VA-11 Hall-A is a remarkable work in so many ways. Not only is it the work of just two mysterious chaps from Venezuela, it’s one of the most authentically “Japanese-feeling” Western works for quite some time.
On top of all that, it’s simply an extremely well put together package, featuring beautiful pixel art by Christopher Ortiz strongly reminiscent of vintage Japanese computers such as the PC-88 and PC-98; some snappy, witty writing by Fernando Damas; and a cast of characters so memorable they’ll haunt your dreams long after you serve your last Piano Woman.
The cherry on top of all this is, as we previously discussed when we looked at the game’s early Prologue version, the fact that VA-11 Hall-A’s focus and setting are interesting, compelling and, if not completely unique, then certainly very distinctive.
Jill hasn’t quite mastered the art of being an adult, tending to fill her room with all manner of clutter rather than doing the responsible thing and paying her bills.
VA-11 Hall-A tells the story of Jill. Jill is a bartender in the titular bar, which tends to just be called “Valhalla” for simplicity’s sake.
Jill is twenty-seven years old and lives with her cat Fore in a tiny, single-room apartment. She hasn’t quite mastered the art of being an adult, tending to fill her room with all manner of clutter to reflect her personality rather than doing the responsible thing and saving money to pay her bills. Or, at least, that’s how she’s presented when we first meet her; as the story begins in the run-up to Mega Christmas, it becomes up to the player whether or not she pays three of her important bills on time — her favourite porn site (“I have needs.”), her electricity bill and finally her rent — and whether or not she has a happy new year.
That’s the overarching structure of the game, anyway; in practice, this is just one of numerous different threads all clamouring for your attention. And that’s where the bartending action — the bulk of the game — comes into play.
As Jill and her clients talk, you get to know various things about them — who they are, what they’ve been doing, what they want out of life. Each individual client has their own story to tell.
After you’ve taken care of business at home each in-game day — this consists of reading Glitch City’s resident clickbait tabloid site, checking the girl-dominated 4chan-alike danger/u/ (because as everyone knows, there are no guys on the Internet) and, later, doing a bit of shopping for decoration options — Jill heads off to work to begin her shift behind Valhalla’s bar.
Once in place, Jill is presented with a string of clients, all of whom want to drink and talk. Unlike the Prologue version of the game, none of these encounters are randomised; all are relevant to the various plot threads that intertwine over the course of the game’s complete narrative. As Jill and her clients talk, you get to know various things about them — who they are, what they’ve been doing, what they want out of life — and serve them drinks when they ask for them. Each individual client (or, in some cases, small group of clients) has their own story to tell, and several of them have their own endings to unlock.
Unlike a regular visual novel, VA-11 Hall-A’s narrative paths aren’t mutually exclusive. Jill’s own arc is fixed regardless of your performance in the bartending sections — though whether she ends up keeping her apartment or awkwardly sharing a bed with her best friend Alma at the end of the game depends on how thrifty you were with her limited finances. Instead, seeing the other narrative paths through to their conclusions is dependent on you paying close attention to the things that the characters say in your encounters with them, and mixing the appropriate drinks at the right time.
There’s a strong sense that writer Damas has thought through not only the specific story of VA-11 Hall-A, but also the broader context in which it takes place.
For example, the aforementioned Alma comes in depressed one evening and asks Jill to make her a “classy” drink. You can look up any of the “classy” drinks in the in-game recipe manual and serve one to Alma — or even serve her something completely different if you want, though don’t expect any tips if you do — or you can think back to an earlier encounter with Alma when she mentioned that there was a specific classy drink that always cheered her up when she was feeling low. The latter option might not seem to have much effect initially, save for a few extra lines of dialogue, but consistently fulfilling these “secret” requests is how you unlock the various character-specific endings — and a few other substantial extra scenes over the course of the complete narrative.
As an added bonus, fans of the adventure game Read Only Memories, with which VA-11 Hall-A shares a world setting despite being from a different developer, can unlock cameos from several of that game’s characters by serving a special unlisted drink to specific people at specific times.
Where VA-11 Hall-A shines is in how well-crafted its world is. There’s a strong sense that writer Damas has thought through not only the specific story of VA-11 Hall-A, but also the broader context in which it takes place. While it shares a world with Read Only Memories, VA-11 Hall-A’s setting of Glitch City is distinctive and unique from its spiritual predecessor’s Neo San Francisco. It’s recognisable as a dystopian cyberpunk future, but it has enough unique aspects to make it far more than just another Blade Runner ripoff.
The narrative as a whole tends to take a “show, don’t tell” approach, with characters discussing various aspects of life in Glitch City as a matter of fact rather than an obvious “Let’s explain this to the player!” sort of way.
Here, we’re talking about a world where fully sentient robotic people, known as Lilim, walk the streets and go about their lives much as humans do, albeit with plenty of their own unique capabilities due to their mechanical nature. It’s a world where human augmentation is commonplace, but still treated with a certain amount of distrust by parts of the populace. And it’s a world where vending machines have artificial intelligence so sophisticated, they feel the need to taser anyone who holds what they deem to be the “incorrect” opinions on rhythm and blues music.
The excellent thing about Damas’ writing throughout VA-11 Hall-A is that you never feel like you’re being beaten over the head with information about the world; the narrative as a whole tends to take a “show, don’t tell” approach, with characters discussing various aspects of life in Glitch City as a matter of fact rather than an obvious “Let’s explain this to the player!” sort of way. Bits and pieces about the world are peppered throughout the dialogue, throughout the news articles at the start of each day, throughout the danger/u/ posts Jill reads on her phone, and through the very existence of some of the characters.
