2019 was an absolute garbage fire of a year, and yet I can’t help but feel a pang of
disappointment in my chest now that it’s gone. After all, the cyberpunk visions of 2019
as established by 1982’s Blade Runner and 1988’s Akira were chock full of advanced
artificial intelligence, and some really cool motorcycles. We got none of it, and I’m just
as bummed as you are.
the last four years. Both of them are set in comparable dystopian futures, drenched in rain
and blazing with the light of a hundred thousand neon signs. And both of them are
Yup. Both titles have gameplay loops that revolve around the time-honored
tradition of slinging drinks to those in need of refreshment, and they’re both brilliantly
The act of bartending serves as the narrative catalyst for both titles. The Red Strings Club
puts you in the shoes of a bartend-meets-information-broker, coaxing secrets out of
corporate officials through liquor and witty rapport. VA-11 HALL-A focuses more on
personal stories told through the menagerie of quirky characters you serve cyber-booze
to, and the complicated lives they lead.
It’s important to remember that a majority of the appeal of cyberpunk comes from
its “grimdark” aesthetic. These aren’t kind visions of the future. As a genre, cyberpunk
revels in the amplification of current-day class struggles. In these worlds, the wealthy and
powerful live in shining skyscrapers towering above sprawling megacities, full of a
forgotten civilian populous struggling to get by.
The decision to shape our view of these dystopian worlds through the eyes of a
bartender is genius. There’s no reason for your character to know the central conflicts of
these stories right away, because you’re a bartender. Too often, video games require
players to buy into their conflicts before we’ve developed a reason to care about them.
Sure, the fate of the world might be at stake, but what does that matter if I don’t know
who’s at stake? Who’s going to be affected by my actions?
By placing you firmly in the most mundane aspect of these worlds, these games
open your eyes to a much more digestible conflict, one that comes piece by piece with
every customer who walks through your doors. This slow burn lets you invest yourself in
the world through the characters, rather than asking the player to grasp at lore-heavy
story beats in order to understand NPC motivations.
The Red Strings Club and VA-11 HALL-A shine brightest in communicating the
struggles of everyday people. The eponymous bars in both games are places where
people come to languish in the agony of a system that’s forgotten them, commiserate, and
generally get wasted. And, as in real life, people tend to overshare when full of liquid
In VA-11 HALL-A, I felt like I was having a real conversation with the NPCs, not
just trading lines of scripted dialogue. There’s a natural ebb and flow to dialogue,
structured around the pace of bar service. You chat for a bit, hit a narrative beat or
important character moment, and then serve another drink. Every time you learn
something about a character, it feels like they’ve actually opened up to you, ever the
There’s a moment in The Red Strings Club where you’re asked a series of questions after your patron leaves. Did they perceive you as a threat? Are they physically attracted to you? What’s their greatest passion? Other games might have merely relegated this quiz to a rote test of dialogue memorization. But here, these answers have to be inferred from your conversations with the customers. To get these questions right, you need to pay attention to how your patrons behave, how they talk, and how they drink. You’re rewarded for getting these questions right with in-game advantages, but the real reward is the satisfaction you feel from having accurately read your guests.
I can’t imagine that bartending games will take over as the most popular new
genre, but a part of me wishes they would. Both titles have such a clear understanding of
how to draw people into their universes, not with exposition dumps and cyber-lingo, but
by getting the player to engage with excellent characters. If you’re disappointed in the
recent Cyberpunk 2077 delays, play these to tide you over. Let’s just hope that CD
Project can marry gameplay and narrative so eloquently.
The Red Strings Club is a game by Deconstructeam, published by Devolver Games. You can pick it up on Steam, or through their itch.io page. VA-11 HALL-A was developed by Sukeban Games, published by Ysbyrd Games and AGM PLAYSIM, and can be purchased through Steam or itch.io as well.
Written by Caellum Kerr