Bars are a borderland between dozens of lives, the place where souls intersect at a well of spirits. The subject of countless songs, they often seem to play a key role in videogames as well.
Taverns, inns, Star Wars cantinas, the proverbial roundtable at a pub where a thousand stereotypical D&D adventures began--I even have a shot glass from the Mass Effect club Afterlife.
They and their wares are surprisingly well represented in games; it’s hardly uncommon for different alcohols to act as “potions” by another name in various titles. But most games throw you into the crossroads itself, finding drama, intrigue, clues, trivia, HP, or boss fights among the bar’s patrons. Few ask you to take on the role of bartender (only Tapper and Last Call come to mind), and none quite capture the social aspect of being behind the bar.
That gap is filled by Sukeban Games’ VA-11 Hall-A with a perfect pour. It is billed as a game with “waifu bartending”--while some might find its cheerfully anime-inspired theme to be off putting, this is a game that far exceeds the expectations such a cheeky subtitle might set.
VA-11 Hall-A is the designation of a bar tucked away in a corroding corner of Glitch City, a typical cyberpunk dystopian city state; most everyone calls the pub Vallhalla. Though there is a Valkyrie about, you do not tend fallen warriors so much as help desperate (and desperately interesting) people striving to live their lives by boozing them up to varying degrees.
You play Jill, one of the two bartenders: a young woman who at first comes off as a slightly drowsy cipher, a perfect vessel for the usual dialogue driven spider webs of choice that drive these sorts of games.
But it doesn’t quite work that way in VA-11 Hall-A. All of the dialogue is set and beyond your immediate control and you exercise choice through the drinks you mix. What you serve your customers (or “clients,” as the game calls them) is something you have wide latitude over. Often, you can also adjust the alcohol content of their drinks with wildly different conversational results that impact the larger narrative.
Suffice it to say: in vino veritas. But you don’t always want your customers soused either--sometimes they may be more forthcoming if they aren’t, or they have an important meeting or job that you’d rather not ruin by getting them trashed.
As with Knee Deep, player-choice here furthers the narrative in a novel way that is endemic to the kind of game one is playing--Knee Deep was about finding the truth via journalistic investigation, so you exercise choice through how you file your reports; VA-11 Hall-A is about how the lives of bar regulars can change through their experiences there, so you make choices in the limited way you can as a bartender: how you serve their drinks.
This system is a touch opaque; it expresses a lot about the game and makes the act of bartending meaningful, but it can be difficult to know where the thresholds are for actually making a clear choice through your servings. At the more extreme end, it’s certainly visible. You can put up to twenty parts of alcohol into a drink and its effects are often noticeable right away. It’s the other gradients of inebriation that are less clear and need more visible cues and feedback to guide the player.
Still, Sukeban should be commended for the experiment here. It’s a damn sight more interesting this way, and what’s more it gives Jill’s character a chance to properly shine. She’s a 27-year-old living in a studio apartment on a low-paying bartending job; she is neither powerful, nor in control of much, nor the heroine of any Shadowrun-style story about taking on the megacorporations that rule the world. But you could listen to her talk all day and night.
There’s something to be said for the game letting you not only inhabit that lack of power, but giving you a wide degree of latitude through one of the few levers she does control: that of the taps at her bar--and how much she herself drinks.
Her conversation is actually quite brilliantly written and the game thoughtfully engages with the stereotype of the wise bartender. Jill cracks, people see through her bullshit, she spouts corporate-approved lines to customers she can barely stand, and yet she is clearly loved by many of those around her who refuse to let her become the aloof bartender-as-shrink that populates so many stories. In addition you are still treated to any number of weird cyberpunk stories and AI existential crises from a delightfully colorful cast of regulars including sex working robots, assassins, private detectives, and pop stars, all of whom use Jill as a sounding board. How you serve them has subtle but important effects on their lives.
There’s a resource-management aspect to the game as well, where you have to spend your earnings wisely in order to meet your bills while also buying baubles that can prevent Jill from getting “distracted” on the job, but it often takes a backseat to the story itself and the “distraction” simply means that you don’t have on-screen text reminding you of your last order once you’re at the drink-mixing screen. With a notepad or a quick memory, it’s not much of a debuff.
What truly fascinates me about games like VA-11 Hall-A is that they make magic out of the mundane. In most games, the bartender is a background NPC with a few throwaway lines and maybe a quest or two. Here, as the bartender, you find her relatively normal life to be quite intriguing; games like this are digital page-turners and Fernando Damas’ superb writing just makes you want to go even faster. As you go through more dialogue screens with Jill you discover she’s quite eloquent and scientifically educated to no small degree--in the words of the Billy Joel song you’re left asking “man, what are you doin’ here?” Her back story unfolds along with the tragedies of her clients--and it’s heartbreakingly relatable.
