Myself and a fellow Niche Gamer writer, Alexis Nascimento-Lajoie, had the privilege to interview the team behind VA-11 HALL-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action.
Diogo Teixeira: Without further adieu, could you gentleman introduce yourselves?
Christopher Ortiz: I’m Christopher Ortiz, and I’m in charge of the visuals for our games, and I’m one half of the brain that does game design.
Fernando Damas: I’m Fernando Damas. I write, I code, and do the other half of the game design. Said other half usually involves putting raw ideas into a more tangible state, either into words or into code.
Diogo: Your game, VA-11 HALL-A, is Sukeban Games’ first commercial release. It has been gathering attention and hype for nearly 2 years. How do you feel about it?
Fernando: Well… the hype is honestly the part we’re still surprised about. Making this game has been one hell of a ride (sometimes a ride in hell), and we’ve been happy making a game that would make us happy. Said game also had a very specific niche of people in mind (People that like visual novels, people that like cyberpunk, and people that like anime) and seeing people from all sorts of backgrounds and places (not only anime fans at that) liking it, has been… weird. The good kind of weird.
Christopher: That’s sorta the weirdest part of this. We make games for ourselves and people who happen to like the same things, so the reach VA-11 HALL-A has is a very surprising thing. It’s still a very niche thing, but seeing the variety of people who like the game is what makes it special.
Alexis Nascimento-Lajoie: You mentioned that making this game was sometimes a ride in hell. Some of our readers might already know that you’re a Venezuelan-based developer and that the current climate in the country has impeded development of VA-11 HALL-A. How exactly did the current situation in Venezuela affect development?
Christopher: It’s very complicated. Like… this country often works in bizarre ways. Things other devs take for granted in North America, Europe, or even right here in Latin America, seem to be out of reach for us for some convoluted reason. Stuff like setting up a company is a long and tedious process, and receiving international payments it’s another issue thanks to the currency controls.
That’s not mentioning how hard is to get a visa to visit the US. We’ve been invited several times to PAX, but it’s impossible. Sorry if it sounds depressing but that’s what happens when you live here. And we better not touch the crime, food, and electricity problems because we’ll make Venezuela look like Midland.
Fernando: Not to mention stuff like medicine shortages, shops being barren or having no new stock. Rain season came just a bit ago and there’s flying pests like mosquitoes all over the place, which become a problem when you can’t find bug repellent and if you get sick from them medicines are really hard to come by.
Fernando: Even with the bare minimum and being healthy, there’s always a hit to the morale.
Diogo: So, how did 2 Venezuelan guys got together to create VA-11 HALL-A? What were the influences behind it as it was being developed?
Fernando: How we got together is actually a painfully simple story. Chris just asked me one day if I wanted to make games and I said yes. VA-11 Hall-A came to be when we wanted to participate in a game jam after graduating college. We spent at least 2 years trying to make our first big game, but fatigue was setting in. Making short games boosted our morale and we felt like we actually learned more. Then Cyberpunk Jam happened, a series of events followed and now here we are …I’m still figuring out what the fuck happened.
Christopher: That’s literally what happened, I still don’t know why I asked a guy I barely knew at the time if he wanted to make games. I guess you could say Stand users are attracted to each other. As for the influences… The idea for VA-11 HALL-A was born when I was in a cyberpunk mood of sorts. I had just watched Ghost in the Shell again, and during one of the sequences between acts I started to look at the people roaming the streets, the buildings and the atmosphere, and started to think: what if we actually get to meet the common people going through the pains of a cyberpunk dystopia? Then remembered the bar scene in Blade Runner, and I thought it was the perfect setting. What if you’re not the hero, but the one bartender who’s always there to talk about the latest gossip? Boom, VA-11 HALL-A was born. This happened the same day we saw the Cyberpunk Jam and felt like it was destiny. However, for the overall feel we didn’t go for a super serious affair, and instead went for a more “goofy” visual style, leaning more towards Bubblegum Crisis than, say, Akira or Ghost in the Shell.
Fernando: This is also a way to reflect a statement against most dystopian works. You’re always a hero fighting against the system, but those that aren’t heroes might as well be cardboard cutouts. They have no consequence, they’re either a mass of sheep or a blurb of depressed people. But even in the direst situations people try to make the best of what they got. Even with all we said about the country, we’re still here. We’re not heroes of any sort, nor part of any resistance. That doesn’t mean we are sheep just accepting whatever comes, but we’re just human, and there’s things beyond our control. The situation isn’t dandy, but here we are. Chatting, playing games, posting funny pics on the internet, and making the best with what we have. Being in this sort of situation made us think more about the common folk in those settings over the “leaders of the next evolution of humanity.” So yeah, our current situation influenced a lot of what you see in the game.
