The bars in video games are surprisingly nuanced. Beyond the customary brawls and rows of shelved glass placed there only to be shot and shattered, there are memorable characters, conversations and defining atmospheres. Everyday spaces are just as important to virtual world building as the extraordinary, and you can't get much more familiar than a pub or bar. Toilets maybe, but that's another article.
Bars are, like humans, mainly liquid. Liquid pours out from taps, gets put in specifically built containers, and then finally drunk. Similarly, games are all about fluids. Think of the amount of virtual blood spilled over the years, as well as all those damned water levels and dungeons you've been forced to swim through. This is obviously why bars and video games fit so well together. It's also the jumping off point for compiling a completely serious, meticulously researched and non-arbitrary list of video gaming's best virtual pubs and bars.
Grittiest dive bar
The word "gritty" has become a bit of a cliché. Just consider how many games in recent years have decided to set a level in a strip bar to quickly get across just how thematically rough and mature it is. It's a cheap and dirty trick that bypasses the altogether more difficult craft of storytelling. The original Deus Ex (read our retrospective feature) on the other hand is a game that deliberately builds up a world of urban decay and societal collapse from the very beginning. Embedded in an environment involving constant terror attacks, drug-addled sub cultures and tramps huddled around flaming bins, lies the Underworld Tavern.
Tucked away down an alley in future Manhattan neighbourhood Hell's Kitchen, the Underworld Tavern feels genuinely gritty. Deus Ex earns its vice and crime aesthetic the hard way – by caring about the themes and not wanting to simply skip past a discussion. The tavern's old mechanised bartender eyes you suspiciously because of your role as an anti-terrorist agent. In the corner of the bar a drug dealer sells "Ambrosia", an Illuminati-manufactured vaccine that has nothing to do with the rice pudding but is instead the answer to the (also Illuminati-made) disease called the "Gray Death". Everyone's forced to buy into Ambrosia to stay alive. Unless you're poor, in which case you just die.
Cheer up. Remember when LucasArts made games? (If not, try reading this.) One of their most beloved adventure series was Monkey Island, which followed Guybrush Threepwood on his journey to become the world's greatest pirate. The Secret of Monkey Island's Scumm Bar, named after LucasArt's bespoke game engine (an in-joke nobody but old, now very old, people got), was charming, spirited and memorable. The Scumm Bar is a great example of the mood you can create and the stories you can tell using just two dimensions. You don't have to be able to navigate bars in 3D for them to evoke a believable sense of space and time.
Other jolly pirate bars I quite liked were the numerous beach establishments in Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag. The Caribbean setting is fantastic, and alongside the booze and the sun, every bar comes with its own brawl: you're a Welsh pirate sailing the seas collecting bar fights and shanties. If only Ubisoft would sober up and do more with the pirate setting.
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Best Asian bar
Bars are social hubs that are great for quiet chats amongst friends. However, as video games are all inherently frenetic and solely revolve around chaotic violence, obviously, we'll have to settle for a giant shoot-out. Stranglehold was a third-person shooter made in loose collaboration with legendary Hong Kong director John Woo. One of the game's first big set pieces takes place in The Golden Kane bar/restaurant, and is a real throwback to many of Woo's classic films, most notably Hard Boiled and its opening scene.
Woo's influence on the action genre can't be overstated. He was fast-cutting, cranking and keeping his camera mobile at a time when Hollywood had settled into a deep malaise. Stranglehold's bar scene is an admirable recreation of Woo's work in Hong Kong. All the important props: the tiny wooden tables and stools, crockery, light fixture and tiled walls can be smashed to pieces. There's even a banister for virtual Chow Yun-fat to slide down. Shenmue also had a pretty memorable, fairly funny bar fight.
Best ye olde fantasy tavern
Inns and taverns in fantasy games are quite unlike other bars and pubs. As opposed to being designed to evoke a specific atmosphere or stage a violent shootout, fantasy taverns are all about sneaking upstairs and rifling through drawers to steal stuff. The Witcher series has some great pubs where you can partake in a good spread of activities. There's fisticuffs, the card game Gwent, alcohol that turns your vision blurry, and of course the customary looting when nobody's looking.