You almost get the sense that some people, like Jamie the cyborg assassin, are stars of their own FPSes somewhere, causing explosions and racking up body counts. You tend the bar where those people come to get a drink and vent a little.
Some emotional problems will endure no matter our technology level, and VA-11 Hall-A explores that quite well.
The game is reasonably long for a narrative-based title of this sort; I clocked in at 10 hours on my first play through. Yet despite the amount of text it requires, the writing is beautifully even; each character pops, even if some remain relatively two dimensional. Where the game manages to shine in a way that should serve as an example to other games is its sexuality--though, all the “let’s compare breast size” talk between some of the characters has a clanging “written by a guy” feel to it.
I’m willing to overlook that, however; truly sexy games are few and far between and VA-11 Hall-A manages to surface a lot of interesting detail about the sexual lives of its characters in fairly realistic conversation without seeming pretentious or adolescent about it.
Sex work exists here and enters into many a discussion; how sex occurs in a world with sentient AI is also talked about at length; needs both carnal and romantic get their due around the watering hole. All of this happens without fanservicey nonsense, and without the all-consuming nature of pornography.
Here, sex simply is. People have their fetishes, weird, profoundly unsettling, and wonderful. While it makes for fascinating conversation between friends, but life goes on. VA-11 Hall-A invites you to neither leer nor drool, but maybe to snicker along with friends about fucking in the 2070s.
For a game to be truly mature about sex, it must find humor in it as well as titillation, and see sex as a ligament that connects disparate parts of human experience. It is a site of trauma, comedy, biological yearning, artificial fetishes, disease, and needs all grinding against each other; lust is a battlefield. VA-11 Hall-A comes closer to realizing that than most games do; it gets that balance right. It’s grown up--and yes, this is surprisingly true of a game where someone is nicknamed “Titty Hacker.” The game is a love letter to anime culture, right down to having a 4chan-style messageboard in the game (think /b/ but dominated by teenage girls), but its sexuality evokes the more thoughtful and self-aware quarters of the art; more Strawberry Panic than Sakura Trick.
The game serves as an example, then, in two critical ways: one, giving narrative choices to the player that can be expressed in ways besides dialogue, and two, presenting a mature take on sexuality that is adult rather than adolescent. The lack of dialogue options give Jill more breathing room as a character who is at once ordinary and intriguing; they also allow for a more inventive way of influencing events that is perfectly expressive of the game’s theme.
The sexuality, meanwhile, actually helps make the game feel real. It’s no small irony that this homespun indie title made by three men actually succeeds at using sex to enhance its realism, where so many better-funded, hi res graphics-laden titles have failed. For most games “mature” is a gimmick with as many pretensions as a 14 year old boy proudly sporting his first few whiskers and pantomiming vulgarities he doesn’t understand. VA-11 Hall-A manages to do so much more with less.
It does sometimes stumble in that regard--see the aforementioned boob measuring, or a few other choice bits of dialogue--but even bits of the game that verge in that direction feel a bit more like satire than fan service. This is a game where sexism exists and is remarked upon quite openly by the characters, and there is a clear difference established between the way that friendly women sexualize each other and the way aggressive strangers sexualize them. The game has its fun, but also invites you to consider our society in the process, much like the best of spec fic.
As someone who’s spent more than her fair share of time in bars as a woman, I know those boozy borderlands better than I might like; my drink is either a cosmo or a peaty scotch (Laphroaig 10 year, if they’ve got it). From underground dive bars with bitter wine to the skies above Quebec City with oddly elaborate cocktail glasses, I always see lives at an intoxicating crossroads, meeting at these strange places where actually sitting at the bar proper remains a radical act when you’re a lady.
One memory stands out as being rather Vallhalla-ish. Once, while on the road at a hotel bar in New England, me and several women I didn’t know basically took over all the bar stools and we remarked to each other, glasses clinking, how delightfully unusual this was. Instead of fending off advances, we were just having a damn good time, and our gentleman bartender laughed and backslapped along with us, ships passing and swaying drunkenly in the night; for a moment I tasted both the liquor (the good stuff, it was Laphroaig that night) and the untroubled sense of being a stranger slowly poisoning herself.
Perhaps Jill might’ve smiled.
Katherine Cross is a Ph.D student in sociology who researches anti-social behavior online, and a gaming critic whose work has appeared in numerous publications.