Best Bars In Gaming And Why It's More Than Just What's On The Menu
Most of us have our favorite bars. The place that our mind travels to for a quick pit stop, a lengthy hangout with friends, or simply a good excuse to people watch. A good bar, a "feels like home" bar, is not about the drinks, ironically enough. Sure, a good cocktail lends itself into the equation of what makes a "good bar," but the real meat of the matter is the feeling a place evokes. The ambiance that can be witnessed, the familiarity that sinks into your skin, the energy of the passersby. That "go-to" bar is more about the experience than the drink in hand. With games becoming more and more immersive every year, it got me thinking: how do bars in video games compare? And the ones that I found myself drawn to, what made them so special? So memorable?
The best bars in gaming are always going to be subjective, but diving more into the more emotional and humanistic complexities of some of our favorite places brings us to this moment in time. That's right, we're ranking some of our favorite bars in video games!
Afterparty's bar is pretty darn epic for a few reasons. First and foremost is that it's a bar literally in Hell. You can't really beat that. After a pair of best buds find themselves in the pits of Hell, they find themselves faced with a unique loophole that could get them out: outdrink Satan. That would be the second reason I love this so much. The challenge, the purpose of being there, it all adds up to a memorable experience. What makes the bar scene in Afterparty even better is that there isn't just one bar, there are many, including drinking with the man downstairs himself in his own home.
But it's more than just having an objective; the vibrant lofi-esque lighting and the drink options available with the in-game pop-up menu make it a destination that has value in terms of the entire setting of the story and a place to connect. In their quest to outdrink Satan, both characters must be able to navigate an intelligent dialogue system in the game, which affects how those around them see the duo. Every decision matters, every conversation matters, and in a lot of ways, that's how real-life bars feel, as well.
I've met some of my closest friends by having wild, uninhibited conversations with other tavern dwellers; there is safety when talking to new people in terms of letting your internal guard down. By this, I don't mean jump into a car with a person you just met. I mean when engaging in conversation. I don't know you. You don't know me; we're both here just to hang out and enjoy the atmosphere. There's a freedom in that; freedom that drew me to these types of locations even when I was at a point in my life where alcohol held no interest to me. Again, it's about the atmosphere, an atmosphere that Afterparty nails expertly.
Stray Sheep in Catherine
When I lived in Kansas City, Missouri, there was a bar my old roommate and I would go to almost daily. Oddly enough, we rarely got drinks. On the weekends, maybe a nice bourbon or two, but nothing major. We would return because it felt like a secret hole-in-the-wall type of location that almost feels as though you're not supposed to be there because the energy is quiet. Simple. Easy to lose yourself in for a few hours in its humble surroundings. That, to me, is exactly what the Stray Sheep reminds me of in the Atlus game Catherine.
A bar/diner hybrid is the best kind because bar food can be a treasure trove for your tastebuds. This is what the Stray Sheep is. It's a bar where Vincent Brooks and his friends go during the day to destress and catch up. Or, in Vince's case, ponder why he seems to have the worst luck in the world. It's humble in what it has to offer players: a simple arcade machine, a nice little jukebox, a TV, and various booths for grub and comfort. You can find a place like the Stray Sheep in every city, and it's for that reason that this sort of niche is a staple. Sometimes, people want simplicity. Need simplicity, even. That's the type of experience that makes this particular bar stand out the most.
Seventh Heaven from Final Fantasy VII (and the Remake)
Much like the Stray Sheep, Seventh Heaven is a simple place that offers comfort and a nice hot meal. Back in my day (old man yells at cloud), our Seventh Heaven was a polygon dream. But in Final Fantasy VII Remake, Seventh Heaven looks like an actual place to visit, and it's as cozy as I remember from the original game. Square Enix said it best about the bar, "A favorite after-work hangout for laborers, Tifa's cocktails and cooking are big hits around the neighborhood people. After hours, though, the place turns into a hideout for the anti-Shinra militant group Avalanche."
Remember what I said about Stray Sheep feeling like a hole-in-the-wall secret? Seventh Heaven makes that secret a reality, but that doesn't stop it from feeling like a second home. Not everyone feels quite at home at their place of residence, but a good meal and good company can make you forget all about that. Plus, Tifa would never intentionally let someone be hurt at her bar, so you know someone is always there to look after you.
