Visual novels are an inherently Japanese video game genre. It’s a long-running style of video game story-telling that boomed in Japan in the 90s and it continues to be a massive money maker in the island nation. Even for overseas gamers, most of the visual novels you see getting released each year come from Japanese developers. Sure, there have been a pretty hefty amount of games in the genre being made by American developers and teams in recent years, but they’re a drop in the puddle compared to the amount that get pumped out by the land of the rising sun.
All of that is to say, I never expected one of the best visual novels I’ve ever played to have been made by a tiny team of indie developers in Venezuela. But it was, and it’s called VA-11 Hall-A.
VA-11 Hall-A (pronounced like “Valhalla”) is exactly what the subtitle makes it sound like. Imagine a sleek and sleazy futuristic world like Blade Runner or Snatcher, where everything from augmented hacker groups to sentient AI-driven robots are commonplace. You won’t be investigating any of this stuff or caught in the middle of the action, though. Instead, you play as Jill, a 20-something bartender barely scraping by with her job at a hole in the wall bar in Glitch City.
Over the course of 19 in-game days, you’ll be working at bar VA-11 Hall-A and serving drinks to a variety of colorful clientele, all while dealing with the antics and troubles of your boss and coworkers. You’ll learn a lot about the world during your time serving drinks, but it isn’t up to you to do anything with that information. The goal of the game is to simply pay your bills, take care of your cat, and maybe make a few lives better with some delicious drinks and warm conversation.
This small and uneventful style of storytelling is a breath of fresh air, and creates an incredibly personal and relatable narrative that had me hooked from beginning to end. Every character you meet has a story, and troubles, and concerns. By serving them certain drinks, either by or against their request, you’ll learn more about them and see just how human and three dimensional they all are. None of the characters in VA-11 Hall-A ever come close to being stereotypes or one-note NPCs, especially not Jill. She has worldly worries and emotional hang-ups that were especially relatable to me, and seeing her grow and make changes alongside the people who she also inspired change in was an incredible experience.
It helps that all of these moments of storytelling and character interaction are so well written. The game is packed full of humour and quirkiness that rarely falls flat, and there were countless lines that made me stop and chuckle. There’s just as much seriousness and sincerity to the writing, though, and it always comes across as genuine. The concerns that characters have and the issues going on in Glitch City are intriguing and captivating. A lot of the political turmoil and economic demise that’s rampant in Glitch City is also a reflection of the real world events being experienced by the Venezuelan developers of VA-11 Hall-A, though, and that added real-life parallel brings a fascinating and eye-opening extra layer to the game’s narrative.
The addictive storytelling of VA-11 Hall-A is complemented by equally engaging gameplay that does a lot with very little. As a bartender, you’ll be serving actual drinks to your patrons throughout the game. If someone wants a beer or a sweet drink, you’ll need to bust out the in-game recipe book and combine ingredients together in the HUD to craft their order. The console controls are initially a little finicky, but once you get used to them it’s easy to glide through every menu and craft cocktails in a flash.
This drink-mixing menu is also how you take action to shape the narrative flow of the game. Rather than being presented with dialogue choices, the drinks that you serve to clients will affect the story and lead to additional scenes or different endings. You can choose to add extra alcohol content to their drinks to get them drunk faster, or you give them a drink that’s different than what they ordered in order to help soothe them or open their eyes up to something new. This degree of player agency and decision making is, hands down, one of the most natural forms I’ve ever seen in visual novels.
The whole package is tied together by the incredible aesthetic of the game. VA-11 Hall-A sports a gorgeous retro art-style that embraces the nostalgic pixelated look of old-school PC visual novels. Character designs are sharp and creative, sporting a classic Japanese look while also tossing in original and slightly westernized elements.
The music is perhaps my favourite part of the entire game. There’s a reason that the VA-11 Hall-A soundtrack has been my go-to writing music for the last 2 years, ever since its original release on PC. The sounds of Glitch City are soothing yet electric, combining soft instrumental sounds with chunky computerized synth that sounds unlike anything else I’ve ever heard before. There are plenty of cyberpunk games and films out there, but in combining the influences of those with the originality that flows through the entire game, the soundtrack of VA-11 Hall-A crafts the ideal soundscape for a relaxed afternoon of bartending in Glitch City.