Queer Spaces and Drug-dream Fantasy

Blake is a fiction writer and freelancer crawling the internet at the witching hour. His work focuses on obscure internet subcultures, queer identity, and literature. Follow Blake on TwitterMore about Blake

I first played VA-11 HALL-A (pronounced Valhalla, like the Norse hall of gods) the day it released while I was living in an indoor patio used to house dog kennels. I only had a mattress to my name and ate instant noodles just to survive. Such is the life that VA-11 HALL-A’s protagonist, Jill, lives in her pursuit to pay rent by the end of the month during a financial crisis plaguing Glitch City. This title is as much about escapist-fantasy as it is about survival all while trying to maintain a positive outlook on life. It’s a bittersweet title that wastes no time strapping its player into a queer world of cyberpunk nostalgia, winding conversations about life, and flirtatious drink-mixing. VA-11 HALL-A is preoccupied with the question of what does capitalism ultimately give us, and what do we receive in exchange for not just our physical labor, but our emotional labor, too. The dive-bar setting of VA-11 HALL-A provides us a queer notion of time and space outside patriarchal definitions of linearity, heteronormativity, and most importantly, our relationship with language in a society that prioritizes work above all else. Glitch City is a bubble, albeit one that allows a voyeuristic gaze into the rare escapism it allows its citizens — an escapism rooted into the aesthetics of cyberpunk fantasy, nostalgia for the past, and the lovingly crafted mechanisms of anime drink-mixing.

Dive-Bars and Anti-Capitalist Fantasy

In an interview with Kill Screen, game designer Christopher Ortiz comments that the depiction of bars in VA-11 HALL-A “is based in our experience of living in a third world country, where it’s natural to look for a place where you can be happy without the constant bad news.” Which is to say, the bars of Glitch City are a safe haven away from the despair of poverty, military, and political corruption. But what exactly constitutes a safe space — and what does that look like, not only in the aesthetics of a PC-98 inspired video game, but in mechanics and play-style as well? Cyberpunk as of late has been popular, especially within marginalized groups producing queer speculative fiction — however in the realm of games, publicity for titles such as Cyberpunk 2077 have unfortunately been tainted by transphobic jokes rather than embracing the diversity of cyberpunk’s fanbase. However, despite these controversies queer communities of course still embrace the cyberpunk aesthetic, and still support its escapist ideals of what the future holds for our bodies, technology, and relationship to late-capitalist structures. As the dive bar setting in VA-11 HALL-A shows, the cyberpunk genre is fully capable of embracing a queer sense of time and space that doesn’t fully adhere to heteronormative or capitalist notions of linearity — an inheritance the game freely plays with in its colorful cast of characters and deceptively simple gameplay.

The foundational mechanism of VA-11 HALL-A is its drag and drop liquor mixing system, which requires the player to click on an ingredient, drop it into the mixing machine, and memorize basic recipes. It’s a task anyone who has worked in food service can relate to, and once you get the hang of it, it’s easy to get lost in the rhythm. This introduces a secondary mechanic — paying attention to conversations. With a wide range of regular customers, such as computer programmer Alma, newspaper editor Donovan D, and robot sex worker Dorothy, our protagonist Jill has no time to be bored. Listening to the needs of our patrons is the duty of the bartenders of the dive-bar VA-11 HALL-A — and whether you’re up for it or not, your customers are your paycheck.

VA-11 HALL-A uses the aesthetics of cyberpunk and early Japanese PC-98 visual novel adventure games to convey a contemporary disillusionment with capitalism while also constructing a safe space for its characters. This anxiety is portrayed in the characters of Stella, a catgirl cyborg, and Sei, member of the city’s White Knight Army—who constantly fret over one another. Sei is just one of Jill’s many patrons who has a knack for mixed drinks and a strong sense of justice despite Glitch City’s political corruption. However, none of that particularly matters when it’s time to relax after work — in fact, Sei would rather keep work and pleasure separate, gesturing at a strong inclination that bars are for escapism. She also rather spend her drinking time with Stella, who is suggested to also have romantic feelings for her. VA-11 HALL-A is another entry into a pop culture landscape which has canonized bars as leisure spaces. The breadth of work on bars as leisure spaces, such as Kelly Hankin’s overview of the lesbian bar scene in her book Girls in the Back Room, and Jack Halberstam’s In A Queer Time and Place are but some of the contributions made to this field. As Hankin writes:

“[L]esbian bars offer lesbians so much more than just au courant drinks, pints of beer, and dancing [they] afford many women a rare opportunity to be demonstrative toward other women […] with the feeling that this behavior is both exhilarating and utterly run-of-the-mill.”

