You know, as much as cyberpunk likes to tell you about gaps between the rich and the poor, you don’t actually see the rich that much. Many times the rich might just be a myth for all you know. And when they do show up they’re really flat characters or just plain villains by default.
So what if we explored the idea of rich people in a cyberpunk setting?
Back in the early development of VA-11 Hall-A’s full version, at a point where we just managed to spit out a demo and were confident enough to start the full version, we ran into a very particular problem.
We knew we wanted to make character-focused plots like with the prototype, but we needed a way to string them all together on an in-game day. We were working on day 1 and we had Donovan, Ingram, and Sei almost fully written but we didn’t know how to contextualize them together.
Then Kiririn just said “Well, how does Pawn Stars do it?”.
On August 19th 2014 we released Prologue as an experiment of sorts. We wanted to test the grounds of a full release (in which we found out the glass ceiling of RenPy… which we’ll discuss at a later date). We also wanted to release… something, anything. Not helped by the fact that people were expecting the game like it had been years in development or something.
And even if she’s not as much of a central figure of the plot in the final version, Betty was for all intents and purposes a trailblazer for us. She’s a very important character in VA-11 Hall-A’s development history.
We made her birthday the Prologue release anniversary for a reason, so let’s talk about Betty.
When I was reading RINE messages in Steins;Gate 0, I found myself answering as soon as I got them. But anyone that has interacted with me knows I’m extremely bad with email (though I’ve never really told anyone the reason behind that. And I won’t be telling it now, that’s for sure).
It made me think how I personally think we can’t fully be ourselves when given the choice in a videogame. This is because when you play a game, you get rewarded for doing good things. Of course, this is not the case with every game, for example those where you play as a criminal. However, in games with a bit more leeway in the morality scale, such as Catherine, or even Steins;Gate, and outside of the personal choices of the characters, I feel like there is no genuine way to make the player act like they do in real life.
For example, when you play Catherine, and knowing there are several outcomes depending on your choices, you instinctively seek for the good answers, those that go for the blue, the color of the nice people, instead of red – and this is only from a morality standpoint, mind you, because I know a lot of people would go red because that meant staying with Catherine.
When playing Steins;Gate, I answer messages as soon as I see them, and my only true, benign act when I do so is choosing what to say depending on the moment. If Okabe, the game’s protagonist, is having a very serious conversation, I would tell anyone messaging me that I’m busy. In real life, I wouldn’t even respond, yet in Steins;Gate I do, because that’s what good characters do and lead to a good ending, or so my brain thinks.
Another good example would be Persona (3 and up, because of social links), or any dating sim. In these games you need certain stats to successfully interact with the characters. One character requires that you have a good physical condition, so you can train with them or something, or require you to study a lot so they think you’re smart. In dating sims, you build these stats like you would in real life: dedicating time of your life to improve that part of yourself in order to advance. However, I know many people, including myself, who would never go out there and study willingly to pass an exam because “that leads to the good ending” or “this is my favorite character’s route” – most people study because they have to, or don’t because they don’t see any worth in doing it, or are lazy, etc.
Humans never act in real life thinking their actions will lead to a reward. Even the most driven persons, like the entrepreneurs who went from rags to riches, don’t make the choices based on the rewards at the end, only for the perceived goal (grow my company, change the world, etc.), or pleasure in the short term, like when you cheated on your girlfriend despite knowing it would lead you to the bad ending (if she’s into monogamy anyway).
This is one of the issues that prevented me from fully enjoying Undertale. I couldn’t play much of it because I knew a lot about the game. Not even spoilers, just that it threw a lot of curveballs and used video game mechanics as a tool to manipulate your emotions, or something like that. People compare it a lot to Metal Gear and NieR in that sense. However, once I got to play it, all I did was chat my way out of battles, because I knew the game was gonna throw a curveball somewhere if I killed too many people, and sorta felt the best ending would come up if I was just a nice guy.
