If you’re an anime fan, a visual novel developer, or an avid indie gamer, Sukeban Games needs no introduction. The Venezuelan indie team’s VA-11 Hall-A (pronounced “Valhalla”) introduced players to a cyberpunk dystopia that combines futuristic bartending with day-to-day life among working- and lower-middle-class patrons. After the game launched in 2016, it became a hallmark of the visual novel genre. Now the team is back with a new title, N1RV Ann-A. Or “Nirvana,” if you will.
Like VA-11 Hall-A, N1RV Ann-A casts players as a bartender at the titular lounge. Gameplay revolves around mixing ingredients for drinks that match patrons’ requests, with different narrative options depending on the player’s choices. But N1RV Ann-A isn’t so much a sequel as it is a “companion piece” to the first game.
While VA-11 Hall-A focused on a dive bar selling synthetic alcohol in the turbulent metropolis Glitch City, N1RV Ann-A takes place in an artificial city in the Caribbean called Saint Alicia. The city is flourishing economically thanks to tech ventures in “environmental climate control,” so instead of serving down-and-out journalists and kind-hearted bodyguards, players will be pouring vodka, rum, and other liquors for “the common folk that work directly into making sure the big hats get the life they think they deserve.”
“With VA-11 Hall-A, we tried to put the spotlight on a neglected part of [cyberpunk], on the unextraordinary common folk at the bottom of the societal food chain—not about the heroes existing outside of the norms of society, but the regular folks trying to live their life to the fullest in spite of their lot in life,” Sukeban co-founder and N1RV Ann-A writer Fernando Damas told the Daily Dot. “The core philosophies that drove the narrative of the first game are still there but we’re switching the backdrop it all takes place in.”
VA-11 Hall-A is still a divisive game among games critics: Either you love its laid-back mechanics, nuanced characters, and tongue-in-cheek writing, or the whole experience falls flat. N1RV Ann-A may not convince naysayers to give the franchise a shot, although the title’s PAX East demo showed a significant improvement on the first game’s weak spots. The writing is smoother, NPC interactions are more organic, and the setting feels much less like a love letter to cyberpunk dystopian anime and more like its own living, breathing world. There are new ways to interact with patrons beyond simply mixing booze, too. You can choose to be funny, understanding, or even flirty with clients. It’s a neat way of conveying the emotional labor that goes into bartending, as keeping your patrons engaged is partially about knowing how to chat with them.
“When VA-11 Hall-A came out we were filled with dread; it felt like an insurmountable accomplishment, but ever since then we’ve grown enough to see where we failed and where we could improve,” Damas said. “While we can’t talk about specifics yet, it’s safe to say the players can expect a more complete and polished reiteration of what VA-11 Hall-A set out to do, both in gameplay and writing.”
N1RV Ann-A still has its predecessor’s flair for memorable characters. Olivia, the demo’s nonplayer-character, is a biotech corporation manager caught between higher-up executives, sabotage from other departments, and the new female hirers that she feels animosity toward for being green. Sam, the game’s bartender and player-character, exchanges stories with the middle manager as she talks about her past as an adolescent swindler scamming tourists. It’s a realistic moment of two very people from very different lives crossing paths, one that feels relatable to any drinker who’s ever chatted with a bartender on a slow night.
Damas says the game’s characters are supposed to feel “lived-in,” as if Sam is not necessarily a player-character insert, but a member of a world that already exists. She’s also a foil to VA-11 Hall-A’s bartender, Jill, a 20-something post-grad at a crossroads in her personal life.
“Sam has been built as Jill’s opposite, be it physically, mentally, or even professionally. She’s been made to contrast Jill and paint the bigger overall picture with her colors. And with this base and the setting in mind, we started making her fit into that world—how she became who she was, what she went through, what might be haunting her from her past, how she fits inside the setting,” Damas explained. “We don’t usually go out of our way to heavily research for characters; we prefer to use the things we’ve learned from people we know and try to make them feel more natural than a walking thesis of stuff we read somewhere.”
One of VA-11 Hall-A’s most memorable attributes is its openly queer characters: The game’s main plot follows Jill’s life after breaking things off with her long-term girlfriend. One particular stand out character is Dorothy, the 20-something robot sex worker who openly talks about her job (and regularly flirts with Jill). In the middle of the game’s plot, Jill’s boss books Dorothy to stay with the player character overnight and provide her comfort. Half a decade later, her realistic representation of both full-service providers and sex work is still rare in games.
When asked if fans can look forward to more nuanced queer characters, sex workers, or even trans women, Damas gave an equally rare response: “We’ll let the game speak for us.”
“We believe actions speak louder than words, and we want people to approach N1RV Ann-A with as much of an open mind as possible, expecting anything and everything,” he told the Daily Dot. “So we’ll save comments on this front for now.”
In the west, LGBTQ characters are usually teased by eager marketing teams hoping to gain hype from marginalized consumers. By treating these groups as an intricate part of the game that must be understood through experiencing their stories, Sukeban is letting their characters stand on their own merits. It’s fitting, given how N1RV Ann-A is much more interested in speaking truth to power by showing how power flows through everyday life.
“It’s kinda wild how VA-11 Hall-A has kept the attention of so many people for so long, and even if it’s led to us growing, it’s still a snapshot of who we were during that period of our lives,” Damas said. “With N1RV Ann-A and our future projects we intend to give everyone a window into how we’ve grown creatively, professionally, and as people in the years since.”
With any luck, that growth includes even better queer characters and cyberpunk sex workers.
N1RV Ann-A is planned for a 2020 release on PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, and PC. For updates, follow Sukeban Games on Twitter.