“Time to mix drinks and change lives.”

VA-11 HALL-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action, or Valhalla, pa’ los panas, is a video game about a bar in a dystopian future where massive inflation, shortages, crime and corruption have led to a constant decline in the quality of life for most of its citizens.

The city is called Caracas. I mean, Glitch City.

In the game, you are Jill, a 27-year-old bartender dealing with all sorts of clients and, through conversations with them, you slowly discover how Glitch City muerde.

The game starts with Jill checking out the day’s news while talking to her cat (this futuristic cat talks back). Apparently, the announcement of new economic measures has spawned another wave of emigration.

[Does that QUINCY guy sport a communist mustache by any chance?]
In the bar, none of the characters mention the emigration problem, or most of the news you read about (like the government’s attempt to ban all protests); the citizens of Glitch City are used to dealing with crazy stuff.

One of your patrons vents after a beer, though:

When I started this job, it only took the news of some elderly woman to guarantee clicks. Now you need an elderly woman carrying a sick baby boy getting hit by a truck. Death is not enough, they need a full sob story behind it.

VA-11 HALL-A is a video game. Kind of. Your role is to prepare drinks and let the story unfold. The dialogue can change depending on the amount of booze you give to clients, and there are several endings depending on what you do. But you’re definitely not shooting aliens or strategizing with swords and dragons.

It feels like a graphic novel, something walking the border between literature and gaming it’s a game you read, as much as play. Sukeban Games, the Venezuelan video game studio behind it (Venezuelans, nojoda!), went for a retro/Anime aesthetic, and they just nailed it; you can tell from miles away that this is a tribute to the Japanese Anime culture. Everything from the anthropomorphic animals and the over the top dialogues just screams Anime to me, and a quick look to their wiki shows the many references I missed.

Dark, but not too “darks”!

Playing VA-11 HALL-A, I was half-expecting to see a doctor walk into the bar and talk about the lack of medicines, or some underfed kids asking for food, but the game never goes there. All of the characters seem well-off, as none is concerned about prices when paying for drinks. Even when the new wave of protests start and the “White Knights” (their GNB) start to get lynched by angry mobs, they all try to keep working and maintain their normal life.

[The pranes of Glitch City]
At first, I was disappointed, but then it hit me: this game is not about showing the worst of Glitch City, it’s about living. For the common Glitchcitians, this is as good as it gets.

Jill, our main character, has a job that pays the bills, she even has enough money to buy small things like movie posters. She shows up at the Christmas party in her work clothes, so she probably can’t even buy better, but at least she isn’t sick and doesn’t have to deal with the healthcare crisis. Her life is good enough to forget about her city’s problems, as long as she ignores that she has a dead-end job and no savings at 27.

Sukeban Games did an amazing job at depicting how life always finds a way in Venezuela, because I, just as Jill, also try to have a normal life despite the crazy city I’m in.

VA-11 HALL-A feels like a huge statement. The authors created a dystopian game while living in an increasingly dystopian Venezuela. They could’ve depicted real-world tragic scenes to attract more players. Instead, they chose to show the relentless people that smile and work their asses off everyday keep their half-functioning country half-working.

Amazing job, guys.

18 COMMENTS

  1. They are Venezuelans?!?!?

    Not my kind of game, but know several people that have played it and liked it. Now I feel I have to give it a chance.

    Thanks for writing this. With the whole stream of awful news from Venezuela, is nice to read about people having creative projects and pulling them off. Kinda like what you describe of the game – finding life amidst all the depressing stuff.

  2. My younger son is into these kind of games. As Carlos said, it’s not a video game per se. It’s more like a movie, where you’re a character in it, and your actions affect the story. This is the latest trend in gaming.

    It’s really interesting stuff, but I just don’t have the time or inclination to get into them.

    They can really take over your life!

    • Some of the first computer games were stories. “Zork” was one of them. No graphics, just green Hercules Graphics Card text on a black screen, but like an adventure/ puzzle, each decision you made influenced the narrative.

