I don’t drink in real-life, and I very rarely visit bars or clubs. Mainly because of my alcohol allergy, and that alcohol is really expensive here in Singapore compared to other countries (most of my friends prefer to drink when they travel to Japan — alcohol there is way cheaper). We even had a law passed in Singapore recently that prohibits alcohol from being sold (but not from being consumed) after 10pm.
Which is why I was really hooked by VA-11 Hall-A’s premise within five minutes of booting up the game. I play videogames for escapism, to experience things that I will never get to do in the real world. Playing as Jill, the game’s protagonist, even as an outsider watching events unfold through her eyes, gave me some fascinating insight into the world of bartending, cocktails, and socialising over drinks.
VA-11 Hall-A labels itself as a “Cyberpunk Bartender Action” game. One of the hallmark traits of cyberpunk are self-aware sentient robots, a dystopia setting, and a futuristic neo-retro soundtrack (think Blade Runner), all of which VA-11 Hall-A nailed perfectly. Especially the soundtrack. It’s very relaxing, uplifting, and totally in-sync with the bartender setting.
What I liked about VA-11 Hall-A as I continued playing was how “natural” it felt. Everything in this visual novel was told naturally though your daily dialogue with Jill’s co-workers and customers, and from reading the daily newspaper articles and online updates from Jill’s apartment. Unlike many other visual novels, there’s no exposition, no heroic character development, no mystery to be solved, and no evil villain that must be defeated. Yes, there is a “story” going on around Jill outside the bar — greedy corporations, politics, and an uprising in a bank — but it’s all presented in a slice-of-life manner as part of Jill’s daily routine.
And I’m sure everyone can relate to Jill’s relationship problems, on how she painfully regrets a past decision that she made, but can no longer make amends for. She just has to continue with her daily motions of life, and find a way to move on from her mistakes while earning her paycheck and paying her bills. She’s a loyal friend to those closest to her; she’s unsure of what her future holds and whether she’ll continue to be a bartender; she likes cats. Yet at the same time, Jill laughs at dirty jokes, she smokes on her bed, and can be very cynical to strangers who don’t give a good first impression. I don’t know a thing about bartending or mixing drinks, but I can emphatise with the flaws and character traits that Jill has. It’s what makes us human.
I have blogged in the past about how pro wrestling automatically makes anything better. I was totally not expecting the repetition of pro wrestling references and memes in VA-11 Hall-A. There’s even a reference to Jushin Thunder Liger, Sting, and New Japan Pro Wrestling’s annual Wrestle Kingdom event at Tokyo Dome (an event that I’m attending live this coming 4 January). Remember Volition, the developers of Saints Row: The Third and Saints Row IV? It’s clear that Sukeban Games are big fans of pro wrestling too. I would love to have a badass, former-pro-wrestler boss like Dana
who randomly suplexes her employees at work.
Just like the best drinks or cocktails, VA-11 Hall-A is a surprisingly perfect blend of many smaller ingredients: Memorable characters, witty writing, excellent artwork, stunning music, and pro wrestling. One Steam reviewer even called it a GOTY contender and I find it very difficult to argue against that claim. A videogame from a niche genre that dares to be different, and created with a lot of love and attention by the developers. And pro wrestling. PRO WRESTLING.
Earlier in June I declared on Twitter that 2016 would be “The year of the visual novel invasion.” There are so many re-releases and localisations of popular visual novels on Steam (Muv-Luv, Steins;Gate, Umineko), combined with cool and original releases like VA-11 Hall-A. It’s a very unique and special time to be a fan of visual novels again.