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Libraries And Liquor: A Day In The Life

Fell out of bed

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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.

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Adam Smith

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