Tackling female alcoholism with the moody, filmic 4PM

When I first moved back to Brooklyn, I lived above a bar. It was sailor-themed and called The Drink. At first, I’d stop in for a nightcap and read a book. Then I introduced myself to the bartenders and they’d slide me a Manhattan as I finished a chapter. I’d now be in 2-for-1 territory and to even the odds, I’d buy myself another and, being good bartenders, they’d send me one for the road. This is why you don’t befriend bartenders. Their enthusiasm for insobriety is infectious. Also, profitable!

This cycle continued for several months until I pulled out of it. As to why I got started in the first place, Charles Bukowski, the patron saint of the inebriated, said it best: “When you drank the world was still out there, but for the moment it didn’t have you by the throat.”

But to date, explorations of the drunkard have typically focused on men like Bukowski. There’s Nicholas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas, Ray Milland from The Lost Weekend, Kerouac, Hank Williams, Faulkner, Jim Morrison, Hemingway. Serbian game designer Bojan Brbora thinks that’s a problem. His new game 4 PM, out today on Steam, captures a very different tale.

“As a man it’s okay to have a phase. But as a woman, it’s terrible.” 

Caroline Wells, the story’s center, hates her job and drinks away her disappointment as a result. After finding a man on the edge of a roof, she’s forced to confront her past and ultimately her future. But the backdrop, of course, is the drink, and also how our cultural baggage is different for men and women in terms of how much they drink and why. “As a man it’s okay to have a phase,” Brbora says. “But as a woman, it’s terrible.”

Alongside Mary Carr’s confessional Lit and Jowita Bydlowska’s boozy memoir Drunk Mom, 4 PM adds to the canon of troubled frontwomen, dealing with the hidden shame of struggling with alcoholism. There are a host of differences in how men and women approach alcohol; women have less of the chemical dehydrogenase, which slows their ability to break down booze, and are on average smaller by the pound. But the bigger gaps are cultural. It’s not that men are tougher by some macho formula, but that we praise Bukowski or Hunter Thompson for their demons while mourning Billie Holiday and Janis Joplin for the same struggle. Just this week, The Economist completed a glowing obit for media magnate Felix Dennis even though he spent more than $100 million on women, drugs and drink. The NYT referred to him euphemistically as “flamboyant.”

Changing minds mean changing perspectives. To tell this story as an interactive drama, Brbora is leaning on his film training at England’s prestigious National Film and Television School. Interactive dramas in games have also relied on a particular cinematography, as Kentucky Route Zero‘s patient compositions have shown.

But more than scenes or camera work, Brbora loved the craft of Darius Khondji, the Persian cinematographer who put his mark on iconic films like Delicatessen, Seven, and Funny Games. In particular, and very relevant to a character-driven tale like 4 PM, Brbora admired Khondji’s lighting of faces. “It tells a story within a story, but just within a simple look,” Brbora says. “There’s a slight mystery and reveal to how things happen slowly.”

By showing a dark side, 4 PM extends our contemporary obsession with troubled heroes, only it’s pulling more from Sarah Linden’s questionable parenting and deep obsessions in The Killing than Hank Moody’s sex addiction in Californication.  “It’s about compulsion,” Brbora says. “Women do the same stupid things we do, so why don’t we talk about it?”