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An Interview with Christopher Ortiz of Sukeban Games about VA-11 HALL-A, N1RV Ann-A, and More

by on May 20, 2019
 

Over the last few years, I’ve played VA-11 HALL-A multiple times across different platforms and it has safely secured a spot in my top 10 games of all time. With the PS4 and Nintendo Switch port, I thought it would be a great time to talk to Christopher Ortiz (@kiririn51) who is the Director of Sukeban Games about the present and future of not just VA-11 HALL-A but in general game development, collaborations, ports to other platforms, and more.

VA-11 HALL-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action

Ever since the Switch launched in 2017, many indie developers and publishers have spoken highly of the audience and how indies usually do very well on the platform. I wanted to know how it felt for Sukeban Games to have their game out on the Switch which seems to have the most vocal audience for indie games. “I feel pretty much like every other indie that grew up with Nintendo and is particularly happy that we are finally releasing a game on a platform of theirs, it really is an excellent feeling.”

With many late ports, new features are usually added. Both the PS4 and Switch versions just released a few days ago and Christopher commented on what he wanted from the ports including the Joy-Con support. “We made a point to make it as faithful as possible to the original PC version so there’s no new features, except for the Nintendo Switch version that has some motion controls for the drink mixing. It’s quite sensitive, so it adds a really cool challenge on trying to make mixed or blended drinks, you really gotta get the hang of it.”

VA-11 HALL-A has been getting a ton of promotion in Japan in retail stores and online through artwork and posters. I adore the new artwork for this release and wanted to know if he ever thought it would be promoted so heavily there and how it feels. “I don’t think we ever expect anything from what we do, so when things like this happen it’s always a huge surprise for us. It’s certainly a great feeling to see our game plastered at stores all over Japan right beside huge domestic titles. Very humbling even if it’s something companies over there are used to… We are the first Venezuelan game developers to do many of the things we’ve achieved, so there’s also some pride involved.”

VA-11 HALL-A’s characters are fantastic. I had to ask about how he came up with Streaming-chan. “Streaming-chan was a curious case as it was the suggestion of an anonymous forum user who responded to a message of mine asking for character ideas and then we ran wiid with it. Out of all the suggestions made there, Streaming-chan was the only one to make it. As for what went into her, I imagined a very energetic woman that took way too many pills to stay awake, and the design was born from trying to portray that. This was kinda how every character was made, we thought of certain traits and tried to convey how we felt about them in visual form, and also to give depth to easy-to-understand archetypes, give humanity to what would be otherwise rather boring set of common anime traits. It’s a fun creative exercise.”

Christopher also commented on how real life influences characters and writing. “So, I mentioned that we make characters out of easily understandable archetypes and then proceed to give them a human touch, and I guess the natural result is that many people will end up relating to them in many aspects. When it comes to writing, we take a lot from our own lives and from people we’ve met along the way, many stories are inspired by things that happened to us, and I feel it’s inevitable to establish a connection with the player. After all, we are opening ourselves to them, as if we were truly drinking together at the VA-11 HALL-A bar.”

Given how much I adore not only the visuals but also the writing, I wanted to know who their influences are. “Suda51, Shinichiro Watanabe, Mamoru Oshii and Wong Kar-Wai from the top of my head. Mostly because I like the mix of cultures featured in their works, and it was this mix that shaped my creative engine both early and late in my life. I saw Chungking Express for the first time while working on VA-11 HALL-A, so there was a lot I took from that movie when it comes to the atmosphere. ”

He also went on to detail how the game combines different cultures. “On the subject of the culture mix I mentioned: VA-11 HALL-A has a strong Japanese influence, but the story has a Venezuelan voice, the music was made by Michael Kelly in the US, and so on. I don’t think we could be able to make a game that’s explicitly in the real world because of this. Our studio is all about melting pots when it comes to videogames, we want places where you can take the best and the worst from all over the world and present this to a global audience. Quick example: Glitch City is nowhere near Asia, but Jill lives in a Japanese-styled apartment. Why? Because I relate these small places with being comfortable, with feeling cozy with what you have, so we gave her a Japanese-style room. That’s how we work, we take whatever conveys the feel we want regardless of the place where the story is being told.”

Since the Japanese release of VA-11 HALL-A is getting an artbook in its first print edition, I wanted to know if there were plans for a full fledged standalone release. “Probably just the first print stuff for now, unless there’s a big interest for that with both fans or an editorial company. Hey! you! the reader! would you like an artbook? Let us know on Twitter or something.” There will be a North American release through Limited Run Games for a physical copy on PS4 and Nintendo Switch with details to be announced later but the Japanese release has full English support if you’re in the mood to import.

The Future

Christopher wants to make a game written by Suda51. He also said there are way too many artists he wants to work with but Suda51 is on the top of the list. Now that VA-11 HALL-A is on the most popular platforms for indie releases with PS4, Switch, and PC, I wanted to know if there were plans for more ports. There have been multiple teases for an iPad version even though news about the port on the official website is still seemingly outdated. I asked about the status of the iPad port and a possible Xbox One port. “I don’t know much about the iPad port. I was told it was going to release at the same time as the console versions, but you would need to ask Ysbryd (our publisher) about that. I honestly don’t know why there’s not an Xbox version, but should the chance arise I wouldn’t say no. As for our involvement, we were pretty much hands-off except for a couple extremely small things, such as icons or packaging illustrations.”

