Checking the Score: The Sounds of Cyberpunk in VA-11 Hall-A

The cyberpunk genre has long been a fascination within the umbrella of science fiction. Glitchy aesthetics and neon signs on every corner indicating the unrestrained boom of mega-corporations and class wars have permeated pop culture as far back as the 1920s (Metropolis, anyone?). Whether purely entertainment, or a vision of a future to come, video games have grasped the intrigue of cyberpunk and taken the genre in various directions with a myriad of stories to tell. One such game has taken an unorthodox approach to cyberpunk by having us play as the laid-back bartender of a less-than-prestigious bar in Glitch City. VA-11 Hall-A takes cyberpunk in a more low-key direction by focusing on narrative storytelling and having us serve colorful guests. In VA-11 Hall-A, we play as Jill, a late twenty-something bartender just trying to make ends meet. Every night brings different customers and each customer has a unique story. All the while, our goal is to accurately mix drinks and make money. Yet our workplace responsibilities also extend to mixing up a killer soundtrack as well. With various tracks already set up in our cyberpunk jukebox, and more available for unlock, we’re able to craft our own playlist for how we want our cyberpunk bartending experience to play out. While the title has been out since 2016, it has renewed relevance due to its recent release on the Nintendo Switch and because of its upcoming sequel slated for 2020.

Synths mixed with organic instruments sprinkled throughout create various landscapes for our bar. The beauty of the VA-11 Hall-A soundtrack is that is has a wonderful mixture of tempos, melodious and instrumental accents. Each track has common themes, like the use of synths, and fits cohesively to create a full soundtrack. The beauty of the game is that we have the power to make our own playlists before we begin bartending. This allows for every players’ bar to have a unique atmosphere so that no playthrough will sound the same. Having over twenty tracks to choose from adds a personalized layer to the game that helps create atmosphere for our bar. Tracks like “Safe Haven” have a soothing electronic melody with light synths and percussion. The track makes use of electronic possibilities by mimicking a composition of strings to provide an ethereal feeling. Since the entirety of the soundtrack has no vocals, much care has been taken to create a “feeling” within each track.

While there are many tracks within the game that give a feeling of peaceful respite, there are others that provide a more up-tempo “club” feeling. Again, with the focus on allowing the player to create whatever atmosphere they desire, there’s a wide variety of sounds within the full album. The “Synthestitch” track gives us a more industrial feel often seen in the cyberpunk genre with a cyber-club vibe thanks to its melody and synth use. This track lands in the middle of how soft and hard the melody can reach, though. It’s a track that takes a step deeper toward committing to the hard-edge electronic/rock aesthetic we may see in medias like The Matrix. One of cyberpunk’s themes is the use of metallic sounding landscapes to emphasize the rampant use of technology and machinery. We can hear a tiny bit of that in “Synthestitch” towards the latter half with a metallic bass, but we can hear more of that machine sound in other album tracks as well.

Where we hear some of the hardest synth sounds is in the track meant to commemorate the law enforcement division within Glitch City. These enforcers are known as the White Knights and there are various divisions meant to keep order within the city. One such Knight actually ends up as a patron of VA-11 Hall-A. The track “March of the White Knights” has a serious melody with a fast tempo to accentuate the subject matter. Percussion and electronic sounds blend with almost choral sounding elements to demonstrate the dual sides of the White Knights. They are first responders to emergency situations, yet they are also here to keep order. This specific track is arguably the most “cyberpunk” out of the whole album because of its use of hard electronic sounds with machine-like elements. It’s a track that feels dystopian due to its use of electronic and percussive elements.

What’s amazing about the VA-11 Hall-A soundtrack is its wide range of electronic music for our listening pleasure. While we’ve only demonstrated a few tracks out of many, this sampling shows just how diverse the whole album can be. Quite a few tracks even throw back to 1980s synth-pop that lay a lot of the groundwork for contemporary cyberpunk music. The reason we hear so many similarities between today’s cyberpunk music to 1980s music is because of the major developments of the genre that occurred during this time. Cultural works like Akira, Blade Runner and even Terminator molded the sounds and aesthetics of cyberpunk for what we know today. VA-11 Hall-A takes major inspiration from these previous works in both sound and aesthetic to bring players a familiar cyberpunk landscape.