VA11 Hall-A: a story within a story

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.

VA11 Hall-A, video game, bar, Streaming-chan, Dorothy Haze

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.

VA11 Hall-A, video game, bedroom, phone, Jo

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.

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Not turned on: sexual content on Steam

Last month, I admitted I had a problem. The situation was getting to the point where it was becoming unbearable and I couldn’t keep sticking my head in the sand any longer. It was finally time to admit to myself that I needed to seek help from the professionals.

I’m talking about my Steam wishlist. A few weeks ago it contained over 100 games and, instead of being somewhere useful to keep track of upcoming releases I was interested in checking out, it had become a place which was almost unmanageable. I was adding titles to my catalogue more quickly than they were being removed so its size had expanded at a steady rate in recent years, and I was worried that this increase was just going to keep continuing.

Steam, recommendations, video games

So I took control of the matter – and asked the experts within the community for their advice. After publishing a post sharing the contents of my wishlist, I received lots of comments from blogger-friends with their tips on the games that should be removed and the ones which were definitely worth playing. Alongside this I decided to start tackling some of the shorter titles I’d shortlisted once I realised that several of them were free and could be completed in around an hour.

One such release was Burning Daylight, a game which had been added to my wishlist on 20 April 2019 after my other-half had seen an article about it and thought it would be something I’d enjoy. And even though it was only 40-minutes long, I was impressed; it contained a lot of potential for a student project and I loved the way the atmosphere made the player feel as though something was incredibly wrong. Its story about society’s obsession with technology and not wanting to see the world for what it truly is was also very timely.

Fast-forward to the following week and I found myself sitting in front of my PC, confused. For some reason, whenever I’d opened Steam to check my discovery queue in the days previous, every other suggestion was one which contained plenty of scantily-clad women with bad hair, poor shoe choices and gravity-defying breasts. I couldn’t work out what was going on; why had the platform decided that I might be interested in this poorly-made digital soft-pornography all of a sudden?

Then I saw the information on the right-hand side of the screen which explained why these recommendations were relevant to me: ‘Similar to games you’ve played: Burning Daylight.’ The game had been tagged with the ‘sexual content’ and ‘nudity’ categories thanks to one short scene. You must guide your character through the red-light district in town where the outline of strippers can be seen in windows, and you pass a couple who are being rather friendly up against a large waste bin in the background.

Burning Daylight, video game, headset, virtual reality, club, strippers, windows

I’m not fond of sexual content in video games. This was something we’d discussed during a Save Point stream a while back and I was surprised to hear that many of the friends who joined is in chat felt the same. I’m struggling to formulate my reason into words but I think it’s something to do with such content being mostly unnecessary; I’ve been gaming for over 30 years now and in that time have seen a lot of releases where women are depicted as prizes and sex is used as a reward.

That’s not to say it can’t be done well when the developers put in the effort. Some titles have managed to effectively incorporate a sex scene so it’s an integral part of their story and shows the connection between two characters, rather than something that’s thrown in to titillate. Poor animation can make such sections feel incredibly awkward though and it seems nobody is a fan of sexy quick-time events (QTEs), so the whole thing needs to be very tastefully managed.

But cheap soft-porn games like those I was now being suggested by Steam? No, thank you. If they’re the sort of releases which float your boat then more power to you. But personally I can think of few things less of a turn-on than completely ridiculous story set-ups, impossibly-proportioned women dressed in nasty PVC outfits, robotic sexual movements and creepy dudes with raised eyebrows. And a note for anyone who hasn’t yet realised: the female nipple doesn’t really do that in real life.

They did give my other-half and I a good giggle for an hour or so though. After commenting to Pete about all the mature recommendations popping up in my discovery queue (and him wondering what the hell I’d been up to), we ended up falling down a rabbit hole and laughing hysterically at the Steam pages we came across. There were also a few games which made us feel very uncomfortable however, such as a 2020 release with a female protagonist where you have to ‘get her home unmolested’ when she’s left alone in the middle of nowhere with strangers.

All this because I’d spent less than an hour with Burning Daylight, a cyberpunk walking simulator that features a very brief background sex scene in which the main character isn’t even involved. Although the ‘Adult Only Sexual Content’ option was already deselected on my Steam account, soft-porn games were still able to make it into my discovery queue recommendations. It seems difficult to be able to fully block them without it having a negative effect on other titles you’d legitimately be interested in.

For example, tell the platform you want to exclude releases with the ‘sexual content’ or ‘nudity’ tags and you wouldn’t see Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, Cyberpunk 2077 and Vampyr. These are large RPGs with detailed narratives, and are far removed from the titles which all seem to have names that are a variation of Hot Virtual Reality Girls along with flimsy storylines which must have been written in less than five minutes. Another note for those unaware: you can’t cure a terminal disease by having sex.

