If you’re anything like me, then years of watching television (The Simpsons, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) have given you a precise image of what a bar looks like. Dark, glum, miserable; it’s the kind of place where those who have hit rock bottom go to drown their sorrows one glass at a time. It’s also the type of image you won’t find in VA-11 Hall-A: Cyberpunk Bartending Action. In fact, not only does Sukeban Games’ latest release do everything in its power to distance itself from that image, the strategies it uses to achieve that goal are what make it such a distinctive experience in the first place. Through its vibrant cast and intelligent approach to game design, VA-11 Hall-A brings a hopeful warmth to a world in dire need of it.
As far as premises go, VA-11 Hall-A prefers to keep things simple. There’s not much else to say about the game other than “you mix drinks for people as a bartender in the eponymous tavern.” Were I to judge the game solely along these lines, I’d risk misrepresenting it as hollow and mechanical. Where’s the player supposed to enter the picture? It’s not like they can play around with the rules and create their own drinks. Clients order strictly off the menu (well, most of them do) and any drink that doesn’t follow these recipes to the letter is deemed a failure. You’re not even allowed to serve your failed brews to the customers. Nor does it make sense to come to VA-11 Hall-A in search of difficult challenges to complete. Putting aside the menu aspect, there’s very little in the game that makes it overtly challenging. Time isn’t something to be concerned about. While I think you get better tips for serving customers faster, the game moves at such a leisurely pace that running the clock down is a complete non-issue.
Of course, it’s just as easy to say that the problems I’ve described so far are non-issues, too. VA-11 Hall-A isn’t the kind of game that’s crafted to meet your every desire. In fact, that’s a backwards way of looking at the game and one that misses the point entirely. Instead, it’s better to think of it as a game built around meeting other people’s needs – cultivating a mood for them, listening to their problems, making sure they feel safe and comfortable. When examined along those lines, it’s much easier to appreciate how finely tuned all the game’s systems are. There are some minor examples strewn here and there, like changing the songs in the jukebox to set a different mood or the rare occasion when you have to judge how much alcohol to put in a drink (some recipes allow for this).
However, I’m personally more interested in everything the game does to take control away from you. Taking a conspicuous amount of inspiration from visual novels, VA-11 Hall-A’s game flow consists mostly of watching conversations unfold with limited opportunities to decide where they do. Yet VA-11 Hall-A carries things further than many of its peers. It places such a heavy emphasis on listening that you’re given no room to decide for yourself how these conversations progress. You read blogs and forum posts in your spare time, but you’re not allowed to post in any of them. You hear your customers tell you about the latest drama in their life, but they’re the ones deciding how the conversation develops. Unlike other visual novels, you’re never presented with explicit choices letting you make that decision for yourself. All you can do is listen.
Which is precisely what makes this set-up work. If the game wanted to, it could have easily depicted your clientele as nothing more than customers. Just give them whatever drink they ordered and do everything in your power to hurry them along so you can drain another wallet. In fact, I sometimes found myself presented with very similar opportunities: take advantage of a character’s vague order and give them the most expensive drink I had that would still meet their specifications. Yet I never took such action. Why is that? Because by centering character interactions and denying you opportunities to meaningfully affect those interactions, the game offers us a comprehensive and humanizing look into each of the characters’ lives. Above all else, it’s interested in the details of those lives for their own sakes, so it only makes sense that the game would be formatted like one long series of conversations. Not only does that format present all those details to you in a natural-feeling manner, but it also (like many conversations) allows you to forge robust bonds with your clients.
It also helps that VA-11 Hall-A sports a diverse range of colorful characters. From the moment they walk through your doors, their personalities impress themselves upon you with recognizable force. To name a few examples, there’s:
- The eccentric faux-intellectual Virgiolio
- The J. Jonah Jameson-esque editor Donovan
- The bubbly-yet-raunchy Lilim sex worker Dorothy
- The reserved upper class Stella
On their own, these characters bring life and energy into the bar with their presence alone. Start pairing them up, and that energy becomes amplified as each personality bounces off the other in succession. This isn’t to say that the cast is jumping off the walls with energy. In fact, one of VA-11 Hall-A’s strengths is the balance it strikes among its many characters: for every Dorothy bringing the energy up, there’s a Stella there to ensure it doesn’t go overboard. Some characters (like the pop idol *Kira* Miki) are able to do both on their own. It’s all enough to keep events in the bar interesting without overwhelming you with emotional highs and lows. I will admit, though, that part of what makes these characters so engaging is the abundance of game/anime references that I’m certain not everybody will understand.
But to return to how VA-11 Hall-A is designed, if it considers your interactions with the characters so important to experience, it’s only natural that the game would view drinks as the best way to grow closer to your clients. How do you know that you’ve built a strong relationship with client X? By serving them a drink, of course. After they’ve been in your bar a few times, you start to get a feel for what kinds of drinks they’d order, and eventually, you can intuit what they’d order without them explicitly naming it. Sei likes her drinks cold, Dorothy tends to go for the sweet stuff, Donovan orders manly drinks, and Virgilio likes to make your life hell with his needlessly cryptic orders (what exactly makes a drink “pure”?). Granted, there’s a little more to the situation than that; I probably wouldn’t have learned all these traits if not for their repeat visits. Nonetheless, the whole drink-mixing aspect of VA-11 Hall-A lends its relationships an air of tangibility they may not otherwise have. At the very least, the feature lends them some positivity beyond the “drowning my sorrows in a mug of beer” image one would normally expect from a bar.
Does this mean that VA-11 Hall-A forces you to look at the world through rose-colored glasses? Absolutely not. For outside the titular bar is a dismal city teetering on the verge of collapse. In the far flung future of 207X, riots against the police have become commonplace and inflation has skyrocketed to the point where even the cheapest drinks cost a couple hundred dollars. Things aren’t much better at the personal level. The characters are so helpless that they can’t affect the closest thing the game has to an overarching plot, or sometimes even the problems in their own lives. This isn’t even getting into the Cart Life-esque focus on scraping together enough funds to make rent. And it’s not as though the game proposes any definitive solutions to these problems. All it can really do is offer somebody to listen to these problems before sending the characters back into the outside world.
Yet I don’t think the game has to propose any broad-sweeping solutions to these issues to make its world a better place. VA-11 Hall-A isn’t looking to fix problems whose roots stretch back long beyond 207X or even 2016; the game realizes just how outside its scope such a project would be. It’s just trying to find value in a world where these problems are already assumed to exist. By focusing things at the personal level, the game’s able to do just that. True, there may not be any promise that their lives get better, but at the very least, they can find a place to forget their woes for a little bit. In the end, that’s all VA-11 Hall-A really needs.