VA-11 Hall-A, or Valhalla, from Sukeban Games is the sort of game I didn’t know I wanted to play.
I have next to zero history with visual novels, unless you count the five hours I spent trying to get Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc to resonate with me. When I look at my gaming habits holistically I know what I like: world building, tight gameplay, tactics. It’s harder for me to say what I don’t like. The most core element of video games as an expressive medium is in its name: game.
I happen to be on the side of the fence that games can be art, but it would be foolish of me to deny that both their history and DNA is built around the idea of entertaining the player. Generally, people do not consume entertainment media they don’t like. Why would they? Time is precious – you’re damn right I quit watching Crazy Ex-Girlfiend after two episodes. Due to video games’ relationship to entertainment media, it’s much more difficult to reach outside of your comfort zone, but I’m so glad I did to play VA-11 Hall-A.
So what is Valhalla about? You play as a girl named Jill. Jill works at a bar. Jill lives alone in a studio apartment with her cat and smart phone. I know Jill. I know a lot of Jills. I have been Jill, and in many ways, still am Jill. Valhalla is so special because it looks at all of the rest of the people in the world. It’s about the guy that came in to your store who is much more successful than you will ever be, and knows it. It’s about the girl who’s decided to be a public servant because she feels the need to. It’s about your dumb co-worker getting stuck with bathroom cleanup duty. While Undertale dissects the meaning of what an NPC is, in Valhalla, you are the NPC, as are all of your friends, colleagues, and customers. If video games are primarily power fantasies, Valhalla inverts that notion wholeheartedly.
I’d be curious to see the alternate version of Valhalla that is set in 2017. I wonder if it would be as poignant or honest. Like many great works of fiction, Valhalla is able to do what it does because it’s concealed in (cyberpunk) sheep’s clothing. Imperialism, sex-work, the plight of the every-person, celebrity, etc. are all fair game to discuss
I usually have a problem with that assertion. Mafia 3’s greatest strength is that it tackled racism head on, in a relatively historically accurate way. It didn’t have to hide behind the veil of being a fictional world. Whichever Mass Effect (they all run together to me) had Commander Shepard dealing with the moral quandary of the genophage does not respect those that deal with racism in their daily lives. Mass Effect says: It’s easy! Just do the good guy thing and the racism will go away! If only it was that simple.
Part of why Valhalla can speak to the issues it does, despite being shrouded in a fictional world, is due to Jill’s inability to alter those issues.
Remember, you’re just Jill. Jill that works at the bar. You have no agency in deciding if X or Y should or shouldn’t happen in the world. You are simply an observer who has their own opinions. What makes Valhalla’s position on morality so interesting, is that it doesn’t feel nihilistic, it feels realistic. As somebody who grew up working in service, often with little to no money, it’s hard to make a difference. When I was 22 and making $10/hour how could I possibly have donated to the ACLU? It was hard to care about the state of our political affairs and call my senator when I was more worried about having beer-money to make my problems go away (that’s how alcohol works, right?)
Valhalla’s diverse cast are some of the most three dimensional I’ve seen in a video game. Each of the characters you meet, while still being caricatures, possess a surprising amount of depth once you get to know them. Valhalla plays with the idea of the “regular”. If you’ve ever worked in the service industry, you are familiar with the concept. When you work in service and often see the same people come in every day you begin to develop a very specific relationship with them.
They’re not your friends, per se, but exist in the psychological space between friend and acquaintance. You might shake their hand. You might give them a free beer because they tip well. They might know your spouse’s name, and you theirs. This relationship is fundamentally different than friendship because of the sort of information that the worker and client share with one another. It’s more curated, it’s what you want the person to see. Maybe, to your bartender or barista you’re more successful in your job than you actually are. Or, you’re the guy who vents about his failing marriage. Valhalla seems bent on trying to parse the details of how that relationship functions.
I’ve long maintained that if the household income in which you grow up is above a certain line, you should be required to work in the service industry for a year before going to college. So many people I’ve met in my life have never, and will never, feel what Jill feels every day. I hope games like Valhalla can be a vehicle for the more privileged to see the world of the people that serve them. They should be aware though, that us in the service industry have probably never served a talking dog.