It’s an interesting thing, alcohol. Even more fascinating are the places where you can swallow it legally: overpriced establishments designed to damage your liver, filled with colorful characters and their colorful language. Some of humanity’s best (and worst) ideas start there with just a drink and a casual conversation. Over the centuries, saloons, speakeasies, and sports bars have helped foster human connectivity (ok, maybe not sports bars).
Speaking of time, do you think they will have bars like ours in the future? It’s a real good bet!
VA-11 Hall-A, or Valhalla, is a bartender simulator from Venezuelan studio Sukeban. The game showcases not only the heavy responsibility of the cocktail artists themselves, but how refreshing mundane conversation can be.
Games chronicling the trials of the hospitality industry have been with us for quite some time now. 1982’s Burger Time paved the way for heaps of cooking/restaurant simulators, while 1983’s Tapper put you right in the driver’s seat of a constantly full and insatiable bar. Along the way, other titles dabbled in cocktail service, from bartender challenges in Genshin Impact to Hitman and its quirky concoction of Bare Knuckle Boxer (although the clientele always seemed… oddly silent when giving their notice).
But aside from the occasional nod or the banal expression of “thank you,” the conversation between employee and customer quickly got bogged down. Not even Tapper with his charming mustache could penetrate the chambers of the human heart. It’s a bar, right? Where’s all the juicy dialogue?
Enter VA-11 HALL-A: a complex visual novel and self-proclaimed cyberpunk bartender sim. You play as Jill, an unlucky 27-year-old bartender who lives and works in the dystopian world of Glitch City. By day, she spends her time discussing the news with herself and her cat, digitally redecorating her room, and trying to distract herself from the depths of her own mind. It’s in the evening that Jill really shines as the after-hours bartender at VA-11-HALL-A, or Valhalla, to a cast of lonely, bitter, scared, hard-working, excited, and thirsty patrons.
Valhalla is owned by the BTC (British Trademark Council) and features a total of 28 futuristic BTC-approved drinks, all found in the indispensable BTC Handbook. Some of these cocktails have even been tried offline and in real kitchens. Here, take a look:
There aren’t too many ingredients to remember, but the one really worth worrying about is karmotrin. It’s like some kind of synthetic alcohol added to drinks to get customers drunk if you give them a high dose. The game’s unique mechanic relies not only on who drink to serve Valhalla customers, but how a lot karmotrin to include. Raising the ‘k’ on drinks has a different effect on each customer, and the conversation is guaranteed to become a little more, shall we say, less worthy. (ed: the parallels between this and ketamine, a real-world wobble-inducing dissociative drug – also known as “k” – are many…a friend tells me).
As VA-11 HALL-A takes place approximately 100 years in the future, you won’t serve just any ordinary old human. In Glitch City, augmented soldiers, hacker Lilims (autonomous humanoid robots), journalists, aggressive bounty hunters, and White Knight soldiers have become your loyal regulars. What’s pleasantly surprising – and often off-putting – about customer interactions is the extremely bipolar nature of the topics that arise, regardless of what each is drinking.
Somehow the characters are able to go from bombshells like “hiring a sex worker to be their girl for a night”, or orgies with Mega Santas, to poignant conversations about honesty and forgiveness of past sins. In fact, some tangents are so blunt and frank that you have to remember you’re playing a video game instead of listening to someone’s private chat.
A few discreet but significant moments:
Donnovan D. Dawson – Lies in Translation
There’s a nice snippet of conversation with the rude CEO of digital news source, The Augmented Eye, which doesn’t imply that he is sexually harassing anyone. He posits that learning Chinese in just two weeks while working in Hong Kong was child’s play, which quickly turns into a conversation about what exactly constitutes Chinese: Mandarin or Cantonese, or other dialects. in China. Since Dawson can’t even pronounce the word “Cantonese”, it’s safe to assume he’s full of shit.
Dorothy and Alma – Hot Hack
A Robot and a Hacker enter a Bar. Dorothy is a sex worker from Lilam, while Alma is a “well-endowed” hacker with a penchant for one-night stands. When asked by Jill to explain the ins and outs of the hack, Alma’s detailed description works on Dorothy like 50 Shades of Gray to a bored housewife.
Nacho and Red Shiba: boxes within boxes
A thought-provoking observation between a part-time Corgi bartender and his superior on the absurdity of repetitive tasks, like shipping boxes to boxes. The fact that this conversation is nonchalantly happening while Jill talks to herself behind the bar makes it even more of a gem.
Dana and Jill – Beer Clicker
This is possibly one of the best moments in VA11-HALL-A, as well as one of the most creative uses of alcohol I’ve ever seen in a game. In a use inspired by the main mechanic point-and-click, you’re in charge of Jill’s beer drinking rate. Feed her the 12 beers too quickly and she’ll go to sleep, but sip too slowly and the conversation won’t reach its full potential. A whole pickle.
Dana, Alma and Jill – Chicken
A civil debate over the best part of chicken arises between Jill, Alma, and Dana before the Mega-Christmas bar party. Breasts, thighs or wings? Standard Friday night stuff.
The eccentric minds behind Sakuban Studios didn’t stop at feel-good jokes. The game is peppered with pop culture nods from Monty Python, Terry Pratchett and Seinfeld, to Metal Gear Solid (the subtitle “Cyberpunk Bartender Action” is a play on “Stealth Espionage Action”) and Gundam (Jill’s VR junk serve “Shining Fingered” is a play on Shining Gundam’s signature move.) Meanwhile, one of the drinks, The Bad Touch, is actually named after popular song Bloodhound Gang (which is perhaps one of the greatest music videos of the 90s).
VA-11 HALL-A sometimes feels like a battered life jacket in a sinking hell. At other times, it looks like a college blender. Again, this is the intent of the bar. A safe haven for sinners and saints to briefly escape reality. But never has a digital water point reflected ours so accurately. Thoughtful banter, commentary, and commentary thrown in by both bartender and customer may seem flippant, but they’re as smooth and satisfying as a Suntory shot.
Over time, these futuristic weirdos feel more like drinking buddies than strangers. You might not want Direct in Glitch City, but I’d love to shoot shit with that motley crew any night. Of course, if you’re really in the mood, you can always head over to N1RV Ann-A for another round, but remember, it’s a weeknight. All right, who wants a nightcap?
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