Interview with Jess Morrissette: Celebrating 1,000 video game soda machines

Whether you’re lost in a dark alley, firing rockets down a crowded street, or surviving an apocalyptic wasteland, video game soda machines are everywhere.

I review video games by talking about the gameplay, the story, the visuals, the sound, the world. I might mention the weapons, if any, or other items in passing if such a mechanic has a vital impact on the gameplay itself. I don’t think I’ve ever found cause to mention soda machines before, either in a review setting or in simply discussing a game with a friend. Yet this seemingly common, innocuous item manifests in hundreds of video games, despite not being what we’d think of as a video game item like a gun, a sword, a health potion.

Why have I so suddenly been made to care about video game soda machines? Thank Jess Morrissette, also known as Decaffeinated Jedi.

Morrissette is the creator, curator, and collector of the Video Game Soda Machine project. In it, he has cataloged as many soda machines from video games as he could find, from the house decorations in Animal Crossing to the Soder Cola and Sprinkle Fizz machines of Batman: Arkham Knight to Mario characters dunking basketballs over a soda machine in NBA Street V3.

It began innocently enough, with a Twitter post on the aforementioned Arkham Knight machine. When others showed interest and began posting soda machines of their own, Morrissette encouraged his audience and began to post more himself. Soon, the project blossomed into a full-blown catalog of such machines, with Morrissette adding soda machine number 1,000 (from House of the Dead: Overkill) just yesterday.

Of course, this begs the question: why? Morrissette has offered plenty of reasons in past interviews with outlets such as NPR. They provide a familiar touchstone in an unfamiliar landscape because we all know what to do with a soda machine. They can be funny. They can offer political or social commentary. Sometimes they just look nice.

We wanted to hear more about Morrissette’s project and reasons for pursuing such a strange, but surprisingly wonderful aspect of video games, so we reached out to him for an interview on the project in light of soda machine number 1,000.

pokemon omega ruby soda machine

Credit: Game Freak/The Pokemon Company

App Trigger: Was there a moment, or a specific reason or turning point where you decided to turn this from an amusing Twitter discussion into a real project?

Jess Morrissette: After twenty soda machines or so, I decided to create a Storify to archive the screenshots we were collecting. Initially, it was just something I thought a few of my Twitter followers might dig; I didn’t envision it growing into anything more than that. When the screenshots kept rolling in, though, and we eventually surpassed 200 soda machines and started getting some attention in the media, I decided to move the project to its more permanent home and started taking it a little more seriously.

AT: Did you have any expectations about the project when going in, and what turned out to be true/surprising?

JM: I *vastly* underestimated how many video game soda machines were out there. When the project reached 100 entries, I was sure it was nearing the end. I thought the same thing around 200 entries and again at 600. Now the project has reached 1,000 soda machines, and I’m convinced there are at least a few hundred more out there, waiting to be discovered.

I was also surprised at how rare product placement featuring “real world” soda brands turned out to be. Sure, there are plenty of examples out there, but they’re just a drop in the bucket in the grand scheme of things. Going into the project, I assumed product placement would be far more prevalent.

Oh, and I remain flabbergasted that the project has yet to uncover a soda machine in a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game. There are nearly 50 TMNT games across every platform imaginable, all of them in a contemporary urban setting and starring radical pizza dudes, and I’ve yet to find evidence of a soda machine in any of them.

octodad

Credit: Young Horses

AT: What were the criteria you used? I seem to think you pondered (and perhaps did) reject some machines for not being explicitly soda machines.

JM: I decided early on to limit the project (to the best of my ability) to just soda machines — ruling out vending machines that exclusively sell snacks, coffee, milk, juice, et cetera. In many games, though, it’s difficult to be sure based on visuals alone, and there’s not always in-game dialogue to confirm whether or not the machine vends soda. In those cases, I either make a judgment call myself or open it up to my Twitter followers for their opinions.

AT: Did you end up trying any of the games that were discovered via the project that you hadn’t played before? If so, did you fall in love with any new games as a result?

