S.EXE: VA-11 HALL-A

Some of my favourite people in the world have been bartenders. I mean, I didn’t speak to many of them for more than ten minutes, and I know how it works – I used to tend bar too – you flirt for tips and for kicks. But a bartender has an uncanny way of being able to flip a switch in you. Not just with their sticky fluids, but also with their damn fine smiles, the ability to pay you attention for just those five minutes you want to order a drink after work. Sometimes you can make up stories about them, that the smile was really because you are the most handsome thing in the world, and they are going to Tom-Cruise-in-Cocktail you after their shift.

But ah, being the bartender. It’s a different sort of thing all together. It’s a real performance.

“Oh my god Cara,” you say, leaning on the bar, staring me down. “Why has this column become Tom Cruise-themed?”

“Because, dear reader,” I say, hitting the jukebox–

“I have gone vintage Cara. I have gone pop culture Cara. You are on my turf now. Today is about flirty bartenders and their relationship to their clients. Also jesus, I just remembered about 1988 Tom Cruise in Cocktail eyebrows.”

“Okay,” you say, shifting on the bar stool, “make me a gin martini how you like it.” I detect a softening in your tone and it pleases me.

“I will,” I purr. “I will make it dirty with video games.”

VA-11 HALL-A is an as yet unreleased visual novel bartend-em-up for one player, whereby you work in a cyberpunk bar chatting to petulant droids, pissed off veterinarians, bubbly sex workers and overtly racist cybercorgis. Sukeban Games have only made a preview build so far, and I’ve been playing it over and over to see if I like the idea of their game. I would like you to note well that I know about this game because RPS columnist Cassandra Khaw told me about it and thought I’d like it, and she’s employed part time by Sukeban Games. (Note also if your game is relevant to ‘relationships’, ‘dating’ or ‘sex’ in any way you should send me an email about it so I can also write about it. So few indie developers send me emails telling me about their games since I left on my travels.) Visual novels about cybercorgis and flirty bartenders are tops.

I have some reservations about VA-11 HALL-A, because it’s trying such new territory, and I’m not sure what the final game will look like, but it suggests that people really are trying to think about relationships in games in new ways. This is exciting to me.

Point one: Relationships with characters throughout this game are mediated by your ability to bartend particular concoctions. Isn’t that fascinating? That you might modify mood and behaviour through moral choices as a barkeep? Gone are the days when you could tend bar and light someone’s cigarette, but in the punk cyberfuture you can mix chemicals into potent theatrical productions that play out in front of you.

This game is clearly all about relationships between characters, and the main design of the game speaks to how characters will respond to you and others through the player’s involvement. It is centred on how you mediate relationships. But particularly in big budget games, a ‘romance’ design framework for player interaction with other non-player characters is often tacked on to the game that they assume the player really wants to play (i.e. Mr/Mrs Stabsville Goes To Interdimensonal Stab Party for Stabbings).

This particular big budget cocktail often makes relationships with other characters a secondary concern and marginalises its importance. Bioware’s romances are often predicated on how much you initiate positive dialogue and give gifts in between battles, but rarely does it actually change your experience of battles. You can also usually complete ‘quests’ in these types of RPG that you know will please a certain character (see The Long Road). The goal in many western RPGs is to ‘win’ an awkward cutscene where your character frots the other in a genitalless, usually joyless manner. Or in Fahrenheit’s case, you are asked to do the painful work of pressing buttons so that the frotting is all your fault. You monster.

How about a sip of something entirely different? Mitu Khandaker-Kokoris’s Redshirt, a sort of disempowerment fantasy life sim set aboard a satirical sci-fi ship, takes these dating mechanics to their logical conclusion. You are mining NPCs for resources, and are committing barefaced manipulation to further your career. Mitu’s game is entirely based upon your relationships and simulates a Facebook-like interface, which means that you end up dating people to actually be rewarded by ‘points’ or status in the game, rather than titillation or narrative reward. This game is entirely about relationships, though the flaw is that you have little interest in the romances themselves, rather what they do to your numbers. Goes down smooth, but you might be in the mood for something more emotionally involved. Perhaps something with a little sweetness.

Aha! I have something just for you, I can read it in your face. You need a pink cocktail.

Pure ‘dating’ games or visual novels have similar rigid tropes and were probably originally the inspiration for Bioware romance frameworks. But there is evolution going on. Christine Love’s visual novels (which I really should write about, though RPS cover her work enthusiastically) tend to concern the voyeuristic ‘uncovering’ of elicit relationships that are already ongoing, which is much more exciting to experience than the traditional ‘seek out and chat for ages until they like you’ strand. What is also groundbreaking about Christine’s work is that she made a game (Analogue: A Hate Story) that lets you actively flirt with a spaceship’s AI, an AI that also later attempts to break the fourth wall, asking you to perform the act of her servitude physically, and upload evidence to Christine’s website. Conversations in Love’s work are much more nuanced and detailed than the average dating sim, and flow better too.