In Planescape: Torment there's the Smoldering Corpse Bar, a fiery establishment named after an eternally burning prisoner who once tried to torch the city. The pyromaniac Ignus can later be recruited into your party, which is troublesome, as he's the only thing going for the bar. But my favourite fantasy tavern is probably The Drunken Huntsman from Skyrim. It's got a great Norse vibe. There's a giant fire-pit in the centre of the room, loads of those spirally Celtic patterns on the walls and even a bard in the corner strumming away. It's also where you can begin the "A Night to Remember" quest, where you black out from drunkenness and then retrace your steps, slowly revealing your debauched antics in the process. Most importantly, Skyrim's taverns allow you the option of theft via bucket.
Best bar in space
There are a couple of glitzy deep space bars that stick out for me. Mass Effect 2 has the Afterlife Club, set aboard the mercenary-controlled Omega space station. There's also Purgatory on the Citadel in Mass Effect 3. My memory of both is a little blurred – from what I can recall, one comes in vibrant space purple, the other bright neon pink. Mass Effect's bars more closely resemble the drinking spots in Star Trek (the vibrancy of Quark, and the glassy minimalism of the Enterprise's own Ten Forward) than the dusty low-tech cantinas of Tatooine.
The famous cantina in Mos Eisley has been recreated in games countless times, but to my mind it has always paled in comparison to the cinematic equivalent – it's often empty (Star Wars Galaxies) or just obnoxiously blocky (LEGO Star Wars). One of the most memorable things about the place was the music, a band of egg-headed musicians playing a form of future-jazz called "jizz". (Not even joking.) Suddenly I feel less annoyed that Disney nuked the Expanded Universe. Instead of hosting live music, Mass Effect's bars are, along with The Hive from Deus Ex: Human Revolution, mostly soundtracked by DJs spinning dance music.
Best night club
Remember how awesome Rare used to be? Somewhere between making GoldenEye 007, Banjo-Kazooie, Donkey Kong 64 and Perfect Dark, the British studio produced Jet Force Gemini. It was a fantastic little adventure featuring a dog with a jet pack, collectible ewok things and a final boss that could not be beaten (by me). It also had the Big Bug Fun Club, the enemy drones' very own chill-out spot. It had a great atmosphere and a ton of character, with disco lights, outrageously groovy dancing, a suitably bulky barman and a DJ to drop the fire.
Another great video game nightclub can be seen in the cult classic Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines. The Asylum in Bloodline's Santa Monica reminds me of a few grubby night clubs I've been to. More interestingly, it's a place where unlucky clientele are lured so that a core group of predatory vampires can get their blood fix. It's dark, exploitative and more than a little depraved. Nothing at all like real-world night clubs.
One of the worst video game pubs is the one from the opening of Uncharted 3. The Pelican Inn is supposed to be set somewhere in London, but it's a hodgepodge of terrible stereotypes and seems to have more in common visually with the Irish pub the Baltimore police department holds wakes in. The bar brawl set piece isn't terrible – it's just really difficult to get over the sheer amount of flat caps on display. The Pelican just looks like the kind of bar I'd avoid in real life.
Now, The Hound Pits from Dishonored is by far the more interesting local(e). It's your safehouse in Dunwall, the game's Dickensian dystopia roamed by corrupt bobbies and plague-riddled rats. Both Dunwall and its pub, which once hosted dog fighting in the basement, have a real sense of history. The booths, chalked food menus, lighting and even brickwork on the outside of the building just look and feel right. I've been to the Hounds Pit, or somewhere like it, before. I think we all have, and it's that rare exception to the video game boozer rule of being fantastical for the sake of it. You can practically smell this place's stale beer stains from the other side of the screen.
What do you think? Fonder of 7th Heaven from Final Fantasy VII? Partial to a pint at Liberty City's Steinway Beer Garden? Bayonetta's The Gates of Hell has a certain charm to it, no? Perhaps Tapper's bars keep you coming back for more? You can tweet VICE Gaming your drinking holes of choice, if you're sober enough to fit a recommendation into 140 characters.
Usually this is where we'd link you to more gaming (go here for that), but let's make a boozy exception: