For all the sheen and luster it possessed in the 80s, cyberpunk has become a bit passe. Rarely serving as a strong critique of a hyper-corporate dystopia, our increasing proximity to the worlds portrayed in the genre’s classic texts has left new entries feeling a bit uninspired. Frequently, cyberpunk comes across as a genre that exists mainly to show off a cool, grungy, bright setting where action setpieces can occur. And that’s a perfectly reasonable goal but it’s not what makes cyberpunk stand out as a genre. To me and many others, cyberpunk is about how corporations and governments work together under capitalism, the way structural forces police individuals through increasingly precise measurements while caring little about them as human beings, and the way people can still manage to survive in this dystopian civilization, one which grows more and more familiar to our own on a daily basis. It’s certainly not easy to achieve all this without giving into the common impulse of centering action, but it’s possible, and 2016’s VA-11 HALL-A does so.
A visual novel developed by the Venezuelan Sukeban Games, VA-11 HALL-A does not privilege the movers and shakers of its cyberpunk society. Occurring in the fairly typical setting of “Glitch City”, this game is content to take place entirely within the walls of the titular bar and its main bartender, Jill’s, apartment. Sure, an omnipresent mega-corp bears down upon the bar’s regular customers, it’s increasingly difficult to afford life itself, the city’s police forces keep the entire population under a watchful, panoptic eye, but what else is new? As with all cyberpunk works, its society is no more than a slightly exaggerated version of ours, with a little bit of extra Japanese stylings thrown into the mix.
But frankly, can you really say our world is all that much different at this point, minus the Japanese aspects? Massive corporations do control most of our lives. The government is increasingly draconian, surveying and classifying its citizens according to its whims. At the time of writing this, it became clear that the federal government plans to remove any ability for trans people to assert their gender on a legal level, something which has left the community I’m a part of absolutely terrified and this is just one of many other horrifying decisions made by this administration and previous ones. This is the power that the modern state possesses, all while keeping constant track of us through the technology that’s hard to avoid even for those who try to. At least cyberpunk societies present a veneer of corporate faux-progressiveness and equality, little as that may be worth in practice. Yet still, we continue on. People die, oppression occurs, but the world does not stop, the gears of society continue to turn, human beings have to continue to go through their lives no matter what harsh realities face them. When a massive conflict occurs mid-game, the bar’s customers don’t stop attending. It’s a big event, sure, with a direct effect on the patrons’ lives but it pales in comparison to the importance of this one little bar. Society is defined by the masses, by the millions and the billions not the tens and the hundreds. Much of media has been blind to this, it’s a problem which has plagued literature for all time, and fortunately, it’s this knowledge which VA-11 HALL-A best captures.
It’s frankly very hard to do this well, no matter the medium. It’s simply more enjoyable to watch those whose actions have a real effect on the world at large than it is to see the simpler acts, the attempts at survival and happiness in a world you have little control over. But being honest, most of us spend our time participating in the latter, not the former. Our tangible impacts are felt on those around us. They’re real, but they’re not system-shaking. Nailing this balance requires writing a slice of life story in a world that moves and changes. Slice-of-life is all too often set in a relatively static world, leaving the most important decisions to be made by the characters, with only the passage of time really forcing their hands. On the flipside, worlds that see serious changes and major events almost always have their protagonists or antagonists play a role in what goes on. By carefully threading the balance between the two, it’s possible to create an environment that feels lived-in, unique, and all too real, a genuine reflection of the world as it is, which is exactly what’s done here.
Of course, this requires a masterful handling of character writing but that’s perhaps the one element of the game that tops its portrayal of the world. Main character Jill is excellent — a bi woman in love with her boss, a nasty break-up with her last girlfriend has left her in a difficult place. At the same time, rent is hell, so she works at the bar as a way to be around her crush, keep up with her friends, and keep a roof over her head. Attractive and well-drawn, as with the rest of the cast, Jill’s story is naturally the thrust of the game. Befitting the narrative design I mentioned earlier, this plot is not one connected to the broader ongoings of the city, at least not in a causal manner. Instead, it’s a simple exploration of the mistakes Jill’s made as a person and her attempts to rectify them.
The bar’s 20-or-so patrons become remarkably textured throughout the game, with each of their stories feeling almost as well-developed as Jill’s. Not one can be said to be unaffected by this dystopian world they all live in, with some of them even having more direct influence on the systems at play, and yet it’s evident that no one is really a driving force on this society. Those like Donovan or Stella may be higher up the rungs than Dorothy or Betty but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re still ultimately subject to the same factors as everyone else, none of them control things, at least not directly. This bar attracts diverse clientele and so we, as players, get a large cross-section of Glitch City society while ultimately being grounded in the fact that really, everyone we meet is just an ordinary person.
Jill’s closer friends are those who end up getting the most focus throughout the game and this isn’t really a problem. The personalities of those we spend less time with are still incredibly rich while characters like Dorothy and Alma become as close to us as Jill herself by the conclusion. This is particularly important, of course. As I said in my review of Nettaigyo, everybody has a story to tell. Even the most boring people, the ones who weird alt-righters call “NPCs” have something going on in their lives some sort of texture. Everyone has a job, or a family, or friendships, or a hobby, something in the world that makes them unique. They all have personalities that interact with the social situations they’re put in, lives that are inevitably affected by what’s going on but not entirely defined by it. The entire genius structure of the game would immediately fall apart if these characters were flatly written messes but instead they stand strong as meaningful people in their own right. You’re sure to think about them for hours and they more than make this world feel real.
If you come to this game looking for romance alone, you’ll leave disappointed. Look at what I’ve described thus far and decide from that if you want to play this; even compared to a work like Seabed, VA-11 HALL-A is very focused on doing what it’s most interested in, and that doesn’t include romance. Still, there are an incredibly high number of queer characters in the game and Jill’s sexuality plays a key role in the events that unfold, so you should be pleased if representation is what you’re looking for. And don’t worry about whether or not the aesthetic elements will sell you on this world. Its PC-98 graphics and sound are excellent and beautifully demonstrate the wonder that can be found in such a horrific society.
I would love if more media could portray a world whose members go through life like real people. Slice-of-life works often get close to it, iyashikei ones in particular, and I adore them for that. Series set in fantastic environments can do this too, really standing out when they portray the lives of ordinary people despite the monumental shifts that occur as society changes. But it’s hard to blend these solutions, to portray a world that moves like ours, or even one that is ours, without allowing its leads to have any real effect on that. I can’t change the fact that the Trump administration plans on voiding any real rights I have to legal gender protections. It’s just not in my hands and however much voting or other forms of action may help, lone people only have so much power. The masses change things and spark revolutions when working together; individuals, on their own, rarely do. And I want to see that in the games I play, the anime I watch, the books I read. You can make interesting, touching stories foregrounded in a politics of struggle, in a world that seems on the brink of collapse, without falling into a great man style of writing. You can create personal tales set in our world or ones like it where major events occur while the protagonists keep on keeping on. After all, VA-11 HALL-A manages to do so, and for that, it’s a must-play. I eagerly await N1RV ANN-A’s release.