Valhalla is quieter than I expected it would be. The tables and chairs nestled in the quiet nooks and along the walls serve as window dressing, the bar rarely busy enough to require more than a handful of stools. Clients sit and talk to me about their lives, and I make mild observations or comments as I see fit. Amidst our chatter, I mix drinks.
This is the nature of Valhalla. No matter what happens outside of the walls, it remains a tranquil place of mixed drinks and quiet conversation. Though it is my job while I am here, this place feels alien.
By their very nature, games seem to be adversarial. Whether by physical force or problem resolution, games seem to center around giving the player challenges to overcome. Conflict is an integral part of narratives, but the side effect is that games have few moments that aren’t encountering new, frequent challenges. Mental anguish is personified by aggressors in metaphorical landscapes, physical threats are immediate and violent, and even dialog is poised as two diametrically opposed sides. In our games, we are aggressors, our minds are traps, our words are weapons, and it is our destiny to defeat whatever challenge we encounter.
Life isn’t entirely hurdles, but our games tend to be. Games rarely have quiet moments, and conflicts are always present. It lands games in the position of always having some new problem to resolve or some obstacle to overcome, or hastily giving the player one so the narrative stress never gets very low.
An example that sticks with me is a public argument later on in Deus Ex: Human Revolution, in which the protagonist Jensen must argue with William Taggart, the figurehead of a resistance debating the nature of humans and humanity in a world with cybernetics. As a famously heavily cyberized figure in the Deus Ex world, Jensen is a figure that stands in mutual opposition to what Humanity Front believes in. Because of his augmentations, he is not “human” in the most literal sense by this group’s beliefs.
As a result of his cybernetic parts, Jensen is poised as a symbol of opposition. It paints the discussion as adversarial in nature. For the player, the dialogue exchange becomes about establishing a position of power in front of the press and using that power to leverage the information Jensen needs. It is a duel of sorts, and one that Jensen is narratively required to win because his current objective necessitates that information. Mechanically, Jensen must weaponize his words and leverage power over another. There is no version of this discussion in which it is a conversation or a sharing of ideas. Words are weapons.
But conversation in life is rarely so combative. People discuss to explain points of view or impart perspectives, without the need to establish a conversational “winner” or “loser.” Exchanging dialog can be to establish a position’s “correctness,” as with debates, but more frequently conversation is to explore personalities, impart information, or encourage socialization. In games, these conversations are rare. Instead, characters mostly deliver exposition or staging for upcoming conflicts.
Which brings me back to the cool-colored walls of Valhalla. VA-11 HALL-A is a videogame about talking with bar patrons as their bartender. The primary play mechanic, such as one exists, involves mixing drinks for clients. However, unlike most games of this stripe, recipes are never concealed from the player, nor is the player on a timer, or are there limits to how many times a player can attempt a recipe, or is there timing or difficult inputs to make more complex drinks. There is nothing preventing a player from looking up the recipe to a drink request, at every drink request, throughout the entire game. It’s a simple mechanic, and it isn’t the intended drive to keep me playing.
Between drinks, I chat with the client whose drinks I’m making. These conversations happen mostly as one might imagine. Initial conversations have a lot to say on the subject of hobbies or professions, or some details about a person’s physical appearance—all standard introductory conversation that is familiar to anyone who’s ever had to make small talk. Later client interactions tend to get more direct about distinct aspects or more deeply held hobbies, but these conversations rarely last longer than a handful of minutes and half as many drinks. People come and go as they drink, pay, and leave, and my behavior really has little to do with whether they stay or go. I’m not here to make this bar worth attending, nor does my input have anything to do with the way the game evolves. It will happen regardless of what I do; I’m just here as a conversant in a world full of personalities.
In a way, the game is technically robbing me of any agency I might exert on the world, but the consequence of my lack of agency is that I get to be a part of a compelling experience without being the sole driving force. I am a part of the story, certainly, but my contribution isn’t what makes the story possible. I am simply talking to people as they come into the bar. The world outside of the blue bricks and purple lights aren’t really my concern.
It’s a game in which I am simply having conversations. Unlike most games, were I to change places with the protagonist of this game the events of the game wouldn’t change. Discussion topics would probably nominally change, but not the outcome for the world at large. I could not manage to outwit a well-spoken, professional orator of an entire movement as the symbol this movement stands against. I could not climb leap from a derailed train car onto a mountain ledge in the snow, climbing to my precarious safety as men with guns search for me. I could, however, have these sorts of conversations in a quiet bar.
It’s a strange feeling to have a game world in which I could participate with the same ability and confidence as the main character. Participating in this world doesn’t need a hero, a warrior, a skilled orator, or a master tactician. It’s a game that better encapsulates the feeling of second-person than many I’ve played, more than a handful of which have been written in second person. The discussions I’m participating in aren’t words of conflict that I’m using to establish dominance to execute a goal. I am not trying to corner a market. I am not trying to make mine the most powerful guild. I am not trying to win at talking.
I’m just talking.
Written for Critical Distance‘s Blogs of the Round Table under the “Words” theme. If this is up your alley, go give the other pieces a read.
Taylor Hidalgo is a freelance writer and editor. He enjoys finding games that challenge the assumptions and formulas, and also enjoys games that adhere strictly to their formulas. You can find more of his writing on this site, and also pass by and say “Hi” on Twitter.