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VA-11 HALL-A: Sex, Booze, and Sukeban Games

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Even two years after its initial release, and especially now that it’s available on Nintendo Switch, I still can’t believe that Sukeban Games’ VA-11 HALL-A is actually out. When indie savvy writers started rumbling about this lustrous mixture of anime, Snowcrash-style cyberpunk worldbuilding, Sega CD-era visual novels, and soulful bartending back in 2014, I thought for sure it would never see the light of day. Games like VA-11 HALL-A sound and feel magical in their early days, sweeping romantic types off their feet on PAX show floors only to either vanish over the years or to stumble meeting the magic of their premises. VA-11 HALL-A is here, against all odds, and every bit as strange and sweet as it initially promised to be.

When VA-11 HALL-A hit Switch, I wanted to talk with its creators about everything: where are all the great video game bars? Why is it so hard for video games to approach the subject of sex with maturity and grace? What’s the perfect drink to actually enjoy while serving up digital beverages in the game? How do you do cyberpunk well now that we live in actual techno-dystopia?

And most importantly, I wanted to talk with two Venezuelan creators about what it’s like to continue working on your craft when the country around you is embroiled in a nightmarish civil conflict. It took awhile for the interview to come together because artist/designer Christopher Ortiz and writer/programmer Fernando Damas only have access to electricity for a few hours a day. Just like they saw their game to fruition, though, they made it happen.

What’s magical about a bar? I can only think of a handful of memorable bars in gaming history, and VA11-HALL-A and Catherine might be the only ones that set their entire story inside a bar.

Chris Ortiz: It’s where you get to be sincere. Not that we are not honest in our day to day, but a lot of the time we are always trying to save face for a myriad of reasons, and I think we really let our guard down when we are at a bar, be it with friends or pestering the bartender. In the games you mention, that’s pretty much how it always works: characters being themselves after [dealing with] the hardships of everyday life.

What are the challenges in developing a story and gameplay around cocktails, besides the fact that you’re automatically limiting yourself to a purely young adult/adult audience?

Chris Ortiz: Probably that the changes you make to the world are largely a mystery, even obfuscated in VA11-HALL-A’s case. It’s a common complaint about the game, and we could have done a better job at it. We’re looking into better ways to make the player aware of the effect they have on characters through the cocktails they serve. Many players think you just have to follow recipes and end up missing out on a lot of story bits.

How do you get people into the mindset of a bartender? A great bartender has to be so many different things: a great listener, hyper attentive but also willing to back off. They need to be a specialist in how they mix drinks but they also have to make their work seem effortless and cool to make people feel at ease. The design of Jill puts you in that headspace right away but how do you compose the story and the look of the actual game to get you the rest of the way there?

Chris Ortiz: Right now I’m technically a licensed rookie bartender, but before the game shipped neither Fernando or I had gone to bars on a regular basis, so most of what you see in the game is us trying to portray a certain feel through any means necessary. For example, you don’t brew beer on the fly when serving one at a bar, but in the game it just makes sense when it’s in context, and the rest is just like that. Everything is sci-fi enough to transmit the feel of being a bartender without necessarily being realistic. We did everything by feel, since mixing cocktails and talking to patrons are the key elements. The rest is atmosphere, and that makes it all fall into place.

 

I like that VA11-HALLA isn’t explicitly romantic, but that it thrives on an undercurrent of implied romance, both sexual and platonic. Why is it so hard to make a video game romantic?

Chris Ortiz: I don’t think it’s hard at all, especially when you take into account that players will ship the hell out of characters even if what they have is just a friendship. Actually, I’d have to say that true, wholesome friendship is way harder to portray because some folks will take their relationship in the wrong way almost without fail.

VA11-HALLA tackles sex in a very honest way. I like that, for as unreal as the game is, it’s all built on a foundation of very real, human relationships. What’s the most difficult thing about incorporating sex into a game and its story? 

Chris Ortiz: Probably the part of making it sound natural, and losing the fear of getting things wrong. Our usual mindset regarding this is to just do it and fix it next time if it needs fixing. You’ve got to start somewhere, and in this case we are glad it was a largely well-received aspect of the game’s script.

How do you make sure that sex feels human and meaningful rather than merely titillating?

Fernando Damas: Media always treats sex like a completely separate entity from the regular human experience instead of part of said experience. A big part of that titillating or gratuitous factor seems to stem from inhabiting a mindset where sex either doesn’t exist or only exists on its more explicit and raunchy form. You’re either creating a world where sex is non-existent or one where sex is the only thing the characters think or talk about. And when you try reach a middle ground using only other media as reference it can be very difficult.

It all comes down to internalizing the fact that sex is something inherent in the human experience instead of something only reserved for specific age-gated content, and that it’s just one of many things you can use in your story. In this mindset a talk between two characters about kinks might just be a sign of the trust they have for each other instead of being one explicitly making a move on the other. You can have characters that are comfortable with the topic, those that aren’t, those that are but aren’t as open about it. It gives you yet another tool you can use to further understand who the character is beyond what the plot requires.

There is something to be said about how media rarely if ever seems to explore who the characters are outside what the plot strictly needs you to know about them, but that’s a whole different topic.

