After COVID-19 scuppered my plans to meet up with Luke from Hundstrasse in March, we decided to send each other the most bizarre retro games we could find. This was the start of the game-swap and I went on to complete more exchanges with other bloggers.
I recently finished my fourth and although our choices weren’t entirely to each other’s taste, it’s been a pleasure collaborating with Frostilyte from Frostilyte Writes. I found this the hardest game-swap so far in terms of picking a title for him because his gaming preferences are quite far removed from my own. In the end, Pete wanted to send him Maize because he thought Frosti would find it funny; but I also gifted him Paradigm as a little extra, because I thought he’d enjoy its offensive humour. You can find out what he thought about the games here.
In return I received VA11 Hall-A (pronounced ‘Valhalla’), described as a ‘booze-‘em-up about waifus, technology and post-dystopia life’ by Sukeban Games. It was a release I vaguely recognised from an appearance in my Steam discovery queue but hadn’t played before and so was up for giving it a go. Pete on the other hand wasn’t so enthusiastic: although he can appreciate a good story, he prefers more action than visual novels provide and so I took the controls for this game-swap.
It takes place in a future where corporations reign supreme, all human life is infected with nanomachines designed to control, and the terrifying White Knights ensure that everyone obeys the law. But it’s not about these people and is a far more personal tale: players step into the shoes of a 27-year old bartender named Jill who works at VA11 Hall-A in Glitch City. Although it’s just a small bar downtown, it attracts some of the most fascinating clientele who may be willing to share their stories if you keep them lubricated.
Instead of steering the direction of the narrative through dialogue in the way that normally happens in visual novels, here you do so by selecting which drinks to serve to your clients. They’ll directly tell you what they want most of the time but at others, it’s a puzzle: they might ask for something sweet or cold, or even a cocktail that uses a certain amount of ingredients. All recipes can be found in your handy tablet at the top of the screen where drinks are sorted by name, flavour and type.
That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to serve them their exact order though. For example, if a character is feeling down and asks for a certain drink, you can decide to serve them their favourite cocktail instead in the hope of getting a better reaction. You can also add more Karmotrine to the mix to get them drunk quicker (even though a bartender giving someone more alcohol than they asked for does seem a bit questionable). As you get to know your clients well enough to know what to serve, the experience becomes more intimate.
Is it fun though? Well, it is for a few hours at least. The intervals at which these drink-mixing sections came up felt natural and didn’t interfere with the flow of the conversations, but I eventually found myself trying to get through the orders as quickly as possible because the gameplay was starting to become routine. The same drinks were being requested by different clients repeatedly – so frequently in fact that I can still remember their recipes several weeks later.
I’m not ashamed to say that I ended up turning to a walkthrough, but it wasn’t just to help me speed though the sections I didn’t enjoy. As I got to know my clients, I wanted to make sure I served the right drink to the right person at the right time so they would tell me their troubles because these are the parts of VA11 Hall-A which are the most interesting. The post-dystopian world that the bar exists in and the characters who frequent it are far more engrossing than the drink-mixing itself.
Let’s start with Dorothy. She’s a DFC-72 class Lilim, an autonomous humanoid robot designed to be highly modifiable and classified for specialising in ‘social interactions’. It’s immediately obvious from talking to her just what kind of interactions these are because she isn’t embarrassed by her profession and makes no attempt to hide it. The fact that she’s a prostitute who looks far younger than she is can be rather off-putting, but there’s more to this character than it first seems.
Then there’s Streaming-chan, a minor online celebrity who hasn’t have any qualms with streaming the entirety of her life 24-hours a day – and that includes ‘bathroom time and naughty moments’ for Premium subscribers who are happy to pay $99.99 a month. This character is used to provide social commentary but it’s done in a way where it’s not shoved in your face, and there’s an interesting moment towards the end of the game where she’s asked to consider why her viewers watch her.
You can probably tell from these two clients alone that a lot of innuendo and suggestive remarks are used throughout VA11 Hall-A. These come from characters of all genders and orientations so there’s a good deal of representation here and, because such conversations are taking place in a bar which serves alcohol, they don’t feel completely out of place. I can see how some of the discussions and the frequency at which sex is mentioned could make some players feel uncomfortable though.
For example, the subject changed abruptly during one conversation and a friend’s breast size started being compared to others. Then in another, it’s discovered that another customer has been hiring Dorothy to pretend to be his daughter once a year (although it’s not confirmed whether this contract is sexual in nature). And then there’s the moment where we find out a friend celebrated her 21st birthday by going to a bar with her father and pretending to date him. These were all moments that caught me off-guard and left me scratching my head.
But persevere through the drink-mixing puzzles and sexual innuendos, and you’ll find a game with plenty of heart and personality. I loved the atmosphere inside VA11 Hall-A, helping Jill overcome her inner demons and getting to know the people on the other side of the bar. Despite the situations described in that last paragraph, their lines are almost always incredibly natural – it feels as though you could be talking to a real person rather than a video game character.
What the title doesn’t have though is a clear story-arc and the lack of a definitive climax may leave those who enjoy a good narrative unfulfilled (no pun intended). Imagine an action-packed science-fiction tale set in a dystopian future, about a corrupt police-force who are destroyed when their secrets are leaked from the servers of a bank after a raid. Then imagine that around the corner from that bank is a small bar which serves cocktails. That’s VA11 Hall-A, a story within a story.
As Frosti said himself: “It’s more about the journey than the ending.” Because you’re not involved in the bigger situation going on in Glitch City, it feels more personal and realistic. You don’t need to save the world – you just need to go to work, pay your bills and take care of your cat. And maybe make a few lives a bit brighter by serving drinks and having a conversation.