Cyberpunk is a great genre for making allegories to modern social oppression. There is vast potential for creative storytelling targeting authoritarianism, late-stage capitalism and systemic oppression. What I didn’t know is that you could tell a story centered around all of these topics and have it designed around a bartending sim with cute anime girls.
VA-11 HALL-A, produced by small Venezuelan team Sukeban Games, is a cyberpunk “drink-em up”. The game takes inspiration from anime such as Ghost in the Shell, and Bubblegum Crisis which have a retro 80’s cyberpunk aesthetic. You play as Jill, a bartender working at the VA-11 HALL-A, a small, dinky bar in the middle of Glitch city. The city is filled with corrupt officials, mega corporations buying out media companies, heavy protests against the state, sex working robots, and hackers trying to take over the underbellies of the city. While on shifts, Jill will encounter a wide set of odd characters who enter VA-11 HALL-A seeking to drink their sorrows away or just chat.
The gameplay is rather simple in concept. As Jill works, customers will come up to the bar for drinks. The player will have to use 5 ingredients (Adelhyde, Bronson Extract, Powdered Delta, Flanergride, and Karmotrine) to create a wide array of futuristic alcoholic concoctions. If you please the customer, they will talk to you longer, if you don’t you will miss out on story tidbits and get a lower tip. There isn’t much of a risk to messing up as the game is more story focused. Every customer has their own mini character arc that will develop over the course of shifts. Messing up drinks or getting creative results will only change how the story progresses but there is no such thing a bad path.
Although not up-front, the game is in part a political allegory of the harsh lives of many Venezuelans, which the developers don’t shy away from expressing. From protests, to police brutality and the lack of food, a lot of the dialogue told by characters personally reflects the environment and day-to-day lives the developers have experienced in their country. This personal aspect of the writing gives a humanizing touch to the cyberpunk setting.
The developers decided to focus their game on a protagonist who has a small role in the universe they live in, rather than the one of an anti-hero trying to change society. The developers decided players would take the role of an average Joe living in this dystopia which also happens to take place during a tense time.
“The game’s recurring theme is ‘happiness in the middle of disaster,’ which is something I see in every Venezuelan: the determination, the burning desire to be happy even though this place keeps getting worse and worse.” (DenofGeek, Deconstructing VA-11 Hall-A’s Powerful Video Game Writing)
Overall, I really enjoyed this game. I’ve sunk in about 5 hours total but will try to make time to finish it. Supposedly the game can be finished in 10 hours which is a plus for me since I don’t have that much free times with College kicking me in the groin. Visual Novels tend to a be niche genre due to it being targeted to mostly otakus as well as being huge time sinks. However, VA-11 HALL-A is quite the unique indie gem that I think is accessible to any fan of sci-fi or good storytelling.
Originally Published in Bandersnatch Vol.49 Issue 09 on February 12th, 2020