Artist and designer Christopher Ortiz discussed with 80.lv the creation of the fantastic cyberpunk bartender action VA-11 HALL-A.
Cyberpunk Jam 2014
I’m Christopher Ortiz, also known by my handle Kiririn51. I’m the artist and designer for all projects in Sukeban Games. We are from Venezuela and we make computer games. At the moment we are three people at the office and one remote staff.
Previous to the Cyberpunk Jam we were focused on making small games for other game jams and for fun. Our first game was a short Visual Novel commemorating the first anniversary of a still kind-of-active blog about japanese pop culture.
So, back in 2014 I was in a pretty dire spot emotionally. We just graduated from college and our prospects were grim. Economy was getting worse, and our big projects weren’t going anywhere.
One day I read about the Cyberpunk Jam, and instantly felt inclined to participate, and the idea suddenly came to me: Cyberpunk, but about the people who are never the focus of it. The common folks in these broken worlds, and since we are always experiencing Cyberpunk from the point of view of hardboiled detectives and similar characters, it made sense to make a game about those who are, for the most part, just plot devices or part of a body count in the life of a hardboiled cyberpunk hero.
It’s that spin on a classic genre what sparked our imagination and what fueled the whole project. A spark we weren’t feeling with the ongoing projects, so when we noticed the game had been covered by some video game sites and people were increasingly curious about it, we decided to finish it by adding more to the base experience of the prototype.
Why in the form of a game? That’s very simple: I feel like video games are perfect for slice-of-life type of stories. Because when you see a movie, you see a very condensed story. They always skip the boring parts of life, such as commuting or eating, going to the toilet, etc. but in video games there’s always a way to make these little events entertaining for the players, so it made sense we put the player in the shoes of a woman in her late 20’s trying to get by as a bartender in a cyberpunk society. Her life might seem boring for the average fast-paced movie or book, but in game form, it becomes fun and involved.
We knew this was going to stand out, we just didn’t know how much. Once we saw the prototype showing up in “best games of the cyberpunk jam” lists, we thought we should maybe make it a full thing because at least a handful of people will enjoy it unlike other projects we were working on at the time, which were being ignored by the press despite looking good enough. That was our fault though, since the concept was rather generic and we weren’t surprised nobody wanted to cover it.
But at the end it was more because we love the concept. We thought “I would totally purchase this game if I saw it on Steam”, something we didn’t feel that much with past projects. So the pieces were falling in place and we thought it would be silly to not make it a full thing. It was all very organic, and the reception played an important role in making us feel that there were at least ten people willing to support the game. It was the right path, whether it bombed or not.
Being a Visual Novel at its core means there wasn’t much clever technology going on to make it work. However, because Game Maker Studio (the engine we used to make Valhalla) is not made with Visual Novels in mind, we had to program a lot of stuff from scratch. This fact made it very complicated to get it going at a rapid pace. We had to wait for a long time before we started writing the actual contents of the game because the systems had to be made first. We were also very new to programming, so many small things felt like big obstacles. It was a learning experience.
One of the reasons behind making a game set in a bar, cool factor aside, is that the art required would be less in quantity. We only needed character sprites and one background. And because the meat of the story lies within personal conversations we never had a need for complex illustrations for the cutscenes. It was also this limitation that allowed us to go for more detailed character artwork and add small animations to make it feel more dynamic.
For example, because I didn’t have the need to work on backgrounds or cutscenes, I used that time to make characters move their lips, have more varied body language, blink, move around. Even if the animation work is still small compared to other games, it added a lot to the “big game” feel. It’s details like these that set you apart from the rest. Make it feel more expensive than it really is.
The way we build characters is rather simple: We think of a character trait and go crazy with it, adding interesting twists and a fully realized past that the player might never get to read.
It’s easy to say “this character is a tsundere” and leave it there. You might explain the reason why this character has that particular trait, but backstory doesn’t equal to character development. They need to have a life outside of what you see in the game, they need to exist first and then talk to the player. So basically, we start with something simple like the “tsundere” example, but then we add interesting twists to make it feel more real.
More than deconstruct, what we seek is to turn these common character traits into something believable first, and this has a strong effect on the character design, as sometimes characters are designed after reading their dialogues, and other times they are written after seeing the concept art. It’s all a very dynamic process.
