VA-11 Hall-A: A Cybercozy Story

Time to get drunk and rant at you!

VA-11 Hall-A (which people in-universe just call Valhalla) is a name of a small moderatly shady soon-to-be-closed bar. You play as Jill, a young woman who works as a bartender there, chats with clients and struggles to pay the bills.

Gameplay is very simple. The bulk of it consists of just reading dialogue between Jill and the clients. From time to time, they order a drink, as you do in a bar, which activates a drink-mixing minigame. Well, I say “minigame,” but it basically amounts to locating the name of the required drink in the menu and following easy instructions from there (picking the right amount of ingredients – drinks are synthetic, so ingredients are universal for everything, – adding ice, aging the drink and picking between mixing or blending). Once you know how everything works (which takes about two minutes), you’d have to actively try to fuck up.

Occasionally, clients order not a specific drink but a certain type of drink, like sweet or bitter or classy. That, too, is very simple as the helpful menu can sort drinks by flavor and type as well. It just gives you a bit more freedom in choosing the drink, allowing you to sell more expensive ones (as your payment depends on it). The price range is not really wide enough to make much of a difference, though.

Rarely, clients have more esoteric demands, like asking for a drink that was created in memory of a dear friend, or simply saying “give me 17.” That actually can be somewhat challenging, though still not by much. Usually, you just need to pay attention to the dialogue and remember clients’ tastes. The 17 guy is probably the most obtuse since he deliberately gives cryptic orders.

Getting all drinks right leads to additional scenes at the end as well as a cash bonus at the end of each day for flawless service.

Finally, some drinks have adjustable alcohol quintet, allowing you to get people drunk fast or serve them non-alcoholic drinks. It rarely actually matters as far as I’ve seen, but there are a few occasions where getting people drunk leads to additional scenes.

After each day, you get payment which you can use to buy various things and decorations for Jill’s room. There is usually a message each day informing you that Jill wants this thing or that, or she would be distracted from work that day (I actually don’t know what that implies as I’ve managed to avoid it). There are also three bills you need to pay, the failure to pay the last one leads to eviction and a bad ending. The payments are calculated such that you can only afford things Jill wants and the bills, plus a very limited amount of extra stuff, and only if you consistently get flawless service bonus. Anything beyond that is better left to second walkthroughs.

To sum it up, the gameplay mostly exists to break up the narrative and give you something to do rather than be enjoyable by itself. The game is, for the most part, a visual novel, and the main appeal lies in the plot and character interaction. So let’s talk about them.

Jill herself remains on the periphery of the action, surviving a typical cyberpunk story but never becoming an active participant. That’s actually an interesting take on the dead genre, and I appreciate it. Jill is a civilian, and she deals with ensuring her safety and worrying about people she cares about, while in the background we have a story about your typical corporate greed, corruption, exposure of confidential info by brave hackers and all that jazz. There are hints scattered across the game that people around Jill are heavily involved in the events (like her co-worker Gilliam, who mysteriously disappears for days, has a shady past and all, though he’s actually a huge dork when it comes to interactions with him), but they never become more than hints because, well, it’s not Jill’s story. She would have been a side character in any other story, a bartender in a bar frequent by protagonists. While sometimes it can be frustrating, I think overall the game manages to it pull off: I rather like a story from a perspective of someone who has to live through major calamities rather than be an agent in them.

Jill also has a more personal plot which doesn’t kick in until later in the game. It revolves around dealing with the consequences of old ugly break-up with her girlfriend, search for self-identity, independence and dealing with anxiety that prevented Jill from confronting the issue for a long time. I don’t want to spoil too much here, but I found this plot executed pretty well. Jill comes across as sympathetic and relatable while being flawed, and by the end of it she becomes a better person. There are no villains in this plot, either, just people with clashing opinions trying to deal with their issues. The only flaw I should note is that I think the plot could use more drama. As it is, it’s resolved pretty quickly and seamlessly, thanks in large part to a strong support network around Jill. Then again, I’m pretty sure the goal statement for this game was to make it as cozy as humanly possible, so it’s not surprising.

