Sukeban Games’ VA-11 Hall-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action (“Valhalla” for short) takes place in the future. It’s the year 207X and Glitch City, the sprawling metropolis in which the game is set, is home to androids, cybernetic soldiers and talking dogs. The people are all, to an extent, enhanced with nanomachine technology and the setting is a cyberpunk dystopia, controlled by corporate and criminal groups rather than governments.
For all the ways its science fiction premise differs from our real world, the characters of VA-11 Hall-A are a lot like us in one pretty important way: how they wind down at the end of a long day. They still enjoy a stiff drink.
DRINKING WITH FRIENDS
In VA-11 Hall-A the player is cast as a young woman named Jill. Aside from spending time reading news and Reddit-like forum threads in her tiny apartment, Jill moves through the story by going to her job at a hole-in-the-wall bar named VA-11 Hall-A—referred to by everybody as simply “Valhalla.” Customers sidle up to the counter, at first to order from a menu of fictional drinks (which the player mixes by dragging ingredients into a martini shaker) then to chat with Jill about their lives.
A good bartender, now and in VA-11 Hall-A’s future setting, is a ready conversation partner for lone drinkers. As Jill works, she chats with all segments of Glitch City society, listening to their problems and discussing the news with whoever sits in front of her, sipping an artificial beer (apparently breweries are hard to come by in 207X) or tossing back charmingly named cocktails like the Gut Punch, Marsblast or Suplex.
This plot set-up—relatable and down-to-earth despite the game’s sci-fi premise—offers a great entry point for the exploration of a fictional society. Though the story is told entirely through scrolling (and largely non-interactive) paragraphs of text, VA-11 Hall-A never feels as if it’s forcing the player to engage with exposition for exposition’s sake. Instead, the story is revealed naturally.
The large cast of characters who visit the bar talk, like everyone talks, about the mundane aspects of their lives, only revealing their place in a sci-fi dystopia through incidental details. A woman who works as one of Glitch City’s military-style security forces ends up explaining the political structure of the setting by talking about concerns she has with her work. Another character who constantly streams video of her life to thousands of viewers comes to the bar to get as drunk as possible to create “engaging content.” In the process, she ends up offering context for Glitch City’s cultural landscape.
VA-11 Hall-A’s story may end up focusing at times on the riots sweeping the city or the bills the totalitarian government is passing in order to begin 24/7 civilian surveillance, but none of these topics are presented alongside the gunfights and explosions of a typical sci-fi video game.
In Bioware’s massively popular Mass Effect role-playing series, the Deus Ex games, and recent, futuristic Call of Duty entries, sci-fi is poised as something like a subset of the action genre. Players sneak through bases, hack computers, pilot drones, and shoot down waves of human, robotic, and alien enemies. There’s nothing wrong with this approach to sci-fi (I mean,Star Wars must be doing something right to stay popular for so many decades) but placing so many of these kind of stories into one context is pretty limiting.
When the kind of action that fills other games takes place in VA-11 Hall-A, it’s always off screen. Jill has to sleep in the bar overnight when two rival groups begin shooting at one another in the streets of Glitch City; she and her friends try to figure out if they’re hearing fireworks, broken car mufflers, or gunshots during another day of work. While still featuring a plot with occasional life-or-death stakes, VA-11 Hall-A manages to stay true to its focus on ordinary people having ordinary conversations by keeping them removed from actual combat.
It’s possible to have great characters in action games, but focusing on adrenaline-pumping shootouts and methodical stealth sequences will always impact a story’s tone. The main characters in something like a Mass Effect game are, inevitably, skilled soldiers and the plots that unfold around them will necessarily have to do with violence. Again, this can—and has—resulted in fantastic sci-fi stories. But it’s also created too many that end up tonally similar because, well, in the end, they’re all action games.
Sukeban Games understands that the story it’s telling might have exciting moments, but that it’s ultimately about regular people just trying to make their way in a dystopian future. Most of its characters are kind of boring—they’re bartenders and network technicians—and even the occasional assassin or ex-soldier who wanders in for a drink has to play by civilian rules while stopping by. Because of this, nothing distracts from the developer’s intent: to replicate the quiet joy of good conversation with interesting people.
VA-11 Hall-A isn’t a perfect game. The dialogue—and there’s a lot of dialogue—can be a bit stiff and the plot’s attempts at drama are far less successful than the usually light, funny tone taken by the bulk of the story. Just the same, what VA-11 Hall A gets right it gets very right. It knows it’s a game that, despite being set in a bizarre sci-fi future, is fundamentally concerned with showing how people cope with struggles as ordinary as figuring out what they need from their personal relationships or how to make enough money to keep a roof over their heads.
If anything, placing these themes against the backdrop of a larger-than-life setting humanizes them all the more. VA-11 Hall-A shows that no matter how strange our world might become in the decades and centuries to follow, people will always be people—worried about the same stuff we’ve always worried about. Science fiction is a genre at its best when it couples its visions of an alien future with a look at where we’re heading as a species. VA-11 Hall-A’s choice to tell that kind of story through the lens of regular people, out for a few drinks, couldn’t be more fitting.
Reid McCarter is a writer and editor based in Toronto. His work has appeared in Kill Screen, Pixels or Death, Paste, VICE, and The Escapist. He is also co-editor of SHOOTER, runs Digital Love Child, and tweets @reidmccarter.
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