Deconstructing VA-11 Hall-A’s Powerful Video Game Writing

VA-11 Hall-A is one of the great visual novels of 2016. A lot of it has to do with the powerful writing. Let's take a look...

This article contains spoilers for VA-11 Hall-A.

Bartending in Glitch City isn’t easy, and bartender Jill knows that first-hand. She gets all kinds of clients at her job – from the pure-hearted Valkyrie Sei to the playful sex worker robot Dorothy. Of course, one of her favorite parts of the job is meeting new people. She learns something new every day, and even helps her customers work through their problems – one drink at a time.

Sukeban Games’ bartending simulator VA-11 Hall-A is a game built around its clientele. Based in a futuristic dystopian city on the advent of mankind’s greatest technological advances, the player takes on the role of Jill, a bartender serving mixed drinks in a city stifled by megacorporate interests. Corruption runs rampant in Glitch City, as food shortages remain a regular occurrence, and police forces prove just as dangerous as the criminals they pursue.

The game takes place in a section of the city called VA-11 Hall-A – colloquially known as Valhalla. It’s where Jill serves drinks for the various men, women, and animals that enter her bar. As the game progresses, the outside world gradually seeps into Valhalla, disrupting the drinking establishment that Jill prefers to call her home. It’s at this bar that you can find one of the best gaming experiences of 2016.

Ad – content continues below

People with Stories to Tell

The writing, and specifically the character design, is what makes VA-11 Hall-A so memorable. The oppressed citizens of Glitch City weave stories that exist somewhere in the space between the sad and the bizarre, as the game morphs into a deep exploration of dystopia, artificial intelligence, perception, and other sci-fi concepts.

According to developers Christopher Ortiz and Fernando Damas, who make Sukeban Games, their main motivation behind VA-11 Hall-A‘s world was one simple concept: “humanizing cyberpunk/sci-fi.”

“You can see it as early as the premise: you’re not a hero, but the bartender,” the team explained. “There’s also lots of other elements, like how AIs are sufficiently advanced and integrated instead [of] the usual ‘manufactured killers on standby’ or statements about playing god; how the clients include staples like mercenaries and hackers but also lots of common folk like veterinarians, journalists, or couriers. They’re not waiting for the harbinger of the next step in human evolution, they’re not sheeps of the megacorporations, they’re people, each with their opinion and lives.”

Each of VA-11 Hall-A’s characters have complicated stories to share. The Valkyrie Sei, for instance, serves as a White Knight (this dystopia’s version of law enforcement) in Glitch City. As one of the few non-corrupt officers protecting the city state, Sei’s main duty is rescuing civilians in distress. Ironically enough, she joined the force after being terrorized by a White Knight as a child. When another White Knight came to her rescue, she was inspired to join the force in order to help others. Her optimistic and virtuous personality – alongside her short haircut and muscular frame – makes her an appealing character for many fans.

“We start with a ‘base,’ a way we can easily identify the character,” Ortiz and Damas told me. “For example: [the expert hacker] Alma started originally as ‘Christmas Cake’*, [the catgirl] Stella started as ‘Ojou-sama’**, and [the activist] Betty as ‘Grumpy Granola Girl’***. This base lets us keep tabs on the cast on its initial stage by avoiding redundant characters or keeping tabs on the ones that might seem the same.”

After Sukeban chose a basic foundation for each patron, they proceeded to add depth to their characters. Stella, for instance, is an Ojou-sama sympathetic to Glitch City’s downtrodden. Dorothy is a sex worker who deals with Glitch City’s dangerous underbelly while taking pride in her career. And the list of unique characters goes on. Sukeban created characters that are complex and not defined by one way.

Ad – content continues below

The patrons are vital to VA-11 Hall-A’s success. After all, mixing drinks would grow stale without the game’s vibrant cast of characters. Bartending serves as a vehicle for the game’s real meat – the relationships that Jill builds with the men and women (and corgis) she serves.

Thanks to the game’s colorful cast, it’s easy to clock hour after hour into bartending, dying to learn what happens next to Sei after she’s stuck in a crisis situation, or wondering how Jill’s relationship with her friend Alma will bloom over time. There’s a reason why Sukeban has joyfully taken on the “waifu bartending” moniker for their URL: VA-11 Hall-A is a game built around its cast, and the popularity surrounding its patrons is a testament to its success.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5QWYkCL0yAU

Noncomformity in Glitch City

“I wouldn’t say the game started with the intention of being satirical or critical, but it was born out of a certain… nonconformity,” Sukeban explained. “When we were thinking about ideas to work on for the Cyberpunk Jam, we saw other submissions and most of them were about a Deckard type of guy or about being a hacker. We got fed up and decided to approach things from the other side.”

