Release Date: June 21st, 2016
Developer: Sukbegan Games
Publisher: Ysbryd Games
Rating: M for Mature
Genre: Social Simulator, Visual Novel
Platforms: PC, OSX, Linux
I always know I’m writing about a good game when I have trouble starting. Trying to process the experience of a really well-crafted game can be daunting, even when it’s not as weird as VA-11 Hall-A. Here goes!
If you’re familiar with the construction of Japanses Visual Novels (VNs, for short), this game will immediately seem familiar. If you’re not, it will immediately feel very strange and kind of pointless (you’ve been warned). The primary purpose of a VN is to, as the title implies, tell a story. The vast majority of those I’ve played, however, tend to be contrived, unrealistic, and overly dependent on tropes and traditional Japanese gender roles. I find the whole idea of basing a story around those kind of people immediately distasteful and so I avoid the genre whenever possible.
But, hey, Va-11 Hall-A was in a bundle. What’s a guy to do?
So I started playing it. You play as (or rather, you witness the story of) a bartender named Jill, who has kind of lost her way. Struggling to make rent, struggling to make friends, struggling to deal with a past that she’s not altogether proud of. The game takes place almost entirely inside of a bar named VA-11 Hall-A, presumably named for its district (VA-11), and its location (Hall-A). I’ll forgive the bit of traditional Japanese “coincidental” naming. Your conversations with the clients are impacted by the drinks they order, and your ability to deliver on them. If you give someone alcohol when you shouldn’t have, they’ll get drunk. If you remember someone’s favorite drink and give it to them when they’re down (even if they order something else), the dialogue will change. Already, it’s a much more interesting and organic dynamic than the multiple-choice options VNs usually give the player. Aside from a couple of minigames, that’s the whole gameplay in a paragraph. I will not be talking about this game like it’s the magnum opus of lovingly crafted gameplay.
In spite of it passing the ultimately low bar of gameplay standards VNs have, it’s not exciting or engaging for that reason alone. The story and characters, however… well, they’re the reason I’m writing this. Almost all of them are three-dimensional, beautifully flawed people. They feel as if they’re real when they walk into the bar, and that they persist when they walk out. Jill herself is someone very relatable. She was never a secret agent, doesn’t have some gnarly military past, like so many protagonists. She’s just a girl who went through a quarter-life crisis and picked up bartending. She helps others with her problems while trying to fix her own. The supporting characters interact with her and each other in organic ways, often silly, often not. Their stories develop individually and intertwine with each other. It’s a really beautiful thing to behold, both in each line of dialogue, and in the larger unfolding picture that surrounds it.
Not only that, the world in which this whole novel takes place is a rich, tangible place, in spite of its dirt and danger. There are social and political movements that happen outside the bar that affect those within it. Some of them feel very real, and very scary. Finding out a character you’re attached to is missing makes your vantage point behind the bar seem restrictive, as you’re helpless to get information from anyone but clients. Outside of the microcosm, time passes and lives are made and broken. You see it from inside Valhalla, but it’s happening everywhere.
One further aspect of the game that is done phenomenally is sexuality. There are gay, straight, bisexual, lesbian, transgender, android-lovers, brains-in-jars, etc. You name it, they’ve got it. But it never feels like a Political Correctness checklist, like they had to include those characters to make it “edgy” or “modern” enough. As often as it is discussed, openness about sexuality is a non-issue for most of the characters, which I simply found deeply refreshing. There’s a (perhaps unconscious) parallel in the game, whenever Jill goes outside on her break with a friend or client. She always asks them if they’d like to smoke, and they always respond with some manner of, “Nah, but I don’t mind if you do.” The approach to sexuality is possibly the most idealistic part of the whole novel: that people can come together, love whom they choose, and still be accepted afterward. I only found out one of the peripheral characters was trans after my second playthrough, it was so offhandedly mentioned. Another character struggles with his macho image, but has no problem whatsoever with explaining to Jill that he’s only into men. There’s even an android sex worker character, whose conversations about her job seem to paint a more realistic picture of what someone in that industry might actually be forced to deal with. Aside from the beautifully detailed and moving story, the earnest discussions about sex and sexuality really were what made VA-11 Hall-A feel like more than just another game. Yes, there are plenty of immature giggles. But they’re outnumbered by the moments that address in a serious, earnest manner a subject so many struggle with.
I don’t want to say it’s perfect, because it’s not. I feel as if it pursued perfection so closely that it was impossible to ignore completely the formulaic foundation and contrived dialogue upon which the genre was built. Like Undertale loses some of its lustre by employing some of the less perfect parts of Earthbound (its spiritual predecessor), so does this game occasionally fall into the traps of the VN cliche. I won’t go any further than that, because nothing ruins a game for me faster than people talking about its flaws in too great of detail.
It’s a newer game, I know. It’s rare for LTG to induct something into the Hall Of Fame with only a year under its belt, but I’m compelled. I just finished my second playthrough, almost a year after the first, and it was just as good. Even if you’ve never played a Visual Novel in your life, and never plan to again, I heartily recommend VA-11 Hall-A. I guarantee you’ll love it if you’re in need of a good laugh or a good cry. There’s plenty of both in the bar.