Sure, in real life if you don’t kill anyone, you are a good person… relatively speaking, but it still didn’t feel like a sincere choice I was making inside the game. It felt very deliberate because I knew it would lead to a good result, the best ending.
Granted, the game could be very different, since I didn’t beat it for the reasons above. But I think it’s some sort of “gamer instinct” that never allows me to fully be myself when I have the chance. A video game never makes me feel “safe” enough about my choices. People who act like me in real life can get a bad ending, a good ending, a mediocre one, but in videogames, as long as you have that “gamer instinct”, you already know the outcome of the choices you have in front of you. You’re always a good girl, or a really bad guy because you can’t be one in real life with real life consequences.
Some people tell me this was one of the flaws in Valhalla. That you didn’t really have much choice, and what little interactions you had only lead to a slideshow after the credits. While there’s a lot of merit in this criticism, this was just a small risk taken for a little experiment, in which there was no clear way to tell if you were “in the good route”, or doing the correct flags to get the ending you desired.
I feel like the most important choice in Valhalla is to pay your rent, because it has a universal outcome that not even videogames can avoid: If you don’t pay rent, you’re homeless. Easy as that. So when people said “I was too scared to go on because I knew I didn’t have enough money for rent”, even if they already played a lot of games before, it felt like we had achieved an important step forward towards an unusual amount of nuance in a videogame choice. They knew what was going to happen, and so they had to act like they would in real life: They’d need to work their asses off to keep a roof over their heads, or give in to that sweet fan you just needed in winter to cope with your crippling depression.
I still don’t know how to fully achieve this, but hopefully as we keep making games, we’ll be able to beat the “gamer instinct” and make players act more like themselves. And while I don’t consider Valhalla a full success in that regard, it did make me see where we should go to fully achieve that personal holy grail of player interaction.
The worst thing that could happen is that, because of this writing, your “gamer instinct” will make you avoid our next games, just like mine didn’t let me enjoy Undertale.
Food for thought:
What are some games that fooled your “gamer instinct”? I can think of several examples on my end, but I’ve already written enough for today.
Please note that this post assumes you’ve played through the game at least once. Potential spoilers will be left unmarked.
The reaction to Alma has been interesting. It doesn’t seem like people dislike her, but rather that they like everyone else more. As such, it sometimes feels like even Streaming-chan gets way more attention than her.
And so, the least we can do for her birthday is put her in the spotlight, right?
We’ve seen people theorize if VA-11 Hall-A had content cut at some point, how the ending feels like it’s missing something. The only thing I can comment on that topic is that we’re guilty of many things… except cutting stuff out.
VA-11 Hall-A’s development was a constant rush. From learning how to make a full-fledged game, to dealing with people that claim they’ve been waiting two years for a game that wasn’t even half a year in development, to figuring out what the hell we want to do and where we want the game to go. When you’re in that kind of mentality you calculate every move. Cutting content requires time, effort, and resources you can barely muster as it is. When you add something you make god damn sure it’s there to stay.
For graphical depiction of how it felt to make VA-11 Hall-A, here’s this GIF of Gromit.
There’s a fun story on that topic. Originally the game was planned to have 20 days… but that’s because I can’t do math to save my life and swore the game would end on December 31st with that amount.
Said day was more breather before the ending. It had Alma’s day 17 dialog, Kim’s day 14 dialog, and a brief stint with the dogs that was added to their dialog on day 11. As you can deduce, it wasn’t so much “cut” as it was “relocated everywhere else”. Even the dialog between sets of clients was merged into other days.
That’s not to say there isn’t any stuff we dropped deep into the dev cycle, there’s one such thing in plain sight, actually.
You’ll notice while navigating the recipe book that there’s three properties.
The first is the flavor of the drink, the second is the kind of drink it is, and the third… is a “secret property”. Every drink would have this third property marked as “???” at the beginning, only revealing itself if you served it to the right person at the right time.
