Va-11 Hall-A is a product of our new global culture. A game from a Venezuelan studio, set in an fictional North American city, published by a Singaporean company, infused with an anime aesthetic and powered by Japanese game design; a game that sees you mixing drinks in a dystopian cyberpunk metropolis to the plodding but addictive electronic hum of a retro-futuristic synth soundtrack.
Vallhalla (I’ll write it that way for simplicity) sees you assume the role of Jill, a 27-year old bartender working in a well-kept bar in a lousy part of town. It’s 207X and Glitch City is a festering cesspool of megacorps and street violence, where nanobots suffuse your bloodstream and monitor your every waking moment. But the game doesn’t take you down the dark paths of future-noir hyper-violence and body-horror – it weaves a strangely prosaic narrative web; telling tales of the lives of the people that live in this checkered megalopolis. As a bartender, you listen to their confidences, you get to know them, and the only thing you can give is your undivided attention and a pinch of conversational brio.
But the game handles all that for you, because Jill herself is a full-fledged character. The only control you have over her is the choice of drinks to serve to customers. And here, the beauty of this minimalist game design shines through, because the game basically forces you to pay attention to get good narrative outcomes, and the causal connection between the choice of drink and the outcome is not transparent. It’s hard to “game the system” to win, like it is in a game like Mass Effect where you basically know in advance what choice to make to achieve a certain Paragon/Renegade outcome.
But at the same time, the choices are simple; almost binary. So all you have to do, is really just to be the best and most attentive bartender you can. And while in terms of raw gameplay variety, there isn’t much – there are really only 25 drinks and you get tired of the mechanics of drink-mixing really fast – there is a simplicity to that concept that I find appealing – it drills down to the core of roleplaying and what it means to assume a persona in a video game.
And for the most part, the narrative and stories are compelling enough to sustain the interest in the game despite the monotonous gameplay. Characters that are sly subversions of their own anime-inspired tropes abound – the robot sex worker who takes pride in her professionalism, the big-busted serial-dating hacker who isn’t a femme fatale, a white-haired genki boss with a colorful history but a real human touch, and Jill herself, a normal girl with a checkered but utterly relatable past. Writerly witticisms, sly cyberpunk references, and intimations to the wider universe shared by Read Only Memories complete the package and turn this into a special, if somewhat brief, experience, that in many ways really pulls you more into that world than a lot of narrative games with ten times the graphics budget.
I give this: 4 out of 5 Zen Stars