VA-11 HALL-A from Sukeban Games features a future UseNet group on which games by Sukeban are criticised for lacking any gameplay. So you can’t say they didn’t realise, but can that self-awareness excuse a near-absence of interactivity?

Even by visual novel standards, this is light. There are hardly any decisions to make that are of consequence and just a few brief riddles, which couldn’t really be called puzzles. But somehow it finds something to offer, demonstrating the endlessness of the fringes of what games can be.

Marketing copy described VA-11 HALL-A as “waifu bartending”, provoking dread that it was going to pander to the typical old teen-boy vices. But the game’s online FAQ confesses “the waifu thing is just an epic prank to make people buy this game.” Phew.

You play as Jill, a 27-year-old bartender, written with a well-contoured background, motivations and impulses. You slave in a grungy dive bar, sheltered from a future-dystopian metropolis, struggling to pay the bills. The game’s limited visual content shows you almost nothing of the city, so it’s down to dialogue and phone-read web snippets to convey the Tokyo-flavoured cocktail of Blade Runner, Akira and Wicked City that rages behind the doors.

Clients in the bar are convincingly portrayed and worth getting to know. Their variety is impressive – you get a cat-woman, a robot sex-worker, a slimeball trash-news website editor, a virtual idol, a 24/7 video streamer… and all as multifaceted in conversation as they are superficially distinctive. Many are sex-obsessed women, sure, but not in a lecherous way. Compared to other videogame treatises on the same subject matter, the fixation on breasts and sex toys plays out with surprising grace.

So those are the dark and the dinge and the downtrodden lives in which VA-11 HALL-A tells its story – which it does in an unusual and creative way. Rather than squishing some cutscenes into the middle of the play or prompting the player to choose a branch of narrative – or stirring those two together – VA-11 HALL-A shakes things up. Instead of gameplay poured over entirely separable cutscenes, it’s one large cutscene with an entirely separable gameplay chaser.

As the world and events roll out through dialogue, customers pause their spiel to order drinks. You look up the recipes and get mixing. No significant skill is required – and you get unlimited repeat attempts anyway. The bartending is literally relegated to a sidebar, the interface hanging around on the right of the screen even when you’re not doing it. A rudimentary shopping system between shifts allows you to pick out some characterful baubles for the tiny depiction of your apartment that you see once a day, too.

Retail therapy and mixology can steer the direction of the story but are actually of limited and obscure consequence. You can set the music on the jukebox, too. That has no impact at all on the story, but it’s a way for you to project your own tone onto the game. That’s how the bartending ends up feeling: it may not be of enormous impact in the game, but that doesn’t preclude it from having some emotional meaning.

So, does VA-11 HALL-A’s unique approach to interactive fiction actually work? Yes, but not entirely painlessly. You get a compelling atmosphere; you get sympathy for the day-to-day job of the protagonist. Most of all, you get to know your fellow midnight down-and-outs across an underground bar. What you don’t get is a clear story arc. Things don’t really build to a climax and it’s not apparent how far you are from the end until you walk right into it.

As interactive fiction, it’s far more fiction than it is interactive – only barely a game, really. It’s very telling that screen real-estate is squandered, sacrificing acres to persistent borders, occasional 4:3 segments, a large logo of the game almost constantly staking out the top-right corner, and the ever-presence of unneeded controls. It’s all harking back to the FM Towns / PC-88/98 era of Japanese visual novels, but that’s one heck of a tight niche and the formerly-memory-saving shrinking of the main play window is perhaps a step too far in the name of authenticity.

There are plenty of positives, though. The writing is confident, choosing to focus on world-building over narrative exposition. Clients bring plenty of saucy remarks and innuendo – but the bar setting provides the excuse for that. Plus the sauce comes from all genders and sexual orientations, supplying a sort of moral-get-out egalitarianism to the player’s voyeurism. The variety in the clientele and the vagueness of their intentions also allows you to project your own desires onto Jill. You can then privately imbue your drink mixes with meaning to match your own feelings towards the customer. A lot is left to the imagination, like a safe do-si-do of puritanical courtship that lets simmer the passions propriety forbids.

The insubstantial chitter-chatter of horny drunks is also the perfect camouflage for sophomoric writing. That fact isn’t abused but it does paper over the cracks when a line of dialogue might otherwise draw a cringe. Cringing, in general, is quite well avoided, though. When it comes to sex in the visual novel genre, you usually just have to hope and pray they don’t go there. VA-11 HALL-A has gone there and opened a bar, with a confidence that’s a breath of fresh air.

Conclusion

For visual novel fans, VA-11 HALL-A is definitely refreshing and distinctive enough to be worth your time. It’s also ideal to play handheld on Switch: touchscreen, Joy-Con, HD rumble, pick-up-and-playability and a close-up screen for reading all add to the experience. If you don’t usually go for visual novels then it’s back to our starting question: can VA-11 HALL-A be excused its lack of gameplay? If you’re happy to try it just for a story, then you’ll be delighted. Delighted enough to read it through six times in search of alternate endings? Probably not. But, like a good cocktail, its flavour lingers after the final sip – so sometimes one is enough.