One of the most powerful — and underexplored — aspects of video games at large is that they allow us to put ourselves in the shoes of other people: to explore lives that are not our own.
In the case of most games, the “lives that are not our own” tend to be power fantasies: we take on the roles of heroic archetypes as they battle their way through epic conflicts via various means: punching things in the face, slicing them up with sharp implements or using a variety of heavy weaponry with which to inflict death and destruction.
That’s all very well and good — power fantasies are fun, which is why we’ve experienced so many of them over the years — but sometimes it’s interesting to explore something a little more… mundane. Like, say, being a bartender.
The last time I played a bartender in a video game was probably Bally Midway’s 1983 arcade game Tapper. Speaking as someone who spent a few months tending bar in my university years, looking back on that game I can say with confidence that it, to a certain degree, recreated the chaos of trying to get everyone served when they were all desperate to get pissed-up on a Friday night.
What Tapper didn’t recreate was the romanticised image of bar staff popularised by movies comics and books: the bartender as confidant, counsellor and focal point for narratives.
What it didn’t recreate, however, was the somewhat more romanticised image of bar staff popularised by movies, comics and books: the bartender as confidant, counsellor and focal point for myriad individual, personal narrative threads that come and go on a nightly basis. It may be clichéd or even hackneyed by now in other forms of media, but a bartender fulfilling this role is still a powerful narrative device that allows stories to unfold from an interesting perspective that we don’t often see in games: sitting well and truly outside of personal involvement in what’s been going on and, in many cases, seeing the aftermath of events rather than the events themselves.
In VA-11 HALL-A, you take on the role of a bartender named Gillian, though so far as the game is concerned you have no name, you’re just defined by what you do: you are Bartender. Specifically, you’re a bartender in a somewhat cyberpunk, dystopian future — although all you see of this in the game as it exists today is a selection of news reports on your tablet computer at the outset of each day, and the people who wander into your bar seeking refreshment.
As the story’s prologue opens, your boss explains to you that the bar has been booked out for a few nights by a toy company looking to celebrate something. You’re rather surprised to discover that the majority of the clientèle that subsequently starts demanding drinks are not human at all — they’re corgi dogs, fitted with voice boxes, supervised initially by an android called Deal with an apparent corgi fetish, and later by the company’s resident veterinarian Betty, a woman who seems somewhat dissatisfied with her lot in life.
Through the corgis parroting the same things that humans say when discriminating against one another, the sheer ridiculousness of irrational prejudice is laid bare.
As you serve the dogs, Deal and Betty drinks, you start to build up a picture of what is going on. The corgis run an extremely tight ship, it seems, and have somewhat prejudiced — even racist — ideas about how they like to do things. There are disagreements between the different breeds of corgis who work at the company, and seeming resentment between some of the corgis and what they see as other types of dogs trying to take their jobs away from them. It’s absurd, of course, but it makes its point quickly and efficiently: through these dogs parroting the same things that some humans say when discriminating against one another, the sheer ridiculousness of irrational prejudice is laid bare; at the same time, it’s also easy to see how people who have been conditioned to think in a certain way all their lives have difficulty questioning their beliefs.
These themes are mirrored in your conversations with Deal and Betty, which punctuate the sequences in which you have to serve a seemingly never-ending string of differently coloured dogs the beverages of their choice. Betty in particular has some deep-seated, negative views on human enhancement — something which has seemingly become widespread in the futuristic world outside the walls of your bar — but, over time, and through your interactions with both her and Deal it becomes apparent why she feels this way. Not only that, but when you catch her at a moment of weakness — the alcohol finally gets to her after she’s remained fairly stoic for the rest of the game — it’s made very clear that, like most prejudices, her feelings aren’t entirely rational or logical, and that they perhaps don’t stand up to deep, thorough examination or questioning as well as she’d like.
Like most prejudices, her feelings aren’t entirely rational or logical, and they perhaps don’t stand up to deep, thorough examination or questioning as well as she’d like.
The Prologue chapter for the game currently available does an excellent job of “teasing” what we can expect from the full release of VA-11 HALL-A, currently expected in December of this year. Both Betty and Deal are interesting, compelling characters that the Prologue left me wanting to know more about. And at various points throughout the story, we’re introduced to a couple of other characters who, while largely unexplored in the Prologue, will clearly become important in the broader narrative of the full game. There’s the spunky, cheerful, young-looking robot girl Dorothy, for example — who is becoming something of a mascot for the game — and the mysterious cat-eared girl Stella who is found passed out outside the bar one evening. In keeping with your role as Bartender, you don’t see this happen; you simply, as ever, see the aftermath, and perhaps provide her with a drink to make her feel better after whatever happened.
VA-11 HALL-A, being primarily a visual novel rather than a skill-based game, has simple but effective gameplay that largely consists of you mixing the appropriate (or indeed inappropriate) drinks for your clients. Your actions will affect what goes on, however — only in a minor way during the prologue, but with more significant consequences and repercussions in the full version. Dialogue differs according to your performance on the job; sometimes you’ll even see slightly different news stories at the start of each day depending on whether or not you resisted the temptation to slip a little something extra into the drink of the designated driver for the evening or whether you helped someone with their problems. Occasional repetition of randomly generated dialogue for minor clients aside, it all feels very natural, flows well and never falls into the trap of simply alternating “gameplay” and “story” as so many narrative-based games do; rather, everything you do feels relevant to what is unfolding in front of you, leaving the whole experience feeling very coherent.
In short, then, VA-11 HALL-A is already looking like an enormously interesting prospect, and based on the strength of the Prologue alone it’s very clear that developer Sukeban Games is going to be well worth keeping an eye on.
If you’d like to try it out for yourself, head on over to the game’s official website, where you can download the original Cyberpunk Jam prototype for free, or get both the Prologue now and the full game when it releases for a very reasonable $4.99.
Super-thanks to Cass Khaw of Ysbryd Games for enthusiastically shoving this under my nose and saying “LOOK AT THIS. LOOK AT IT.”