As a matter of policy, I’m rating games, not the blurbs or cover art that accompany them. But I find this a little difficult when it comes to Virtue, since my playing experience was significantly impacted, not by the cover art (which is nice), but by the blurb. The problem is, this blurb gives away more or less the entire plot progression of the piece, all the way up to the otherwise surprising ending, and it even explains the game’s central metaphor and tells us how to interpret the action (using normative words like ‘self-righteous’ and ‘ludicrous’). I don’t understand why Oliver Revolta decided to write such a detailed, spoilery blurb – and I’d certainly recommend pairing it down.
On to the game itself. Virtue: an interactive narrative is a short-to-medium choice-based game about an English middle-class woman whose pathetic need to feel like she’s made it, like she’s one of the successful ‘haves’, puts her on a path towards darkness – where darkness is, more or less, Nigel Farage and Suella Braverman. The point of the game is clearly political. It wants to pull the mask from the xenophobic, transphobic, everything-phobic Tory right and show us the ideological emptiness and self-serving psychology beneath. The protagonist of our game, Gloria, is shown to be the type of person who can fall for this sort of politics, even to the point of becoming such a politician herself.
This is not an easily achievable set of intentions, but I can see at least three ways of making it work. One would be to lean sharply into one’s political disgust, showing the disastrous human effects of the policies one opposes. A second would be to ramp up the satire and lean into humour, taking the protagonist all-too-seriously while turning her into a laughingstock. A third would be to go for sympathy and understanding, showing in psychological detail why the protagonist, without being in any sense a terrible person, nevertheless ends up in a terrible political place.
I don’t think Virtue works very well in its current incarnation, and I believe that is in part because Oliver tries to do all of these things, and perhaps other too, at once. But they don’t mix very easily. A lot of time is spent on showing us the inside of Gloria’s thinking, which fits the third, sympathetic approach. But her thinking is so shallow and self-serving that we don’t actually feel like she’s a real human being. At the same time, it’s too realistic, too repetitive, to provoke laughter. And precisely because we never leave Gloria’s mind (and her obsession with appearances), we don’t really see the effects of her actions. It feels like the game knows exactly what it wants to be about, but it doesn’t really know how it wants to be about that.
One feels that because of this, the writing also doesn’t succeed nearly as well as it could have. Passages are often overly long – making points that were already clear, such as the shallowness of Gloria’s middle-class ambitions – again and again. But they also tend to be a bit vague. In this respect, the encounter with the Polish man stands out. Here the reader is trying to understand what has actually happened near the canal (is it a flasher? sexual assault? something else?), but the game is vague about that because it also wants to establish the embarrassment of the Polish doctor in talking about this, and the embarrassment of Gloria in not remembering his name, and the fact that these people are making too much out of a relatively minor incident, and Gloria’s incipient xenophobic thoughts, and Gloria’s determination to be a strong woman, and her panic as her dream is threatened… which is a lot, and it’s all mixed together, and none of it comes out as clearly as it could have. I think with a more consistent aim, it would have been easier to find a more consistent tone, and thereby to write more entertaining, to-the-point dialogue. Suppose we go for humurous, biting satire.
“There’s a streecker in the park,” he whispers.
(A) A streecker? What’s that? Must be some weird Polish word. If only the people who were allowed to come here did their best to learn proper English.
(B) Probably one of those foreign foodstuffs. Raw mutton with garlic, or whatever they eat in the Balkans.
(C) Oh, wait. A streaker. How unseemly!
That’s just an example, of course, and maybe not a path Revolta would ever want to take. My general point is that everything could have been more condensed and more engaging, and I think the root cause of it not being there is that the author is trying to juggle too many tones and ambitions at once. That’s only a hypothesis, but it makes sense to me. The game can feel a bit too much like it’s trying to hammer in its points, and a lot of that could come from tonal uncertainty. For instance, our protagonist gets a panic attack from thinking about council houses… which could work as hyperbolic funny satire! But it reads as hammering in the shallowness of the protagonist, because we’re not a passage filled with fun and hyperbole. So, again: there are good ideas here, they just don’t seem to fit together in quite the right way.
There are a few typos and bugs in the game which could be fixed. The most important is a bug whereby the game ends slightly too soon if you choose to drink a medium dry white wine – the politician never finished his proposal to me, and I had to restart and replay to see the real ending. Some spelling errors: “estury” (should be “estuary”), “flts” for “flits”, “heatbeat” for “heartbeat”, “campled” for “camped”, “his political party believe” (I would write “believes”, but maybe I’m wrong – the collective singular/plural in English sometimes trips me up).