“Hey, wait a minute, Jarenth,” I hear you say. “You’re still doing VNADS! You can’t suddenly veer into Sukeban Games‘s VA-11 Hall-A, as that’s clearly a cyberpunk bartender action game! Says so right on the tin!”
To those people I say, good eye! I appreciate you trying to keep me honest. But also, maybe take a little closer look at the Steam page. See what it says, right there in the popular tags section?
IMG: VN (Read ’em and weep, nerds.//I don’t make the rules, I just rigidly enforce them for my own benefit.)
The larger Steam community has spoken. VA-11 Hall-A‘s a visual novel, and what’s the abbreviation for my winter adventures again? Visual Novels and Dating Sims month. Looks like I’m in the clear! So let’s get this party started before anyone thinks to bring up that it’s possible that I myself added that ‘user-defined’ tag.
(Spoiler levels: Narrative, medium-light. Mechanical, light.)
(Game source: Patreon funds.)
The place: Glitch City. The time: 207X AD.
We’re going full cyberpunk right out the gate, huh? VA-11 Hall-A does not hold back. The mood is grim, the colours are neon and black, the music is chipped and tinny, and the story is about a city that is not a happy place to be.
Okay, so this world sucks. But not everything sucks. For instance, there’s still alcohol! And you know where you can find some alcohol?
“And it’s here where this story unfolds.”
Joker-y aside, I do like this short intro. The mood has been well and truly set: I am ready to go serve drinks to gloomy strangers in this cyber-oppressed glitch hellhole.
And since ‘getting started’ is actually the only thing I can do right here and now…
Well, this is certainly an eyeful. Lots of pinks and purples and blues in the center/top-left screen, that’s very much my colour scheme-jam, with some bright teal and orange thrown in for variation. Looks like the seating area for our bar. To the right, a selection of cans and buttons, currently greyed-out. Bottom right, a few rudimentary options. Who needs more, anyway. And finally, bottom-left, a text box. Where I learn that a character named ‘Anna’ is currently talking to me.
I don’t see any Anna, though. “Pssst,” she says, and there’s no-one. “Hey, over here,” she says, but while I click my gloved-hand-mouse here and there, nothing happens. Then, “BOO,” and suddenly the bar’s TV system flares into life.
And then she’s suddenly there.
Anna talks, but I’m not sure who she’s addressing? She calls out to a ‘Jo’, casually breaks the fourth wall, then mentions a bar shift for tuxedo-clad corgis, and I’m not sure which statement to try and tackle first.
Anna babbles some more about the bright side of life, and staying positive, and pranks, and parcels. And then the screen blacks out, and a character named Jill wakes up from a dream.
‘Chapter 1: Primera’ rolls across the screen. And then I’m in a house.
I… don’t understand what’s happening. Like, I’ve been trying to pay attention, but blanks are drawn and eyebrows are raised. What was all that, just now? Did it have any point, and slash or meaning? And why was I in a bar just now, which seems to fit what I expect this game to be about, and in some sort of minimalist hotel room right now with a line of poor fashion choices and a black cat that may or may not be talking?
I explore my ludic surroundings, which is a fancy way of saying ‘I try to play the goddamn game’. The right side of the screen mostly does nothing. The left side… seems to be a phone, I think? When I press and hold the lock circle, it opens, and I gain access to ‘Life Backup 1.1’. Or in other words, the save/load functionality.
Once the mandatory save is done, I can browse more of the phone. Which is to say, I can see my name (Jill) and in-game date (December 13th). I can access a jukebox for tunes, or read a news website called ‘Augmented Eye’. And then three more spots shout at me to ADD APP, which is something I don’t think I can actually do.
There is, in short, not a whole lot to do in this apartment, except listen to chiptunes and browse the same news stories over and over. And since I already do enough of that in my day-to-day life, I’ll say a phrase I don’t think is very likely to ever cross the digital divide: man, I can’t wait to get to work.
Back in VA-11 Hall-A, which is hopefully an actual bar this time and not some elaborate dream sequence, I’m greeted by a person who I’d describe as having feminine features if it wasn’t for the stubble goatee. He’s got sort of a John-looking face, but apparently his name is Gillian; Gill and Jill, I’m sure that won’t get confusing.
Gill correctly picks up on the fact that I have no idea what’s going on. Technically Jill is ‘distracted’, mostly by the fact that I was here-but-not-here ten minutes ago and there was a ghost woman of sorts. I think I can still see her on the TV, sometimes? It’s strange. And then there’s rent… and apparently the bar is closing soon, what? And Jill’ll be out of a job. That’s some in-medias-res opening, right there.
Anyway, Gill is (rightly) worried about Jill’s ability to bartend good today. And what’s the best way to check if your skills are in order?
“If you can make a Piano Man,” Gill sas, “I’ll skip the rest.” I don’t know what that means. Then he tells me to “start with a Sugar Rush,” which I still don’t…
Suddenly colour floods into the right side of the screen, as on the left a swanky navigation index scrolls down.
