Playing the bar-tending simulator VA-11 Hall-A was like looking into a shattered mirror. Every time I booted up the game I noticed the way its setting—the cyberpunk dystopia of Glitch City—reflected my own. Although the issues Glitch citizens face are greatly exaggerated in comparison to our own (we don’t have to deal with alcoholic talking dogs), they likewise struggle with alarmingly fast technological progress. The symptoms of this struggle revolve around a sense of fragmentation.
With the increasing importance of the virtual world, many people are spending less time in touch with the real world. We are being mentally and physically split between the two, and VA-11 Hall-A portrays the extreme result of that schism. As the game’s protagonist Jill, I served drinks to a variety of customers who were either physically or emotionally fragmented in some way. These characters included a 24/7 live-streamer who was constantly split between her present reality and entertaining over 6000 viewers, an android prostitute who surgically modified her body to suit her clients’ tastes, and an online news editor who seemed emotionally detached from his harsh treatment of his over-worked staff. This theme of fragmentation is consistent throughout the game, and is even shown in its setting.
The Augmented Eye is Glitch City’s number one news source, and is a good example of how this game utilizes what I like to call ‘micro-narratives’. These stories are more or less the length of a Tweet, often begin in medias res, and end without a conclusion. The fragmentary news articles of The Augmented Eye weave together a patchwork image of the world beyond Jill’s room. I encountered even more micro-narratives that contributed to this impression at Jill’s workplace. Every drink that Jill serves has its own unique naming-story, making each one a small piece of history that reflects the preferences and personalities of Glitch citizens. Then there’s the jukebox. Many of the song titles end in ellipses, emphasizing their fragmentary nature by suggesting incompleteness.
While I could go on about the many other micro-narratives I encountered in-game (like an online forum, or a pop idol’s blog), I think it’s clear that fragmentation is not just an aesthetic theme for VA-11 Hall-A, but one that is deeply intertwined with its mode of storytelling. Even though the game rarely ever goes beyond Jill’s room or the confines of her bar, its use of micro-narratives provided me with a richer understanding of Glitch City as a setting. The most important micro-narratives are the ones told by the characters who chat with Jill at the bar. Each of these encounters is a break from the game’s virtual world, providing a growing intimacy rooted in its real world.
Despite that the most complex gameplay element is the mixing and serving of drinks, I would say that the main goal I had as a player was to learn more about the characters on the other side of the bar counter. Each character was intriguing because none of them were completely fleshed out. Whether they stop by the bar once during an entire playthrough or come by nearly every in-game day, each character has their own life outside of the bar from which Jill—and therefore the player—is always excluded.
Each character brings their own experiences to the counter. When Kimberly La Vallete mentioned she was a journalist for The Augmented Eye, I ended up looking for her articles on the app to see what she wrote. And when Sei Asagiri, the “White Knight”, explained that she does search and rescue operations, I couldn’t help but wonder if she was involved with a news story about a person who was rescued from a burning building. By interacting with these characters, I was beginning to draw connections between the micro-narratives I had uncovered, turning the various bits of information into an interconnected web of names, songs, stories, rumours, and most importantly: people.
VA-11 Hall-A offers a solution to the fragmentation that we encounter in a world that is becoming more virtual and less real. It showed me that the mirror could still be pieced together no matter how small, or how disparate, the shards were. The game’s titular bar is a place where people come to tell their stories, to connect with other human beings in a world that is often disconnected, to understand one another through conversation and a good drink. However, nobody calls it by its official name “VA-11 Hall-A”; customers and workers alike call it Valhalla, the name of an eternal feasting hall in Norse mythology’s after-life for brave warriors who died in battle. It is the yearning to understand and empathize that turns the fragmented VA-11 Hall-A into the complete Valhalla. Like us, the people in Glitch City’s Valhalla live in a world as fraught and chaotic as any battlefield, and after a day of fragmented life, they come by for a drink in their night-lives – their after-lives – that brings them all together.
-Contributed by Lawrence Stewen