Libraries And Liquor: A Day In The Life

Alec wrote about some of his favourite gaming moments last week and I was inspired to put together something similar. Ever the structuralist, I decided that I’d string my favourite moments across a fictional interpretation of an actual day. Here is one of many days in my life, from a breakfast of champions to the blurred bottles at the heart of Saturday night.

On any given day, I’ve either decided to quit smoking or I’ve decided that I might as well admit that I’m never going to quit smoking. Either way, after falling out bed I usually retreat onto the balcony with a cigarette before jumping in the shower. That way, the first cigarette of the day doesn’t really count. The shower negates it.

That routine is a product of the same elastic thought processes that I use to justify my bad habits to myself on an hourly basis. While seeking a scene from a game to represent the early morning drag, I ran up against some confusion when I found that voxel-faced Blade Runner Ray McCoy didn’t suck on a coffin nail while standing on his snyth-haunted balcony. My memory of the game is false.

McCoy would have been the perfect fit. There aren’t many weary dishevelled smokers in games. The majority of cigarettes and cigars are props to make tough guys look tougher, sometimes with a satirical nod to the cinematic figures who inspired them. There’s Duke Nukem with his chunky cigar of +4 compensation, Left 4 Dead’s Bill staring death in the face while he draws the same into his lungs, and even the Spy.

Solid Snake is an interesting case – like so much else about his character, the smoking seems like nothing more than a trait borrowed from cinema but eventually feeds into Kojima’s energetic deconstructions. Whether or not love can bloom on a battlefield, a discourse about second-hand smoke almost certainly can and will.

Rather than the shabby smoker or the gruff warrior, I’m opting for Manny Calavera as my representative. He’s one of gaming’s only suave smokers, which is as much a reflection of games having missed out on the period of history when nobody knew that cigarettes were harmful AT ALL. By channelling that time – and by virtue of being a dead skellington with no lungs – Manny can look good while he’s sparking up.

He’s even standing on a balcony, although it’s admittedly slightly swankier than my little hangout that looks out across the Manchester Ship Canal. He’s also not wearing the pajamas his mum bought him last Christmas but that’s because he hasn’t got enough panache to make them look good.

We’ll skip the shower scene. The Sims aside, games tend not to be too fussy about bodily functions and hygiene, and when you’ve seen one pixellated private region, you’ve seen them all. Next stop is coffee.

What else could it be?

I’m struggling to think of any other great admirers of the daily grind in the world of games. Coffee is an occasional stimulant and can be used to top up Eve in Bioshock, but where do we see it enjoyed? I’m undoubtedly forgetting a character with a fixation on the fuel but York fits the bill well enough.

After coffee, there’s sometimes time for solids but on this day, as on many others, we’re heading to the library. I’ve been spending a lot of time in Manchester’s Central Library since it reopened earlier this year. It’s a beautiful building, a rotunda in neoclassical style with an domed reading room at its heart.

The refurbishment has brought in modernising features, including touchscreen tables in the new cafe and all manner of interactive displays on the ground floor. The reading room is still a haven though – free of distractions and sound. The chairs are comfortably uncomfortable, keeping body and mind on edge, and the central circular desk that looks out toward the readers dominates the room and keeps the peace, despite being unoccupied.

Although the effect has been much reduced, every sound in the room creates an echo. Sometimes when I’m reading a particularly hefty book, I close it with just a little too much emphasis, just to hear the faint reverberations. Occasionally somebody will open a can of fizzy pop, sending a whispered hiss and a crack bouncing around the walls.

These days, you’re more likely to see a game in a library than a library in a game. There are consoles set up in a multimedia wing of the Manchester library – far enough from the books to be acceptable – and I see plenty of handhelds and phones receiving just a little too much attention. I go to the library to escape my devices but not everybody leaves their distractions at the door.
Games are distractions and perhaps libraries tend not to figure in their particular architecture with any great frequency because they are quiet storehouses. What is a library withouts its books? And how many games care to offer a building full of reading material.