How does this work? On the left side of the screen, I can browse a small set (two dozen or so) of drinks. I can browse them by name, or by flavor, or by ‘type’ — which includes such helpful descriptors as ‘Manly’, or ‘Classy’. For now I’ll stick to Gill’s first order, a Sugar Rush, which is easy enough to find.
The Sugar Rush consists of two parts Adelhyde, which sounds like poison, and one part Powdered Delta, which at least sounds like some sort of additive. And optional Karmotrine. All mixed. I add these ingredients to the shaker by clicking and dragging the requisite cans over. So Adelhyde, more Adelhyde, Powdered Delta… I add one Karmotrine, for the hell of it. Then I hit the mix button, and the shaker starts mixing. Mixing, mixing, mixing… after a few seconds, it starts mixing faster. It’s not stopping. Should I stop it manually?
I hit the mix button again.
Dangit. Let’s try that again, but without the fluff. I take two Adelhyde, one Powdered Delta, hit the mix button, stop it immediately. And it works this time!
I learn only a few seconds later that mixing time makes a difference: if the shaker is left on for more than five seconds, the drink becomes ‘blended’ instead of ‘mixed’. So that’s probably what went wrong. The optional Karmotrine, I’m not sure; Gill says that ‘optional’ means either ‘leave out entirely’ or ‘fill to the brim’, which seems strange to me. But he’s the expert.
Anyway, I mix him another drink, and then the tutorial is mostly over.
Just in time for our boss to arrive! With… a sleeping woman in tow?
I want to ask some questions about this whole ‘sleeping woman’ situation, but Boss (‘Dana’) handily dodges those by moving to her office, which if off-screen and therefore might as well not exist. And I’d ask Gill, but he doesn’t know any more than I do. Plus, he’s on bathroom duty, apparently. Turns out that that shift of corgis that I dreamed about actually happened, and since Gill wasn’t there to help with the build-up, he can help with the clean-up instead.
While he does that, I get to pick some songs in the jukebox.
And then, finally, we get to the bartending part of this Cyberpunk Bartending Action game.
The first customer walks in the door.
I mix the man up a Beer, from base ingredients, which I’d consider some sort of Mean Bartending Feat. He complains it’s not big enough. Fair enough. He introduced himself as Donovan D. Dawson, chief editor of that weird news app I was reading on my phone earlier. We spend some cordial time talking about his work, by which I mean he looks like he angrily spits out each and every line, and half of what he says is misogynistic garbage — and the other half is regular garbage.
Mr. Donovan talks a mean game, but he’s actually got an interesting world outlook. It’s very… I want to say bleak? Self-interested to a fault, but not wrong about some of the seedier parts of the human experience. Plus, he’s not shy about spending money: between the beers and his last, more esoteric order (‘something big and bitter without alcohol’), he’s spent a total of…
…fourteen hundred dollars? Holy Christ. Stop the cyber-future, I want to get off!
After some final mutual complaining, Mr. Donovan leaves for work. Just in time for this fancy fella to walk in.
So, who do I have the distinct pleasure of talking to now? His name is Ingram McDougal, and he’s only the second person today to refer to VA-11 Hall-A as either a ‘hellhole’ or a ‘crack house’. Which, I mean, rude. Also, I’m not entirely sure how to parse what’s happening in his neck situation. Is that a tattoo? Or a necklace? It looks like some sort of welded seam.
Mr. McDougal talks some more shit about the bar, until he learns the name of the boss — Dana Zane, ‘the Red Comet’. I don’t know what that means, and neither does Jill, but it changes his tune fast enough.
Then it’s time for Jill to take a break! Which means she walks outside to smoke and play with her phone, which in itself is a fancy way of saying ‘I get a chance to save my game halfway into the day now’.
The night continues apace after the break. I… part of me wants to keep giving the play-by-play, because some more interesting characters walk through the door. Like some sort of robot-armored Valkyrie woman (who’s actually pretty sweet once you get to know her). And the sleeping girl from earlier wakes up, has a panic attack, drinks to calm down, and then has another panic attack because of the alcohol — that last part might be my fault.
But this simple introduction is already starting to run long. I’m like, what? Thirty images in?
I think we’ve established a pretty decent opening view of VA-11 Hall-A here. There’s bartending, there’s talking to people… which is really only listening to people, given that Jill mostly responds to what the others are saying, and I-the-player haven’t had much in the way of input yet. And then more bartending. There’s also a brief glimpse of the importance of earning money at the end, which was actually foreshadowed way earlier — Jill needs to renew subscriptions, and pay rent, and there’s all sorts of stuff she wants to buy. That’ll be a lot easier to do if I keep making several thousand dollars per night, including several bonuses for good work.
So, is this VA-11 Hall-A, then? Mixing drinks, and changing lives? Only one way to find out. Check back in with you all after I’ve worked some more nights.