We know Jack, do you?
I’ve always had a love for cyberpunk fiction. Ever since I played the then-newly released Blade Runner PC game back in the 90’s, I’ve been kind of obsessed with a future where the lines between the natural and synthetic have blurred into a haze, where the idea of what it means to be human is no longer rigid, and where everything is just a little more neon and digital than it is among the sparsely populated, verdant hillocks I’ve spent most of my life surrounded by. I crave a future that’s just a little grimier, and on that front, VA-11 HALL-A has delivered in spades, and then some.
VA-11 HALL-A’s the kind of game that a cynic might take one look at, see the “waifu bartending” line, and dismiss without a second thought – but if you dig deep enough to even break the game’s skin, it quickly becomes much more than that. Instead, VA-11 HALL-A presents a sharply written, engaging world with a varied and human cast of characters (even if not all them are strictly human, per se). At its center, VA-11 HALL-A is a visual novel, but while I’m not super well-versed with the genre, in my experience the game has a lot more going on underneath the hood than most, if-not-all of its contemporaries.
You play the role of Jill, who tends the eponymous bar, a tavern in downtown Glitch City that betrays its outwardly dive-bar charm with a welcoming atmosphere. By serving drinks to your customers, you uncover more of their stories, as well as Jill’s, with the nature of information doled out dependent on how well you comply to their wishes. Mess up regularly on a client’s orders and your relationship will deteriorate. Get everything right, or go above and beyond, and you build bonds, as well as potentially fall into a full-on relationship with certain characters.
It’s this mechanic that most piqued my interest playing VA-11 HALL-A. Typically, when you play through a visual novel with dating elements, the core relationship mechanics – if you can really call them that – are blatantly transparent, usually boiling down to no more than “choose the girl or guy you like” when the option arises. I wanted to test this out with VA-11 HALL-A, to see if I could easily figure out what was going on under the hood. I wanted to see whether despite the complete lack of dialogue options the story was still there to be as easily “gamed” as most other VNs.
So I picked one of the assumed potential romance options; the kind-hearted Valkyrie with a sweet tooth who wasn’t wild on alcoholic drinks, partly because I liked her the most, and partly because my dad Henry Rollins was already standing there in the corner of my room and scowling at me for playing a game about alcohol. I memorized her favourite drinks, always giving her exactly what she wanted, and always making sure she was provided with a large drink. I gave every other customer what they asked for to the best of my ability, sometimes screwing up when they asked for “the usual”, and never going out of my way to go the extra mile.
Around the midpoint, I was pretty sure I was gaming the system the way I wanted to; Jill showed extra concern for the character in question in her dialogue, but despite that, in the end, I didn’t wind up with her. To be honest, I kind of appreciate that. Whatever the devs behind VA-11 HALL-A have done to weight the story’s progression in different ways, I’m glad that it’s not so blatant, and I’m very excited to mess around with New Game+ to see what ways I can find to influence the manner in which the story unfolds.
As a visual novel, naturally VA-11 HALL-A lives and dies on the quality of its writing, and in most respects, the game does a pretty great job with this, none more so than with Jill herself. A big part of what I don’t like about VNs is their protagonists, who are so often bland and without personality. However, Jill is much more than your typical everywoman. She has a defined personality, a well thought-out and realized backstory, and feels like an actual human being – even if she does appear to have a Windows Phone like some kind of lunatic. You come to root for Jill in many ways during the course of the story, and her interactions with faces both familiar and new feel genuine. I wanted Jill to be happy, I wanted her to get closure on her heartbreak, and in the end, was pleased when she did.
The supporting cast play their role admirably too, of course. Not all of them are good people, but VA-11 HALL-A doesn’t necessarily try to convince you otherwise – it’s not the kind of game where everyone, no matter how much of a shithead, are deep down just a teddy bear wanting to be loved. Some of them are simply not likeable people, and I definitely felt Jill’s pain having to deal with them. There are times when you want to purposely mess up an order in the hope that you’ll get rid of someone you don’t like, but then you remember that if you don’t have another $200 by the end of the day you can’t pay your electricity bill and… well… let’s say I can identify with that a little more than I’d like. There’s some fairly simple management-sim stuff going on here, too. You have to make enough to pay bills and rent, as well as buy Jill a little somethin’ nice once in a while so that she can actually focus at work and remember what her clients ordered. Being a dick to someone you hate isn’t always a good idea, even if Ingram does deserve it, because, hey, that guy sucks.
It’s the clients who do get through to you that really shine in VA-11 HALL-A; from the aforementioned Valkyrie, to the brain in a jar, to Jim Sterling (really), and a shiba inu in a Hawaiian shirt and sunglasses, no two feel alike – they’re all distinct and all have their own interesting little stories to tell, although it’s highly unlikely you’ll hear all of them on one playthrough. Their relationships with one another are affected by your bartending skill also, so you can always mess with Deal to see how Betty reacts, should you so wish.
The writing is very referential in a lot of ways, too, and for the most part, it hits on these. With some small exceptions, I got a laugh out of most of the many references thrown my way; from serving a single plum floating in perfume served in a man’s hat, to discussing Festivus with Jason Alexander, to a world whose version of Christmas is literally based on professional wrestling, there’s a lot to spot if you keep your eyes open. Sure, most of it is about pro-wrestling, but god… the devs are clearly either the world’s biggest wrestling fans or the most perceptive people on the planet when it comes to picking up on the nuances of wrestling fandom. I’m not sure which, but either way, it’s pretty damn cool.
While I like the characters a lot, and think the game does a mostly-stellar job at world-building, there’s one thing that makes VA-11 HALL-A stand out above pretty much every game I’ve played in the last year, and that’s its soundtrack. It’s a mammoth tracklist, and absolutely every song on it is the definition of a cyberpunk banger. I am absolutely going to be blasting A. Rene at work and on my commutes for months to come. I could seriously listen to that song all day and not get tired of it. Even if you have no interest in playing a visual novel about bartending, this soundtrack is not. Optional. At. All.
VA-11 HALL-A is really just something else. It’s a sharply written, well engineered experimentation with a genre that all too often finds itself constrained. It’s smart, with some interesting takes on standard cyberpunk themes such as transhumanism, living artificial intelligence, corporate authoritarianism, and cybercrime. It posits a world in which Mega Santa is a pro wrestler. It has Rad Shiba, and a bumping soundtrack. VA-11 HALL-A is a spectacular experience, which opens up a world of possibilities for what the developers can do in the future – proving itself to be more than just a gimmick applied to an already rote formula. It’s got multiple endings, with enough mystery as to what’s going on under the hood to make further exploring the mechanics a worthwhile exercise.
I accept that conceptually it may not be to everyone’s tastes, but if you’re ever going to get won over by a visual novel, this is it. Sure, there’s tons of other good ones out there, but this feels infinitely more accessible than even something like Chooch’s former GOTY, Danganronpa 2. While Danganronpa played off stale anime tropes to create something special, VA-11 HALL-A casts its net wider; it takes a step out from the comfortable anime archetypes it shows such appreciation for, and it’s all the better for it. Give it a chance, and you may just find that you dig it.
Oh, and Sei is best girl. I just wanna let that be known.