Speaking of girlfriends, the game does pretty well when it comes to inclusion. Jill herself is a bisexual (though the important relationships in her life revolve around women), there are gays, lesbians and some straight people around, and it’s all treated very casually. It’s not really a story about LGBT people, and it doesn’t fetishize them. It’s a story that happened to include LGBT people.

It’s not completely flawless, however. The game tries to do… ah… something? with the societal norms, reverse them, which results, for example, in a biker (whose issue was established to be that he tries way too hard to appear manly and tough while he’s actually a mild-mannered guy) insisting that’s not into girls, he only likes men (not that there is anything wrong with liking girls, he adds). Which is, eh? There is not enough lore to understand how things came to be the way they are, it’s not a consistent theme in the story, the majority of the characters treat both heterosexual and homosexual relationships as normal, so in the end it comes across as breaking immersion for the sake of a joke, which I don’t think was worth it. Though I do find it funny that the local equivalent of 4chan is populated primary by women and basically has a “dick or GTFO” thing going.

Alright then, back to the plot. Aside from the A-plots, there is a collection of subplots revolving around various regulars of the bar, and they’re… a mixed bag. Some characters are pretty good. I enjoy Sei, a young White Knight (a corporate-run military organization supposedly dedicated to policing and protecting the city the game takes place in) struggling with the corruption inside her organization. She’s in search and rescue division, dealing with the aftermath of accidents and catastrophes, and she just wants to save lives and help people, but many other White Knights are not so selfless. There is a lot of money-laundering and other criminal activity going on behind the scenes, and then it all comes out, leaving her in the cold. Fortunately, she has a good friend to help her through the bad times.

Dana (Jill’s boss) and Gilliam are also pretty cool. I enjoy the interactions between them and Jill, both random chatter and serious discussions. They don’t have much in terms of their own subplots (aside, again, from hints about Gil), mostly serving to move the narrative along and shape Jill’s character development, but they come across as very likeable and pleasant people I wouldn’t mind knowing IRL.

On the other hand, we have Dorothy, an android called Lilim (apparently, Lilim are descended from an AI called Lilith because such naming conventions are sure to end well). And, well, there is only one way to say it: she looks like a child while possessing a supposedly adult mind (though she does have quite a few childish mannerisms) and she’s a sex worker and quite cheerful about it, always willing to share salty stories with Jill. In other words, she’s a pretty typical lolita, and we’ve discussed why it’s bad already. At least she does have a personal conflict revolving around the role she plays in the life of her guardian, worrying if said guardian sees her as a replacement of her daughter. So, at least her character doesn’t revolve completely around being a sex object, but for the most of the story she still remains a comedic relief cheerful sexpot… sexbot… whatever, loli. And that bothers me.

Another character I want to comment on is Dawson, an owner of the local news site. He’s a chauvinist bastard. As in, people in-universe call him that. He’s a very stereotypical chauvinist bastard that I’m pretty sure I’ve seen fifty times before. He’s unashamed womanizer cheating on his wife and dismissing it with “well, she cheats on me, too!” and he chases women he wants because “nobody could resist the appeal of Dawson,” and I’m not going to continue. And yeah, sure, other characters scorn him (though not to his face), and we aren’t supposed to like him, but that ties back to what we’ve talked about: even if you justify bad tropes, they’re still bad tropes. It’s just weird to find someone like him in a cozy tolerant game like this. I guess the moral here is that sometimes you just have to deal with assholes in the business, but, frankly, I can do without this brand of assholes in my games.

Other characters also sometimes have moments that I found bothering, though nothing I want to comment on in depth.

Overall, I think the good outweighs the bad, but the bad things can be pretty jarring.

But speaking of bad things, let’s talk about Anna.

So, let’s go back to the very beginning of the game. It opens with a girl appearing before you and talking about introducing the protagonist of the game, Jill. Only Jill can see this girl and thinks her a ghost or a hallucination. After the opening, the girl disappears for a long time, though sometimes she could be seen on the TV screen at the back of the bar.

So, we have a fourth-wall-breaking ghost girl, OK. It was pretty jarring, as I’m really suspicious of metafiction nowdays, but her appearance on the TV screen (rather frequent early on in the game) led me to believe that there was going to be some kind of big reveal, like maybe Jill is a self-aware NPC in a cyberpunk-themed game or something. As I’ve said before, the perspective of a bartender, a normally secondary character at best, is rather interesting for the genre, so I figured Anna would be used to expand and comment on it.