Hmm. Something everyone likes. Well, my favourite bar Dragonfly used to make a Burntisland Iced Tea. This is a cocktail roughly equivalent to The Sims, I think.

Soap opera/AI dolls house game The Sims has been interesting one, because through years of evolution in design, the little AI Sims in Sims 4 are now born into your game a bisexual monogamist (a political stance if I ever saw one in game design) and are influenced in their romantic leanings by who they spend their time with and your personal preference for who your Sim uses the ‘flirt’ conversation options on. However, there’s still that status bar there where you are ‘persuading’ the other Sim to like you via romantic interactions. There are ‘stages’ of the relationship your Sim has to negotiate in order to ‘date’, ‘kiss’, touch each other and ‘WooHoo’ (sex), and I thought it was interesting to note that Sims wouldn’t sleep in the same double bed with each other until after First WooHoo. You also, in true Spaced fashion, cannot WooHoo before you’ve even decided to kiss each other. I guess this may be a veiled nod to the American ‘base’ system (ref: American Pie) although we’ll never see a Sim give head this side of kingdom… come.

Sorry.

It’s interesting to note that, in terms of relationships between characters, no one’s really got past the ‘yes’ to flirt button, ‘no’ to dampen button, ‘meh’ to be Business, however, unless you dive deep into the rare interactive fiction romance. And let’s drink to forget the Oblivion conversation wheel, shall we.

Come closer. Let’s change up the jukebox. Try ‘Neon District’.

That overworn yes/no/maybe interaction is where VA-11 HALL-A might offer some promise. Conversations happen in front of you, the bartender with the magnificent cyberpunk jukebox, and they ask you for a cocktail they’d like to drink. The recipe appears before you, and you have five exotic chemicals to mix it from, each bound to a key on the keyboard. It takes a little skill to learn the fingers that will mix you a drink, and there’s a bonus for a fast serve.

From dialogue, you can slowly deduce which chemical is the most alcoholic. Some characters will ask for no alcohol, but the option is there to mix it in. Sometimes you can mix the wrong drink by shaking it too hard until it’s ‘blended’, whereby your customer will think you are incompetent. Mix the wrong recipe or mess it up too many times, and your boss will fire you.

But you can strategically fluff it sometimes, or change the ingredients, producing different results from the bar’s denizens, altering their mood. And there’s always the ‘designated driver’: the power is in your hands – you can sneak in alcohol to their drink or keep your morals intact.

The most interesting thing about VA-11 HALL-A is that bartending mechanism: binding ingredients to your left hand on the keyboard, choosing aged or on the rocks, and shaking for just the right amount of time, means that this is a game where you can challenge yourself to actually get good at virtual bartending. There’s a tutorial mode where you can test your memory of each cocktail and how to make it in record time, but I do wish that there was a library of cocktails to check and memorize like Virtua Fighter 2 move menus: recipes are currently bound to customer orders and only show in the main story.

The idle conversation of your clients is interesting if a little heavy-handed in the prologue. A droid discusses prosthetic enhancements, prejudices against the cybernetically-enhanced are made known, the aformentioned cybercorgis mobbing the bar are involved in perpetuating some sort of racist employment policy at their corporation. This is the part most likely to be difficult – the ‘decisions’ you make as a bartender are entirely based on the cocktails you serve and not on your dialogue selections like other visual novels, which could take a little while to get used to. It can get very annoying just clicking through conversations where there’s no drama yet, without the opportunity to make a stimulating decision. And there was only a little flirting available.

It’s exciting to see some thought being devoted to how the relationship between players and NPCs might change however; this game’s success will certainly depend on the strength of its writing and how much of an impact can be made on characters through the subtlety of shaking a delicately prepared cocktail. But the creators are currently seeking feedback on their game, which is due out in December, so if you want to give them $5 to try it out, you can at the appropriately-named waifubartending.com.

WILL THERE BE A GLORIOUS CYBERDRUNK FUTURE FOR VISUAL NOVELS? We shall see. Here is Tom Cruise again.

The previous S.EXE columns are here.

PS: Anna Anthropy has just rereleased LESBIAN SPIDER-QUEENS OF MARS which has totally uncensored gratutitous barenaked tits and taxing one-handed arcade adventures, so if you’re hot for that sort of thing you can get it here.

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