Cyberpunk Bartender Sim VA-11 Hall-A Is On Game Pass (So You Should Play It)

I love cyberpunk.

No, no, not that glitzy and problematic new thing from the people who made that “eh” fantasy trilogy – the genre itself. While often the playground of boring old men who want to fuck robots, cyberpunk can (and has) been used as a vector to deliver some of the hardest-hitting sci-fi out there. The best cyberpunk fiction asks hard questions about increasing corporate regulation of our lives and the encroaching creep of technological advancement, and problematizes these through far-flung dystopias that feel eerily similar to our own society.

In the realm of gaming, few games fit that bill quite as nicely as 2016’s VA-11 Hall-A – a riveting bartender sim set in 207X and styled after classic MSX games. Arriving on Game Pass today, Sukeban Games’ “bartender action” game is worth a look for anyone interested in unique cyberpunk narratives that go beyond hard-boiled neo-noir or gritty techno-thrillers.

Players take the role of Jill, a bartender who lives alone and doesn’t really have friends outside of her regular patrons. The game’s narrative unfolds through a series of vignettes, in which Jill mixes drinks for the bar’s eclectic clientele as they confide in her. But here’s the twist: Jill can’t actually talk back. Instead, her responses are entirely dictated by the drinks she mixes, which can turn the tides of conversation in some interesting directions. Sure, it’s easy to give somebody what they want, but they might tell you something more interesting if you tweak their order a bit.

It’s hard to gauge what’s “more interesting” in VA-11 Hall-A, though, as every conversation is a memorable one. The supporting cast of this game ranks among the best in the medium, and ranges from stoic hi-tech soldiers to dogs in Hawaiian shirts and sunglasses. Each character brings something different to the table (to the bar?), and their perspectives help the player to get a clearer picture of the game’s fascinating world. My personal favorite is Dorothy, a kind-hearted sex worker who occupies a synthetic child’s body and lives with an older woman who treats as like a replacement for her dead daughter. Her conversations with Jill humanize sex work in a way cyberpunk media rarely dares to do, in that Dorothy isn’t treated as a nameless victim or sultry temptress. Instead, she’s a shrewd businesswoman with a heart of gold, and her occupation raises ethical quandaries about having sex with robots.

But the thing is, Dorothy is just one character in a stacked cast. For all of my attachment to her, everyone in this game is interesting, and you’re sure to find a favorite regular of your own while playing. Without much in the way of traditional exposition, VA-11 Hall-A puts a heavy focus on its cast driving the plot, which makes for both a leaner and less convoluted plot and more dynamic characters. To get to know each person who comes into your is to learn more about the world, with none of the frustrating lore dumps or audio logs that tend to come with this genre.

There are plenty of other things to love about VA-11 Hall-A, like its lush art direction and entrancing score, but I’ve said my piece for now. If you have Game Pass and are in the mood for good science fiction, do yourself a favor and check this one out.

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Bella Blondeau is a lovable miscreant with a heart of gold… or so she says.

She likes long walks in dingy arcades, loves horror good and bad, and has a passion for anime girls of any and all varieties. Her favorite game is Nier: Automata, because she loves both robots and being sad.

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