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The image of a forlorn patron telling their woes to a wise and stoic bartender shows up in TV, books, and video games. It’s the night life version of a confessional for many characters. But what happens when we take the point of view and flip to the bartender’s side?
Bartending games are a pretty small market. My first encounter with a bartending game was in elementary school. The boys in computer class liked to play a flash game called Bartender: The Right Mix. The intention of the game is to make drinks by mixing various ingredients at the bar, but most of the time they just tried to make the most disgusting drink possible that would kill the moustachioed bartender upon drinking. Kids can be so cruel.
However, the original bartending video game was a 1983 arcade game called Tapper. The game was sponsored by Budweiser with the intention of selling arcade cabinets to bars. The original cabinet even used Budweiser beer taps as game controllers. Eventually the game was rebranded as Root Beer Tapper because the original game was criticized for advertising alcohol to children. But the mechanics stayed the same. All you have to do is fill glass mugs with beers and slide them down countertops to patrons while catching empty ones, if a mug breaks, you lose a life. It’s all very simple, but over the years bartending games have grown more complicated.
Video games have been used as a learning tool for aspiring bartenders in a more practical way. Look in the app store and you’ll find several bartending simulations designed to teach people how to mix cocktails. The game mechanics for these games tends to be fairly straightforward, pour the right ratios of the right ingredients to make a correct cocktail.
Many of the games mentioned above attempt to be both educational and tell a narrative. The Bar Oasis series even comes equipped with an encyclopedia of cocktails that you can access and practice with at any time. Bar Oasis even has motion controls to simulate pouring drinks. Pour too much or too little, and the drink will turn out wrong. While the app won’t make anyone a master bartender, it can be useful for memorizing cocktail recipes.
But bartending is not just a game mechanic, but also a story mechanic as well. There are not a lot of story-based bartending games, but I can think of a few that really use the idea as a way to tell a good story.
Va11-Halla is a gripping story driven game set in the cyberpunk Glitch City. The narrative centers around Jill, a bartender who is soon to her lose her job due to the bar, Vallhalla, being foreclosed. Most of the game takes place behind the bar, with Jill serving drinks and talking to patrons. What you choose to serve the customers also has an effect on the storyline. For example, you can choose to give a customer a drink with more alcohol in it, you get a more interesting interaction than you would if they were more sober. There are multiple endings depending on whether you served certain characters correct drinks.
Another game, The Red Strings Club is a second cyberpunk story that uses what drinks you make as a game mechanic. In this game you play as Donavan, an information broker who is also the bartender for the titular Red Strings Club, as he attempts to get intel on a life altering project being pushed on the public by a massive corporation.The idea around bartending in this game is that the drinks you make appeal to the different emotions and feelings of the customer. Depending on what you serve the customer and what emotion you appeal to, you can get different dialogue and information regarding the main objective. There’s also an interesting UI (User Interface) involved with bartending. The emotions of the customer are displayed at different locations on the screen as soul nodes, and the spirits you pour into the cocktail will move the soul disk in a certain direction. For example, bourbon moves the soul disk up and tequila moves it right. The goal is to line up your soul disk with the emotion you’re trying to appeal to. This is a unique mechanic considering most bartending games just ask you to pour the right ratios of predetermined drinks.
The perspective of a bartender gives the player the opportunity to meet a lot of unique characters and interact with them. Customers in Va11-Halla include a hacker, an android sex worker, a bounty hunter, talking Corgis, and an obnoxious livestreamer. But, by putting the main character in the position of the bartender there are certain expectations set on them, the most important one being that you have to listen to the problems of anyone who walks into the bar. Through this, we cut out a lot of the fluff that comes with introducing new characters into a running plot and get right to their life story. After a few drinks you can know all about their childhood and their hopes and dreams. This kind of quick exposition is ideal if you want to introduce the player to as many interesting characters as possible while making the interactions seem genuine and unforced due to the nature of the patron and bartender relationship. This is especially interesting in The Red Strings Club because the bartender is looking for specific information from the customers that will further the plot and his goals.
Implemenenting bartending in future games could be really interesting. Games like Va11-Halla and The Red Strings Club show how it can be used as a great storytelling mechanic. The creators of Va11-Halla are currently creating another bartending game that is sure to use the same mechanics to tell a completely new story. I feel like there’s a lot of potential there and not just for story driven games. There could be a management game where you attempt to make a great bar. Big open world games could use bartending mini games as a way to engage the player with characters and quests. There’s a lot of possibility within this one niche genre and it’s clear that bartending games have grown since the days of Tapper or even from the flash games of my childhood. I’m excited to see where the wise bartender may show up next.
Harriette is a Boston based writer who is currently studying Creative Writing at Emerson College. She is a Filipino immigrant who hopes to create more diverse writing in her field. Her work has appeared in Making Queer History, Atlas Magazine, and Flawless Magazine.
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