Christopher: Yep, you could say VA-11 HALL-A reflects a lot about the state of our country. About people trying to be happy in the middle of a dire situation. Optimism plays a huge part of the story, and while it may seem a bit ridiculous due to the waifu schtick and talking dogs, it’s actually part of what we want to transmit. That you can laugh, cry, and even find love among the chaos.
Diogo: Mentioning the dog, a drunk racist corgi. Do I sense a bit of Cowboy Bebop there?
Fernando: EIN IS LOVE
Diogo: EIN IS LIFE
Alexis: On the subject of characters, Jill is the focal point of VA-11 HALL-A, with all the stories being experienced from her point of view. Is she simply a conduit to tell a bunch of stories, or does she throughout the course of the game experience some form of growth?
Fernando: Jill does go through growth, she does have development over the course of the game. But it’s not something that takes 100% of the time. In fact, one of the things we wanted to take care of was that the player got to know Jill better at the same time as the other clients. There will be key points in the plot, but overall the development will be equal parts getting to know Jill better and Jill’s subplot. All the while getting to know the clients better too.
Christopher: We’re very excited though. Her story is quite the ride, and we can’t wait to see the player’s reactions to it.
Diogo: Speaking of story, you guys are veritable shitposters, anime nerds, and overall geeks. How much of it will transpire into the story? Are we to expect rabid Tumblr beasts being offended over characters like Alma using words like “fuckboy”? Plot wise, there’s even references to White Knights.
Christopher: White Knights is because the name sounds badass, haha.
Fernando: There’s even a game called White Knight Chronicles when you get down to it.
Christopher: But to be frank, we’re not thinking about that very much. We wrote this game while forgetting the common limits of video game narrative. What I mean with that is… that most games have this invisible barrier that a lot of developers are afraid to break. And I’m not talking about being offensive or making jokes to spite people, but rather in the themes they touch. Jill for example… fuck, I don’t even know if there’s a character like her in this medium. I can think of characters like Misato Katsuragi from Evangelion, which is designed as a pretty girl, but she has flaws, lots of them. Has a sexual life of her own, she is a fully realized fictional character, and not just a pretty face made to please the viewer. But she’s in the anime medium!
Alexis: So you’re saying Jill has a sexual life of her own?
Christopher: Well, that’s normal for people in their drinking age right? it makes sense, she’s a single, 27 year old woman living on this small-ass apartment in some shitty city. You gotta find some fun. So what I was trying to say is that most devs are enclosed in this invisible limit of sorts. Where characters can’t be more than just caricatures. Whereas characters in anime, manga, movies, etc. they’re fleshed out in more “real” ways. And we want to try and make more real characters. Think of the difference between Killer7 and God of War, we want to be Killer7.
Alexis: On to another aspect of the game, one of the best things about the game is its soundtrack. When listening to it I had some very heavy Shin Megami Tensei vibes. I know Garoad is behind the games’ soundtrack-did you give him directions on how what you wanted the soundtrack to be like or did he just have glimpses of the game and work from the game’s theme and art direction?
Fernando: Yeah, we just let him be for the most part. He got the feel and ambiance of the game and rolled with it. It also helped that his specialty just so happened to fit like a glove with the game. I think the most direction we gave him was “We need a song for this or that situation”. The in-game jukebox also meant that he could make songs he thought were cool regardless of context and we could add them with no problem.
Christopher: Right, the jukebox gave Michael a lot of liberty in that regard. And I was never too specific with our music needs, so I don’t know if it made things complicated for him! Most of the time he’d came up with a song and say “I think this might fit for a sad scene” and I was like “holy shit yes,” but sometimes we didn’t have ideas for that sad scene haha, so in parts his music inspired scenes that weren’t there, and exist purely because he made a song for that mood. I think the ending is a good example of that.
Fernando: When writing it (Fun fact: It took a fucking week) my main direction was “What does this song make you feel?”
Christopher: The ending was by far the most complicated endeavor in this game, and a vital part of that creative process was feeling what the song was trying to convey.
Diogo: To finish up the interview, any words you want to say to the gamers that buy the game?
Fernando: We made the game thinking about the player sitting back and relaxing. So… please do exactly that. Enjoy it at your own pace.
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VA-11 HALL-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action
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