In a post published in May 2018, I mentioned how the recommendations given to me by Steam were very hit-and-miss. Things have improved in the past two years and the suggestions are more aligned to the sort of games I want to play – hence the reason why my wishlist was getting so large. But there still seems to be a problem with categorisation. Is it that additional tags are needed to identify different types of sexual content? Or is it that the way the existing ones are being assigned to releases isn’t working?

I’m not sure what the answer is. But what I do know is that I won’t be buying My Cute Roommate or Being a DIK anytime soon.

Not getting it: video games, sex and bad research

Last month I came across a post on the GameByte website by Lara Jackson entitled Video Games Are Why Young Men Aren’t Having Sex Any More, Says Professor. It explained how he gave several reasons for a decline in sexual activity over the past few years, with one being targeted at our hobby.

It reminded me of a paper called Leisure Luxuries and the Labor Supply of Young Men by Professor Erik Hurst issued in June 2017, in which he and his colleagues believed that video games were responsible for reducing the amount of work completed by males aged 21 to 30 by 15 to 30 hours each year since 2004. This was something I disputed in a post the following month because citing gaming as the root of wider economic problems felt biased and reductive.

Each time a study into issues affecting younger generations is completed, it frequently seems as though video games are given as at least part of the cause. Additionally, the reporting of these findings is often distorted in the media with articles written using language that twists the conclusions made so they seem more directed at our pastime. I’m sure there’s a possibility that gaming could be preventing certain young men from having sex – as could any other form of entertainment – but what’s really going on here?

After completing some research, I found that all sources led back to a single article on The Washington Post website called The share of Americans not having sex has reached a record high from March 2019. According to the latest General Social Survey, a sociological survey regularly completed by the University of Chicago since 1972, 23% of adults spent 2018 in a celibate state and a much larger portion of these than expected were men in their twenties.

The portion of Americans aged 18 to 29 reporting no sex in the past year had more than doubled to 23% too, with men in this age group nearly tripling to 28% – even more surprising when compared to the much smaller 8% increase in their female peers. The professor mentioned in the first paragraph above was Jean Twenge of San Diego State University, and in an interview she said that there could be several potential explanations for this interesting trend.

You’re probably thinking to yourself that this is where the video-games-are-why-part comes into play but let me stop you there for a moment. The first reason discussed in The Washington Post article was the fact that labour force participation among young men had fallen; however, rather than attribute this to gaming like Hurst above, Twenge noted that researchers also see a ‘connection between labour force participation and stable relationships’.

The General Social Survey showed that 54% of unemployed Americans didn’t have a steady romantic partner compared to 32% of those employed. This leads nicely to the second possible reason given by the professor: “There are more people in their twenties who don’t have a live-in partner. So under those circumstances I think less sex is going to happen.” In addition, young men are more likely to be living with their parents than women: “When you’re living at home it’s probably harder to bring sexual partners into your bedroom.”

And finally, Twenge did pick up on our hobby. When discussing whether technology could be a factor she said: “There are a lot more things to do at 10 o’clock at night now than there were 20 years ago. Streaming, social media, console games, everything else.” So out of 500-or-so words written by Christopher Ingram for The Washington Post, it was this last sentence that was picked up on by a number of online news outlets and made into a story.

Let’s take a look at a quote from that GameByte post: “A professor of psychology has blamed video games for one of the reasons why there’s been a decline in young men having sex.” I’m not sure this was the case; gaming was part of a possible explanation given among several. And here’s another line: “In a recent survey, The Washington Post found…” Not entirely correct again. This statement implies that it was the newspaper itself conducted a survey specifically into the correlation between video games and a reduction in sex.

The complete transcript of Twenge’s interview isn’t provided in full and it’s possible that Jackson may have had access to this when writing her article. But it seems as though the information she used isn’t even taken directly from The Washington Post – it came from the Daily Star. As if it wasn’t bad enough that a journalist seems to have not bothered to trace back to the original source in this instance, I’m a little shocked they’d rely a source with such a poor reputation.

Yes, there are studies and papers such as those produced by Hurst which unfairly discriminate against video games and those who play them; and yes, it’s right that we highlight them and discuss their subjects openly. But poorly-researched and badly-worded content created by someone from our own community isn’t justifiable. It does nothing except perpetuate tired stereotypes and continue to hold us back, and as my other-half said when I chatted to him about the GameByte post: ‘It’s all a load of b****cks.’

It’s natural for us as writers to want to put our opinions into a post when we feel strongly about something, and it’s important we action our research properly, clearly state our sources and be aware of the effect our words could have. And once we’ve completed those responsibilities, we can get back to having fun – whether that’s playing video games or having sex.