VA-11 Hall-A’s future is one where life is recognisably different from our own lives in 2016, but strangely plausible. Government organisations are still corrupt, corporations still have too much power and sex still carries a significant amount of power and meaning in society. Norms and taboos in certain regards have relaxed due to the advent of the Lilim, however, with the character Dorothy being a good example.
Damas’ writing never feels like it’s trying to push a strong agenda; things aren’t presented as black and white, good and bad, and are instead left up to the player to interpret as they see fit.
Dorothy is, in relative terms to an equivalent human, fully mature. However, since she deliberately chose not to undergo the procedure which upgrades a Lilim’s immature body into a more adult-looking one, she still looks like a young girl, no more than 13 years of age. She’s also a sex worker, taking full advantage of her underage appearance to offer something “unique” to her clients; she doesn’t judge them for what they’re into and has her own strict codes as to what she will and won’t do for money, but she’s also more than willing to share some of her less salubrious stories with Jill and her other friends.
It’s just a job to her; it’s what she does, and this isn’t treated as anything shameful or worthy of censure in VA-11 Hall-A, despite how morally questionable some people might find her occupation and her chosen appearance in 2016.
In other words, Damas’ writing in VA-11 Hall-A never feels like it’s trying to push a strong agenda; things aren’t presented as black and white, good and bad, and are instead left up to the player to interpret as they see fit. It helps that Jill is a fairly easygoing, tolerant sort of protagonist for the most part — though she does become increasingly self-absorbed in her own problems as the narrative reaches its climax — but it’s also down to the realistic, conversational tone with which the various characters engage with her.
VA-11 Hall-A demonstrates remarkably positive, progressive attitudes towards all manner of social groups, be it underage-looking sex worker robots, a brain in a jar that can’t remember what gender it used to be or simply a distinctly normal, relatable girl like Jill.
Matters such as various characters’ sexuality — many cast members, including Jill, are either homosexual or bisexual — could have been made a big deal of to score “progressive points” but instead these characteristics are handled subtly and sensitively; it’s just part of who they are. This aspect in particular is just one of many ways it’s very clear that Damas has enjoyed plenty of Japanese popular media in his time, because well-regarded works such as Love Live, Hyperdimension Neptunia and Senran Kagura have all featured strong undercurrents of homosexuality, and none of them make a big deal out of it either; it’s just accepted. While Japanese society at large has a way to go with regard to tolerance of homosexuality and other “non-traditional” behaviours, the prevalence of yuri and yaoi manga, anime, video games and visual novels shows that artists, creators and the younger generations of Japanese consumers are more than happy to accept things that their forebears might have recoiled away from.
Here in the West, of course, we’re getting quite used to seeing developers trying their best to be “inclusive” with their work — sometimes to a rather tokenistic fault. Not so with VA-11 Hall-A, however; as noted, it never feels like an agenda is being pushed, but regardless it demonstrates remarkably positive, progressive attitudes towards all manner of social groups, be it the aforementioned underage-looking sex worker robot, a brain in a jar that can’t remember what gender it used to be and so insists on just being called “Taylor”, a girl who ended up with cat ears due to a prenatal genetic engineering procedure carried out on her to protect her against disease — or, you know, simply a distinctly normal, relatable girl like Jill, who is going through that stage a lot of people in their late twenties go through where she’s not entirely sure whether the choices that have led her to this point have been the right ones.
More than anything, Damas’ characters feel human (for want of a better word when it comes to things like Lilim and brains-in-jars) — they don’t feel like they’ve been included to tick boxes. In other words, the characters can’t be listed as “the gay one”, “the black one”, “the disabled one” and suchlike; each and every one of them is nuanced and interesting, and all have been depicted in such a way that you can’t help but want to learn more about them.
VA-11 Hall-A is an absolute triumph. Despite its more fantastical pure sci-fi elements, it remains a very personal, intimate and relatable story.
And you most certainly get the opportunity. Even if you miss out on following the characters’ complete arcs through to their conclusions, you still get a good feeling for who they are — or at least enough of an idea to make a few educated guesses of your own, and incentive to try again with the game’s New Game+ feature, which lets you carry across your money to a new playthrough, making getting the good ending significantly easier.
The game wisely withholds a few pieces of information altogether, too, leaving interpretation up to the player and encouraging discussion and debate — as well as potentially providing material to explore further in future games. See all the endings and get all the achievements and you might still have questions in your mind — questions that will ensure VA-11 Hall-A sticks around in your mind long after you’ve finished with it, and that will make you want to talk about it to all your friends repeatedly and relentlessly until they give it a go just to shut you up about it. (Ahem.)
All in all, VA-11 Hall-A is an absolute triumph. My hopes were high after the original Prologue release, and I’m very happy to say they have been exceeded beyond all measure with the full game. Despite its more fantastical pure sci-fi elements, it remains a very personal, intimate and relatable story that pretty much everyone will be able to get something out of — and the excellent writing is supported by some beautifully evocative art and music that gives the whole thing a very coherent feel, simultaneously modern and acknowledging the PC-88/PC-98 classics which it clearly pays homage to.
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VA-11 Hall-A is available now from various online stores. Check out the official website for info.