We usually absorb the details of cyberpunk worlds through the circuitry-enhanced eyes of fringe anti-heroes – couriers, detectives, and hackers flung into the heart of world-changing events. But not everyone was born to stop evil corporations or rescue society from collapse; some people are just trying to get on with their dystopian lives. These regular citizens are at the heart of VA-11 HALL-A, a compelling interactive story that provides glimpses of a bleak future from the perspectives of people who would normally be written off as inconsequential NPCs.
Players assume the role of Jill, a 20-something bartender at VA-11 HALL-A (a dive bar sensibly referred to as “Valhalla”). Jill lives in Glitch City, a tech-infused metropolis teeming with cyberpunk signatures like greedy conglomerates, genetic manipulation, artificial intelligence, and terrorist activity. While those may sound like standard sci-fi components, the lens through which you view them is what makes VA-11 HALL-A unique. You aren’t fighting your way through Glitch City to find clues or uncover a conspiracy; all of Jill’s time is spent either at work or her crappy apartment, so everything players learn about the world is filtered through the personal stories of Jill and her customers.
The approach to storytelling is refreshing, since it has you slowly piecing together information about the characters and your surroundings – though it doesn’t build toward any grand climax, which is just fine. Most of the game is spent following Jill’s conversations with her clients and co-workers, so the emphasis is on smaller stories, which are rewarding in a different way. An android sex worker gives an account of a bizarre escapade, a medic recounts a terrorist attack, and a hacker vents about her sister. Many of these customers are regulars, and you learn more about them as they return day after day. Though the writing isn’t striving for realism, it does a good job bringing out the distinct personalities of the cast and highlighting their differing views on the big topics like life, love, and friendship.
Jill isn’t just a blank persona for players to inhabit – she has her own story that I won’t spoil. You don’t customize Jill’s appearance or directly influence her dialogue, but you do control how she spends her money. Before work every day, you can shop to buy decorations for the apartment, though you should really save everything you can in order to pay her ever-increasing bills. I like these brief looks at Jill’s home life because they let you see what she’s like when no one else is around; she’s broke, lonely, and talks to her cat. It reinforces the importance of her work relationships and makes you more invested in her success.
Players have another unconventional way to steer Jill’s life: mixing drinks. Bartenders should be good listeners, but they also need to serve alcohol, which is the other major pillar of VA-11 HALL-A’s gameplay. The process of mixing the drinks is simple, since you just add ingredients according to a recipe book. The challenge is deciding which drinks to serve. You often make exactly what the customer orders – but what about when you need to maximize profits? Or when a regular orders a strong drink that you know she can’t handle? Or when a weirdo only gives you cryptic clues about what he wants?
I enjoy the puzzle-like quality these scenarios add to bartending, and the gray areas are your opportunity to nudge the story. If you repeatedly botch someone’s order or make a bad call on what to serve, you might miss certain scenes or fail to reach the conclusion of a customer’s arc. On the one hand, this was frustrating for me as a completionist, since the elements of choice are practically undetectable. On the other hand, I like that the story continues no matter what (unless you reload your last save, which is a hassle), leaving you to wonder “what if.”
For all of the good things I have to say about VA-11 HALL-A, one major problem continually surfaces to undermine the storytelling and characters: The writing reins are apparently passed to a horny teenager periodically. A character might be telling a good story, and then the conversation takes an unnaturally abrupt turn toward sex, breasts, and/or orgies. I don’t mind that the game attempts to tackle sexual topics, but the frequency with which the (mostly female) cast brings up their bust sizes feels forced and pandering. These shoehorned-in exchanges seem rooted more in an adolescent sexual fantasy than the characters or their circumstances, which erodes the strength of the narrative.
Even though you may have to wince through a few conversations, VA-11 HALL-A sells its cyberpunk atmosphere with great presentation, including an exceptional soundtrack and cool character art. The text may be enough to convey the plot, but the way it works together with the sound and visuals makes the atmosphere immersive. On top of the clever premise and unique delivery, the whole experience is a fascinating experiment in interactive storytelling. The neon may flicker occasionally, but the glow is generally consistent and bright.