VA-11 HALL-A mirrors this adoption of lesbian bars as queer safe space for women such as Jill to express intimacy in nontraditional means, and to not just participate in the queer time and space, but become an active contributor. A queer sense of community is established in lesbian bars much in the same manner as Jill is allowed to openly flirt with other women while serving them drinks and encouraging healthy boundaries that keep Jill’s patrons coming back. Much like how lesbian bars are havens away from a rigidly heteronormative society, VA-11 HALL-A operates on the premise of promising a momentary escape from the rigid demands of labor in a society were capitalism has already failed.

On this topic, Halberstam argues the “there is such a thing as “queer time” and “queer space.” Queer uses of time and space develop, at least in part, in opposition to the institutions of family, heterosexuality, and reproduction. They also develop according to other logics of location, movement, and identification.” This is to say that those who identify as queer operate on their own definitions of time and space compared to those mandated by larger institutions, such as those in financial and political power. Halberstam also comments that notions of “[q]ueer time and space are useful frameworks for assessing political and cultural change in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries,” which aptly places us in the context of VA-11 HALL-A’s cyberpunk setting, a genre known for its Marxist influences. Even since the conception of classic texts such as William Gibson’s Neuromancer, the cyberpunk city setting has been diametrically opposed to the demands of late-capitalism. This opposition might at first glance fully work against the bar setting of VA-11 HALL-A, which is yet another business which keeps the city’s dystopia functioning. However, despite being a working member of society, Jill is still an individual skeptic of her own city and what demands the marketplace makes on her patrons, their bodies, and their emotional well-being. Rather than work their bodies to the bone and forfeit themselves as cogs in a labor machine, the characters of VA-11 HALL-A admit to needing a break — they rebel by drinking booze and contemplating whether or not their jobs make them happy.

If we view these conversations Jill has with her patrons in terms of mechanics, we can easily see how using the other mechanic of drink-mixing might influences the outcome of dialogue trees and plot progression. For example, if you are able to correctly mix enough of the right drink without being explicitly prompted, characters will either give Jill an exclusive item to unlock a special scene or ending. The queer time and space of VA-11 HALL-A exists in this unprecedented demand that the player keep a close eye on their customer’s language and ticks, and what pleases them despite the dystopia outside. This mechanic of watching your customer’s intoxication isn’t explicitly explained, but becomes apparent on multiple playthroughs — since the player isn’t given any slaps on the wrists for messing up orders other than receiving a smaller paycheck.

Jill can mess up, yes, but the implications aren’t simply getting an order wrong. Rather, it’s changing the entire emotional makeup of a person if they get too drunk or too depressed when Jill’s on the clock. The player becomes the spectator to all and has to decide whether or not to act further through the primary mechanic of drink-mixing. Playing this game for the first time, I felt as though I was watching a television show. But the second time around, I had a constant nervous itch to see how drastically I could change dialogue branches. The passage of time allowed me to clearly see the intent of VA-11 HALL-A’s developers — besides a few scripted cutscenes, the dialogue I receive from my patrons was entirely in my hands.

The “queer time and space” portrayed in the PC-98 inspired graphical frame is not just visual, but metaphoric — as much as the player is influencing Jill’s actions, they are still merely a voyeur to her snark and banter. The intimate moment of attraction between non-playable characters is only observed by Jill — her romantic desires are left open for speculation, unless Jill adds more alcohol to a drink in her poor attempt at flirting. Jill is aware of what the bar means to her patrons, what it means to escape an economic crisis for the fantasy of an easy-going life, and what it means to share your secrets in the dark. She’s part non-playable protagonist, part confidant for VA-11 HALL-A’s most vulnerable customers.