There’s a drive for nonconformity that certainly fuels Sukeban’s approach to its characters. There’s a political edge to the world, too. As the team explained, the game was partly based on Ortiz and Damas’ own experiences in their native Venezuela, where they’ve dealt with corruption, violence, food shortages, and relentless crime for many years.

VA-11 Hall-A is kind of tame in comparison,” the team explained. “For example, I have this friend who lives in San Cristobal, where protests got increasingly more violent and frequent not long ago, and he was telling me this story where he had to jump from rooftop to rooftop out of his house to escape the tear gas and bullets flying around everywhere. It was [a] really hard thing to stomach. Then there’s the everyday life of everyone in Venezuela, where it doesn’t matter if you have a lot of money, it will be hard to find food. We eat what we can get.”

Ad – content continues below

Sukeban created two in-game mobile apps, the danger/u/ textboard app and the Augmented Eye news site, to capture some of Venezuela’s problems and bring them into the game’s world.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T6i_4cRGga4

“Also,” Sukeban noted, “the game’s recurring theme is ‘happiness in the middle of disaster,’ which is something I see in every Venezuelan: the determination, the burning desire to be happy even though this place keeps getting worse and worse.”

The everyday problems that Ortiz and Damas’ friends and family deal with are not just mirrored in VA-11 Hall-A’s world. They become represented in every character’s life. Dana takes care of a young intern working feverishly under the Augmented Eye’s abusive boss. Streaming-chan broadcasts her daily life to a group of voyeuristic fans just to make ends’ meet. Stella worries for her close friend Sei after the White Knight security group is disbanded. The outside world overpowers the people Jill serves at Valhalla: there’s simply no escaping Glitch City’s problems.

Instead of creating a game based solely on political allegory, however, Sukeban Games made sure the social and political commentary found in the world existed alongside each character’s story arc. This organically fused the game’s representation of Venezuelan life without overburdening the plot.

Not that VA-11 Hall-A’s influences are particularly apolitical, of course. As the team explained, cyberpunk anime was a driving force behind Jill’s world.

“Although we take bits from lots of sources… the biggest inspirations for both the setting and the visuals can be summed up in three names: Bubblegum Crisis, Ghost in the Shell, and Snatcher,” Sukeban explained. “In fact, when we first posted a pic of Sei, we mentioned how she was designed while listening a lot to “Konya wa Hurricane” [Bubblegum Crisis‘ opening].”

Ad – content continues below

Sukeban’s influences are no coincidence, of course. Bubblegum Crisis, Ghost in the Shell, and Snatcher are not just cyberpunk worlds driven by Japanese social and economic concerns from the ‘80s and ‘90s. They’re also stories hailed for their vibrant settings and complex characters. Snatcher’s influence can be particularly felt throughout VA-11 Hall-A’s world, both in the game’s visual aesthetic, as well as the wide cast of characters that act as windows into Glitch City’s society. The latter allows the player to experience the world through each character’s opinions, struggles, and life stories.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x66rIcZo-d0

From Newcomers to Regulars

Creating a colorful cast of characters trapped in a cyberpunk dystopia is hardly easy. Sukeban Games spent years working away at their characters, drafting their actions, and piecing together how they would react to different scenarios. They were driven to create patrons that were not just enjoyable to talk to, but realistic for the player to experience.

“Lots of things either in the characters or their subplots are based on us, on people we know, on things we’ve lived or seen others live through,” Sukeban said. “We don’t do this as a way to project ourselves into the story, but rather to have a better reference on how to make things feel more natural. We want the characters to feel as real as possible, and what better reference for real things than reality itself?”

When Ortiz and Damas sat down to create VA-11 Hall-A, they were driven to challenge traditional views of affection, relationships, and friendship in games through their characters. In turn, they developed a visual novel in which their cast is open, honest, and affectionate towards one another. Not because they choose to, but because they have to in order to get by.

“In the video game industry as a whole, it feels like affection is something that must be earned from scratch or something that must be justified in some way,” Ortiz and Damas said. “Moreover, the idea of friendship seems to be painfully underrated and deemed unnecessary in some cases. We tried to fight this by making characters care for each other because it’s what they’ve come to be, instead of being something the player earned through extensive dialogue choices.”

By doing so, VA-11 Hall-A isn’t just a realistic game. It’s one that appeals to the very reason why we tell stories in the first place: to connect with one another. By the end of VA-11 Hall-A‘s story, you feel like you’ve really gotten to know these characters. After awhile, they’re more than just people you’ve met on the job. They’re regulars. 

Ad – content continues below

TERMS:

*Term used in Japan for women over 25. More specifically the kind that, due to career or other ventures, aren’t married or in a relationship and thus are pressured by family to settle down.

**Rich girl archetype.

***Self-explanatory.

Ana Valens is a freelance contributor.