Afterlife from Mass Effect 2
You thought you were going to make it through a "favorite gaming experience" type article without me mentioning Mass Effect? Fool. Kidding! But we are going to talk about Mass Effect, but not just because of my love of the series. Aria is a badass Asari that is basically one of the galaxy's best crime bosses. Her throne? Afterlife on Omega in Mass Effect 2. There are two levels to this bar, one specifically made with VIPs in mind. Picture this:
You're a lone wolf, tired from another grueling day on Omega. You want to escape the slums of the rust-filled alleyways and interspecies tension. You want to let go, indulge in the more hedonistic side of entertainment without fear of judgment. You decide to check out Afterlife for the first time. You walk up to the first entrance, seeing a long line of people waiting to get past the giant Elcor bouncer. "Intimidatingly," he says, "no entry." You reply, "No, this is fiction. Liana said I could come in." He lets you in. Before you've even made it into the club itself, you hear the heavy bass of the music inside. So loud, you can feel the tremble in your bones, making your teeth grit and your palms sweat in anticipation. You're almost there. You can see the entrance in sight.
You walk in, and the music hits you in the face, causing you almost to have a visceral reaction to gaining entry. In the center, you see a bar. Above that, you see a small tucked-away area that oversees the entire Afterlife. You know that's where Aria is, but you can't see her. You only see Aria when she wants you to see her. To your left and to your right, you see Asari dancers and patrons losing themselves to the rhythm. You see tables where some groups catch up while others drink alone. You see life. You see a thousand different experiences contained in one location, all of which have the freedom to air out the most hidden parts of themselves because that's the haven that Afterlife offers.
There aren't many bars like this for the casual goer, but New Orleans, Louisiana, and Los Angeles, California have some of my favorite near-replicas. There's a power in places like this, a power to be what you want. That power comes with a danger, but one thing is for certain: You won't forget your time at Afterlife. Those memories stay with you forever.
New Serena from Yakuza
When coming back from my first deployment back when I was active duty, I was burnt to a husk by being surrounded by people, chaos, and high-stress energy for 18 months straight. I craved silence, but my home wasn't the best place for that during that time. New Serena from Yakuza 3 and onwards reminds me of a small little bar near Virginia Beach. I can't for the life of me remember the name, but I remember biking there almost daily to have an hour or two just to myself. A good book, an old fashioned, and a pen in case I felt creative. This little slice of heaven was always quiet, no matter how many people were there. It almost felt like patrons were reverent of the atmosphere this place offered, ensuring that all inside worked to keep it serene. Whether I had a drink or not was completely irrelevant, I was there to have quiet reflection and to let my mind breathe from all of the noise. New Serena offered that sort of peace to Kazuma Kiryu numerous times throughout the series, proving that having a bar in a game is so much more complicated than many realize. It's not about what drinks are on the shelves, it's about what the player feels upon entry. If you felt like you could breathe, then you were at New Serena.
The Hanged Man from Dragon Age 2
The older you are, the higher the chances that you have a beloved bar in mind when you think of "cozy filth." The place that has carved itself into your heart but you can't really explain it right to your friends that look at you like you're nuts. My friend Alyssa Mercante from GamesRadar mentioned this recently in a panel we were a part of for PAX Online where we talked about some of our favorite bars in gaming, but one of her most treasured locations was just a pit of a mess. There was always "water" on the floor (pretty sure it's pee) and nothing was clean, but you know what? It felt like home. It may sound odd, but this is actually really common for many people, including myself. Something about a place, no matter the state, can just speak to you, and The Hanged Man from Dragon Age 2 perfectly pays homage to that feeling.
Varric Tethras, rogue storyteller and sometimes unwelcome tagalong, sees this as his home in Kirkwall during the game. It's where the card games are filled with cheaters, the ale tastes like urine, and the floors are always covered in stains that are best left unexplored. But it's home. He'd protect it with his life. It's home to Hawke and their ragtag group of misfits. It's a place that nothing was too weird because the whole place should honestly just be razed to the ground at this point. It's a place that defies decorum and offers what it wants to offer: a semi-warm place for your butt and a room temperature ale for your tummy. And entertainment, there is always some form of bar attendee cliché stumbling around, making the experience truly authentic every time you walk through those doors.