 

Cyberpunk is starting to feel like a very nostalgic genre since we basically live in a technological dystopia already. Snowcrash and Blade Runner are starting to feel downright quaint. What appeals to you both about cyberpunk in 2019? 

Chris Ortiz: The state of cyberpunk right now is almost all about aesthetic since we are already kind of there, except corporations don’t have cool evil names but rather friendly facades with smiles in their logos and they’re all about “making the world a better place.” However, I think cyberpunk should head in an even more punk direction. By more punk I mean straying away from its foundations without forgetting the real reason it came into existence.

You want to portray technology and late capitalism gone wrong, but you also want to show how the common folk are affected by these changes and how to get by in an increasingly hostile society where you need to have eyes on your neck, to the point of being careful with your words almost as much as with your actual physical actions. The internet feels really oppressive when you have a face connected to your username, and I think that’s how cyberpunk feels at the moment, a way to face this new kind of oppression.

What do you like about the cyberpunk aesthetic? What kind of stories can you only tell in a cyberpunk setting?

Chris Ortiz: I personally don’t think there are stories that can only be told in a cyberpunk setting unless they drift so far into the future that the story’s concept of society ends up completely warped. BLAME! is a great example of a story that can only be told with cyberpunk, and it’s a big cautionary tale on the effect we have on our world, but cyberpunk as we currently handle it is merely a window dressing for current and upcoming issues we need to address before it’s too late. Sadly, these warnings are never heard, and I think many cyberpunk works even gave ideas to corporations on how to keep squeezing you dry till you drop. Very depressing.

The video game landscape has changed so much since the game jam when VA11-HALLA was conceived. Has it become harder to tell unusual stories in video games? Has it become easier? 

Chris Ortiz: I think everything has remained largely the same except for how games are spread out. We are kind of worried about our next titles because VA-11 HALL-A was released in a year where traditional game journalism was the main way people found out about games. These days, content creators also play a huge part and if YouTubers or streamers don’t play your game it’s much harder to be successful.

This is worrisome because they will naturally gravitate towards the most popular things that are marketed to them, or even paid to play, so you really need to depend on the communities you build through social media to spread the gospel.

I’m in no way throwing shade at content creators, but I see their current stranglehold on the spread of video game content even less accessible for indie developers than how it used to be, and I’m talking as a developer whose game was played by big YouTubers. It ain’t sour grapes.

Thankfully, word of mouth is still the best way for small developers to stand out. Everything from big games like the Dark Souls saga and Doom (2016) to once small games like Undertale are what they are now thanks to dedicated communities that elevated them beyond what any mainstream exposure would have given them.

So I think that as long as you manage to build a community around your work, you will always be able to make a living no matter the year. In that sense, Jeff Vogel said it best: “Find a neglected niche and provide for them.”

 

Life in Venezuela has never been easy, but it’s profoundly difficult at this particular moment. How has the upheaval since the election, and really since Maduro took power in 2013, affected your lives as creators? 

Chris Ortiz: Way too many obstacles to mention without boring the reader, but here are some useful bullet points on the hardships you have to face while making games here:

High kidnapping rates means you’ve got to lay low. You really don’t want the wrong ears to know you had a cult hit and the money that comes with it.

No freedom of speech whatsoever also means you’ve got to avoid the government even knowing you exist. Game developers have already been jailed here.

Unstable access to basic needs, like running water, electricity, food and internet. Recently I’ve had to stop working altogether because it’s impossible to do anything when you only have like six hours with the lights on in a single day.

No way to receive money with local banks without getting ripped off. This is complex because it involves the warped way in which currency exchange has been handled over the years, but game developers here have no way to receive payments from major storefronts.

High crime rate means no life. There’s no way to just relax during your downtime, every time you go out it’s a huge gamble, and I think no human deserves to live with the constant anxiety of possibly getting murdered for a loaf of bread.

What would you like the rest of the world to know about life in Venezuela right now? 

Chris Ortiz: Not so much something I want the world to know, but rather something I want to tell to certain people in more privileged countries, like Boots Riley and Roger Waters: stop talking so much fucking bullshit about our situation and cancelling what people who actually live here have to say. You don’t live here, shut the fuck up and let Venezuelans speak for our fucking selves.

Sorry for being extremely rude, but this is the primary reason I deeply dislike looking at social media these days.

What can people who love VA11-HALL-A do to help you, your families, and your peers?

Chris Ortiz: Spread the word about our work! The video game scene is so vast and overwhelmingly big that any way we can get our game noticed will be appreciated.

If you have a Venezuelan friend: listen to them and help in any way you can. Hire Venezuelan freelancers, artists, there are so many talented folks over here and you will help them greatly if you give them the chance to work for you on any project you might have.

Finally: what is the best cocktail to drink while actually playing VA11-HALL-A

Chris Ortiz: White Russian.

Editor’s Note: Featured image created by Xsidia. Please visit his portfolio here.

Anthony John Agnello
Anthony John Agnello has worked full-time as a journalist and critic for over a decade with outlets like The A.V. Club, Edge Magazine, Joystiq, Engadget, and many, many others. Anthony first contributed to The Escapist in 2009, with In Defense of the Friend Code, an article about how we don't know where we're going if we don't know where we come from. How even what seems like the stupidest creation in the world comes from a human place; it's the work of one person reaching out to another.

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