Libraries are often places of mystery – where else are you going to keep all your occult tomes? The scene above is taken from Clive Barker’s Undying, which taps into the weird fiction of Lovecraft and chums with its tale of forbidden knowledge, which begins with children opening books that they shouldn’t.

There are private collections of esoteric knowledge in the Dark Corners of the Earth as well, quite rightly considering that in the Cthulhu Mythos a library can be as sinister as a laboratory. Amnesia also acknowledges the dreadful things discovered on the page as well as those buried beneath the ground.

Horror and libraries. It’s a good combination, although it doesn’t capture the reality of my visits, which are contemplative and cheerful. With all of their shelves, libraries are also good places for athletic adventurers to clamber around, and the value of rare historical volumes makes any collection a possible target for tomb plunderers who are struggling to find any tombs.

Lara accidentally raids her own library

After spending a few hours in silence, the cinema beckons. Another place where I can sit in a room with strangers without exchanging a single word with a single person.

As with libraries, cinemas aren’t a natural fit for games. Just as it’s odd to watch somebody playing a game for any length of time in a film, it’s a bit weird to send a significant amount of time watching a film within a game. One form of entertainment embedded within another.

There’s a beautiful exception – although it takes place on a television rather than a cinema screen – in The Darkness. You can take time out to watch the entirety of To Kill a Mockingbird before the violence and gore takes over completely, as well as enjoying other features and shorts later in the game. It’s a splendid thing to discover – a game that is prepared to let the player pause and enjoy a tranquil scene.

In recent years, I’ve enjoyed a trip to the movies in Jazzpunk but there’s one cinema that I’ll always return to. Not only is it one of the places I know best, it’s also one of the first in-game locations that bore any resemblance to a real building that I visited on a regular basis.

Looking back, it’s not quite as believable a place as it seemed almost twenty years ago. What kind of cinema, particularly in the Bigger Is Better world of Duke Nukem, only has one screen? Why is there not at least one square mile of overpriced food stands? Why is the arcade hidden from the customers?

What a map it was though. I could turn on the projector, blow up the screen and do a wee. I remember Duke Nukem 3D as a game crammed with recognisable urban areas and that’s mainly because of that first magnificent level colouring my memory of the remainder. Duke’s Hollywood Holocaust is an island, a city block suspended in a world of abstractions, and it’s a perfect encapsulation of the isolation of the cinema as a destination.

When the film’s done and dusted, it’s time for a drink. Finally, a room full of strangers where conversation is allowed. My usual watering holes range from a former toilet converted into a dive bar to former warehouses converted into dive bars. I like a place with Tom Waits on the jukebox and a good range of continental beers, and I’m not likely to find either of those things in a game.

If it weren’t for Dishonored, I’d be forced to declare representations of pubs a failure. The Hound Pits is a brilliant snapshot of the pubs I grew up with though, from the booths to the beertaps. It’s a fictional pub made by people who have been inside real pubs and paid attention. The lighting, the grimy floor, the altar-like structure of the bar – I’ve been there.

Despite that, The Hound Pits isn’t my local. I’ve spent a lot of time there but if I’m going to pull up a chair and grab a pint, you’ll most likely find me at The Blue Boar.

And that’s where my day ends, in the company of the dregs and the froth of Britain. The Blue Boar may be a tavern in a fantasy world but it functions as a place, with comings and goings, drinking and music. Dishonored’s boozey retreat looks authentic but it’s a meeting place for people with a purpose that removes the original purpose of the building itself. In Ultima VII, it’s possible to spend an evening eating, drinking and making merry – the tavern, for once, isn’t a place to pick up quests or party members.

I won’t bore you with my bedtime routine but I’d love to hear about the holes in my day. I’ve missed out meals and I’d like to have included a cafe or some public transport. How does a normal day look when reconstructed using digital artifacts? It’s hard enough to find representations of studying and leisure – how is a relationship depicted? How does a career translate into a gamespace, how does family life?