With VA-11 HALL-A’s major ports done and it being a few years old now, I wanted to know if the future would have anything for it or if Sukeban Games is moving to N1RV Ann-A and what he calls “Next Game”. He spoke about collaborations here including the upcoming Girls Frontline one that is taking place this August. “We absolutely want to do more with VA-11 HALL-A, and we are in talks to produce some really great content related to it, we just can’t give out many details yet. There’s the collaboration with the mobile game Girls Frontline, though! It’s coming this year and we’ve been working hard with the developers to make this the best crossover event ever seen. Lots of love involved in the process since they are fans of the game, and we are avid Girls Frontline players as well, so we
can’t wait to unveil more details about it.”

Moving to N1RV Ann-A, the trailer already has a different feel to whatever we’ve seen of VA-11 HALL-A. The tone is different even though it feels like a proper fit in the same universe. “N1RV Ann-A I think it’s a bit more heavy and serious given the themes we are portraying. The main character Sam is a woman who is still coming to terms with motherhood, so she tries to compensate by being the best mother she can possibly be to her own detriment. She feels like she wasn’t ready, and the shift from a rather wild lifestyle to settling to raise a kid didn’t result in smiles. This is coupled with the fact that she’s in a relationship with a member of a crime syndicate, Leon, who is also the father of her kid, so this naturally devolves in a clashing of lifestyles that puts their relationship in a tight spot. The duality of everyone’s lives is a strong point in this game.”

With N1RV Ann-A set for a 2020 release on PS4, Switch, and PC, a lot of fans have been wondering about the demo that is set to release. Christopher explains why the demo will be PC only for now. “Only PC, since it’s a bit of a hassle to publish just a demo on consoles and then update bug fixes. I think it’s safe to say that we are a PC-centric developer for this very reason, shipping things in this environment is way too exhausting.”

Collaborations, Real Life, Game Development

Oshiete! Galko-chan from Kenya Suzuki is something I got into through the anime before starting to buy the manga. Kenya Suzuki has done the reverse art for the Japanese VA-11 HALL-A release and I wanted to know how that collaboration happened. “It was actually pretty straight forward. He made a small reference to VA-11 HALL-A in one of the Oshiete! Galko-chan chapters and I noticed he followed me back on twitter, so when the chance to release the console versions in Japan arose, we contacted him to ask if he wanted to collaborate with us in some way, and the rest happened on its own. Turns out he’s a big fan of our game and was glad to take on the chance to do the art for the Japanese version. That said, out of a lot of media out there I consider Oshiete! Galko-chan the closest to VA-11 HALL-A when it comes to dialogue and characters, so there’s a crossover audience here that digs this type of “raw” slice of life.”

If you’ve been watching the international news, you probably know what is going in Venezuela. Sukeban Games is located there. I wanted to know how he is dealing with not only life in general but also game development there. “It’s pretty hard, I have to say. There are many hurdles you have to sort in order to make a game of any scale in this country unless you’re filthy rich and can successfully shelter yourself from the outside world. It goes from infrastructure issues like not having constant electricity, running water or even a reliable internet connection, to more outright crippling business conditions such as not being able to get paid using local banks without getting ripped off by the government. Making games here is extremely complex unless you’re rich and we weren’t anywhere close to rich when we made VA-11 HALL-A, just two guys with cheap computers, and we were very fortunate that our work led us to sign with Ysbryd, who has supported us all the way and has had the patience of a saint.”

With two announced (more or less) upcoming games, I asked them what a day in their life looked like right now. “Not as stressful as you might imagine. Venezuela’s troubles aside, what I do is switch between games whenever I get bored of churning out assets or playtesting one of them. Some days I just wanna keep building this detailed town for “Next Game”, and the next day I get a sudden rush of ideas for N1RV Ann-A’s development. It’s really fun to work on both, but I don’t know for how long it will keep being like this.”

Looking outside, it is always interesting to see what developers are playing. “Lately, I’ve been hooked to Sega Ages Phantasy Star, The Legend of Zelda Breath of the Wild and Deus Machina Demonbane. I’m normally not one to play long games, but with the blackouts in Venezuela I always end up having more time to be bored. ”

I also wanted to know what their favourite drink in and outside the game was. “My favorite drink varies from mood to mood. Sometimes I would just ask for a cassis orange, probably when I’m a bit hot headed, but when I want to relax and just talk to someone else, a White Russian will suffice. It helps that I’m a huge Lebowski fan. My favorite drink in the game are the piano man and woman pairing, because it has a very romantic vibe that’s really suiting me at the moment, where I feel that after all this work on games, I’m finally free to live again.”

I wanted to know what Christopher (and Sukeban) thought about using and working with game engines for upcoming developers. “The more the merrier, I just wish there was more flexibility when it comes to fiddling with their inner workings. Many times they want to make your life easier but the tools included get in the way of making something look pretty most of the time. Not always, but a significant amount for me to mention it. In my opinion, any engine that allows an artist to concretize their vision on their own terms instead of going back and forth with a programmer is a good one.”

Speaking of upcoming developers, game jams are growing in popularity. Christopher commented on the importance of game jams. “They are important for any developer that needs a reminder on how good it feels to finish something. Finishing a game it’s also by far the most useful thing a new developer can experience and the more they create the more capable they will feel to the point of shipping a commercial product. Many indie hits were born from these jam sessions, so it will never stop being important.”

Since VA-11 HALL-A is on two new platforms this week. Christopher has a message for all new players. “If you want a game like you’ve never experienced before, VA-11 HALL-A is a great bet. This is not a story about saving the world from a tyrannical ruler, this is about the lives of people trying to make the best out of a terrible situation, smiling in the face of dread. It’s something to play as comfy as possible, and if you’re in need of an optimistic game to cheer you up then this is the one.”

I would like to thank Sukeban Games, Christopher, and Ysbryd Games for their time with this interview. VA-11 HALL-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action is now available on PS4, Switch, PS Vita, and PC platforms. Read my review of the Switch port here.