Our systems of power are bigger than any one person. At times, like right now, it can be easy to forget that the myriad injustices of the modern world—the prejudices expressed in the words and policies of our leaders—arrive as amorphous clumps of sociopolitical sentiment, not because one scumbag gets himself elected to a position of enormous power. Trickle-down is a bad economic model and it doesn’t work in culture either.
The way systems of power operate is complex, composed of a sprawling web whose individual strands are shaped by everything that makes up our culture. Art, religion, philosophy, history, government—all of these apparently disparate elements are made by and contribute to our social order. Face up to one problem—the resurgence of the far right—and the solution is never as clean as we’d like. Get rid of a Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders or Nigel Farage and the underlying sentiment doesn’t just disappear. The ugliness—the contempt and fear—that defines nativism (and all the other wretched -isms beloved by the neo-fascists) is based on more than individual beliefs. It comes from different cultural forces—whether economic, religious or racial—terrified of losing control of a social order meant to benefit their interests.
In Variable State’s Virginia, the most direct agent of power is the American Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). From the viewpoint of Anne Tarver, a woman of color and newly minted FBI agent, this is made immediately clear. As she stands in line to shake the Assistant Director’s hand at her graduation ceremony, three men in suits stand before her. The only woman in evidence is the secretary who checks the list of graduates before ushering them on stage. The same imbalance continues as Anne stands in the elevator behind the broad shoulders of three men on her first day of work. Virginia wants us to remember that Anne is a minority within one of the nation’s most powerful bureaucratic systems.
The FBI exercises its control immediately, assigning Anne to look into the disappearance of a teenage boy while simultaneously investigating her partner, another woman of color named Maria Halperin. As Virginia’s plot unfolds, Anne learns that Maria is the daughter of Judith Ortega, a decorated former agent, intentionally stripped of Special Agent status and disgraced by the FBI for objecting to its breaches of unnamed “ethical guidelines.” The official reports containing this information notably include this line: “Your reputation, mine and that of the Bureau must be safeguarded.” Later, we see a collection of Judith’s things, stored in a room of her daughter’s house. The walls are dotted with posters from fictional socialist, feminist, and Black Power groups. The player understands that the FBI was unwilling to tolerate Judith’s political sympathies. Not content merely to remove her from a position of relative power, her daughter Maria must be investigated, too. Any threat to the existing order has to be rooted out.
The main characters’ backgrounds aren’t the only indicators of Virginia’s concern with systems of social control. Anne and Maria soon learn that the missing boy Lucas Fairfax has run away from his father, a (presumably) Anglican priest who exercises masculine and religious authority to control his family—Lucas has a guitar and photograph equipment hidden behind a false wall in his bedroom—and sleep with teenage girls. Evidence also suggests that the priest’s wife is preparing to start a new career. Fearing the loss of control and social advantage that a rebellious son and wife present, Fairfax Sr. has responded by further tightening his grip on those around him.
Virginia’s use of surreal imagery symbolically reinforces these themes. The recurring figure of a stoic bison—an animal almost entirely obliterated by the insatiable violence of a people newly establishing itself as the rulers of America—speaks to this. So, too, does the reoccurring cardinal, a bird standing in for the concept of freedom. (That the American bison is the “national mammal of the United States” and the northern cardinal the state bird of Virginia ties the imagery to American nation-building.)
Having collected dirt on her partner Maria and uncovered the truth behind Lucas Fairfax’s disappearance, Anne gains some small amount of agency within the FBI, but the process of doing so exposes her to the seemingly intractable hierarchy of her culture. Arrested at this point, a nightmare montage shows Anne informing on Maria after all, rising through the ranks of the FBI by continuing to rat on her colleagues (the first target is, notably, a Sikh man). The sequence ends with Anne inducting a new young woman into the FBI in a mirror of her own graduation ceremony. In this worst outcome, Anne perpetuates the system by not only failing to act in any way, but by issuing the same directive to inform on anyone else who may rock the boat or get too close to official secrets.
Recovering from her dreams, Anne clearly sees her choice: either accept the systems of power that victimize people just like her (Judith; Maria; the priest’s teenage girls and family) or fight, in some small way, against an overwhelming adversary. From her jail cell, still thinking over her decision, Anne eats a tab of acid. The psychoactive stamp is emblazoned with a drawing of a cardinal. The next, LSD-fuelled montage comprises Virginia’s last act. In it, the game’s constant, unpredictable cuts from one scene to another become even faster and more frequent. Meant before to underlie Anne’s disorientation—to demonstrate the bewildering scope of what she’s up against by making the player as confused by the breadth of the system as Anne is—the narrative becomes increasingly labyrinthine. Cuts that previously moved forward, from one plot point to another, now become disconnected and dreamlike. Nothing about the systemic problems it presents, Virginia says, can be understood in the manageable, linear fashion of a traditionally-told story.
In one scene, Anne burns a box full of secret documents whose existence she knows would halt her ability to succeed in the American government. In another, Lucas is abducted by a flying saucer, the ultimate government conspiracy imagined to be kept from public view by wide-eyed paranoiacs. The crucial scene in the montage, though, is Anne’s arrival at a cult-like gathering of the most powerful people she knows. The sheriff, the mayor, the FBI Assistant Director and Fairfax Sr., the priest—all men representing officialdom—stand around a sacrificial alter in robes and emotionless masks. Anne sees herself lifting a knife, prepared to join the agents of power by killing a bison. If she does so, she, too, will be signifying her desire to take control. She will reenact the destruction of the bison—a potent symbol of the violent power that established America’s control of an entire nation.
There are many reasons Virginia ends up falling short as a truly impressive discussion of this topic, but most pressing is its decision, as this montage ends, to cut to credits. Having established the scale of a tremendous, vital problem, the game ends apparently content to leave its audience reeling in confusion, apathy. This isn’t enough. Right now, it’s of increasing importance that we do more than throw up our hands at the enormity of systematic failures and resign ourselves to cynical indifference.
Reshaping an unjust social order isn’t easy. As Virginia shows, the system of power that fuels their existence are complex and very good at resisting change. Altering them requires attacking structural inequality wherever it’s taken root, directly combating the old guard’s hatred and instruments of greedy self-preservation wherever they manifest. Virginia does a good job pointing out a few examples of what that looks like. What the player should fill in is the missing, necessary desire to change that picture in whatever small way she can.
Reid McCarter is a writer and editor based in Toronto whose work has appeared at Kill Screen and Playboy. He is the co-editor of SHOOTER (a compilation of critical essays on the shooter genre), edits Bullet Points Monthly, co-hosts the Bullet Points podcast and tweets @reidmccarter.