Raise a glass to the video game pubs that helped us survive 2020

In a year where we couldn’t go out, we found sanctuary in virtual boozers

Can you remember the last time you went to the pub? I can’t. I thought it was in July, but after trying to pin down further details I realised that what I was thinking of was a dream I had. I know it was a dream because I was talking to a giant humanoid frog at the bar. I’ve been pretty drunk before, but never that drunk.

Of all the things COVID-19 has changed about our lives, not being able to go to the pub is one of the things I miss the most. It’s not the taste of booze I miss. It’s easy enough to walk down the road and pick up a six-pack. What I miss is the hum of humanity. You’re never alone in a pub. We’ve all spent far too much of 2020 alone.

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Like so many absent real-world experiences this year – travel, community, the ability to do anything other than pace around my flat like a caged wolverine – I’ve recently tried replicating the pub experience in game. I’ve had plenty of opportunities.

The Secret Of Monkey Island
The Secret Of Monkey Island. Credit: Lucasfilm Games

In fact, I’ve been hanging out in video game pubs before I was ever allowed in a real one. This created a unique set of problems. The Secret Of Monkey Island’s Scumm Bar – named after creator LucasArt’s bespoke engine, an in-joke I didn’t get in on until twenty years after I first played the game – is a locale unparalleled in its rowdiness.

Turns out that in the real world, pirates don’t spin endlessly on chandeliers. It’s frowned upon, something I learned the hard way. LucasArts do great pubs by the way; if they’re not being frequented by the USA’s Founding Fathers in 1993’s The Day Of The Tentacle, they’re hosting rubbish beat poets in Grim Fandango, from 1998.

Maybe I’ve just been going to the wrong places, but it’s rare that video game pubs accurately portray anything that exists within the physical realm. This is largely for the best. I do, after all, want video games to present experiences more exciting than bagging the last packet of Scampi Fries.

Skyrim
Sksyrim. Credit: Bethesda Game Studios

Fittingly, video game pubs are obsessed with offering you the opportunity to fight. I’d never fight in real life. I’m not a fan of pain, but in video games my sleeves are rolled up and the merest sniff of trouble. There’s The Bannered Mare in Skyrim’s Whiterun, where, in the absence of a pinball cabinet, you can trade blows with Uthgerd The Unbroken, just for laughs. There’s also the opportunity to bar brawl in Uncharted 3’s The Pelican Inn, or in the unlikely event you like quick time events, in Batman: The Telltale Series. Perhaps best of the bunch is Geralt and Vesemir’s tag team against angry locals in The Witcher 3. All the fun of the fight, none of the bruises…

But it’s hard to think about the extremely funny, classic early scene in Red Dead Redemption 2 – in which the main protagonist Arthur and his buddy Lenny reap havoc at a local saloon – without feeling a profound pang at the reality of many great nights out having been lost. The entire narrative of last year’s fantastic Disco Elysium hangs upon this premise, while Night School’s sometimes really quite witty Afterparty is a game about mixing your drinks and the frivolity that follows… in hell.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. Credit: CD Projekt Red

But the video game boozer that almost broke me was Fable 2’s The Sandgoose, which I revisited earlier this year during one of the infrequent playthroughs I normally try to cram into a year. Now, I should say that I’m not hugely into pub games. Pubs are for drinking, not for mucking about with dominos, and Fable 2 loves a pub game, even releasing a compilation of such pastimes on Xbox Live Arcade in 2008. But there’s such pleasant frivolity in The Sandgoose. It’s really one of gaming’s loveliest locations. I don’t know about you, but I’ve needed the concept of ‘lovely’ this year. Whether this pandemic lasts another six months or another six years, I will inevitably return there again.

I live in hope of a return to the pub soon. A real one, with my friends in, with music and shouted conversations about who would win in a fight, Boba Fett or The Mandalorian, and a bag of chips on the way home. But like so many facets of video games, pubs in game have tempered the loss I’ve felt this year. Here’s to all the videogame pubs and all who drink in them. Let’s toast to a better, and more sociable 2021.

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