On VA11 Hall-A

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My lovely pad.

Cyberpunk. Neuromancer clones. A subgenre of science fiction stories featuring a socially estranged protagonist navigating a bizarre near-future world ruled by high technology.
Post-apo. Stories set in a world after a large, destructive apocalyptic event. A dangerous world descended into anarchy. Think Mad Max.
Dystopia. The opposite of utopia, or rather the other side of one coin that is the idea of humanity’s progress. These keywords pop up all the time nowadays. Many of the most popular cultural phenomena of the 21st century have something to do with at least one of these grim genres. What does it say about the epoque we live in?

Year 2016. An indie gamedev team called Sukeban Games releases their widely anticipated VA11 Hall-A. They started as complete amateurs and eventually managed to have their work published by Ysbryd Games. It’s a game which you must have read about once or twice if you’re an anitwitterer. Later, the game was translated into Japanese and even landed on the Vita. I gave it a go for the first time a year ago to see what the fuss is about. Recently, I finished my third playthrough so I could write something about it. I guess I liked it. This is not a Japanese game, but let’s say it barely qualifies as something belonging on The Weeablog.

Jill is a jaded girl who works as a bartender in Glitch City, a megalopolis where all the problems of life in the eighth decade of 21st century seem to coalesce. It’s December 207X (so VA11 Hall-A counts as a Christmas game) and Jill will have to mix drinks for all kinds of customers. Some more, some less pleasant. Like Donovan, the capo di tutti capi at a net tabloid. Alma the hacker with the tits. A brain in a jar. *Kira*Miki the idol. Kim the exploited intern, one of Donovan’s victims. White Knights – members of a private police force of sorts. And Dorothy the cute android who works as a prostitute – the absolute best character in the game. You will spend around two in-game weeks with Jill, her co-workers and customers and read their stories – funny, sad and urging to think. Jill herself will go through some personal drama too, and maybe you will care for her plight. All of their stories will put together a vision of a world not unlike ours, tense with anxiety over one bothering question: is society in the process of taking a spectacular nosedive?

“Sit back and relax” – the game tells you at the very beginning. You’re in for an easy, relaxing ride. Unless you want all the achievements, that is. Ever played a bartender simulator? In the form of a Flash game, maybe? The Sukeban Games people might have played around with one of those trifley apps. I think I’ve seen one made in Game Maker too. When I googled “bartending game” a while ago, all the results were directing me towards VA11 Hall-A, however. Still, more than any other genre, Waifu Bartending resembles an eroge. It’s a reading game with multiple endings and plenty of cute girls. The biggest difference between VA11 Hall-A and a conventional visual novel comes down to the moments when reading stops and the player gets to actually do some interaction with the game. The Wikipedia article boasts how the drink-mixing parts could be interpreted as equivalents of divergence points in eroge – when you’re presented with a choice. Except, instead of picking a line for the protag to say, you prepare a cocktail. Open up your recipe book and slap together a synthetic substitute of an alcoholic beverage from six substances at your disposal – one of them is rat poison, if Wikipedia is to be believed. You have the freedom to serve whatever you want and your pick influences what happens later in the story. …At least theoretically. In practice, most of the time, you’re expected to prepare one, specific drink. It’s a binary situation – either you make the correct one and all is fine and dandy, or you make a mistake and your meager income suffers. Sometimes, the orders your customers place are more cryptic and you need to figure out what to serve. I still don’t get what “seventeen” was supposed to mean. Oh, or the dreaded “the usual, please”. Please fuck off. I guess that counts as gameplay. Oh and there’s one drink the game never requires you to make – you get an achievement if you do.

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Teito Monogatari references? In my waifu game?

A huge part of VA11 Hall-A’s appeal comes down to aesthetics. Every work day is divided into two sections and each of those begins with… setting up the jukebox. You get to make a playlist out of several tens of atmospheric electronic tunes, including some true gems. If you don’t bother to mix things up in the playlist every time like me, hearing the same tunes all the time will desensitize you to their awesomeness, but I guarantee the first time you play, the music will impress you. It’s an indie title we’re talking about, so the game is 100% 2D and relies on intentionally (?) oldschool-looking lo-rez pixel art. Which, if you share my love for the 32-bit era, should not be a problem. The cyberpunk color pallette is definitely there – prepare for a lot of neon pink and purple on dark backgrounds. Cyberpunk is pretty much a meme at this point, as are its aesthetic features – in the poetics aspect of the story, as well. The entire resource of text to read in the game is not only consistently funny and snappy but also stuffed with intertextual references of varying obscurity like an American cookie is packed with chocolate chips. References to science fiction, anime, and science fiction anime, mainly. VA11 Hall-A is sometimes called /a/: the Game, and not without good reasons. As expected of the game’s creators – nerdy millenials from Venezuela, spiritual First World kids completely submerged in the internet and its culture. I wonder how much influence the developers living in a failing state had on the game. The dialogues sometimes let you know this story was not written by a native English speaker, but that’s a nitpick. Cyberpunk Bartender Action is more than competent in this regard. Oh and the protag’s name is Jill Stingray, because every cyberpunk hero is legally obliged to have a ridiculous name.

In the 80s, cyberpunk was a vision of the future. Now, in 2019, since sci-fi stories became reality to a large extent, cyberpunk is a mirror of the present. And so, the protagonist’s life will seem very familiar to plenty of players. Jill works at night, in a very mixed bag of a workplace – play the prologue for a taste of hell that is working in customer service. Her customers sometimes can be living, breathing incarnations of the shittiness of modern life, but thankfully, she was lucky enough to come across her boss Dana and the only co-worker Gill – good guys who by some miracle avoided the commonly seen fate of having their basic human empathy destroyed by the neoliberal economy and “rational management”. Jill barely earns enough to pay for the tiny room she lives in with a cat as the only company, and that’s only if she makes no mistakes at work. Sometimes, she can afford to buy herself an entertaining trifle or two to improve her constantly foul mood. When she doesn’t work, she reads not-Reddit and a net tabloid on her phone. Escapism everywhere – at home for Jill and at the bar for everybody else. Well? Does that give you dejavu?

VA11 Hall-A is worth a try. Both in gameplay and its literary aspects, it might not be the most sublime work of art ever, but it definitely is entertaining. If you know some Japanese and are considering trying out the Japanese version… I advise against that: it’s painfully obvious that the Japanese text is a translation. Stick to the original form of the story. Also, I remember being surprised at seeing “made in Game Maker Studio” in the credits. I find it amazing how a game made with a “make games quick” app not only is this good, but it ended up being published by a legit company and keeps making money for its creators to this day. Awesome. Maybe I shouldn’t have abandoned that Zelda clone I was making for fun in middle school.

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