VA-11 Hall-A: Cyberpunk Bartending Action is an interesting indie game released in 2016. Players take control of Jill, one of two bartenders who work at VA-11 Hall-A, commonly known as Vallhalla. It’s a somewhat-seedy bar in Glitch City, a dystopian metropolis characterized by its inept mayor, high crime rate, mega-corporations, and the totalitarian police force known as the “White Knights”.
The game is more of a visual novel. You serve drinks to customers and talk with them, through which you learn about their lives and what’s happening in and around Glitch City. This certainly touches on cyberpunk topics that people enjoy, like transhumanism, wealth disparity, and AI. Just as often, though, you simply talk with clients about their work and personal lives. In fact, the game is more of a romantic story than a cyberpunk one when you really dig into it.
No shortage of people have found this disappointing and cited their frustrations with how often the game descends into visual novel small talk about breast sizes or people complaining about their exes. That’s understandable to a degree. If you bought this game expecting Deus Ex or Snatcher, then I can definitely see how the banality of the game’s dialogue can be incredibly frustrating. At least you get to serve drinks to characters referencing those games, right?
However, I would argue that the game’s romantic elements actually strengthen its cyberpunk setting; particularly in how the game treats its LGBT+ characters. While the game isn’t a “gay” game per say, those characters who speak openly about their love life are varied and often non-hetero. Jill herself is openly bisexual with a crush on her boss Dana, the cyber security expert Alma has a trans brother who she dotes on, and the veterinarian Beatrice is a lesbian who has left a trail of ex-girlfriends behind her.
In our current times, these characters would be minorities whose stories would undoubtedly turn some heads. Glitch City is in the distant future where social norms have changed. LGBT rights are not just taken for granted, those who oppose them are almost entirely gone. There is never a bigot in the bar complaining about “the gays” and the stories told by the game’s cast—while still significant—are normalized within the world. The most futuristic part of the game is that being gay or trans is so accepted that it can be casually talked about.
One of my favorite characters was Mario. He is a delivery driver who fancies himself a real hardcore biker, which leaves him with a bit of an identity crisis. He wants to present himself as a bonafide tough guy, an intimidating man who demands respect, but in reality he’s a bit of a softy who likes girly things. In gameplay, this manifests as him ordering drinks, only to then try and correct himself by ordering a manlier drink instead. You had to pay attention the first time around and give him what he actually ordered.
Mario kinda reminded me of Kanji Tatsumi from Persona 4, but he actually goes a step further. Mario is a homosexual man and that is completely detached from his actual character arc about learning to accept his softer side. In this world, there’s 0 reason to be ashamed of being a homosexual or worry what it will do to your image. So Mario is scared of ordering a drink that’s too sweet, but can confidently tell women he’s not interested in their flirting because he likes men.
The immediate effect of these stories is that the game feels incredibly pleasant and inclusive. Again, it’s not a game exclusively for the LGBT+ community. It’s a very sexual game with lots of talk about partners, intercourse, and romance, but that includes heterosexuality as well. Characters like Deal, the aforementioned Donovan, Alma, and fellow main character Gil are all presumably straight and have their own stories that get equal attention. And that’s the beauty of VA-11 HALL-A: LGBT stories aren’t specifically emphasized, they are simply treated the same.
But what does this do for the cyberpunk setting? It creates distance in a way few other series would. Futuristic settings are always written through the lens of the era in which they were imagined. However, as time moves on and the topics of cyberpunk stories begin to eerily resemble actual current-day issues, the feeling of these being distant sci-fi worlds becomes less tangible. Taping neon-lights to everything only helps so much.
VA-11 doesn’t just talk about future problems, it also talks about future achievements. It has taken us 52 years to get from Stonewall to where we are now. Certainly a lot better, but it’s a shame that a literal lifetime has only brought us so far. By giving us a world where homophobia and its ilk are almost entirely eradicated, VA-11 seems more futuristic than any number of android prostitutes could ever make it seem.
This is where we do run into a problem, as there is a limited amount of current-day topics to “solve” for your futuristic setting before you start having to address issues that are staples of cyberpunk settings.
Again, we’re living the future right now… and it’s kinda horrible.