VA-11 Hall-A Review
Choose the right booze, chat with the cyber-cats
As our world painstakingly crawls a few inches closer to a terrifying anarcho-capitalist dystopia, transformed beyond all recognition by invasive technology and manipulative media, one can’t help wondering what cyberpunk fiction is going to do when reality catches up with it. Is there some kind of protocol for that? Do we have to reorganize our library shelves? Do we all unanimously agree to start wearing black trench coats and to only go out at night? Do we change reality to match the fiction, or do we change the fiction to start matching reality? What happens to all the poor sods who grew up with a burning desire to write a novel full of hackers and neon lights and endless rainy nights? Maybe we’ll just start writing about how things could get even worse. Maybe cyberpunk will just become another kind of fantasy; totally consumed by its own tropes and aesthetics, pining for a simpler time when we honestly believed technology might empower the oppressed, rather than crush them further into the dirt. Maybe—if this game is to be seen as a sign of works to come—cyberpunk will finally turn to acceptance. VA-11 Hall-A—a name that gets away with the language butchery that Watch_Dogs didn’t by virtue of actually justifying itself—is built on the understanding that for most people, there is no way to win. They’re not hackers on a quest to save the world, or street samurai fighting to protect their lot; they’re just living a daily struggle that gets more difficult and convoluted by the day. What matters isn’t the technology, but the people, and how they manage to cope—even thrive—in the heart of the machine.
And what better way to experience that than through the medium of a cyberpunk bartending simulator? As the illegitimate child of film noir and a beaten-up TRS-80, cyberpunk is no stranger to the spectacle of the protagonist hunched broodingly over the end of the bar, drowning their ravaged cyber-brain in a cocktail of alcohol and drugs with silly made-up names, but for those less prone to melodramatic lone wolf behaviour, the chance to get plastered and sing along to the jukebox is the highlight of the day. Such is VA-11 Hall-A’s tone: warm, comforting, but always framed by the shadows on the periphery. You enter the tale as Jill, a bartender whose bottomless reserves of snark are just barely kept in check by her no-nonsense professionalism, and one drink after another, through a mosaic of conversations with customers in the wee hours of the morning, a larger picture begins to form around you. Not a picture of grand conspiracy or forthcoming disaster, but of the intertwined, ordinary lives people follow in this rapidly warping future.
But let’s get down to stainless-steel cyber-tacks before this all gets too pretentious. I won’t pretend that VA-11 Hall-A didn’t set off a few banks of warning lights when it first showed up on my radar; it’s a visual novel, it has pretty anime girls in spades, and it drops the word ‘waifu’ right there in the marketing material, so I was fully prepared to pick it up with surgical gloves and play it from behind three or four thickened layers of lead-lined irony. Imagine how pleased I was to discover that not only is VA-11 Hall-A not tainted by the faintly distressing scent of the reclusive weeaboo, but is in fact well-written and remarkably mature. You'll encounter an extensive cast across the bar throughout the course of the game, and not only are they all unique, empathetic characters—even the nasty chauvinistic newspaper editor with a face like a sun-dried tomato—but they paint such a vivid picture of the world beyond your workplace, talking about everything from their daily lives to politics, career choices, drinks, drugs, people, places, technology, fads, philosophy, pets, rumours, gossip, romance, and of course, sex. VA-11 Hall-A has plenty to say about all these things—especially sex, I mean good lord—but make no mistake: this is a game you play for the characters. Not the mechanics, not the overarching plot, but the chance to sit down and have a chat with an interesting, convincingly-portrayed person.
Good thing too, because from the moment you put on your uniform to the moment the credits roll, you’re going to be buried under a nonstop snowfall of reams upon reams of dialogue. This isn’t a problem in itself—it’s not like you can really hold a visual novel to “show, don’t tell” when telling completely encompasses the medium it’s based on—but it does bring out a few of the usual bugbears of the genre. There has to be a better marriage of ‘visual’ and ‘novel’ here than having you permanently fixated on the text box in the bottom quarter of the screen while characters animate off in your peripheral vision. Right now, especially with the chunky retro interface, they feel quite literally compartmentalized, operating independently instead of as a cohesive presentation of what's happening.
For the most part, though, VA-11 Hall-A's presentation recognizes that if it's going to keep you from restlessly fidgeting with your headphones cable the entire time, it had better make you as comfortable as possible, and that it does. This game's atmosphere is like sinking slowly into a warm bath of lurid pink neon, lulled by the electronic rock of the jukebox and the gentle burbling of the unfurling text. While Read Only Memories was pretty clearly lusting after Snatcher’s Sega CD-style adventure game image, VA-11 Hall-A pays tribute more to the era of the PC-98 visual novel, complete with gorgeous high-res pixel artwork and an interface full of unnecessarily-detailed panels. Yeah, yeah, it's as anime as they come, but it's the good kind of anime; the kind you can appreciate freely without being hit by an overwhelming wave of shame every time you're in close proximity to it. I'd call it “anime you can show to your mum”, but she'd probably find something distasteful about the underage sexbot. Look, it gets handled tactfully, just trust me on this.
