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ARTICLE

Weekender: The Watering Hole

I'm currently playing Catherine, the oddball dating sim meets nightmarish puzzler title.

I can't tell you much other than that, as informed impressions will need to wait until the review proper in a few weeks.

But one thing that's stuck - out of the multitude of things that game's managed to skewer my brain with - is how much I look forward to my evenings sitting in the local bar, named, for reasons that'll be apparent at the review, Stray Sheep.

To give context: Stray Sheep, a two-tiered drinking establishment with wooden booths, a penchant for lounge jazz on the jukebox and the filthiest toilets in existence, is the regular haunt of protagonist Vincent, and in which you pass a lot of game time drinking and chatting to other customers.

It marks, for the first time in a while, a location in a game that I've actively welcomed a return to night after night.

Shooting the breeze: Stray Sheep is the bar everyone wishes they had as their local.

Part of this is the unfolding storyline, each evening piecing together another fragment picked from the daily lives of Vincent's friends and strangers who wonder into the bar. Part the atmosphere: it's relaxed, low background noise, and the layout and its clientele is endearing.

Your appearances there are scripted, but if they weren't I'd still be killing time partaking in small talk and listening to the bizarre conversations and advice from those in the booths next to me or at the bar.

Some locations in video-games you just dig. Plenty'll have you passing by at a charge while you empty out an enemies skull or roar by in a Lotus. But some are built to resonate with you, a piece of home in a virtual space, a place to rest from your endeavours.

It's an idea typical, but not restricted to, the RPG: after arduous monster-filled treks across continents, the idea of a watering hole to rest and recuperate attracts. But even then, there's very few that you'd want to come back to.

A return that again for the most has its origins in that genre: less so today, but travelling back to villages and safe havens after world-altering events (usually due to player action) resulted in different dialogue, the ripple effect of wider world issues coming to an end in an superfluous NPC's commentary. Yet the change made them seem more real.

And there was also the scenery: some places were worth hunkering down in just to enjoy the view, soak in the score. Evocative of feeling as well as setting, as if you were intimately connected with the developer who crafted the place for that very reason.

Over a decade on, this cafe in the backstreets of Paris still seems idyllic.

I can remember many such settings vividly. Outside the Paris cafe in Broken Sword II, soaking in the background noise of the traffic, the birds chirping in trees nearby. An idyllic take on the city, but a snapshot that's endured even in the face of the reality when I visited France a few years back.

More importantly they were areas I returned to over the course of adventures when possible, even to the degree of saving a game for the night when I was on familiar turf. I didn't just sink my funds into a villa in Costa Del Sol in Final Fantasy VII on a whim: a little bit of sun and plush housing felt a great luxury alternative to Cosmo Canyon. I finally could attune to the London capitalism protestors who nipped to Waitrose every evening.

It wasn't just to drink in the view either, like the Lighthouse Hillys retreat in Beyond Good & Evil. Konami RPG classic Suikoden had you gradually acquire and house a growing number of followers in a remote castle, letting you mark your progress in collecting 108 warriors and specialists far more entertainingly if not as effectively, by watching the rooms start to fill.

Suikoden, Beyond Good & Evil, Final Fantasy VII: all offering places worth revisiting.

I'll occasionally scarper back to the Hagar settlement in Rage, even if conversation is the same, to check in on everybody, particularly a sweet wing-stick practitioner. Or a walk around a roughshod basketball court in Half Life 2. Hell, Animal Crossing's entire concept is hinged on the the everyday mundanity of village life.

While no World of Warcraft veteran, I can see the appeal of community congregations in towns - but I much preferred the solitude that came with single player adventures.

I guess its the friendly berth, the home away from home that's the attraction. Games for myself have mainly been about escapism, and transplanting myself into a quiet corner of a universe much more attractive than the one I was in had plenty of appeal.

And the eagerness to return suggests that there's a place for the quiet, reflective moments amongst the action: that we can not only more deeply appreciate the virtual worlds we inhabit, but feel more immersed in them through the relaxation and familiarity they bring.

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