Directionless on the Road to Independence: How VA-11 Hall-A’s Cyberpunk Dystopia Celebrates Complicated Women
I don’t think there’s a cyberpunk dystopia quite like Sukeban Games’s VA-11 Hall-A. Originally created as a submission for Cyberpunk Jam back in 2014, the visual novel saw a full release this summer to critical acclaim. Its graphics were gorgeous, its writing memorable, its characters entertaining, and its story heartwrenchingly sad. It was the perfect release to cap off the first half of 2016.
And I was depressed for days after I finished my playthrough.
It wasn’t because of the ending. I found it quite touching, and an excellent wrap-up to the game’s story. Rather, I didn’t want to leave Sukeban’s world. See, what Sukeban offers to its players is unique. From the nimble and muscular White Knight Sei to the cheery sex worker Dorothy, every female character in VA-11 Hall-A feels three-dimensional. The game is full of women from various walks of life, and Sukeban fleshes each woman out with a dynamic personality that one would hope to experience if, say, the game’s cyberpunk dystopia was real.
But that’s not the only reason I wanted to stay with VA-11 Hall-A’s characters. I think Jill, the game’s main character, had something to do with my attachment to the world in particular.
At first, Jill is presented as the eyes and ears of the player. True, while her deadpan humor is a hallmark of the bar, she seemingly serves as nothing more than a vessel for VA-11 Hall-A’s gameplay. But then things begin to change as the story progresses. More of her backstory is revealed. She tells her friends about her childhood, her bisexuality, her plunge into academia, her nervous breakdown on the cusp of her girlfriend’s overbearing nature, and the changes she made in her life to become Valhalla’s bartender. The player learns that Jill is a complex character, and VA-11 Hall-A makes it clear that she’s a flawed one, too. The fact that the game’s main arc shows the thought process and personal growth behind her decisions humanizes her as a female protagonist in a way that many games still struggle to do so, even today.
I graduated from college earlier this year after studying English literature for four years at a university in the Mid-Atlantic area. Unlike Sukeban’s developers, I’m a games journalist living in New Jersey. Many parts of VA-11 Hall-A are vastly different from the world I work and write in. But here and there, there’s certain aspects that feel familiar: Jill’s small living space; *Kira* Miki’s struggle with visibility; Dorothy’s concern for her safety; Sei’s desire to give back. Sure, I may not live in a cyberpunk dystopia, but I still deal with problems. Problems that VA-11 Hall-A’s characters understand, and struggle with in their own way.
It’s not just the experiences of VA-11 Hall-A’s characters, either. It’s also their personalities. Prior to the game’s beginning, Jill wanted to be told what to do with her life to the point that she nearly went to graduate school, intellectualizing her days away instead of living her life to the fullest as an individual. When she realized what she was doing to herself, she left her girlfriend and moved on to become a bartender. She broke away from her reliance on academia, and tried to live for herself. This doesn’t quite work out: Jill actually runs away from her problems for quite a long time throughout the game. But her struggles reveal her human desire to be independent and free, and live her life as a person outside of the confines and definitions that other people make for her.
I saw a lot of myself in Jill: that desire for self-determination, that need for independence at any costs, that struggle for autonomy that often moves in a zig-zag instead of a straight line. Sukeban’s developers may not understand my life experiences one-to-one, but they know how to create a female character that has lived through similar circumstances. And as a woman, that means so much to me.
So how could a game about a bar in a futuristic dystopian city-state appeal to a 22 year old female games journalist living in the United States? It’s simple: Sukeban cares. They care about creating interesting and complicated women. The game’s characters may live in a world vastly different from ours, but their female characters feel the same emotions and desires as we do. They feel like real people that any of us could know or meet in our lives. They have aspects of human life that are universal among women who strive for independence. They carry those values of stability and autonomy that all of us yearn for in our lives, even in the bleakest moments.
It’s hard to find complicated women in games. Even when they do appear, their presence is largely overshadowed by the fact that they tend to be one of the few major female characters in their game’s cast.
In the main storyline for BioShock: Infinite, for instance, only two women take the center stage: Elizabeth, and the elusive scientist Rosalind Lutece. While both Elizabeth and Rosalind are well-written women with various goals, ambitions, and concerns, the women around them are largely flat. Vox Populi leader Daisy Fitzroy consistently feels like a two-dimensional leader, and the game signals early on that she isn’t a trustworthy character due to her questionable ethics. Lady Comstock’s emergence into the game’s timeline is a fast and sudden occurrence, one that treats her more like a spectral influence on the plot (literally) than an actual character.
Granted, that’s not to say that BioShock: Infinite’s women are bad characters. But compared to the various men that emerge consistently throughout the plot, Infinite’s women feel outnumbered and one-note. This puts an added burden onto Elizabeth and Rosalind’s shoulders, because both women end up having to represent the rest of the women living and working in Columbia. The fewer women in a game, the more important the writing around each woman’s appearance must be. And it’s hard to relate to that.
But VA-11 Hall-A understands how important each and every female character is in its story. It respects the fact that women cannot simply advance the plot; they must behave in different ways, and struggle with their own unique problems.
Dorothy, for example, has an existential crisis towards the latter half of the game. Part of this revolves around the fact that she isn’t human; she’s a Lilim, a robot essentially programmed for sexual pleasure. Because this contrasts from her cheery personality, this leaves the player with the impression that Dorothy is a complicated woman with a complex way of thinking about the world.
This happens again and again throughout the game. Sei copes with being bullied by a White Knight by joining the force. The Lilim idol *Kira* Miki visits Valhalla to escape stardom by chatting with the local patrons. Jill’s boss Dana takes care of a troubled patron at the start of the game because she has a strong sense of right and wrong. VA-11 Hall-A is full of various different kinds of women, and Sukeban understands the fact that female characters respond to circumstances in various ways.
But instead of adding in one or two well-written women and populating the rest of the game with male characters, Sukeban celebrates the various different kinds of women that visit bars and pubs. This leaves VA-11 Hall-A feeling like a realistic experience for the player, one in which women actually have a sense of self-direction.
As I think about all of this, there’s an episode of merritt kopas’s podcast Woodland Secrets that comes to mind. In it, kopas and We Know the Devil illustrator Mia Schwartz are chatting about the way people respond to representation in games, and how the queer community should be looking towards stories that tackle queer life in a realistic light, as opposed to imposing queer readings onto popular works. Granted, VA-11 Hall-A doesn’t quite hit the mark they’re looking for: Schwartz and kopas argue that players should be supporting narratives by and for marginalized people. And VA-11 Hall-A wasn’t created by and for women.
But I think VA-11 Hall-A still provides a good solution to the broadly feminist version of that problem. Instead of looking for well-rounded female characters from popular games that, well, might not handle women well, we should be celebrating games that have a strong hold on writing female characters from the start. We should be supporting and parading games that hold women up as dynamic and complicated people.
VA-11 Hall-A gets that, and I relate to it for that reason. It shows me that women can be flawed and complicated people, just like myself. For a genre that struggles with women, Sukeban has created a cyberpunk dystopia that has a space for a person like myself. And a space for all the other women, too, who feel directionless on the road to independence.
Image via Sukeban Games
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Ana Valens is a freelance games critic and Advisor for FemHype. Her work focuses on the relationships that players build with their favorite characters and worlds. Her writing can be seen on ZEAL, Kill Screen, The Toast, and Bitch Media. She is currently working on a visual novel about body horror and emotional trauma. For more of her writing, check out her Twitter @SpaceDoctorPhD.
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