What do you do if you live in a dismal cyberpunk future where corporations own the government, inflation is rapid, and crime rates are high? Well, you drink of course. Or at least that’s the view of many patrons of VA-11 HALL-A, a dive bar in the lower reaches of Glitch City. This establishment is a small oasis amidst the urban sprawl, a bastion for many of this city’s beleaguered denizens. The bar’s cozy atmosphere engenders a few regulars, whose wants, dreams, and random observations flow as liberally as the alcohol. And you are their bartender.
Taking heavy visual inspiration from Japanese PC games of the 80s and 90s, like Policenauts and Snatchers, VA-11 HALL-A is a visual novel that requires you to engage in mixology. As you succeed or fail at crafting your customers’ drinks, dialogue will branch as patrons open up or remain distant. While there is some tonal inspiration here from the anime-style storytelling of VNs, it feels as though Sukeban Games’ bartending simulation actually has more in common with something like Paper’s Please. Many stories add cyberpunk as an edgy veneer, but few are so successful at dwelling on the trials and tribulations of normal people just trying to get by in this grim setting.
Layers of worldbuilding are naturally introduced as you chat with your regulars. There are people with heavy robotic enhancements, sentient androids called Lilim, a corporate “peace-keeping” body known as the White Knights, talking dogs, societal unrest, genetically modified humans, and plenty more tidbits of lore that are gradually introduced as you make conversation. By gradually introducing context for this world, Glitch City feels like a living, breathing place, even though you see very little of it outside of the walls of the bar and your apartment. And more importantly, this background information doesn’t just feel like detached trivia from fictional historical appendices, as we come to learn how all of these social factors affect these people’s mindsets and lives.
We follow the story of Jill. She‘s a 27-year-old bartender, who like almost everyone else in Glitch City, is barely able to pay the bills. While at first, she seems somewhat stoic, we come to be familiar with her doubts, fears, and regrets, as well as her sense of humor. Although much of this story is dedicated to incidental conversation, Jill’s relationship with her past gives this narrative a clear, satisfying arc. And Jill’s clientele also have their own stories which become apparent as they frequent the bar.
The regulars of VA-11 Hall-A are an eclectic group. They are paramedics, assassins, hackers, sex workers, businesswomen, private detectives, journalists, idols, and eccentrics. They each offer unique insights, striking up conversations about their trade, or chatting about a wide range of random insights and topics. Sometimes you’ll dive deeply into the nature of solipsism, or you may talk about how hacking works. And sometimes you won’t talk about much in particular, but simply poke fun at each other to pass the time. The dialogue mostly reads as naturalistic, giving weight to the twists and turns of your conversations. Any VN lives or dies by the strength of its writing, and VA-11 Hall-A excels at portraying its cast as a diverse group of complicated people. Some are eminently charming, like the kind-hearted paramedic Sei, or the plucky Lilim sex-worker Dorothy. Others are entirely insufferable, like Donovan, a misogynistic newspaper owner. But likable or not, each of these characters intersects with Jill’s life and the greater world in interesting ways.
Beyond all of the chatting, there are gameplay elements that loosely affect the trajectory of the story. You are a bartender after all, and as such you have to mix the right drink for the right situation. Although most of the time your clients will give straightforward orders, occasionally you have to make the correct drink based on obscure instructions. Every drink on the menu has a small blurb and associated flavors. Most clients prefer drinks of certain types, and some patrons will even quiz you on drink-related trivia as their instructions for their order.
While the effect of messing up orders is usually fairly minimal, your mixing can impact future conversations and character endings. It also affects the amount of money you make every day, which is relevant because you have to pay bills and buy Jill certain items so she doesn’t get distracted at work. To actually make drinks you have to add specific ingredients in certain portions to your mixing glass, add or omit ice, and mix things for the correct amount of time. It’s fairly straightforward and somewhat menial, but it succeeds at placing you in the shoes of a bartender, offering an important palate cleanser between all of the dialogue.
At the end of the day, VA-11 HALL-A is a visual novel, a genre which may be offputting to some because it could be argued these titles have more in common with literature than video games. But here the world-building, character-writing, and dialogue are all so top-notch that I feel like I can extend a recommendation beyond just fans of the genre. From the gorgeous pixel art to the blistering jams of the bar’s jukebox, I felt completely immersed from start to finish. I wanted to spend more time with these characters in this soothing, seedy bar, the mundane of everyday life bleeding in with extremes of this dystopia. And if that isn’t something to be praised, then I don’t know what is.