JM: The best thing about the project is how many games it’s exposed me to that I might never have even heard of otherwise. Some of them I’ve continued playing long after archiving their soda machines. Two that spring to mind are Night in the Woods and the Ace Attorney series. I’ve also become obsessed with Overwatch since inducting it into the Video Game Soda Machine Project, but that’s less about the soda machines and more about how terrific Overwatch is.

overwatch soda machine

Credit: Blizzard Entertainment

AT: What’s your favorite soda machine from the project?

JM: My favorite is probably the Widow’s Wine machine from Call of Duty: Black Ops. It’s this totally goth spider-webby soda machine that’s just so ridiculous that it works its way all the way back around to awesome. A close runner-up is the soda machine from Thimbleweed Park — primarily because designer Ron Gilbert (one of my video game heroes) indicated during development that he included it, at least in part, because of the Video Game Soda Machine Project.

AT: The weirdest?

JM: I’ll always love Handsomeman Executive Cola from Killer7 for the GameCube.

AT: The tastiest?

JM: Definitely not the durian flavored sodas from the Persona series!

AT: You’ve described soda machines in games as a “shorthand for modernity,” particularly in the interviews you did around 500 machines. Can you elaborate on that a bit, particularly in light of 500 more soda machines?

JM: One of the biggest challenges of game design, I would argue, is making players feel present in the world of the game — particularly given the technological constraints of the medium. Soda machines are such a ubiquitous part of modern life in many parts of the world that they immediately ground games in a world we recognize. When they show up in a futuristic setting, it helps tie that sci-fi world to something that makes sense to us living in the twenty-first century. When they show up anachronistically in a game set in the past — like the Grog machines in the Monkey Island series — they help signal this time period isn’t so different from our own.

Soda machines aren’t the only in-game objects capable of making these connections, but I think the Video Game Soda Machine Project suggests they’re an object game developers keep returning to over and over again.

club penguin

Credit: Disney Interactive

AT: Would you ever do a project like this again with a different object? If so, what and why?

JM: I’ve thought a few times about cataloging depictions of video games *in* video games, but I think I’ll leave that to someone else. My Twitter followers have suffered enough with my constant soda machine screenshots.

AT: Do you intend to continue collecting soda machines and if so, for how long?

JM: I’m not actively searching for new soda machines the same way I was during earlier stages of the project, but if I stumble across them — or as people continue to call them to my attention — I’ll definitely keep updating the project.

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AT: Whenever you do consider this project complete, do you have any ideas of what you might do with all this information you’ve collected?

JM: Well, as an academic, I’ve considered writing some kind of article about video game soda machines. In recent months, I’ve become really fascinated by material culture studies — the study of the relationship between people and their things. I can imagine situating this project in the context of exploring material culture (soda machines) in immaterial spaces (games).

assassin's creed

Credit: Ubisoft

AT: Are there any weird/amusing/strange stories from your soda machine collection that you can share?

JM: I once played nearly three hours of Monsters, Inc. Scream Arena for the GameCube to grab a screenshot of a soda machine in one of the later levels. It’s easily one of the worst games I’ve ever played. It’s a dodgeball game where the ball physics are apparently governed by a random number generator. Absolutely brutal.

AT: Your website says that none of your games feature soda machines. Any plans to change that?

JM: My team is currently in the early phases of working on a game set in the 1980s, and while we were brainstorming the setting, one of the artists pitched the idea of a cola war between fictional rivals Mighty Fine Soda and Better Cola. Who knows? At least one soda machine might end up in the game.

AT: Anything else you want me to know about soda machines?

JM: If any game developers out there are looking for someone to consult on a soda machine, my rates are competitive. 😉

Jess Morrissette is a Professor of Political Science, and has worked on four games so far:  Stair QuestLate Last NitePledge Quest I: The SpaceVenture Adventure and Pledge Quest II: Noodle Shop of Horrors. You can find the Video Game Soda Machine Project in its entirety at his website, or submit more soda machines he hasn’t found yet via his Twitter.