I believe that video games are meant to be fun. They can absolutely tell incredible narratives that push the player to think about things in unique ways. The Last of Us tells a gripping tale about sacrifice, found family, and the needs of many versus the needs of the few. Tales of Vesperia has a brilliant message about what is justice and who decides what counts as true justice. Hell, The World Ends With You delivers its main theme right in the title. All of these games tell amazing stories while presenting interesting gameplay to accompany those tales. I do believe all of what I said about video games pushing narratives and recognize how the interactivity of a game can further these themes.
That said, in my opinion, the primary function of a video game is to engage and enthrall the player with unique challenges that provide a unique sense of satisfaction upon completion. Because of this belief, I have never gotten into the visual novel genre. Minus a couple exceptions like the brilliant Ace Attorney series, visual novels have honestly just bored me in the past. Therefore, I rarely ever care to engage with them. This mindset of mine was heavily challenged when I stumbled into a virtual bar called Va-11 Hall-A...
Va-11 Hall-A (pronounced Valhalla, and if you think that name is heavy-handed now, you've no idea) was a game that intrigued me for some reason. Maybe it was the cyberpunk aesthetic and bright city lights my small-town self just yearns for, or the awesome character designs, or some cosmic force saying I need to play this, but I knew this was something I had to try. So, not too long ago, in a bout of self-loathing that ended with me buying a game (shut up, that's how I deal with things), I purchased this title on a whim and gave it a go. Hoo boy was I ever right to give this game a go.
You play as a 27-year-old woman named Jill working in the titular bar of Va-11 Hall-A in Glitch City, a corporate hellscape that is so well described and interesting that you may initially yearn for a game of cyberpunk revolution and freeing a city rather than what you get here, and just simply make the drinks your patrons request and listen to them vent their woes because you are legally obligated as a bartender to also be a bonafide therapist. That's it. That's the game.
You hear this quote every time it's time to, well, mix drinks and change lives.
There's no funny quip or subversion of expectations in my writing here, that is all the game contains. You make drinks and you talk to people. You even have to make sure you make enough money to pay the rent. Fuck, that sounds too real and boring as shit, why even bother? Why play a game that's only actual gameplay mechanic is deciding what drink to mix? Because, as the game puts it when you first begin, it's a game about relaxing and just seeing what the patrons of Va-11 Hall-A have going on. It's so, mundane. It's so quaint. It's so basic and simple, and that's why it works so effectively.
The world of Glitch City is so interesting, and the patrons that drown their sorrows in alcohol are so well defined and interesting you can't help but carry on and continue playing. You have Jamie, an assassin with a heart of gold. Dorothy, a robot prostitute who is an absolute gem and delivers some pretty impactful lines about slut-shaming and how one's sexual history does not define them. Sei, the classic trope of the one truly good soldier for a corrupt army. There are so many wonderful characters. This cast of robots, cat-people, and talking animals feels more real and more human than almost any other cast I've ever encountered in media.
I would die for her.
If those don't do it for you, there's are TALKING CORGIS, AND ONE HAS SUNGLASSES! LOOK AT HIM!
LOOK. AT. HIM!
The cast is truly incredible, even beyond the patrons. Jill's coworker John-I mean Gill is a fantastic partner to Jill and helps runs this little bar. Gill is a good guy and clearly wants to help Jill. Plus, he has an intriguing past that you really just want to learn about. Then there's Dana, the badass manager of this little bar. Dana is like a big sister to Jill, and she kicks all kinds of ass to the point you wonder if she's killed someone before (she's like Mia, only deals with alcohol instead of coffee). Throughout the game, Dana does everything she can to assist Jill, from giving her extras on her pay, to walking her home if it seems dangerous, to letting Jill keep her cat at the bar when the area Jill lives in is especially precarious one evening. She's basically the role model Jill looks up to, and really needs to lean on as the story progresses.
That brings us to our lead, Jill. Jill is one of the most down-to-earth and relatable protagonists I've ever seen. She initially comes off as overly cold and distant, but her personality shines through and you get amazing moments with her. She giggles whenever someone orders the drink called a Bad Touch, she hates anyone who tries to use her full name, and she has a pink shirt that just says "SLUT" on it. I want a pink shirt that says "SLUT" on it.
I would legitimately rock that shirt, and I would rock it well. Though it would definitely look better on her than it would on my pasty, misshapen, white man body.
All of this is great, but you really get a sense of Jill's amazing character when tragedy strikes.
I won't go into what this tragedy is, as learning it organically in-game is the highlight of the whole package in my opinion. Just know that Jill suffers from regret after an event from years prior in which she basically threw away a promising academic career and made drastic changes in her life out of the fear of waking up one day in her 40's feeling she wasted her entire life. When forced to confront that past, she does not handle it well, because who would? Jill's regret is something most people will feel or have felt to some extent at some point in their lives, and when she freaks out as a result of it, you sympathize with her and want her to be alright.
She's just doing her best. She made some mistakes and may never truly be able to move past them, but she's giving it everything she has to make something of herself. She's capable, but a little afraid to take the plunge. She's willing to point out anyone else's positives but never gives herself that luxury. She's definitely driven, but kind of broken. If that isn't a relatable protagonist, I don't know what is. Jill carries this game and is probably one of my personal favourite protagonists ever. She also does tell one absolutely hilarious story about her ex-girlfriend that I'm sharing simply because it is so damn funny:
Jill's Ex-Girlfriend sounds amazing and hilarious
Va-11 Hall-A presents you with exactly what you can expect from it immediately when you begin. This is a game about relaxing and taking in the narrative, as you mix drinks for your patrons and chat about whatever is on their minds this evening. I can't say it's going to make me instantly love a genre of game I've avoided for years, but I immediately picked up another visual novel and haven't stopped thinking about this game since I finished it. If you want something to kill some hours on a weekend that won't take much effort, give Va-11 Hall-A a shot, it's super cheap and you can run the game on modern consoles and whatever computer you have, you won't regret making a little stop in this bar!