In 2016, Marshall University professor Jason Morrissette was playing Batman: Arkham Knight. While sneaking around the shadows, Morrissette stumbled upon a soda machine. Like many games, Akrham Knight doesn’t feature any real-life soda products; that’d cost money. Instead, the developers simply made up their own: Sparkle Fizz.
“It was so colorful in an otherwise gloomy corner of Gotham City that it caught my eye,” said Morrissette in a recent email exchange.
After joking on Twitter that someone catalog the various ways video games choose to represent soda machines, Morrissette decided to take it on. Thus, the Video Game Soda Machine Project was born, and as of Monday, it reached an important milestone: the blog cataloged its 2,000th soda machine, from an obscure 2006 third-person shooter El Matador, where players were a DEA agent targeting drug cartels.
It’s apparently a terrible Max Payne? Either way, in El Matador, people love Cola Fria.
“It’s remarkable how little details like soda machines—along with any number of other recurring props—can ground a game in a reality we recognize,” he said, “If video games are about creating a sense of place in which players can immerse themselves, something like a soda machine on a subway platform can go a long way toward making that happen.”
Morrissette hasn’t been doing the cataloging on his own. Many of the submissions to the Video Game Soda Machine Project come from fans. This is especially useful for games, like MMOs, that have been shut down over the years. The relentless dedication of fans often leads to the revival of games like The Matrix Online, which has been a pet project of one particular hardcore fan for nearly a decade.
“Without these fan projects, important parts of video game history—and unimportant parts like soda machines—would be lost when companies unplugged the official servers,” he said.
(This is a good time point out how the Entertainment Software Association, the lobbying group for the video game industry, is currently fighting against such practices.)
This research also extends, when possible, to games that were never released, like this shooter for the Gizmodo handheld, Colors, that would have tapped into the machine’s built-in GPS to let players spray bullets in arenas based on their location. Because the game never came out, you’re forced to rely on the few screen shots that did.
The Grog machine from The Secret of Monkey Island is Morrissette’s personal favorite—”the anachronistic vending machine struck me as hilarious”—but Juicy Raccoon in Resident Evil and Killer7’s vending machine for Handsomeman Executive Cola are close.
Interestingly, an abandoned prototype for Resident Evil 2 included real Pepsi machines. That likely would have changed if Capcom had gone forward with that version of the game, but branded machines do occasionally show up. Quest for Bush, a 2006 shooter developed by an Al-Qaeda propaganda organization, freely deployed Pepsi imagery!
“I’m afraid to guess what kind of list I landed on by downloading and playing that,” he said.
Morrissette, who admits to preferring the term “soft drink,” isn’t just collecting these random images as a pet project anymore—it’s incorporated into his research. At an upcoming academic convention, he’s presenting a paper called “I’d Like to Buy the World a Nuka-Cola: The Purposes and Meanings of Video Game Soda Machines:”
Anyone who has spent significant time playing video games has likely encountered a virtual soda machine in his or her adventures. Whether it’s a Nuka-Cola machine in the Fallout games, a Grog machine in the Monkey Island series, or any number of other examples, soda machines are surprisingly ubiquitous throughout the medium. Why do soda machines appear so frequently in video games? What purposes do they serve? What values do they represent? This paper takes a qualitative critical approach to answering these questions by identifying depictions of soda vending machines in video games and analyzing the various roles — aesthetic, ludic, and thematic — played by these machines. It goes on to argue that soda machines play a crucial role in grounding video games in a world we recognize as similar to our own, while simultaneously reinforcing the consumerist values of modern capitalism. The paper draws on data collected by the Video Game Soda Machine Project, a website maintained by the author that has cataloged 2,000 soda machines across every major platform and genre.
If you’d like to point Morrissette towards some undocumented soda machines, you can get in touch with him over Twitter.