VA-11 HALL-A review

Reviews
June 28, 2016 by Kris Ligman

One part Karmotrine, two parts TMI, and shaken, not stirred.

VA-11 HALL-A (verbalized as “Valhalla”) is a “cyberpunk bartending” game, in which you mix drinks and listen to your patrons’ problems (although increasingly as the game goes on, they end up listening to yours). The bartending system also doubles as a somewhat-obfuscated dialogue choice system, by which your patrons’ responses will differ depending on how strong you make their drinks. Want some intolerable so-and-so to leave in a hurry? Get them so smashed they lose interest in you. Want someone in top shape for a gig they’ve got later? Maybe serve their cocktails virgin without telling them.

Superficially this sounds like a system that invites experimentation, but there are exactly two points at which to save your game per shift, with no fast-forward or “skip read text” feature I could find. So if you want to reload a file and tend your bar differently, you’re back to slogging through dialogue. And there is a shitton of dialogue in VA-11 HALL-A, most of it seemingly about people’s sex lives.

Your boss with a metal arm and a heart of gold, Dana Zane. Even your boss is adorable.

Now, look: I don’t mind games being frank about sex. But VA-11 HALL-A’s early chapters seem frontloaded with extremely personal if not outright discomforting scenes. One of the game's first patrons bluntly asks our bartender, Jill, if she’s ever faked an orgasm; soon after, we meet a gynoid sex worker who is explicitly designed to appear 10 to 13 years old. There’s the young entrepreneur who streams herself 24/7 and sells “premium” accounts granting access to every bathroom break and bedroom activity. And there’s the infosec specialist Alma, who is otherwise one of my favorite characters, spontaneously having a wardrobe malfunction at a party because Jill gave her a simple shoulder massage. This game isn’t frank about sex; it’s horny.

Horniness isn’t intrinsically bad, but it does require a level of honesty from the developers. Otherwise you end up in a situation where, say, you’re arguing the blue AI lady is naked because reasons and not just that you wanted a naked blue lady in your game. And to its credit, Sukeban has been honest to a certain degree, referring to its game as “waifu bartending” and peppering its text with (curiously defanged) channer culture references. But VA-11 HALL-A positions itself – repeatedly, on its official website and in press materials – as a “cyberpunk dystopia,” requisite crime-filled metropolis, nanomachines, and Judge Dredd-type law enforcers all accounted for. Yet it accomplishes very little of value with these elements. No one ever seems affected by food shortages, and the early game subplot concerning a company of private law enforcers, the White Knights, fizzles out into an anticlimax by the story’s midpoint. The game really wants us to care about all its worldbuilding, but none of it seems to add up to anything, even as backdrop.

The first reference to 'Kanyevania' was funny. Then the game tried to make it A Thing. The first reference to 'Kanyevania' is out of nowhere and hilarious. But then the game tried to make it A Thing.

There are other, smaller touches to the game’s writing I found charming, like the little detail that Jill’s boss routinely provides safe haven for women trying to evade stalkers, and especially literal-brain-in-a-jar Taylor, happily soaking up post-life outside a gender binary. But these moments are slow to reveal themselves, many hours in, after you’ve served countless drinks and most of the narrative tension has already dissipated.

And then there’s the sex worker, Dorothy. Many have shared concerns about this character, and it’s not difficult to see why. However, I felt this was one occasion where writer/programmer Fernando Damas did indeed do the legwork, for what it’s worth. The game characterizes Dorothy as not only mentally and emotionally an adult, but also just as critical of the culture which produced her as the other characters. Dorothy, an artificial intelligence, doesn’t get off on having the body she has, nor is she trapped in it (like, say, Nyx in Fire Emblem: Fates), and she openly entertains the idea of upgrading to a different form later in life. For better or worse, I found her one of the few moments in which VA-11 HALL-A candidly explored an admittedly fraught subject without hedging or shying away from its implications.

Because she's made of metal. Get it. On the other hand, Dorothy will not hesitate to tell you about her work. In detail.

None of this is to “apologize for” the character, mind you. I have my qualms, and I would not at all fault someone for saying Dorothy made them uncomfortable, or that her presence ruined the game for them. In fact I’m pretty sure that was at least partly intentional. But I do think VA-11 HALL-A does a much better job placing Dorothy in context than some of the other characters.

I give this my recommendation with caveats. Its bartending mechanic offers pleasant repetition with just enough room for experimentation that you can mess around with its effects, even if save-scumming to explore different dialogue paths is pretty much out of the question. Its characters are wonderful, even if its story is an embarrassment of genre tropes and poorly resolved plot threads. It exists canonically in the same world as Read Only Memories, so you could almost consider it a side story or spinoff of that. And the music’s great.

Just don’t go in with high expectations for the writing, especially not the early parts.

Verdict: Yes