Dialect of Karmotrine

In her essay Playing Outside, Leigh Alexander writes: “The downside of developing a lexicon that only you and your friends value and understand is that it’s by definition inscrutable to everyone else.” Alexander is speaking to the enclaves of gaming circles online focusing on a particular title of subset of first-person shooter games, however the same dialogue can be applied to the subject of queer mechanics in VA-11 HALL-A. Only occasionally is Jill confronted with the implications that maybe getting someone too drunk is a bad idea — but explicit dialogue options are non-existent. Jill can only speak with this drink-mixing mechanism outside of automatic cutscene dialogue. A simple “no, you shouldn’t get drunk” might take the form of avoiding putting “Karmotrine” (the alcohol-containing ingredient in VA-11 HALL-A’s menu) in someone’s drink. It’s an active, mechanism-based response for a passive, dialogue-based answer. The lexicon of VA-11 HALL-A are these menu items: Adelhyde, Bronson, Powered Delta, Flanergide, and of course, Karmotrine. These names just roll off the tongue. They’re also the tools in which the player has to converse with the character in place of dialogue options. It’s a lexicon that is “by definition inscrutable to everyone else” — only the player, Jill, and her other bartending associates know exactly what these ingredients mean, what they contain in the mixes.

In her essay A Future Free of Dickwolves, Adrienne Shaw writes:

“[W]e cannot only look to the commercial sphere for equality, much less liberation. At the same time, we cannot simply argue for the importance of media representation of marginalized groups without an eye towards commercial concerns. Inclinations towards diversity in media, whether political or artistic, are tempered by the demands of capitalistic enterprise.”

VA-11 HALL-A is an indie title with commercial interests, but it doesn’t follow the ploys of traditional commercial, straight-facing visual novels in order to achieve those goals. It’s an indie undertaking playing with the aesthetics of nostalgia for a bygone era of Japanese PC-98 games. Shaw points out that “inclinations towards diversity” must be, in some sense, pushed by the promise of capitalist gain. Which is to say that VA-11 HALL-A knows its audience by tapping into the unspoken subtext of PC visual novels, which have historically been centered on boy-girl heteronormative romance stories (which sell). Characters such as Alma and Dorothy show romantic interests in Jill, and the transfiguration of bodies through cyborg implants and surgery is mentioned as typical in Glitch City. The body is as customizable in VA-11 HALL-A as the drinks — it plays with the binaries established by the PC-98 era of visual novels with a playful, yet caustic tone. VA-11 HALL-A laughs in the face of commercial visual novels while still wearing their aesthetics, its point-and-click mechanics, all the while subverting the basic tropes of heteronormality and adherence to a pro-capitalist agenda.

The queerness of VA-11 HALL-A’s mechanisms speak in tandem with its roster of characters — subtle, but never subtext — a flip-of-the-wrist gesture at what queer futurism might look like when capitalism has already failed the game’s world. The cyberpunk setting as a queer place and time relies on a pliable understanding of what even constitutes narrative in the first place. VA-11 HALL-A’s “booze ‘em up” catchphrase best summarizes its storytelling philosophy. It doesn’t rely on traditional hand-holding methodologies of telling the player its mechanisms, but encourages experimentation and fluidity, a queer mold of gameplay that doesn’t confine players to a “right” or “wrong” way of playing. VA-11 HALL-A happily marries visual novels and point-and-click titles with a new twist on their basic mechanic foundations. A future free from the constraints of capitalism allows for this queer space and time for play between characters, but only momentarily — only until Jill returns home and her patrons return to their day-jobs. Of all the cyberpunk titles currently available, VA-11 HALL-A is one of the rare, safe drug-dream fantasies to play in for the unassuming queer patron.

Works Cited

Alexander, Leigh. “Playing Outside.” The New Inquiry, 2013.

Alexandra, Heather. “Cyberpunk 2077 Tweets Transphobic Joke, Studio Apologizes ‘To All Those Offended’Kotaku, 2018.

Gibson, William. Neuromancer. Ace, 1984.

Halberstam, Jack. In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives. NYU Press, 2005.

Hankin, Kelly. Girls in the Back Room: Looking at the Lesbian Bar. University of Minnesota Press, 2002.

Joho, Jess, “VA-11 HA-LL-A, Where the Everyday People of Cyberpunk Dystopia Go to Be Heard.” Kill Screen, 2015.

Shaw, Adrienne. “Conclusion: A Future Free of Dickwolves.” Gaming at the Edge: Sexuality and Gender at the Margins of Gamer Culture. University of Minnesota Press, 2015.