This year, when the pandemic kept me away from Japan and by extension my beloved Japanese vending machines. I decided to torture myself instead by buying a coffee table book called “Vend – Notes On The Silent World Of Tokyo’s Vending Machines” by designer and photographer Tim Easley.
It’s literally a photo book of vending machines, an idea so simple yet so enticing I’m almost annoyed at it. After all, no one who’s ever experienced Japanese vending machines doesn’t love them, and for good reason.
There are a lot of vending machines in video games, enough to justify a whole study, accompanied by the Video Game Soda Machine Project, which is still going strong after nearly four years.
Vending machines in games are like wooden crates, or chests – the modern version of a widely recognisable place to get items from. They’re a perfunctory part of standard video game literacy. They are in office buildings and on the street, they sell drinks, snacks, and materia. Animal Crossing: New Horizons showcases the beauty of the vending machines best by making it into a collectible item, the colour of which corresponds to what’s inside, just like with the real version.
But how to celebrate something you’re already so used to? I’ve been thinking a lot about vending machines not just as an item storage, but a destination. The best vending machines I’ve encountered were those on top of mountains, like the infamous vending machines on top of Mount Fuji. After a long, hard hike, you buy a drink, or some ice cream, and you finally get to sit down. A game about a hike, like Death Stranding, just about vending machines instead of grey cargo centres, maybe. I think every tourist tried to find something like Yakuza 0’s infamous adult magazine vending machine while in Tokyo – in a game, you could have a map that, instead of being made up of streets and sights, showed you vending machines, and then the journey could be your destination. I’ve also experienced the act of shopping around for a vending machine that sells the drink you want. Yes, it’s silly – you could just go to one of the five convenience stores you’re passing on the way, or give up and just buy something else instead. But we look for things in games so often, from doves to pieces of paper, often without a good reason, that it doesn’t feel silly to ask for a game that treats a vending machine like an oasis in the desert.
I’m also still on the hunt for a game that captures the joy of eating or drinking something entirely new to you, and the element of play that comes with that. Eating curry from a vending machine hotel lobby takes a whole puzzle-like assembly process for you to end up with something as simple as a hot meal. Grape jelly Fanta is Fanta, but it’s also a jelly in a can – a whole adventure that admittedly didn’t end very well, but an adventure nonetheless. What if a drink from a vending machine didn’t just replenish hit points, but gave you ideas for magical formulae or whatever else you needed, instead of just handing it to you? Fetch quests ask you to deliver things all the time, how about delivering the perfect, ice-cold drink?
I’m nostalgic right now, so what I want is a digital monument to a thing I love a lot and can’t attain right now, but I also think that a lot of things we already take for granted in games deserve a fresh perspective, a new look, a starring role. Let it be my beloved vending machine.