So what exactly do you do when you're not restlessly clicking 'next' on the dialogue box, anyway? The game promises cyberpunk bartender action, and true to its word, that's largely what you'll be doing: interpreting orders, checking recipes, combining ingredients and serving cocktails. As far as job simulations go, it’s not exactly like being at the helm of a freight train—you click the options you want, hit ‘mix’, and hey presto, a perfect drink—but it’s a remarkably flexible mechanic that serves more than a few purposes throughout the game, no pun intended. Like everybody else, Jill has bills to pay if she wants to keep her crummy dystopian apartment, and cash is far too tight to get wages docked for messing up orders. There's no time limit involved, so you could initially be forgiven for wondering how anybody could possibly screw this up, but customers can be surprisingly difficult; some are frustratingly vague, some ask for specific qualities that require you to carefully scour your recipe book, some ask for 'the usual' after not showing up for weeks and expect you to just know, and some are deliberately as cryptic as possible, just to be complete tossers. For every dozen routine orders that are there just to keep your hands busy, there's one or two that'll have you scratching your head and wishing the picky pear would just order a damn beer like everybody else.
Mostly, though, the bartending mechanic is there not as a means of adversity, but as your solitary avenue of agency. The trick here is that you don't steer the plot with what you say, but rather with what you serve. It's possible to interpret some orders in a number of ways, make them extra-large, add unnecessary amounts of alcohol to them, or simply bite the bullet and serve something completely wrong on purpose, all of which theoretically can change the way things play out. In a way it's a rather romantic way of looking at things. Here you are, trapped behind this bar; a tiny, irrelevant, organic speck in a dispassionate heaving metropolis, yet with just a few drops of questionably named liquid here and there, you might be able to tip the scales of fate on a monumental scale.
The reality is a bit more… murky. This is always the problem with choice, isn't it? No feedback telling you how much of the current situation is a product of your actions and how much is just predetermined that way; the illusion of free choice is outwardly indistinguishable from actual meaningful choice, and unless you're prepared to maintain a meticulous array of parallel saves for testing different outcomes—or start the whole seven hour-long story all over again once you’re done, which is a similarly daunting prospect—there's no way of knowing which is which. I can respect that VA-11 Hall-A doesn't want you just gaming the system and sampling different decision outcomes like a fine wine taster until you find the one you're happiest with, but being completely kept In the dark like this is like pressing a thousand crosswalk signals and not knowing if any of them are actually wired up to anything. Psychology's a funny thing, innit?
I suppose the writing isn’t without its nitpicking points either. Jill doesn’t do an awful lot to endear herself as the protagonist right off the bat, which is kind of unfortunate considering that the player is little more than a gremlin riding around on her shoulder making serving decisions. It’s not that she’s a blank slate with all the personality of Master Chief’s stinky green codpiece or anything; she’s a good character, but the game just takes a while to develop her as anything more than a human cocktail dispenser who gets a bit sarky from time to time. This feels like a consequence of the game being devoid of dialogue options more than anything else; yes, they’re trite, but the fastest way to get a player to empathize with a character is to let them inject a little bit of themselves into them, and changing up a customer’s order slightly just doesn’t quite expand Jill’s personality in the same way that choosing to just tell them to sod off would. Luckily she’s at least well-rounded enough to empathize with by the time major events start revolving around her, but it feels like a slower process than it should’ve been.
Hmm, yes, major events. I mentioned not that long ago VA-11 Hall-A is a game you play for the colourful characters you chat with rather than the overarching plot, and that’s because there isn’t really much of one to work with. It’s obvious that your bar is the only source of alcohol within a hundred mile radius, since the individual stories of the people who visit inevitably begin to intertwine as things go on—just teasing you, VA-11 Hall-A, I love it really—but instead of coalescing to a climax, the narrative just sort of grabs hold of the biggest strand and yanks it, resolving one issue in a matter of minutes and leaving the rest to turn into loose ends. It’s tough to get a real sense of perspective when you’re stuck cleaning glasses in a basement dive, so it’s understandable to feel like events haven’t really gone anywhere, but the end result is just a big pile of stuff happening. When you roll over to NG+, Jill’s impish imaginary fourth-wall-breaking friend rather pointedly mentions that there are six endings in total, which probably explains why the story keeps its potential directions so open until the last minute, but I’m still not sure it justifies closing with such a damp squib. I do rather like that even the ‘bad’ ending feels like a bittersweet, sensible conclusion rather than an extremely drawn-out game over, though.
VA-11 Hall-A is the kind of experience that serves as an excellent reminder of why reviewing games according to a checklist is utter bollocks. What's the gameplay like? Like having a mediocre job in catering, that's what; a series of repetitive tasks livened up only by the odd nightmare customer or interesting request, where the outcomes of your actions are opaque at best. What's the story like? Meandering, inconsequential, weak at both ends and told almost exclusively through the medium of text. What a nasty lens to view a medium through. VA-11 Hall-A is exactly what it says on the box: cyberpunk bartending action. It's about seeing a new face across the counter and instantly wanting to know what their deal is. It's about using your tiny sliver of power to help the characters that you've spent many a quiet night chatting with over an expensive cocktail. It's about building an image of the strange, broken city despite never seeing anything more than the tired neon glow outside your apartment window. It's a slice of life; not the drama-stricken life of some everyman teen, rife with coming-of-age lessons and wishy-washy awkward romance, but the life of a normal adult in a world that's just familiar enough to seem grounded, and just outlandish enough to be fascinating. I'll take another slice of that any day.