As we all know, there are four metrics by which to assess video games:
Fictional brands ✰✰✰✰✰
The fatal flaw of modern 'subjective' criticism is that the last one so often gets overlooked. What I most want to know about is a game's fictional brands created to dodge trademark infringement and slip in a few daft or crude jokes. From Grog and Nuka-Cola to Professor Doctor and Liquid DemonSeed, virtuapop is the content that really satisfies. God bless The Video Game Soda Machine Project for documenting the juice dispensers of the digital world. And now it's hit the whopping landmark of 3000 machines.
Jess Morrissette, the curator, started the Project in 2016 as a handful of tweets. Then he made a website. Then the soda machines kept on coming. And here were are today: 3000 pop dispensers from all eras, genres, and platforms of video games.
In an ever-changing medium shaped heavily by terrible market forces, we can always rely on weird made-up fizzy drinks. Our North Star, guiding us home and keeping our hearts as pure as a refreshing Tab Clear.
The site does document some real fizzy brands, of course, those marketing deals which fill virtuaworlds with more Mountain Dew or Coca-Cola than I've ever seen in one place. Back off, Megacorps: you have no dominion here. For all the squillions of dollars PepsiCo and their ilk throw at sponsoring video games events, the idea that Mountain Dew is deep in the heart of gaming is still a punchline. We don't want or need you; our hearts are with Fuji Dew.
I wish I believed everything I've said so far.
It is strange to step into a virtuaworld full of unknown brands. Even visiting a foreign country, we'll still recognise the megacorps that dominate the globe. Their complete absence is jarring. My capacity for suspension of disbelief will happily let me rampage through a knock-off New York City with knock-off landmarks as a superpowered megamurderer, but if I don't see McDonalds or Coca-Cola it feels unreal. Thanks, capitalism.
When I see a Poopsi can, the thought process that connects Poopsi to Pepsi then recognises it as a scatalogical pun is extra thought that actually makes my brain engage with Pepsi more than the real brand would. When Deus Ex: Invisible War introduces the coffee chains of Queequeg's and Pequod's, it only makes me think about Starbucks. The 'satire' that knock-off names bring is usually so shallow (Pepsi is made of poo! Starbucks is bad!) that the criticism barely registers, only the brand. Double thanks, capitalism.
A virtual urban space without any big brands, not even generic knock-offs and jokes, would be even stranger. Adverts and chains are part of the tapestry of real cities. Is a city without them utopian? These cities where all shops are unique mom & pop shops and small businesses and cooperatives, where beverage and snack dispensers are utilitarian, and where bus stops display bus timetables rather than giant video adverts? Are they imagining an alternative economy where money hasn't congealed into dominant megabrands? No, they're horror. They manage to make me acutely aware of the absence of brands and feel unnerved by this. I'm not at home unless brands and adverts are spaffed all over my eyes. Brands, this reminds me, are central to my conception of our reality. The horror...!
(That said, I do always enjoy vending machines filled with cans and bottles labelled "Drink" and such because they remind me of Repo Man in those rare times when I'm not already thinking about Repo Man.)
In short, The Video Game Soda Machine Project is great and I love brands.