, which lifts the staging from the musical set-pieces of Lynch’s oeuvre, namely the Roadhouse cabaret from Twin Peaks and Isabella Rossellini’s eponymous song in Blue Velvet (1986), further problematizes Tarver’s subjectivity (fig. 3). Players sit at a table and contemplate a cabaret singer swaying in front of a shimmering red velvet curtain until a man waddles over to them insinuatingly. Tarver shows the fake wedding ring Halperin provided her moments earlier to repel the man. Whereas the Blue Velvet cabaret scene serves articulate heterosexual desire, Virginia’s cabaret scene shows how Tarver’s implied queerness is undermined by having to submit to engaging in rehearsed heteronormativity as a means of deflecting harassment. The black, female, and queer body is articulated as undesirable in one context and the object of unwanted attention in another, conveying the often tumultuous experience of the subaltern. The player’s inability to act beyond Tarver’s virtual agency complicates the question of whether she is, in the end, nonetheless under the subordination of the dominant player that controls her. By separating the player’s agency from Tarver’s, Virginia effectively subverts the hegemony of control and empowers the character, in turn subordinating the player to her agency, her narrative, and her desire.
Gramsci coined the term subaltern in his Prison Notebooks written between 1929 and 1935 (Louai 4). The term was later redeveloped by Gayatri Spivak in her 1988 critique of postcolonial discourse, “Can the Subaltern Speak.” In her essay, which addresses the subaltern as a subject of colonialism (rather than Gramsci’s broader definition of the oppressed, or economically dispossessed), Spivak examines the impossibility for the oppressed to voice their subjectivity in any other language than that of the oppressors. She concludes her essay by conceding, “‘the subaltern cannot speak’” (qtd. in Louai 7). Spivak recognizes “the fact that the subaltern...only possess a dominant language or a dominant voice to be heard.” That is to say, the subaltern’s only site and modes of self-expression are nonetheless bound to the dominant language that positions them as subaltern to begin with.
Variable State employs an important conceit in response to this conundrum: how do you give voice to a character that is figuratively silenced? The characters of Virginia, as it were, take Spivak’s concession on the subaltern’s silent subordination as a point of departure: they remain silent. They may gesticulate, express themselves however convincingly in their polygonal minimalist aesthetic, but they do not speak — they have no voice. Yet it is not only the black/female/queer pairing of Tarver and Halperin who cannot speak: every individual, institution, or group in Virginia, even the overbearing figures of the patriarchy, remain voiceless. In this muted mise-en-abyme, the game acknowledges the limits and problems of “giving voice,” as Stam words it, “to the disempowered” (201). By eliminating the voice altogether, Virginia attempts to figuratively flatten the imbalances of hegemonic discourse. Tarver and Halperin may not speak, but no dominant cultural language speaks on their behalf, either.
Virginia, then, emerges as a “virtual heterotopia,” in the words of Stam, wherein the subversive potential afforded by technology can “be used to create critical utopias that expand the possibilities of time and space, as well as individual and social identity” (284). Heterotopias, as defined by Michel Foucault in his essay, “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias,” represent
counter-sites, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the other sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted. Places of this kind are outside of all places, even though it may be possible to indicate their location in reality. (3-4)
Although we can effectively locate Virginia’s ‘Kingdom’ geographically and culturally (in the game’s obsession with early 1990s detective fiction), the township and the potentials it affords Tarver and Halperin still exists beyond this reality — our fleshspace. Virginia’s screen-mediated heterotopia, like the mirror in Foucault’s text, appears as “a placeless place…in an unreal, virtual space” (4). The otherwise silenced and subordinate figures, Tarver and Halperin, find alternative means to express themselves in this virtual world. Virginia’s final montage sequence has players lackadaisically dash through years of Tarver’s life following the investigation in an imagined scenario where she parts with Halperin. Droning through monotonous labour and ascending the corporate ladder, the game uses rapid editing and graphic match cuts (where players raise a classified file only to drop a new one on their subordinate’s desk) to convey the dreariness of this potential future. Virginia then weaves in revisions to the montage where players do not part with Halperin, driving off together instead. The virtual heterotopia effectively revises the conventional mundanity of the normative timeline, so to speak, therefore queering the text in offering Tarver the potential to enact her desires and subaltern agency.
In its representation of queer futurity, Virginia enacts the potentials of the virtual heterotopia as “a point of relation to the actual world” both in terms of the canon of early 1990s detective fiction it interpellates and the first person subaltern subjectivity it employs to “virtualize the real” (Stam 277). Players effectively embody the characters and their intimacies, exploring the “very everydayness of their digital gazes” (277). Yet the game not only enacts a heterotopic imagery in its polygonal and colourful aesthetic, nor its remediation of heteronormative and predominantly white cultural scripts; Virginia effectively subverts the hegemony of power that structures the game-experience. There remains the facile argument that games inherently place characters (in this case, subaltern subjects) in controlled positions of subordination and therefore perpetuate the figure’s subalternity, further silencing them. At the same time, however, Virginia’s limiting and even complete removal of player control in its pervasive use of filmic language disarm the player in order to convey a story instead of traditional gameplay, supporting the subaltern character’s autonomy. This is perhaps Virginia’s greatest subversion of hegemony: rendering the player subordinate to the character — the control of which they may take for granted. In Variable State’s heterotopia, the black, female, queer body may initially enter this mediated space of the virtual real under some hegemonic power’s control — the player — but eventually become agents of their own desires and potentials.
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