Alison Carter, Will Brierly and I met over tea and pumpkin bread on a Sunday afternoon to talk about how we will live tomorrow.
“I am Will Brierly, developer of the world’s most advanced FPS (First Person Soda) drinking simulation – ‘Soda Drinker Pro’.”
Will is also founder of Snowrunner Productions, a PR and Marketing firm specializing in tech start-ups, former member of a rock band that toured in giant rubber suits, and a contemplative soul who walked for three days, Thoreau-style, from his hometown of Rehoboth, MA to start college at UMass – Lowell. Will is an eccentric, versatile visionary. “I’ve always got something spinning in my head.”
Will’s wife, Ali is more grounded. As Executive Director of Brighton Main Streets. Ali wrestles with the very real challenges of how to revitalize a traditionally working class neighborhood nestled within Boston’s city limits yet beyond its trendy core. “I like working in the public realm. I like the interplay of economics and politics. I like how responsive local politics can be. Voters really matter.”
Brighton was annexed by the City of Boston in the late nineteenth century. Yet, according to Ali, more than 140 years later many residents feel like “We are a suburb absorbed by the city through an accident of history”. That attitude feeds prevailing opinions that champion free parking in the commercial district while opposing reinstating the light rail line that ran to Brighton until 1969. However, Brighton is changing. The population as whole is slipping, but the population under 35 is growing. There are more students, willing to live in groups and pay higher rents. They seek unique eating opportunities and boutique shopping, but are less stable neighbors than Brighton’s traditional family-based demographic. Boston College is purchasing more land on Brighton’s west side; Harvard’s expansion into neighboring Allston pressures Brighton on the east
The headline player in Brighton these days is New Balance. The shoe company is spearheading a commercial and residential development around their headquarters that exemplifies corporate leadership of community development. Public agencies, like the Boston Redevelopment Authority, are less powerful than during the era of Urban Renewal. Corporations are shaping the urban landscape. In Brighton, New Balance is both powerful and beloved.
But Ali believes that, Harvard, though officially in neighboring Allston, will have an even greater impact on the neighborhood. “Harvard operates on an entirely different level. No developer in Boston can get the President of the United States on the phone. The President of Harvard can. Harvard’s influence is huge.” The Commonwealth of Massachusetts is planning to reroute Interstate 90 along the curve of the Allston interchange as part of a huge infrastructure project. But Harvard is the clear winner, as the highway will no longer divide the former CSX rail yards, which Harvard owns and where it plans major expansion.
When I asked Ali about representative Main Streets program concerns, she discussed commercial zoning and regulations. “It takes eight months to change the use of a commercial space. This favors big businesses and chains over individual enterprises. A bank can rent a space and let it sit for months while it winds through the approvals process, a small business owner cannot. But the neighborhood that people want to live in has local commercial, not just banks.” Ali considers the Main Street districts the city’s laboratories, small-scale places to test new ways of doing things. “Do you know how difficult it is to open a yoga studio in Brighton? The zoning code dates back to 1964. There were no yoga studios in 1964. It requires a special use permit. I am all for careful review of restaurants and dry cleaners, businesses that really impact the environment and traffic, but it shouldn’t be so difficult to open a yoga studio.”
I can’t help but recognize the parallel between Ali’s comments and many conservative positions, yet I wonder how many conservatives would consider Main Streets, as quasi-government program, a necessary advocate for free enterprise
Will spends most of his time in a world one might call pre-enterprise. Snowrunner Production’s client list leans artistic and funky. But these days he’s culling that list to a smaller number of companies, all synergistically linked through their connection to virtual worlds. Will’s video game, Soda Drinker Pro, has also gained traction; in September, SDP will be coming to Xbox 1.
Will demonstrated the game for me. The upper third of a cardboard cup with a plastic lid and a straw sits in the foreground of the screen. A panorama of animated outdoor images scroll through the background. “I never spend more than twenty minutes creating a background. It is intentionally crude.” When a player pushes one button, the straw moves up to the front of the screen (as if in the viewer’s mouth). Push the second button and a slurping sound simulates soda being drawn through the straw. Hold that button long enough, finish the soda, and move up to the next level. That’s it.
I comprehend Will’s words, but I really don’t understand. What is the point? Where is the skill? “The fact that this is coming to Xbox is ridiculous.” Will seems as baffled by his success as I am by the whole idea. A review of Reddit posts on SDP doesn’t help. Commentary on a Soda Drinker Pro showdown, Carbonite: the Soda Drinker Pro backstory, and GAU Studios announcing Soda Drinker Pro winner of their ‘Best Fluid Acquisition’ Award.
“When we do interviews, we are super serious. We say this is the virtual reality platform that all serious soda drinkers use to train. There’s a game inside the game, nested in Level Two. You start as a raindrop and become whatever you land on. But we never promote that. People have to find that. I love the idea that this is the stupidest looking game in the world and there’s this hidden game that is beautiful. At some point, way down the line, the two games are related. But most people never get to that point. Maybe ten percent at most.”
The nested game, Vivian Clark, is a lush animated world that the viewer, as raindrop or whatever, floats through in a psychedelic calm. As a gaming neophyte, I was drawn to its passivity. Vivian Clark shuns violence and embraces gentle light. I don’t see it’s purpose, but neither do I sense anything detrimental.
To say that Soda Drinker Pro is pointless almost bestows more credit than it’s due. But since I came of age during the period pet rocks, who am I to judge. Yet in these more fluid times, the inanity of Soda Drinker Pro has actually led to a real product – Bonus Soda, a cranberry and cinnamon cola Will has concocted. ‘The Official Soda of Pro Soda Drinkers Worldwide’ is something you can actually hold in your hand, swirl down your throat, and is mighty tasty to boot. I know, because Will gave me one.
So what does it mean to create a crude game that becomes popular, bury an exquisite game within it without telling anyone, and then produce an actual product based on the inanity? It means that the world evolves in ways that are illogical and disorderly. And the moment we pretend otherwise, the joke is on us.
What do Ali and Will portend for how we will live tomorrow? That government’s influence will shrink as corporations and institutions rise. That clever entrepreneurs will create niches no one knew existed. That irony will prevail and humor run dry. But not to worry, because whatever state of (virtual) reality you embrace, you can always quench your thirst with a soda.