It’s interesting to look for evidence of life in places created without the need to support it. There’s probably a great restaurant or supermarket in a Call of Duty game somewhere – I haven’t played one since Modern Warfare so it’ll have passed me by – and I’d love to see it. There are whole worlds acting as the backdrop to the games we play and I want to spend some time piecing them together.

This article was funded by the RPS Supporter program.

21 Comments

  1. Ignis says:

    Some unforgettable moments from playing TES III Morrowind – I used to roleplay a humble pilgrim starting his adventure with the Temple quest line. After a dangerous pilgrimage to Mount Kand and traversing trough treacherous Molag Amur region I loved to stop by at Molag Mar. There in the waistworks level was this small and cozy tavern called Pilgrim’s Rest which gave you this at-the-end-of-the-world place. I always rented a room there and I used to read religious book listening to the atmospheric music of Morrowind.

  2. tumbleworld says:

    I seem to remember collecting flasks of coffee in Alan Wake, but yes, York is the one who I associate with the stuff. I have a feeling there’s a rather awesome game waiting to be set in a library, somewhere in that uneasy space between The Stanley Parable, Gone Home, and Doom 1…

  3. Colonel J says:

    The Illusive Man in Mass Effect 2 & 3 deserves a mention in any survey of smoking in videogames. Neither shabby nor gruff I think, more weary insomniac and obviously very addicted to his ciggies. You can hear Martin Sheen actually (or pretend-ly) puffing away in his voiceovers too.

  4. thedosbox says:

    For lunch, Smiling Jack’s in Saints Row 3 would be my choice.

  5. OliverM says:

    XCOM had supermarkets in their city arenas. Always fun to demolish some of the shelves via collateral damage.

  6. DrollRemark says:

    As perfect looking as the Hound Pits is, it felt lifeless. That was mostly intentional, since the point was that the city was under curfew at the time, and also party because Dishonored suffered that Video Game Thing of 5-6 characters comprising the entire neighbourhood, and so the bar rarely had people in it.

    But I wasn’t really longing for it to be lively, just for it to have a life. Where was the lonely old man sat on a stool at the bar, occasionally sharing a comment with the staff? Where were the shy, silent couple holding hands in a corner seat? The small group talking excitedly amongst themselves? they didn’t need to be important, they just needed to be there.

    • Napalm Sushi says:

      I thought it was stated that the neighbourhood was utterly decimated by plague and was all but condemned? I don’t think it was actually a functioning pub anymore.

      Some of the most successful examples I’ve seen of thriving drinking establishments (albeit of the modern urban dive variety) are those in Bernband (link to gamejolt.com). For all the low-fi-ness, they really capture the charged shift in atmosphere as you step through the doorway and the paradoxical mash of enclosed comfort and oppressive alienation once you’re there.

    • Persona says:

      I recall the bar was supposed to be closed. They were just using it as the base for the Loyalists, it wasn’t open to public since the entire area was quarantined due to the plague.

  7. liquidsoap89 says:

    Prey had a great bar in it’s intro. And like in MGS, smoking in Vanquish benefited you in that you could throw a cigarette to distract evil robots.

    • sabrage says:

      I love having whole buttons dedicated to silly little things like that. Like Blood in the Sand’s “Cuss Button.”

      • Railway Rifle says:

        Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon has a button for flipping the bird. Keep pressing it and you do with both hands.

    • SigmaCAT says:

      I remember the jukebox in said bar, which had some pretty great songs. Finding “Don’t Fear The Reaper” in a videogame is one of my happiest memories of the medium.

      • Zetetick says:

        I Genuinely enjoyed the whole of PREY. The Sequel also looked to be interesting in concept, shame it got canned – Hopefully someone’ll reanimate it at some point, it had some fascinating ideas ( tho’ nowt to do with PREY 1 )

  8. P.Funk says:

    If I could pick any gaming setting to experience first hand it would have to be Rubacava.

    Adam is right. Gaming is seriously lacking in suave.

