‘Ghost in the Shell’ Meets ‘Cheers’ in New Cyberpunk Bartending Game

VA-11 HALL-A offers a vision of the future, or at least the future’s barflies.

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Jun 25 2016, 1:00pm

FYI she’s talking about the smell of dog shit. Image: Sukeban Games

The year is 207X, and people apparently still say "fuckboy," which should stick out as much as me saying "daddy-o" today. Glitch City, a neo-megatropolis you'd recognize from Akira or Deus Ex, is crumbling. Jobs are scarce, everyone's injected with nanomachines, and the law is enforced by a clandestine guard. But that's not much concern to Jill, star of the new cyberpunk game VA-11 HALL-A. She lives in a crap apartment and works in a crappier bar. She's mostly concerned with getting cocktails right and earning a decent tip, and in this video game you'll save the future one dirty glass at a time.

Though you'll (sadly) never see Norm, Cliff or Frasier walk through the doors (there's a George Costanza shoo-in if that's any consolation), VA-11 HALL-A is the cross section of Cheers and Ghost in the Shell. Your goal, as the jingle echoes, is to make the bar where everybody knows your name. It's played similarly to a visual novel, but instead of conversation trees and awkward flirting the entirety of the game is played by serving drinks.

Barflies from the strange future file in to vent, gossip, meet with friends or drink alone. Regulars, lost souls, cops, media despots, cam girls, hackers, sex androids, weirdos, bounty hunters, dogs in people clothes all find their way to the bar stool. Some of their lives overlap and some are perfect strangers. How they interact with you and others depends on how well you know their "usual" and how strong you make it.

This may seem like a shallow way to engage with others, but everyone's got a story and so does every drink. You'll catch on quick that VA-11 HALL-A's version of Harvey Levin wants the biggest most synthesized beer you have on tap, while it's rendition of Hatsune Miku is so green around liquor she barely knows how to hold a glass. Some don't know what they're looking for until you pour it, and being able to judge their character, and therefore their drink, will determine just how effective your lubrication is in conversation. Keeping Jill happy at home with balancing rent and small joys like posters, hologram-bonsai trees and vintage video games, will help her stay focused during her work shift, and make her more attuned to cocktail suggestions.

Feel the burn. Image: Sukeban Games

While it exist in a world of flying cars and androids, what makes VA-11 HALL-A memorable apart from the genre fictions it imitates is how low to the ground it feels. Sure, there's an urban war brewing outside, but inside this dead-end cathedral is just people. Chatter about current events and politics, morality, and sex. There's a lot of sex talk, obviously, but not in a gratuitous or unrealistic way, more a round of "never have I ever" over a row of shots. Jill's own sexless lonely life is a dartboard to customers with more hyperactive labidos, and she feels vulnerable, and you'll feel vulnerable, but it gets shrugged off, and another drink is poured.

Cyberpunk fiction is often alluring for sprawling kingdoms dense with grime, clutter and crime. VA-11 HALL-A takes place in one very specific corner, and that's what makes it so engaging. Even in a future where geopolitics have melted into chaos, where parents augment their babies with cat ears, where your next date may be a robot with a DNA scanning tongue, it turns out most people just wants a little bit of cowboy talk and a god damn drink.