The only tool we used for the art was Photoshop.
For the original Prototype we used existing cyberpunk-sounding music from the composer Michael Kelly. Since the songs were very different from each other and weren’t made thinking of any particular scenes involving these characters, we decided to just make a playlist of this atmospheric music and let it play in a jukebox. This design decision carried over to the full game, which also uses the jukebox to set the atmosphere except for some scenes.
For the writing, we went for a combination of real-life anecdotes, movies and tv shows from many genres, even reality television. We find that many creators take inspiration from a very limited pool of media and almost nothing from real life, so Valhalla was inspired by a large number of elements from many different parts of our lives.
There’s this common explanation in the perceived stagnation of big-budget video games and anime in which most creators only seek to make something similar to other things in the same medium, as games get inspired by other games only and the same goes for anime, TV, and what have you, and is this kind of cannibalistic approach of many creators what leads to this boring mass of same-y media.
And the solution is really simple, really. Seek for inspiration everywhere, not only inside the medium your work happens to be into.
I wouldn’t say the gameplay is not necessary, but rather that gameplay should be tweaked in more interesting ways.
Videogames are a medium based on interaction, and because of the arcade roots we are always thinking “how can we make this mechanic fun?” instead of “how can we use this interaction to elicit an emotional response?”. Papers, Please is an excellent example of this; the game is not “fun” in the traditional sense, its gameplay is meant to convey what it feels to be the character inside the game, and that’s something not many understand in my opinion.
In Valhalla we included a management aspect where you need to pay your porn subscription and rent. Traditionally, doing good in a videogame means getting a high score or some form of instant gratification. In this game, a high score is used to keep a roof over your head. So you do a good job to avoid being homeless or run out of quality smut, not because you need to be the best on the online leaderboards.
What I want to say is that games don’t have to necessarily have combat, game over conditions, high scores or anything traditionally attached to the concept of video games. They can use any kind of mechanics to speak to the players in ways other forms of entertainment cannot. These mechanics can be as simple as walk and talk to someone or deleting a save file, and as long as that makes the player feel what the developer wants them to feel it will be perfect, just like a movie doesn’t need dialogue to transmit its meaning.
Most of the challenges were technological. We didn’t know much about programming, so many quality of life improvements had to be abandoned because we simply didn’t know how to make them. One notorious flaw is the lack of localization support, which made it a nightmare to add more languages. So I’d guess underestimating the reach of the game was the biggest mistake of them all; always assume your game will be in more than one language!
I feel like most of these technical challenges can be overcome by just getting better, but I think it’s also important to have a solid vision. For Valhalla, we knew what we wanted to make, but some of the stories required heavy tweaking because we didn’t know how to reach certain events we had in our heads in a convincing manner. So a combination of knowledge and a solid direction can beat any challenge in the way, with just enough foresight to avoid making your future-self get stuck working forever in the same game.
Other challenges came in the shape of living in Venezuela; we didn’t have access to banking compatible with the rest of the world, which made working with a publisher an absolute necessity unless we were rich to make those problems disappear.
We were broke back then, so in the end, we have to thank Ysbryd Games for believing in us and helping us with the business side of things, since we basically experienced the number one reason there’s no industry for commercial games in this country.
We didn’t expect the game to do this well, and our sales expectations were very low at about 6000 units needed to keep making games full time in a country with a weak currency.
Somehow the game managed to reach 200k copies sold though, and we were blown away by the positive reception.
The game had its critics, and it was kinda frustrating to agree with their points because most of the perceived flaws were stuff we were aware of but had to leave in the game so we could ship in a timely manner.
Don’t get me wrong, we didn’t have a tight deadline or anything. We just thought we had to let it go at some point or else it would have taken years to finish the game, and we didn’t want to be stuck with it for such a long time.
It’s really important to know where you draw the line. There’s a part of video game development where you need to stop adding shit and settle with the current vision or cancel it. It’s better to ship and move on being conscious of what you couldn’t fix and apply that knowledge for future games and sequels.
It might be hard to understand, but you can’t make a flawless game, so might as well just do your best and move on at some point.
A sequel to Valhalla though… I don’t see that happening anytime soon. Maybe in ten years with a 37-year-old Jill dealing with an imminent midlife crisis in hilarious ways. That would be a very interesting and atypical game, the kind of games we make.