I drink a lot. Not enough to consider myself an alcoholic, but my fridge is regularly stocked with the latest in craft beers, bottles of Italian wine, and a bottle of Newfoundland Screech. Despite the fact that I drink intensively, I have never found myself to be a heavy drinker in video games. The option is there in almost any open-world title, or even narrative-driven shooters like the Bioshock series. Despite the title of this article, I am not going to explain how to drink in video games (press X to consume alcohol might do the trick). Drinking is a mechanic that is becoming more and more prevalent as video games try to tackle darker, character-based narratives. The problem with the Elder Scrolls and Bioshocks of the world, are that drinking is almost exclusively relegated to the sidelines. Rarely does alcohol interfere with characters, their motivations, or the plot. It is a game mechanic that helps reveal that you are playing a video game, ironically taking you out of the immersion when the point of alcohol in games is to immerse the player further. I want to explore this simple mechanic that I think has become overlooked by many, despite the possibilities that it opens up for darker and more provocative storytelling.
The earliest example of being able to freely drink alcohol that comes to my mind is in The Elder Scrolls series, from Morrowind to Skyrim. Of course, there’s the famous Skooma which is more of a drug than anything, but regardless, when have you had a playthrough where your character got hooked on Skooma? You see it within the world, where characters suffer from withdrawals and wind up in desperate situations because of their addiction. However, alcohol never plays a huge role in the player’s experience other than making them temporarily dizzy with minor status effects. For a series that is all about unique experiences for each player, including illnesses like vampirism or lycanthropy, it would be extremely interesting to see something more relatable to the player become a possible affliction. The Elder Scrolls series is one that I could definitely see tackling something like this, even if in just a side-quest.
The tricky part of that is tempting players into drinking alcohol frequently enough to become considered an alcoholic in-game. Drinking alcohol already gives a slight boost in some stats and has a negative effect on others, but Skooma is one of the few alcoholic beverages in the games which gives only positive effects. It is why it has become such a dangerous substance in Tamriel, and why so many interactions players have with Skooma addicts are miserable. Skooma might be the one substance that most players know is worth taking, mainly because it acts more like a potion than alcohol. However, labeling it as alcohol could open up a narrative that involves kicking the habit, especially if a new, stronger type of Skooma were to be made available in the next Elder Scrolls title.
The other popular series that has alcohol in its world is the Bioshock series. The positive and negative side effects of alcohol in Bioshock and its sequels are predominantly binary. Since there really are only two mechanics that players are constantly worried about, health and EVE, alcohol tends to increase health and decrease EVE. Players sometimes need to resort to alcohol in order to stay alive in the harder difficulties of the game, typically when running out of other health sources first. It is a fair trade off that forces the player to think about what is important in a certain situation. The opposite effect is seen with drugs such as cigarettes and pipes. However, alcohol has one other effect that is inflicted on the player and that is double vision, or simply a blur effect on the player’s camera. In the heat of combat, drinking alcohol to gain health can become a severe handicap for those who can’t aim well under the influence, especially since they’re also draining their EVE, taking away opportunities to use plasmids.
Alcohol is treated as a last resort in Bioshock. Players do not go out of their way to drink any Arcadia Merlot or Chechnya Vodka unless they desperately require health. This is evidence of how to put a mechanic like drinking alcohol to good use. For a game like Bioshock, where the narrative is usually tightly wrapped and not overtly long, it would be hard to give alcohol much more of an impact on the player beyond the heat of the moment. That is definitely a concession that I am more than willing to accept in the case of Bioshock because of its singular vision and storyline that usually ends up pretty dark on a consistent basis. For other games, though, where the narrative is not so complete, a more choose-your-own adventure type story could benefit from alcohol. Take Dragon Age: Origins for example, where there are several subsets of a player’s ending, showing all the decisions that they have made throughout their session. There’s no reason that other characters could not be able to notice a player’s frequent alcohol use, react and highlight it every now and then, eventually culminating in an ending that describes the player’s alcoholism eventually causing their downfall. Or perhaps a character simply leaves your party because they no longer feel that you are a competent enough leader due to your addiction.
This brings to mind The Yawhg, which is very much a choose-your-own adventure game that has many possible endings and encounters throughout its short playtime. I have had a character become the town drunk and eventually die as a result of his dependency on alcohol and the brash decisions he made. And then that specific narrative is absent on subsequent adventures because I avoid the tavern, knowing what will happen to my character. Even then, I can sneak a drink or two in and not have a similar ending because I was not as dependent on it to get me through the oncoming attack from the Yawhg. The Yawhg is extremely minimalist in a lot of respects, but because it doesn’t push a computer to its limits, the game is able to create several narratives that feel organic and natural by the time they conclude.
Most of these previous examples can be applied to alcohol, drugs, or any other addictive substance. However, the reason this article even came to mind was because of my recent experience playing Spate. Spate is a project which began on Kickstarter and then was eventually released to the public. The way this game made use of alcohol was particularly compelling because it took the drinking mechanic, which was so insignificant in many other games, and put it at the forefront of its narrative. It’s so prevalent a feature in Spate, that a button is dedicated to taking a swig of absinthe from the character’s flask. How the drinking mechanic affects gameplay is also more beneficial to the player than negative. You can take a drink as frequently as you want, and when you do, the aesthetics of the environment become more dream-like and occasionally visions of your missing daughter will appear (the latter happens often when you don’t drink as well, since it is a crucial element of the character’s story). I found myself being pulled towards drinking due to the benefits it adds to the mechanics of Spate. Taking a swig will make your character able to jump higher and move a little more quickly, which is extremely beneficial because the game is reliant on its platforming mechanics.
The negative effect to using absinthe is that platforms will move slightly, possibly affecting the precision of a player’s landing, but I found that to be a small risk, largely outweighed by the benefit. Whether that’s a problem with the design or is intentional is unclear, but it helps give the player a desire to drink more in the game. With that being said, Spate fails to completely capitalize on its drinking mechanics because of its ending which is a choice the player is allowed to make relating to their alcohol addiction. The fact that the player can choose is what holds the game back from being a powerful narrative, as the player has decided to drink the entire game but the ending allows for that rampant alcoholism to be ignored. I’m trying not to go too much into specifics because I do think Spate deserves to be played, if not for the drinking then for the presentation.
I bring up Spate because it is the game which most clearly demonstrates how drinking can be employed in video games for a truly powerful narrative, something which most have failed to convey. Usage of alcohol is more commonly held to the sidelines, giving only a temporary effect, no matter how often that temporary effect is employed. Of course, I’m not asking for every game to start dealing with alcoholism in a more prominent manner. I’m simply highlighting the severe lack of attention being brought to alcohol use, especially since so many games treat it as inconsequential, which can only give the wrong ideas to those who have problems differentiating the real world from virtual ones. Not every game should skirt around serious issues. At least a few should confront the issues head-on, or simply demonstrate the consequences in a deeper manner than merely damaging stamina regeneration by ‘x’ percent for ‘y’ seconds.
Feel free to leave feedback in the comments below, and let me know what you think about the use of alcohol in video games.