You play as a bartender in the dystopian, cyber-punk year of 2069. You serve drinks. Simple? Yes. Brilliant? Absolutely.
Visual Novels are easy to do (there’s a good reason it’s the first step of many developers), but easier to do badly. Without “mechanics” taking your attention away from the often cringe dialog and senseless plots found in videogames*, writers have to be super careful about the way they unfold stories, and story is all you got in a visual novel.
Then there’s the fact about how you make the player matter in the world you created (even for the most text-heavy visual novels you need to not make it an audiobook). Dialog choices are the most obvious solution, it’s a talking game after all right?
However,you can go all the way to Oregon Trail, travel back to 2016 and you will find a single, but prominent flaw: your “choices” were pre-thought by the writer.
Not even the best writer in the world and the most divergent storyline(s) can escape to the fact that as long as you select among 3 lines of text you are still limited to those 3 lines at that very specific moment.
How many times have you been frustrated, even if a tiny bit, by the fact sometimes among the things the writer “allows” you to do, you just can’t relate to any choice? Or thought something along the lines of:
“Do I really have to tell X character this? That’s too mean!”
“Man, but I KNOW the single fact that could solve this misunderstanding, why won’t they let me use it? I even got an item to show for it”
“Eh, if I was there I’d have told X character this instead of that and Y wouldn’t have died/dumped her lover/etc”.
What I find more astounding about VA-11 Hall-A is how they solved such a seemingly hard problem with such a simple, obvious fix: you don’t put your words in anyone’s mouths.
Now, to be clear, dialog happens (it’s almost everything that happens here), and Jill, our protagonist, will talk her way out of fuzzles and into her client’s lives like there’s no tomorrow; but you, the player, have no involvement in this. You aren’t a counselor here (Jill does a very good job at that), you are the bartender.
The game gives you an array of ingredients to mix into the drinks you’ll be serving your clients while they release some steam on Jill. Adding too much alcohol will have obvious consequences, but even subtle differences in flavor and temperature can totally change the mood (and with it, the actions) of the desperate people waiting at the table.
You can cheer them up, or relax them. Maybe adding a bit of spice will get them hammered enough for you to accidentally hear something you wouldn’t otherwise. You might knock them down to prevent them for doing something stupid or at least have them shut up for an hour or two.
See where I’m getting to? Sure, you still are bound to the reign of what can reasonably happen in-game, but it makes SENSE. Visual Novel are so popular because they give the illusion you can change so many thing by just talking, but who really has that much power over other people’s feelings?
VA-11 Hall-A not only avoids this single pitfall of text-driven games, it does so in a way that just can’t be more coherent in the game’s universe. These people right in front of you are in a vulnerable state, they come here to poison themselves and escape from their agitated lives, and you are mixing the poison.
If there ever was a chance to make the player’s text-driven decisions really meaningful for more than a single conversation, this was it, yet Sukeban Games choose to forgo the standard and do something that is more involving for you, lets you express yourself in a less dictated manner, and won’t even interrupt the dialog flow.
They even made it an Anime Visual Novel (you can visit them at waifubartending.com, btw) and threw some memes for good measure to add salt to the injury or cherry to the cake depending on what you take off this.
And I’m not even touching the smart way they handled their anime tropes and stereotypes, like sexualization, moe cutesy, meme reaction faces, 2-dimensional characters and pretentious, cringy dialogue! The game feels more like a love letter to anime and anime-based visual novels, maintaining the things we all like while avoiding the most obvious problems present when “fleshing out” characters popularized as toy and dakimakura sellers.
They played the game straight instead of trying to meta-parody it (eg. Watamote, some recent Slice of Lifes) or just climbing a totally different mountain (eg. Nichijou, Mononoke, Lain?) and succeeded.
They can have cyborg/AI prostitutes or 2 females talking about their cup size without it feeling like it was written by a horny tween.
That’s called hope, people.
Finally, and on a very personal note, I’d like to talk about the feat that is the single, minute fact that Sukeban Games is a Venezuela based studio. I don’t know how up to the news you are or how bad things might be on your side, but telling you that at the time of this writing that’s about 15 hours of weekly programmed blackouts (used to be 28 hours a couple week ago, and it could go both ways now), having to import basic stuff like toilet paper (heck the shortages have their own Wikipedia page, for gods sake!**), expected inflation rates of 3-4 digits in the upcoming years, and being host of the most violent city in the world (Caracas, with other 2 Venezuelan cities as runner ups for the top 10!) among other Orwellian commodities should be enough to grasp where I’m coming from.
And even then, the game looks super professional and polished and is being praised by big names like Gamasutra, PC Gamer, Rock Paper Shotgun and Kill Screen. There are more venezuela-based studios struggling and finding their way into the game world, but they are both hard to find and, well, they usually struggle as much as everyone else there. I can’t think of a Venezuelan videogame studio that has received international praise before***.
You know what is it to see such an exceptional work, that implemented it’s only mechanic with such genius, taps on Anime Waifus and Sex of all things in a professional manner, knowing how to tell it’s story, looking all pretty with it’s graphics and music AND suddenly they tell me that, for all I know, the creators could be the guys next door in this sh*thole of a country?
That’s called hope, people.
VA-11 Hall-A has LOTS of things to talk about. I for one, can’t properly talk about the magic of spending a night in bars, nor relate too much to the sexy aspects of the game (you might have guessed I’m not a super sociable guy), but there are people that do and are writing amazing pieces about their personal experiences and how they relate to this game. I humbly invite you to check them out.
*This I consider a “fade”, as in something that is phasing out. Videogames are yet to be able to properly compete with movies and TV, let alone books, in storytelling; if it’s a natural handicap or a result of the abrasively commercial nature of the videogame industry is it’s own debate I won’t delve into. But there is splendid progress in recent years; I could name Lisa, Undertale, Braid, Limbo, and more off the top of my head that manage to genuinely merge their mechanics in the narrative instead of one taking over the other (and without resorting to dialogue to explain everything), the fact is that things are looking better and better each day.
**Using napkins, personally.
***I do know of people that moved and went to work at Ubisoft and stuff tho. If I’m wrong and there are more Venezuela-based studios breaking through I’d be so glad if you told me about them in the comments!