Someone asked for something to wake them up? Serve them a Bleeding Jane and suddenly the drink would have “Sobering” unlocked in the recipe book, making it easier to know that drink was meant to wake drunkards. A client asked for a strong drink? Pick the right manly drink and you’ll unlock the “Strong” property and a bonus tip! This idea also branched off from an earlier one of manipulating the mood of the clients through the drinks (which is why one of the properties is “happy”).
Why did we cut it? We just didn’t deem it necessary. Development moved on and we just felt like all we needed was “flavor” and “kind”. The closest thing to dialog reflecting this early idea is *Kira* Miki asking for a “soft” drink. We also left the secret properties there because they weren’t hurting anybody and it was easier than fixing all the entries of the recipe book.
The bottled drinks almost followed suit, but we weren’t gonna waste a good Simpsons reference.
VA-11 Hall-A is one year old today, which also means Sukeban Games is on its third anniversary, though me and Lark have been making games for way longer than that.
Anyway, we are people of few words here at this company, despite the type of games we are known for. I don’t think we are exactly transparent either, even if we did unveil a game as soon as we finished its prototype.
Good thing we are not going to do that again.
We like to keep things for ourselves it seems, but one thing we can’t keep to ourselves is our huge gratitude towards each and every single one of you reading this. The success of VA-11 Hall-A is something that was beyond our wildest projections. To give you some perspective, my initial sales target for the game was something like 6000 copies.
The game has sold more than 150k copies since.
We didn’t even think we would get much fanart or anything of the sort, yet all our social networks are filled to the brim with wonderful fan work from all over the world, including cosplay and even a small doujinshi. That’s something I just can’t describe; it’s an otherworldly feeling. We are used to be the fans, not the creators getting all sorts of homages to their work.
And well, I don’t need to say that these sales numbers pretty much sealed our destiny. We’ll keep making games for a long time, so if you loved Valhalla, you’re in luck, or something like that.
God, actually, there’s a lot of stuff in my head I want to write about but I don’t even know where to begin. I feel like writing a big, thick and sweaty post-mortem about the game’s development, but at the same time I just want to go back to work and shitpost at the Valhalla Discord, which is like 1 year old too.
I guess the less I can do is talk about the future.
We have three games currently in production
Plus whatever quick stuff we come up with. We can’t say much about them because… well, it’s too fucking early. Valhalla was unveiled at day 0, so when it took like two years to be finished people were already lumping us with the likes of Wolf Girl With You, which came out around the same time as Valhalla funnily enough.
What I want to say is that we’ll properly announce our new projects once we feel we have enough to show them, and are closer to their respective release dates. That way we won’t disappoint anyone with delays and all that jazz. We’ve learned a lot about the process of making games, and it would be silly to repeat the same mistakes that dragged down Valhalla’s progress, which existence is already a damn miracle considering we didn’t know shit about Game Maker (the program we used) back when we started, much less about finishing a full-length commercial videogame.
I just want to make sure everyone’s expectations are on check.
Oh, and before anyone says three projects are too much for two people; don’t worry about it. Just like Valhalla, we’ll adapt the scope of the games to whatever we can make at the moment, and being a company of two people doesn’t really mean we can’t get some extra help from cool freelancers. We are OK, seriously, we can handle it. We released a commercial videogame without leaving Venezuela in the progress, so nothing is impossible for us.
Our next big project will certainly surprise everyone, maybe due to its unusual genre, or maybe its graphical fidelity, we don’t know! We just like to experiment a lot with what videogames can do as we (hopefully) demonstrated with VA-11 Hall-A, so we hope you’re as excited as us, even if you have no idea what the heck we’re talking about.
I guess that would be all. I swear I had more in my head rather than just a bunch of THANK YOU’s to give, but I guess this will do for now.
Nos vemos en Tres Alicias, and let’s hope the header picture makes sense in less than a year for all of you.
PS: I haven’t forgotten about my promise of official lewds if we sold 100k copies, I’m just practicing some more to do it justice. SERIOUSLY, STOP THE BULLYING.
PS 2: Valhalla will keep seeing some more updates in the future, mostly to add additional languages, but don’t expect new content.