When you see that the URL of a video game’s official site is waifubartending.com, you just know there’s something really special being made here. And sure enough, VA-11 HALL-A has my attention.
Unlike most visual novels or even traditional video games in general, there’s no lengthy prologue or narrator character explaining the state of the world you’re in, or what your bartender’s purpose is. In VA-11 HALL-A, you’re simply there. Right from the get-go, the player is plunged straight into this cyberpunk dystopian world where your only motivation is to mix drinks and serve them, and maybe learn a little bit about your new customers and regular bar patrons.
VA-11 HALL-A calls itself a cyberpunk bartending simulator, but I’m not sure if even that’s an accurate description of what this game is. Unlike most simulator type games like The Sims or Cook, Serve, Delicious!, there’s hardly any penalty for deviating from what your customers tell you to do. In fact, the now-released Prologue chapter of the game actively encourages you to add more alcohol content to some drinks even if your customers explicitly tell you not to, as this could get them drunk and even trigger additional scenes where you might meet new customers. Screw up a drink, and a customer chastises you a little, but the night goes on. Kinda like real life, no?
What makes this game so special is in the way it builds its universe by fleshing out the stories of the little guys, the side characters that you know will never get the glory in a sci-fi adventure. Your customers come from all walks of life, ranging from a sentient android with an insatiable obsession with corgis to a hardened veterinarian, whose unfriendliness and animosity is just a veneer for her passion for healing and treating animals. The characters in this game all have something to say, and your only job, aside from bringing the booze, is to hear them out.
I consider myself a big fan of video games. I love shooting things, exploring new places, leveling up, and collecting big loot. But strangely enough, I don’t have much of a problem with just sitting back and serving drinks to a colorful cast of characters as they talk about their views on nanomachines, the ethics of interspecies marriage, and the protection of human purity and if it’s considered a violation when you infuse yourself with prosthetics and other machine things.
After a while, even the act of mixing drinks, as much fun as it is, starts to take a backseat as I find myself more drawn to the characters and the tales they have to tell. Serving alcoholic drinks to a group of corgis proves to be quite the bizarre sight, yes, but it’s clear that VA-11 HALL-A’s meant to be one of those ‘play for the plot, not the gameplay’ type deals.
As I served my final female (they’re usually female, aren’t they?) customer in the latest demo build of the game, my character notices that she occasionally appears to flicker in and out of existence, almost as if she’s an AI program with messed up wiring. And when she leaves, my boss gives me a peculiar look and tells me that I’ve spent the last hour talking to myself and serving drinks to no one in particular.
VA-11 HALL-A touts itself as a cutesy waifu bartending simulator, but I think there may be a lot more depth to it than just that.
VA-11 HALL-A is set to be released for the PS Vita, iPad, PC, Mac, and Linux in winter 2015, and you can check out the game’s official site here.