      [My made up example, not as good as the game:]
      The door to the musty basement creaks open. There is small key on the floor.
      Pick up the key.
      The key is in your hands.
      Put key into lock.
      What lock? There is no lock visible to put the key into.
      Look around the room.
      The basement has not been used for a long time. It is very dusty.
      Blow dust away.
      “Poooooff!” Blowing layers of dust away reveals a small chest in the corner.
      Pick up chest.
      You inflate your chest to the fullest!
      Pick up the small chest in the corner of the basement.
      The chest is surprisingly heavy.
      Open chest.
      The chest is locked.
      Insert small key into lock.
      “Click.”
      Open chest.
      Inside the chest is a ten pound bar of gold stamped with the princess’ royal seal.
      Look around the room.
      The basement room is empty.
      Walk back to hallway.

      It all looks very easy on the surface, very transparent, witty, and logical, but it is probably a very sophisticated data base. For my tastes, much more fun than the graphics-reliant blow-them-up games today.

  3. I started playing it last year completely unaware there were Venezuelan devs behind it and it’s amazing, the music, the interface, the plot… I mean the music it out of this world. Then I read somewhere (Reddit I think) about the devs being local and wow, blown away.

    I’ve never felt particularly proud for anything Venezuelans have done (landscapes are nature mean, human achievements are theirs and their only done through their effort and none of my support) but this is the closest I’ve ever got to that feeling.

    • It’s not derivative at all. This game made huge waves with the critics because of how original the setting and the characters are. Also, they really captured a lot of what’s specific to the Venezuelan crisis and told it in a way that a world-wide audience can relate to.
      To me, being written by people living in an actual dystopia gives it a lot more cred than stuff written by first-worlders, which most dystopian fiction is.

  4. Some of the most beautiful homes I’ve even seen are in Caracas. The woodwork is gorgeous. Inner courtyards, beautiful stonework. El Silencio has rows of really charming houses. Music and artwork. Doctors, nurses, accounting firms, manufacturing companies, farms, fabulous little restaurants, cool little shops, great food. Clothing. Decorative glass work. Street design and layout with trees everywhere. Los Proceres. The Humbolt. La Rinconada. And of course el Guaire, the potholes in the roads, Tiuna Films news before every movie … well, OK, nobody’s perfect! There are all kinds of things Venezuelans do exceptionally well, and many of them you cannot find in the U.S.. There’s a very distinctive culture in Venezuela, sabor Venezolano, that should not be lost to modernization.

    • I particularly always loved the broken glass bottles cemented to the top of the walls surrounding the houses so people wouldn’t break in.

      At first, I thought it was some sort of artistic element.

      • I guess that’s the part which you say shouldn’t be lost to “modernization.”

        Or as many of us call it, civility and modern society. Where you don’t have to worry about having your throats slit while sleeping. And this was in the late 80s.

        I think that if aspects of your culture suck, you gotta recognize it.

        Or you remain just another shithole country, as Trump would say.

  5. Great review. I think the text understates how successful this game (made by Venezuelans still living in Venezuela) has been. It made many top game lists in 2016, is a bona fide commercial hit, and took Japan by storm with its PS Vita release. Kudos.

  6. Finally this game is getting the attention it deserves. I think it was released in 2016 but well, better late than never. I love the way the game was developed, the music, the graphics and the feelings it gives to the player, it really makes you think you’re living all the troubles and the joy that come out from Glitch City. Congratulations to the devs, and I hope they get more recognition to keep making up new games.

  7. https://www.cnet.com/es/noticias/valhalla-un-videojuego-cyberpunk-desarrollado-en-venezuela/

    Translating the part where they talk about Venezuela and the relationship with the game:

    “Glitch City is a cyberpunk dystopia, but as time goes on is like we are reaching the point of dystopia without cyber; I think Venezuela is a very big example of that

    That feeling that things are really screwed is what we wanted to transmit in VA-11 Hall-A, so when the player sees how the characters go on with their lives even in the face of their difficulties, they receive a push to keep going”

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