Friday, December 23, 2016

VA-11 Hall-A: A Great Example of Alternative Storytelling

This game has blown me away. What was presented to me by my friends as a bartending game about near-future anime characters has actually managed to tell a gripping narrative, with poignant social commentary sprinkled throughout.

VA-11 Hall-A is, at its core, a game that wants to tell you a story about a bleak future. The intro cutscene is right out of an 80's cyberpunk game. The music consists of your typical retro tunes that you'd associate with a sprite-based indie game. Before you actually start playing the game, if you were going in completely blind, you'd likely think it was going to be a side scrolling shooter or an indie RPG. But right after introducing you to its bleak, dystopian future, it brings you down to earth and places you as a regular bartender.

That's where this game shines. Everything in this game is painted to seem "normal." You're a normal citizen with a normal job, you have co-workers you like and co-workers you deal with, and you have an apartment and a phone that you can use to browse blogs or this universe's version of reddit. The story is told almost entirely through conversations that you have with your customers, which range from the lead editor of a newspaper to pop stars to the girl complaining about dumping her latest boyfriend of two weeks. Oh, and some of them are robots.

It's because the story is framed in such a down to earth way that the creeping darkness of this world is made even more sinister. Your clientele will frequently discuss things such as rumors surrounding mob bosses in the oppressive government, sex robots, riots in Hong Kong, you name it - it's all typical dystopian literature stuff. But it isn't thrown in your face as dystopian. Instead, you experience it as a person born into that kind of society would experience it, and mostly from a distance. You only hear about things that have happened or are happening.

The setting is very believable, mostly because of the way the customer's dialogue is written. Some of the customers you'll find yourself serving end up sounding like the kinds of people you'd meet in a bar in real life. My personal favorite is Donovan Dawson - your first client, who ends up returning often - who complains about his life as an editor. He often makes comments about how he doesn't respect his interns, how this is "the PR era" and everything has to be dressed up to look good, how he's full of cynicism towards celebrity culture because of the nature of tabloids and people wanting to see them fall, how he feels that people are so easily offended these days that people lose their jobs over interpreted sleights, and so on. It all feels very "real" despite being a cyberpunk world with robots and cyborgs.

One of your clients is even a professional assassin, and he doesn't feel much different from the rest, because you don't see the assassin - you see the man off the job. Despite the feeling of distance from the actual dystopian aspect of this world, the story goes to some very dark, and even disturbing, places. It's made even more so by the fact that the characters in the game treat these dark aspects of their world as if they were normal.

Learning about the world through the eyes of your clients is incredibly appealing, especially since sometimes you have to consider the old "unreliable narrator" trope; some of the people you'll end up serving have an obvious agenda or bias towards certain things. Jill, the bartender you play as, has a distinct personality, but doesn't seem to care enough about the world to form her own opinion of it. That's up to you, the player, to piece together, based on the stories you hear from her clients. A huge part of the appeal is in the colorful cast. Each client has a very distinct personality.

The game isn't without its problems. I find the dialogue to be overly hammy or cheesy at times, and some of the characters can come off as a bit grating. For the most part, however, I feel like this game is worth checking out for its uniqueness alone. Don't let the "anime" feel turn you off if that isn't your thing - this is a true cyberpunk game at its core. At the same time, don't expect the game to totally subvert its anime aesthetic. Your boss is a former pro wrestler with a cybernetic arm, for example, and some of the humor ends up being like this:

Overall, though, I think it's worth a shot, even if you don't typically like anime stuff. The more grounded social commentary is where the game really shines, and where it focuses at least 80% of its attention. As of the time this post was written, it's on sale on Steam! Besides, where else are you going to get to play as a cyberpunk bartender?

If you're still not convinced, there is a demo for the game here. The demo features additional story content not included in the full game, so it might be worth playing through even if you do decide to buy it.

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