In 1972, when Nolan Bushnell and Al Alcorn finished making Pong, they faced the dilemma of how to test it on a crowd. They settled on a hole-in-the-wall bar called Andy Capp’s Tavern in Sunnyvale, California, stacking the game on top of two empty wine barrels next to a few pinball machines and a jukebox. It was a huge hit from the very beginning, but it had a curious trait. As the bar owner explained to Alcorn in a phone call, people would come to the bar just to play Pong. They wouldn’t buy anything else. Why didn’t patrons continue to drink while they played?
It’s simple enough: When you’re drunk, your physical and mental faculties are impaired. That reduces your reaction time, coordination and overall capacity to play the game well. The issue persists today. You can’t expect to go on Xbox Live after knocking down a couple of pints and still keep up with a sober player. Guitar Hero can rapidly become an exercise in frustration if you’ve been nipping too much of Tennessee’s finest. Complex game designs and controllers become completely counterintuitive once you forfeit the motor skills needed to operate heavy machinery. Yet numerous bars are still filled with arcade games, and certain console titles often take center stage at cocktail parties. People love to mix their booze with fun activities that keep the conversation going. What, then, are the elements of a game designed to be played by the inebriated?
Let’s start with our target audience. They’re not going to be able to focus for extended periods of time, so you need something that only demands brief bursts of coordination followed by plenty of downtime. That’s key, because they’re going to need a chance to sip from their drink. Hopefully they’re not drinking alone, so downtime also gives them a chance to shift their attention back to the conversation, or, failing that, give them the opportunity to start one. Finally, their reflexes are generally going to be utter crap. People don’t like to lose, particularly when they’re drunk, so we need to plan for that as well. Our target player wants something that enhances the drinking experience without overriding it.
What do those criteria produce? The obvious places to start are bowling and golf games. Since players are drunk, you can’t really expect them to handle multiple buttons. Or even a joystick, if it’s a Friday after happy hour. Enter the ball controller. With one delightfully uncoordinated spin, you can launch a golf ball, throw a strike or arc a Frisbee. It’s hard to refer to any particular game in this instance because there are so many variations and knock-offs, but we’ve all seen them before: You spin the ball, then kick back to watch 15 to 20 seconds of instant replays – plenty of time to take a sip or two.
Game developers haven’t stopped there, however, and it shows in the pristine design of Big Buck Hunter. Yes, it has received universally low scores, and yes, it’s incredibly dull when you’re sober. But drunk? Big Buck Hunter is one of the best. The average drunk person can still grasp the fundamental principles of a gun: You just aim, pull trigger and take a sip of your drink. Big Buck Hunter boils down all the essential elements of hunting into a five-minute experience. It forces you to wait before you start unloading, brilliantly combining the need for downtime into the game itself. To get the highest score, you have to hit a certain number of bucks before they all run away. And when the moment finally comes, you have a limited number of shots, so you only have to focus until you’re out of ammo. It seizes on all the handicaps a drunk person may have while playing a videogame and makes them part of its design.
Plenty of other bar games follow a similar set of gameplay principles. Trivia games allow you to chat with teammates and reflect, and it doesn’t take much manual dexterity to press a button every minute or so. Blackjack is also highly playable for drunk people because it involves next to no thinking or strategy. If the cards add up to 17 or higher, stay. If you’re below, take a hit. If it’s 11, double down and pray. That gives you a 44-percent chance of winning no matter what. As my dealer would fondly say back when I lived along the Nevada border, “If it can breathe, I can deal it cards.” Even if you’re playing with other people, you don’t experience the stress of a competitive game like poker because you’re not taking each other’s money. It’s just you versus the house; revealing your hand has no consequences. Drunk players can even ask other people to do the math on their cards.
But what about the console world? We can’t always be in a bar, and nothing quite beats a good house party or pre-game gaming session. Unsurprisingly, the best drunk games still rely on these basic themes. Wii Sports is an interesting drunk game because all its sub-games still feature the key ingredients: bursts of activity, plenty of downtime and a minimal requirement of skill or coordination. “Casualness” aside, Wii bowling is really fun when you’re drunk and have company over.
Nintendo isn’t the only developer to innovate in this field of intoxicated gaming. Valve created an excellent alternative for the drunk gamer with the Medic in Team Fortress 2. All you have to do is run around loosely aiming at people with the health gun and you’re doing a great job. Warhawk for the PlayStation 3 is another great example because of the huge diversity of options to the player. If you’re feeling particularly inebriated, many weapons and turrets feature a locking design. You just hold down the button, aim in someone’s general direction and start firing missiles. You’re not going to top the leaderboards, but you can still walk away feeling satisfied. Other games like the You Don’t Know Jack trivia series or the Singstar karaoke games also facilitate a quality drunk gaming experience.
While conducting research for this article, I found myself both worried about the scope of my knowledge of drunk activities and seriously needing a whiskey. So I went to my favorite dive bar on King Street and ordered the usual. Looking around, I saw people playing all the typical bar games: Some folks were playing darts in the backroom, some partook in a game of trivia and everyone chatted while they played. I noticed an old arcade version of Pac-Man collecting dust in the corner, and I asked the bartender why no one played it. “Someone spilled a beer on it or something. I’ve never seen it work and I’ve been here for three years,” she commented dryly. I asked a couple of people what their favorite game to play was while drunk and they all looked at me blankly. One guy finally muttered, “Whatever’s around, man. When you’re drunk, you don’t really care that much. It’s just something to do.”
Perhaps this is the greatest dilemma with producing a drunk game: It’s hard to maintain an enthusiastic fan base when they’re only there for the booze anyway. A successful drunk game doesn’t make too many demands on the player’s attention; it’s just something to do to pass the time. I asked the bartender what her favorite game to play while drunk was. She paused for a minute before answering, “Mind games, sugar. You need another beer?”
L.B. Jeffries is a law student from South Carolina who spends too much time playing videogames or screwing around on The Escapist forums instead of studying. He writes reviews, articles and a weekly blog for the videogames section of PopMatters.