And then she reappears, demonstrating an ability to read Jill’s thought text on the screen and mess with the interface colors, and then… nothing happens. Anna just appears, chats with Jill, distracting her from the clients, calls her protagonist again, and that’s basically it. At some point we learn her backstory (nanomachines, son!), which means she’s not even properly beyond fourth wall, she’s an in-universe character, but it doesn’t ever connects to anything. She remains a weird fourth-wall-breaking nanomachine ghost who affects the plot not one bit.

The closest thing to a follow-up is Dorothy’s rather sudden existential crisis when she starts wondering if reality is really real, if she truly feels the things she feels, or if someone just presses a button causing her to feel things, if she’s maybe just a simulation run on some computer as entertainment or an experiment. The resolution to this crisis is Jill telling her about similar experience, which she overcame by reading a book, crying over it and realizing she’s crying over fictional characters, then deciding that even things aren’t really real, it doesn’t matter, they’re real enough for her to care about.

(Oh, and in an additional ending scene Dorothy manages to hear Anna. Another Lilim, somewhere in the middle of the game, also can see Anna. Neither amounts to anything.)

Which is all nice and well, but you know what? I fucking know it already. I know I’m playing the game, I know none of this is real and I know that fiction has the capacity to make me care about imaginary characters and their struggle anyway, even when I know they have no real life. You don’t need to say it.

In fact, you should not say it unless you have something more to say. As I’ve stated many times before, metafiction is really damn easy to fuck up horribly. It’s immersion-breaking by design, and it must serve a greater purpose in order to be justified. Why did the game feel the need to pull me out of it, to literally remind me of the screen before my eyes? What did it try to accomplish?

Fuck if I know because it accomplished nothing of worth with this move.

It honestly baffles me. Was it some abandoned plot thread? Was the game initially supposed to be more of a parody of cyberpunk genre? Some characters certainly point that way, like a private eye who tries to get some scoop from Jill only to find out she doesn’t actually know much about behind-the-scenes stuff and the like, prompting him to make a comment about how normally bartenders are supposed to be in the loop in such matters.

And, I mean, it could have worked. Jill’s conflict revolves in large part around searching for personal freedom, a place where she could be comfortable and won’t have regrets, and the realization that her life was basically manufactured so some MMO brats or whatever could have a cozy place to drink (assuming we’re going with the idea of her being an NPC) could tie into it nicely.

But we don’t get it. We get nothing. Anna’s backstory is divorced from her role in the game (such as it is), which in turn is divorced from her fourth-wall-breaking ways. She says that Jill can see her because Jill is the protagonist, but then does nothing with it, opting instead for empty banter and ghost pranks.

And it’s just such a horrible waste that seriously spoiled the late game for me.

Ugh.

Alright then, I think that would be all I have to say about this game. So, overall, it’s a pretty cozy, relaxing little visual novel with simple thematic gameplay attached. There are some very serious flaws when it comes to certain characters, which may be a deal-breaking for some, but overall I would say the time spent on this game is worth it. Just… ignore Anna. She’ll go away eventually.

14 Comments

  1. Roarke says:

    What, no thoughts on Streaming-chan? I disliked her character (though she did give me a good laugh at least once) more than Dorothy, who I didn’t even really hate. Dorothy was just on the right side of tolerable for me, oddly.

    How’d you feel about Alma? I think she was one of my favorite characters. 

    Yeah, Anna feels pretty much like a cut plot thread. Or a half-cut one that needed to but cut the rest of the way off. She really was messing with a nice, relaxing story about a young working adult trying to get by in a cyberpunk dystopia.

    Dawson was pretty bad. It’s especially bad that he was implied to have had a part in (unintentionally) driving one of his interns (a woman, of course) closer to suicide. I hated uh… the other jerk pervert, I forget his name. And yeah, this game didn’t need the inclusion of this type of character.

    I think the bad parts of this game feel especially jarring because of how good the rest of it is. The depiction of goodwill and acceptance in this game, both towards strangers, friends, and relatives, was one of my favorite things about it. Like, sure, it’s going to lose its ‘cyberpunk dystopia’ cred if everyone in the VN is a cinnamon roll, but goddamn.

    In conclusion: bwahahah!

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    1. illhousen says:

      What, no thoughts on Streaming-chan?

      I’m more ambivalent about her, actually, probably because she was so out there that I couldn’t really form coherent thoughts. Like, ranting about lolis and why they’re bad is easy, but how do you even approach something like Streaming-chan?

      I would say, she definitely plays to the archetype of a woman who basically exist to fulfill your fantasies and is happy about it.

      It’s especially bad that he was implied to have had a part in (unintentionally) driving one of his interns (a woman, of course) closer to suicide.

      Really? Either I missed it or it was in Kim’s third visit, which I didn’t get because it was replaced by an optional scene.

      I hated uh… the other jerk pervert, I forget his name.

      Red hair, fancy clothes? Ingram, I think. And yeah, he was pretty bad, especially during his first appearance, though he didn’t leave as much of a lasting impression on me.

      Like, sure, it’s going to lose its ‘cyberpunk dystopia’ cred if everyone in the VN is a cinnamon roll, but goddamn.

      The issue is the kind of assholes we get. I mean, you can have unpleasant people around. Street thugs looking for an excuse to cause trouble because they can and corporate CEOs wandering in the bar for reasons and sneering at your low-class self and other such people. You don’t need to bring sexism into it.

      1. Roarke says:

        Incidentally, did Act finish the game before you threw this out?

        but how do you even approach something like Streaming-chan?

        I had more or less the same problem. I think it’s because, ultimately, livestreaming is a fairly new form of entertainment, and all the ways it can be used to abuse/exploit people may yet be unknown/undiscovered.

        She is basically a livestream version of a young porn actress, which actually is basically the way I’d approach discussing her character, I guess. She’s the willing, self-motivated and cheerful porn actress to Dorothy’s willing, self-motivated and cheerful loli prostitute. The fact that she does things like stay awake an entire month straight for her viewers, party and get laid almost every night, and constantly seek attention and conflict with the people around her would make her an even more extreme example of this kind of exploitation.

        Either I missed it or it was in Kim’s third visit, which I didn’t get because it was replaced by an optional scene.

        Maybe I was just reading into it, but all of their conversations implied that Dawson was running a fairly hostile if not just unhealthy workplace, and Kim was noticeably happier to have left it.

        1. illhousen says:

          Incidentally, did Act finish the game before you threw this out?

          IDK. I told her I’m going to shedule the review on Sunday but that she’s free to move it around if she needs more time, so either she finished it or is OK with my thoughts infecting her mind at this point.

          Maybe I was just reading into it, but all of their conversations implied that Dawson was running a fairly hostile if not just unhealthy workplace, and Kim was noticeably happier to have left it.

          Hm, well, he definitely was an asshole to his employees. I didn’t get suicide vibes from Kim, but again, I’ve missed her final appearance, and it may be that I wasn’t looking for this interpretation.

          It’s possible, in any case.

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          1. Roarke says:

            Uh, I guess Kim’s final appearance is the one that explicitly states she’s the girl Dana saved from committing suicide, haha.

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            1. illhousen says:

              Ah, that explains it. I’ve served Fibonacci drink to someone and got another guest in place of Kim.

              So, yeah, that does upgrade Dawson from an unpleasant asshole into a holy shit bastard.

              Reply
    2. illhousen says:

      Oh, and Alma was mostly good, though I found parts of her rants about her sister rather skewy. Like, I get where she’s coming from, but several parts of her dialogue felt kinda victim-blamey for me, and I think it would have been a better choice to make her more frustrated at the situation and actively concerned for her sister rather than outright angry.

      1. Roarke says:

        Yes, it was an understandably bad way for her to react to her sister’s problems. I got the sense that she started out concerned and frustrated and eventually just gave up, but her rants were going too far. Deadbeat or no, her sister was a victim of abuse.

        I guess it raises a question of how far you’ll let someone try to avoid all responsibility for their own actions, though. She did show up to the child custody hearing late and drunk, which seemed behaviors mostly unrelated to her abuse. 

        1. illhousen says:

          It could be stress getting to her, though.

          I think it was just a bad format for this kind of story. We really needed to hear her sister on the issue, to give her voice in order to get an objective look at the situation.

          As it is, with only second-hand knowledge to go by, it’s hard to tell where Alma’s personal feelings on the situation cloud the objective reality.

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          1. Roarke says:

            Yeah, that’d basically solve it, but I’m not sure I’d want her sister in the game. I think it’d have been best for that whole bit to be removed. Alma had enough troubles from her family pressuring her to marry. Her sister was basically a strawman for the evils of marriage gone wrong, etc. etc.

  2. Nerem says:

    The ‘bystander in their own game’ probably comes from the fact that originally Gilliam was the protagonist and it was going to follow him, but they decided to focus on someone looking in on the rest of the plot instead.

    1. illhousen says:

      Ah, interesting. And a wise decision, in the end. Gil is nice and all, but I probably wouldn’t want to follow him all the time. He strikes me as someone who’s more interesting when you catch glimpses of his shady past and compare them to his usual behavior rather than someone who would be interesting all the time.

  3. Act says:

    So I’m a few hours in.

    The gameplay is killing me. The drink-mixing minigame is mindnumbing– it takes FOREVER and there’s no way to expedite it. There really, really needed to be a way to automate the drink mixing, with the option to do it manually if you wanted to. It really just ends up feeling like padding, and I’ll probably end up watching an LP of the rest of it because the idea of another 8 hours of bartender sim makes me want to cry.

    It’s a shame because I like everything else a lot. It’s a really unique setting and the idea of using a bartender as a window into this world is clever, and I think it’s executed well.

    The Anna thing at the beginning really confused me. It’s extra-weird to read it doesn’t ever go anywhere or mean anything. I’m super over the deconstruction trend in indie games and look forward to moving on to the next big thing.

    Dorothy actually didn’t bother me that much, for some reason. I think it’s probably that she didn’t feel very fanservicey? Her whole thing strikes me as a tone-deaf attempt at social commentary — I highly suspect we’re supposed to see the whole “everyone blase about the child prostitute” thing as one of the ways the world is going to shit, but the dev doesn’t seem to realize that everyone IRL is already blase about that, so it comes across as loli for the sake of loli.

    I didn’t really mind Dawson as emblematic of the kind of asshole CEO dude who would thrive in this situation, but it’s super Unfortunate that the game decided to make the chauvinistic pig the one black guy. This was another tone-deaf decision.

    I also think Jill’s plot took way too long to get started, but this may be a symptom of my hatred for the wrench the minigame throws in the flow of the story. I think without that it could have gotten away with being slow-moving, but right now 12 hours of dragging and dropping the same things over and over feels like severe overinflation.

     

    1. illhousen says:

      Hm. The minigame didn’t bother me, probably because I used it as a natural pause to check forum alerts or take a smoke break, so it didn’t feel as monotone as it could have been.

      Anna is exactly as weird as you think. It’s not a deconstruction, not even a watered-down pop version of deconstruction since it doesn’t even attempt to, well, deconstruct anything. It just points out “hey, you’re a protagonist. Also, it’s OK to care about fictional thing.” Thanks, Valbama, I knew that, why don’t you go away already?

      Dorothy is certainly not as fanservicy as she could have been, which is a small blessing. I’m not sure she’s supposed to be a commentary, though, given how everyone is blase about it and how it fits into the general theme of acceptance in a twisted way.

      Dawson… well, he’s definitely presented as an unpleasant person, and I can see him fitting the setting. However, I’m entirely not sure he really needed to be in the game, and especially if he really needed to be a chauvinist instead of a more general brand of asshole.

      His last appearance especially, where he literally stalks a woman guided by his boner. I’m not making it bigger than it is, that’s exactly what happened.

      And yeah, that he’s the only black character (and that there is only one black character, for that matter) is iffy, missed it.

      Jill’s plot… Yeah, I think there is not enough space for it, honestly. The bank takeover plot feels like much longer. I think spacing it out and adding more character exploration would have worked better. I wouldn’t say it’s a big complaint of mine, but I did feel that it went way too fast given the supposed emotional impact.

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