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Wot I Think: VA-11 Hall-A

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I hesitate to call V4l... Va11 ha1... Val1... Valhalla [official site] a visual novel, which is ridiculous. It wears its influences on its sleeve, sometimes to a fault, and though its most 'gamey' aspect is that of a bartending sim, that's really just a well-integrated excuse for telling a humble story. Is it a good one?

Yes, it is - although it's more enjoyable because it's barely a story in the usual sense at all. It's really more a collection of anecdotes, trivia, and minor dramas you observe second hand, rendered that bit more interesting by virtue of where and when they're taking place.

The setup is a typical (though by no means bad or boring) near-future cyberpunk dystopia city, whose relevance is limited to the direct effects it has on the lives of its ordinary inhabitants. Inhabitants who like to come to a little bar to meet their friends or sound off about their lives with a relatively non-judgemental bartender. That's you.

Despite the setting, Valhalla doesn't take itself too seriously, and where "cyberpunk" in games implies drama and violence, here instead is a "slice of life" tale using that as the backdrop, giving a literal day-by-day look at the non-adventures of an unimportant schmoe as she goes about her irrelevant business. Those days begin at home, where you browse a tiny handful of favoured websites, buy stuff, and talk to your cat. Then it's off to work, where you'll get to know a handful of talkative customers by nattering about their lives and encouraging them to insert booze into their heads. The drinks they order must all be mixed, a straightforward process with a very user-friendly interface that's little more than looking up the name or attributes of their favoured poison and dragging the right ingredients into a cocktail shaker with the mouse pointer. Get their drinks right and they'll be merry and think more of you, and their story will subtly lean towards a more positive outcome. Get them wrong and they'll be disappointed, leading to different conversations, or perhaps refusing to pay.

This matters because you're paid based on commission, tips, and bonuses for accuracy. Short term cash means buying items that make you less forgetful at work, and may open extra conversations. Over the long term, you have large bills to pay, so peak performance is not a mere province of obsessives and power gamers. It is, however, within comfortable reach. While you need to buy a couple of items to suit customers, picking the right ones is a case of carrot rather than stick, and mixing drinks is difficult to get wrong even on Jill's bad days.

Failure is unlikely without trying rather hard. Getting things consistently wrong or defaulting on bills is in fact the key to unlocking at least one of the game's multiple endings, which on the face of it means replay value, but here's where my problem starts: while Valhalla does a good job of avoiding the usual dregs of anime bullshit (I know it's not anime, but it's the same bullshit), it makes the mistake of copying retro presentation for its own sake, when it does nothing but get in the way. There's a reason novels aren't printed with a single line per page, and a game entirely about reading really should know better. I might want to play again to see how differently conversations could go (and whether I made the right call to keep someone sober, or whether it mattered at all), but I don't want to sit there mindlessly double clicking hundreds upon hundreds of times to see the next line of dialogue, or worse, another bloody ellipsis. Why am I forced to do this when about 60% of the screen does absolutely nothing for most of the game? And worse - I have to do so with care lest I miss a line, or even someone's order, which can cost money and whatever conversation or good event they might have offered otherwise. It's not devastating, but it's big and needlessly irritating.

All told though, that's really the worst I can say about Valhalla. It's not much of a challenge but that's fine, as it's about simply hanging out with some interesting characters and seeing your own small character arc resolve (or not). It does both well - the writing is mostly decent and well paced, and made me chuckle a few times. I'm not entirely sure how to take some of its characters, but they're well drawn and generally enjoyable, even when they're not exactly likeable. Their exposition is fairly naturalistic, partly because of the (frequently noted) traditional 'tell your woes to the bartender' trope, and because the game resists the urge to have characters drop everything they're doing to shoehorn in concepts or relate their entire life story. Even the 'clients' who appear very sporadically are economical with their exposition, and more real as a result. It's inexplicably pleasant to see familiar faces bump into each other as strangers and bond, and even more so to realise that you're reacting to the appearance of regulars with the mild joy and/or inward groans familiar to any of my fellow till monkeys.

Those conversations, coupled with the few websites you browse, make an obvious effort to address or allude to topics and ideas relevant to today's internet climate. 4chan is the most obvious influence, but don't let that put you off. At worst I rolled my eyes slightly and moved on, and it's a good thing overall even if it's not quite my thing.

It also isn't the only lens by which Valhalla peers at the world. Human augmentation and literally manufactured pop starlets are mundane facts of life, and questions of gender and sexuality long since answered in Valhalla's world, among others. Consequently while the seams are occasionally visible, these matters are massaged quite comfortably and naturally into the setting and flow of conversation. It never feels like ticking off a checklist of zeitgeisty items, or tiresome nudging of the player's ribs; those references that pop up are familiar enough to work without feeling laboured, with the exception of the single pointless character who exists only to break the fourth wall, adding absolutely nothing but misguided Kojima worship. It's fortunately confined for all but a tiny few scenes.

Away from the text, the mixing of drinks is a paper-thin sim that's pitched about right. It helps pace the days, gives you something trivial but gently satisfying to do, and breaks up the sometimes irksome clicking of text. It's also a much more interesting and novel method of affecting events and characters than answering interrogatory questions or making Moral Choices. And, well, you're a bartender. You tend bar. It sounds like a simple thing but consider how many stories you can name where the protagonist has a profession but you never see them do any work. Everything in Valhalla from the two-shifts-per-day structure to the just-barely-making-ends-meet lifestyle, and the assumption that you'll come to work no matter what because it's that or eviction, help convey the player character's place in the world.

The music is a cute touch too - at the start of each shift you select 12 songs from the soundtrack to fill the bar's jukebox, which I'll grudgingly admit grew on me before long. At one point I was convinced that playing the right song would unlock more dialogue for some characters, which may not be the case, but that and some other ambiguities about what the game is tracking actually work in its favour - it's not, nor is it intended to be, an extremely immersive sim, but it is a sim nonetheless, and thus I was intent on doing the job well rather than second-guessing the developers. It could, however, have done with just a little more mixing of drinks - in particular, more moments where you're free to surprise a customer - but then, I suppose, it risks falling into the same trap as Recettear and saddling its novel idea with far too much messing about.

Ultimately, my complaints are mostly small problems, and at no point drastically undermined the experience. I like the idea of Valhalla and some presentation gripes aside, I like its execution. It's no great revelation but a pleasant surprise, and being a mundane bystander going about their day instead of the plot-critical centre of the universe is an under-explored concept. Valhalla made an even smarter decision to pick a setting that most would fill with combat, megalomaniacs, and the usual Heroic Journey guff, and instead populate it with interesting people and that thing we do best but talk about least: alcohol. I mean, friendship.

I said friendship.

VA-11 Hall-A is out today for Windows, Mac and Linux via Steam and Itch.

Disclosure: Sometime RPS writer Cassandra Khaw works for the publisher of VA-11 Hall-A.

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