Reading the books of William Gibson I was always interested in the world and how everyone gets along with each other. I envisioned a crumbling society brought down by its own hubris. Although everyone is suffering, technology still is prevalent everywhere: video screens, cybernetic appendages and even robots. Now picture yourself experiencing everything from the safety of a bar. Not as a patron, but as a bartender, slowly listening to the stories of the people that come through your doors. This is the concept for Va-ll Hall-A, a cyberpunk bartending game.
Now you would not be wrong if you thought the concept sounded odd. Even stranger is the visual style the team in Venezuela decided to go for; a Japanese anime visual novel aesthetic. All the parts sound as if there is no way they could work together and would end up being a mess. How can a game be fun where you don’t move and people come to you? Yet, it strangely all works. The mechanics of bringing the world to you is something you do not see in many story driven games. It forces the player to wait as the struggles of the world happen outside. You only get a glimpse of what people are going though. Much like in reality, you cannot be involved first hand in everyone’s lives, it is up to story, interaction and friendship to really get to know the world you live in. Va-ll Hall-A is ultimately a series of conversation over drinks, and that is a good thing.
Taking cues from Japanese visual novels, the interface is static, yet easy to understand. You are presented with a window showing a scene from the bar you are currently working. As you progress through the game, new patrons will come into the bar depicted through anime style talking heads that order series of drinks.
Drinks are your window into peoples lives. You can progress the story by simply serving up the drinks they want. That being said, the true interest comes from when you read the patron and serve them up what you think they will want. If you read things right, you will find a more intriguing series of conversations. This will lead you into what drives them, why they found themselves at the bar, and what the society is outside. The choices of what to serve can also have a negative consequence. If you read things wrong and the person may just leave, taking away any chance of finding that part of the story out. As with any visual novel, the game is built to be played multiple times. It will take you a few rounds with the game to sort out what works with every patron. Luckily, the developer have made enough dialog that playthroughs should all have enough to make them feel engaging.
“There is no ultimate reward for striking up a friendship with someone. That simple conversation may be the only reward you will get, yet it feels very human. “
As with all good science fiction, Cyberpunk works best when it takes issues and ideas of the society around them. The team in Venezuela have kept this in mind when building Va-ll Hall-A. The economic and political hardships of their country are injected into the narrative for Va-ll Hall-A and it is all done in ways that make you sympathise with the people you grow to know and befriend. There is a constant sense of unease with everything the characters do and say. Even when they are telling a joke, or relaying a silly story, you as the player will get the sense that there is something wrong in the world. The society is slowly crumbling, yet people refuse to let it all slip away.
The building of relationships with the people you serve seems to be a key aspect to the gameplay. As people come into the bar you have to serve them not only what they ask for, but what you think they really want. This careful balancing act to earn their trust while still getting to know more about what they want, is not an easy one.
The building of connections is something far less clear than in other games that employ similar ideas. Games from studios like Bioware or Edios give the player direct control over the actions you make. The choices are clear; it is up to you how you want to push forward. Relationships are won and lost based on what the overall end goal of the game is. Will you need that character for a battle or what rewards will they ultimately give. But with Va-ll Hall-A things are far less transparent. There is no ultimate reward for striking up a friendship with someone. That simple conversation may be the only reward you will get, yet it feels very human. It is a game that feels like a series of conversations and a series of possible new friendships.
For such a simple premise, it is a deep game to fully dive into. There is a great deal to explore here, much of it will take hours of gameplay to truly appreciate. Playing it at the PAX East show floor it gave a clear idea of what the team is planning for the experience. It is a title that could appeal to a range of people, and the simple to understand mechanics will ensure that anyone that likes a good story will be able to join in. Coming for PC, Vita and the Apple iTunes store, Va-ll Hall-A is slated for a 2015 release.