A talk with the creators of cyberpunk bartending simulator VA-11 Hall-A
The making of a 'booze-em-up'1
It’s no coincidence that Neuromancer, one of the most influential science fiction books ever written, opens in a bar. The bar is a safely familiar place to touch the future’s bleeding edge, and the perfect symbol of the cyberpunk genre’s “low life and high tech” ethos. And it’s one of the things that makes VA-11 Hall-A (otherwise known as Valhalla) so compelling.
Valhalla is described as a “booze-em-up” inspired by Japanese adventure games, set in the futuristic, dystopian Glitch City. It’s a Mac and PC game focused on dialog and narrative, but instead of navigating conversation trees, your job is to mix drinks for a cast of cyborg hitmen, 24/7 “life streamers,” freelance hackers, and corporate lackeys for a company run by intelligent dogs. The mechanic is weirdly satisfying: drag ingredients like “karmotrine” and “powdered delta” into a shaker and shake, blend, or age them into everything from a synthetic beer to a popular cocktail named after a Bloodhound Gang song. Your relationship with characters, and the conversations you’ll have, depends on things like getting orders right and offering customers recommendations they’ll enjoy.
Valhalla grew out of an entry in the 2014 Cyberpunk Jam game development challenge, and it’s created by a tiny Venezuelan studio called Sukeban Games — the name is a reference to the teenage girl gangs that swept Japan in the ‘70s. We got to ask the team a few questions about writing social commentary, designing the future, and making players get creative with their bartending.
Interview has been condensed and lightly edited for grammar and clarity.
Adi Robertson: My first question is how you bring something new to the genre of cyberpunk. It's a style that's defined a lot of our science fiction for decades, to the point of being often sort of tired and cliche. But I was pleasantly surprised by how well it worked in Valhalla.
Christopher Ortiz (design and illustration): One thing we’ve been always looking for is telling stories outside the usual point of view.
For example, most works of fiction work around the life of the hero, or someone who is special, with something that sets them apart from the rest and are always responsible for the resolution of a larger conflict.
Video games by nature are always focused on this point of view, since the medium is usually focused on putting the player as the center of the universe, with everyone else with a supporting role.
So what we did in this instance to bring something new and fresh to the cyberpunk genre was to take a common trope and shift the spotlight; in this case to the bartender who’s always there in the background ready to take questions from the hero.
The cyberpunk genre is capable of allowing the creation of amazing worlds, and they shouldn’t be limited to just one way to live inside it, we should get to see what the common citizen in a corrupt cyberpunk dystopia is going through, to better understand the effects of what we’re very close to live. Every faceless extra we see in cyberpunk movies has a life, same with video game NPCs, and we wanted to tell their stories.
AR: How did you come up with the bartending mechanic for shaping the game's plot? Was there a period where you wanted the protagonist to outright select dialog in the conversations?
CO: It was very risky, since what we wanted to do was a game where the choices are not terribly obvious and make the player experiment with the possibilities.
Many games don’t allow you to stray away too much, they’re afraid of the player getting lost or whatever, so the mechanics in Valhalla are made in a very specific way to tease the player’s mind into doing things out of the box.
I said it was risky because many players didn’t get the memo, and they kinda played through Valhalla like a machine, always serving what the patron wanted and never questioning what they were doing, so they just assume it’s a linear affair without much depth. However, players like that were a very tiny minority, and I’m extremely glad everyone else seemed to enjoy what we did.
Sure, we can do a better job to make these players understand that they should play around more with what they have, and based on the feedback we got from the game’s release, it looks like we’re about to hit a sweet spot.
Was there a period where we wanted to select dialogue choices? Of course, but only when we got cornered by the limitations of the game’s mechanics, but we never gave up, because presenting the player with a number of choices on the screen rendered everything else meaningless, so we just worked around the already established flow.
AR: How do you balance nods to present-day events and issues (like an Anonymous analogue and some modern slang) with creating a fictional world that stands on its own?
CO: I think we reached certain balance by isolating those modern issues to a bubble of sorts.
I mean, we can’t really predict the way we’ll communicate in 50 years. I don’t think people in the ‘70s imagined something like an emoji-filled conversation between 2016 teenagers, so we just took the most… universal and cyclical things, details that could perfectly return by the year 207X with another context or an additional twist. I’ve seen many people like the in-game text board because it’s a perfect replica of the toxic nature of today’s internet with female users as the default.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
This also prevents most of those things from getting old, since we’re not really copying and pasting the most current viral meme or some shit like that, we’re taking the way interaction works between people today, and filtering the trendy speech, if it makes any sense.
AR: The way that sex work is accepted and non-marginalized in the game's world feels like a distinct departure from a lot of science fiction, and a fairly positive thing that many activists are currently aspiring to. What part do you think science fiction can play in creating social change, for good or ill?
CO: Sci-fi is awesome because we can create worlds where things like that are pretty much the norm, allowing us to write very human characters that can be developed without the usual edge that comes from modern social oppression, thus making it feel organic and not really like you’re pushing or forcing something. It’s an unusual amount of liberty not many are taking advantage of.
AR: On the site, you mention being inspired partly by Japanese adventure games. Were there specific games or other pieces of fiction that influenced the project?
CO: The visual influences for Valhalla come from a lot of places, but if I have to be specific, the main work that comes to mind is Ghost in the Shell, alongside Bubblegum Crisis. I wanted the introspection feel of GitS fused with the more upbeat Bubblegum Crisis cyberpunk, with tons of color and neon. For games, Snatcher and Policenauts are obligatory name dropping. Kojima’s early work truly feels like a love letter to all things sci-fi and summer blockbusters, so it felt right to take something from it. X-Girl Cyber Punk Adventure is another important piece for me because it served as the blueprint for the retro futuristic aesthetic I was going for.
The result was a game that looks very different from the above works, but manages to transmit the feel, which is what I wanted.
AR: One of the (fairly few!) criticisms reviewers have had of the game is that some of the sexualized dialog from female characters feels unrealistic. Writing sexuality into games in general can be tricky; what was your overall approach toward it?
Fernando Damas (writing and programming): Our approach was no different from the one in any other part of the game. Just like how Dorothy was born out of a desire to make a sex worker breaking from the victimized and / or bitter and jaded archetype, the sex talk was also born out of something you don't really see that much in games, even in ones with explicit sexual content.
And like you said: it's tricky. We wrote it all based on personal experience and that of those around us (just like everything in the game), but we wrote ourselves into a corner by making the cast predominantly female. In our personal experience females have always been more open about those topics than males, and we tried to reflect that on the interactions. Some other feelings might've gotten into the mix, making it feel more like pandering of some sort rather than talk. There are people who felt like those talks broke the flow of the conversation, and so on.
There are many opinions and all of them have truth to them. But hey, making mistakes is how you polish any craft. I can assure you we aren't giving up on sex talk of any kind anytime soon.
AR: Valhalla is described as life in a cyberpunk dystopia, but in some ways, it doesn't seem markedly worse than the world we have now — it's a place with more technologically advanced versions of our current problems with state violence, environmental dangers, and inequality. Does this mean that Glitch City isn't necessarily dystopian, or that we're living in a dystopia already?
CO: Which is why our publisher says it’s a post-dystopia affair! They feel Valhalla is more about coping with living inside a dystopia rather than trying to change one. It’s a normal thing for everyone involved, so it’s not as special anymore.
We’re also getting eerily close to the cyberpunk works we admire so much in real life, but not many have realized that yet.