Cyberpunk bartender action. While ‘action’ may not be the word I would use to describe the experience of playing VA-11 HALL-A (pronounced ‘Valhalla’) that doesn’t diminish the experience of playing this gem, and I’ll explain why.
Developed initially by Sukeban Games for the 2014 Cyberpunk game jam, the developers liked their project so much that they expanded it into a full game. Two years later the game was released on 21 June 2016. But what is the gameplay of VA-11 HALL-A actually like? Let’s have a gander.
From a gameplay perspective, VA-11 HALL-A is a fairly simple game. You play as Jill, a bartender in a playfully self-aware cyberpunk setting. Mechanically the game revolves mostly around mixing cocktails for the different clients that roll into the game’s eponymous bar, listening to their stories as you go.
The game’s narrative is delivered episodically, with Jill’s night shifts at the bar framing the story. This is where the game shines the most - its writing. The game features a distinct cast of characters, who are all written with an individual and inviting voice. Additionally, the stories each client tells you are unique and told with a night-by-night tempo, which prevents the player from getting too fatigued - despite being a simulator of sorts, the designers definitely don’t want you to get bored while mixing cocktails and pulling pints.
Every choice here was made by the designers to create a relaxing story experience
This point encompasses the entire allure of VA-11 HALL-A: every aspect of the game’s design reeks of a unique chill atmosphere. From the slow pace to the mellow, synth soundtrack, every choice here was made by the designers to create a relaxing story experience. For example, at the beginning of every shift, the player chooses a playlist to set up on the jukebox, deciding the mood of the scene for themselves, with each track somehow matching the tone of the dialogue.
This leads me on to the most satisfying aspects of the game, that of player choice. Clients will usually be vague about their choice of drinks, and so will leave it up to the player to decide what to serve them. This in turn affects the dialogue of the client, for example adding optional alcohol to a drink will lower the client’s inhibitions, making them likely to reveal more of their character than they perhaps would normally.
Despite being a simulator of sorts, the designers definitely don’t want you to get bored while mixing cocktails and pulling pints.
Between shifts, the player goes to Jill’s apartment, where there is a plethora of story snippets to keep up with. In addition, Jill’s bartending performance will be better if the player purchases certain items each day for her. However, they then have to balance this with the rent they have to pay at the end of the month - this too affects Jill’s dialogue with clients, adding another facet to the player-controlled element of the story.
Really, VA-11 HALL-A is more of a relaxation simulator than a bartending action game, and it’s better for this fact, so pick it up, fix yourself a drink and some snacks, and sit down to play a shift or two. You won’t regret it.