Bartending for a delinquent cast of sci-fi characters, it turns out, is the ideal way to world-build a dystopian visual novel/game. VA-11 Hall-A, released yesterday on Steam, offers players the chance to serve up noxious drinks to the sketchy citizens of Glitch City, circa 207X AD, the kind of place that would star as the background for a sci-fi blockbuster. The game is a must-buy for fans of interactive fiction, stylised retro games, cyberpunk and girls with cat ears -- just about everybody, right?
It's a brilliant experiment in storytelling that, somehow, developer Sukeban Games ("delinquent girl" in Japanese) seriously undersells. Billed as a "waifu bartending" point-and-click, perhaps a desperate appeal to the otaku community, VA-11 Hall-A is less akin to a moe harem anime than it is comparable to a self-mocking William Gibson novel.
VA-11 Hall-A's world is gleaned through patrons' over-the-bar confessionals. In the new game, you are Jill, a spacey bartender with little ambition and a great deal of patience for the insane sequence of characters who wander in. Your city is a bleak tax haven overrun by criminal corporations. Nanomachines programmed for mind-control influence human motives while, a green-haired girl in a mech suit explains to you over a cocktail, the White Knights enforce the law. VA-11 Hall-A, nicknamed Valhalla, is a piss-smelling bar (patrons say) near the city's slums. It's where you work.
Like all the best science fiction, VA-11 Hall-A's enchanting setting fuels players' momentum through the game's first few hours. True to genre-defining books like Neuromancer, writer Fernando Damas doesn't spoon-feed you context. It reveals itself through proxies. At Jill's apartment, players can navigate a news app on her smartphone, which offers bleak but humorous vignettes of 207X AD. There, entertainment consists of "a massive stage show about a Cyborg fighting terrorism while wearing heels". You can mull around Jill's apartment or go shopping, wasting her money on Holo-Plants and Megachristmas trees before heading to the bar, the main setting for the game's action.
At Va-11 Hall-A, neon-haired anime patrons pitch topics from the ethics of gossip journalism to father-daughter role-play (eww). Regulars return every now and then to buff their storylines and check in. Uniformly, I was delighted by the game's character designs: A side-eyeing man with slicked-back pink hair who orders a "Big Gut Punch", a super-advanced AI sex worker. Although patrons consistently criticise the bar's cleanliness, drinks go for about $160 a pop, reflecting greater class conflicts in Damas' dystopia. Yet somehow, everyone from gritty hackers to media moguls finds their way to you.
Players aren't offered dialogue choices, which would be annoying if the scripted conversations weren't so dynamic. The main game mechanic is making drinks: You just drag and drop esoteric ingredients like "Flanergide" and "Pwd Delta" into a shaker and hit the "mix" button. It's surprisingly relaxing. Like in real life, patrons are occasionally too lazy or messed up to know what they want to drink, prompting you to rifle through the recipe book and guess. Whatever cocktail you choose can affect the trajectory of your conversation with them, leading them to praise or denigrate your bartending skills. At the end of day, if you've done well, you'll earn cash, which you can blow on a few more hologram ferns.
You can also load songs into VA-11 Hall-A's jukebox, which is stocked with nearly an hour of glammy techno that is 100 per cent my new favourite writing music.
The gaming aspects of Va-11 Hall-A serve primarily to break up its engrossing dialogue sequences. I felt compelled to play longer than I would less substantive point-and-click adventures because I wanted to tie together the game's branching strands of information. I wanted to get to know this world and its inhabitants. Even the drinks serve as a channel for Va-11 Hall'A's world-building -- the description for "beer", which in 207X is served up as some mutant cocktail, reads, "traditionally-brewed beer has become a luxury." To add depth, a few real-life cultural phenomena make appearances, like the idol Kira Miki (Hatsune Miku?) and "SoCal Justice Warriors", a "mafia-vigilante group that runs around solving crimes in swimsuits".
The best analogue to this game is probably MidBoss' Read Only Memories, last year's cyberpunk point-and-click mystery with a sassy cast of characters and a synthy soundtrack. The games both take their visual inspiration from pixel-forward retro Japanese adventures with blocky typefaces and bold colours. But unlike Read Only Memories, VA-11 Hall-A's dialogue sequences never threaten monotony. It's deep, for sure, testing players' capacity for empathy and understanding, even when evil-reading characters describe their somehow sympathetic worldviews to you. For example, the pink-haired freak who asks whether you've faked an orgasm miraculously comes off all right by the time he pays his tab. At one point, your new AI sex worker friend cheerfully describes a client who, every year on his dead daughter's birthday, pays her to role-play his daughter. Super gritty. For Sukeban's second game (the first was a full-blown visual novel), VA-11 Hall-A is wildly impressive.
So, sure, you bartend for a lot of cute anime girls. One even has cat ears. But if you're playing Va-11 Hall-A for the waifus, you're missing the point.