  9. Contrafibularity says:

    I loved visiting the Underworld Tavern in Hell’s Kitchen (Deus Ex). It was a refuge from the heavily patrolled streets allowing easy access through the district via its two entrances, sure, but it also felt like an actual bar. I must’ve smoked some twenty packs of cigarettes there (and in the game, -10 torso hitpoints, and of course it didn’t help that JC Denton would only smoke an entire pack of Coughing Nails at a time, he’s a real junkie for syncotine) because to my mind, those nanobots weren’t just great for transhuman abilities, they also allow anyone to smoke with impunity. Just as the nanobots in those chocolate bars automatically cleaned your teeth besides healing you for 2hp (if the street urchin at the NY docks is to be believed, the poor thing had probably never even seen a toothbrush in his life).

    Later on I would have a stimulating philosophical discussion with the bartender at the Lucky Money Club in Hong Kong’s Wan-Chai district, before recruiting a “dancing girl” (for information gathering purposes obviously, that safe behind the entrance booth wasn’t going to crack itself, and the triads would understand the theft to be necessary resource gathering on my part, although I’m not entirely sure she understood a word I said) and watching some drunk Russian sailors spill their drinks. Fun times.

    Oh man, Manny Calavera, what a great character. If I were an undead dead walking talking skeleton I would smoke several packs a day too (but seriously kids, smoking sucks and it’s only cool when you’re not allowed to do it, after which it just becomes an involuntary ritual of daily self-poisoning depriving you of half your energy pool *cough*gurgle*).

    I loved the bars in Mass Effect too. It was like visiting those awesome far-flung dives filled with unknown alien species out of Star Trek (or Wars, but it was more Trek). I can’t explain why I actually took my Shepherd to the dance floor for some (weird) moves while I was on an urgent mission to save the galaxy, but I do know Mass Effect would not have been the game it was without that bar and the nightclub on the Citadel.

    It’s articles like these which make me appreciate how awesome it is that we all visited these entirely virtual locations and came away with similar memories of places that never actually existed outside of our minds.

    • AXAXAXAS MLO II: MLO HARDER says:

      I’m not even joking – suddenly finding myself engrossed in sociopolitical discussion with a random bartender was one of my favourite parts in Deus Ex. Definitvely the one I remember the most fondly.

  10. jnqvist says:

    I’d have a pint over at the Smouldering Corpse any time of the day…and when the bar song ended,I’d come to the jukebox and feed it money to hear that wonderful tune some more.

  11. PerspectiveDesigns says:

    I always love the libraries and book stores in TES games. They’re so cool.

  12. geldonyetich says:

    The Blue Boar is all well and good, but if you head over to The Serpent Isle and visit The Slashing Sword pub, there’s a waitress there by the name of Lucilla who puts a fantastic deal on breasts and thighs on the menu. Which do you prefer, m’lord, but don’t answer yet! Well, I suppose canonically, we should say that deal might be a tad expired by now…

    Anyway, of the best watering holes I remember from my gaming experience… hmm, that’s a tough one.

    Well, there’s the one in the first area of Anarchonox, Rowdy’s. The whole game is rather atmospheric, and that dive was no exception.

    While they don’t exactly have “happy hour” anymore, it seems Ken Levine can’t stop revisiting the Kashmir Restaurant in Rapture, and for good reason. I often think of it as a watering hole due to the alcohol to be found thereabouts.

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  14. john_silence says:

    It’s not about the holes in your day (careful! …) but there’s a great in-game library accessible from the beginning of The Sea Will Claim Everything. You can’t open any of its myriad of books but each one of them has a fun, weird, and/or promising title. In this, to me, it beats both Undying’s library as pictured by Adam, which exemplifies one type of video game library: the wordless one, where books don’t even have a title on their spine, but serve instead as a notion, an element of world-building. I also prefer this to the lore-rich libraries found in many RPGs such as The Elder Scrolls, in which every book contains a few pages of optional exposition, usually poorly written and largely inconsequential.
    Just titles: how evocative.