One of the great things about modern gaming is the sheer diversity of experiences you can have from one moment to the next.
If you’re in the mood for hacking and slashing through hordes of enemies as the cute girl personification of a video games console, gaming has you covered. If you fancy taking photos of spooky scary ghosts in a creepy old mansion, well, there’s a game for that, too — several, in fact.
But what about if you just fancy chilling out in a nice quiet coffee shop, enjoying the company of a few good friends and leaving all the troubles of the world outside for an hour or two? Sure, you could pop down your local Costa if you can face leaving the house… or you could settle in for an evening with Coffee Talk, a thoroughly pleasant story-centric game from Indonesian developer Toge Productions.
Toge Productions has been in the business since 2009; it was originally founded by two friends as a means of earning pocket money from their Flash games, but since that time the company has grown considerably and put out a number of successful full-scale standalone titles for a variety of platforms. Its most well-known releases to date are probably the various games in the Infectonator! series of zombie apocalypse strategy titles.
As a means of encouraging creativity among its staff, Toge Productions runs an annual internal game jam, during which any staff member is free to work on any project they please — regardless of their usual role in the company.
Coffee Talk came about during one of these game jams — specifically, the one in December of 2017. Toge’s marketing and PR manager Mohammad Fahmi had been musing for a while on whether it was possible for a video game to recreate the calming experience of sipping a nice hot drink while taking a break from the stresses and pressures of everyday life — and the game jam represented an ideal opportunity to explore that possibility.
The game was inspired not only by Fahmi’s initial premise — which he expanded with the creative, somewhat Shadowrun-esque twist of fantastic peoples such as elves and orcs inhabiting modern-day Seattle alongside humans — but also by the distinctive aesthetic of ’90s Japanese PC games, and the “lo-fi beats to study and relax to” that had become particularly popular on YouTube that year. The aim was to create an enjoyably laid-back vibe with the game, but also to wrap a compelling narrative around that pleasantly warm, amorphous feeling.
In Coffee Talk, you take on the role of a barista in the titular Seattle coffee shop, which only opens after the sun goes down. Your job is simple: make the drinks that people ask for (and occasionally the ones they don’t ask for) and, if they want to talk, listen to what they have to say.
If this sounds rather like Sukeban Games’ wonderful cyberpunk bartending game VA-11 HALL-A, you’d be entirely right. In fact, during development, Fahmi and company had the good fortune to chat quite a bit with Sukeban at the Japanese indie gaming festival BitSummit. They talked about their game and their new project’s similarities to it — though inside, they all harboured concerns over it not being “enough of a game”. Toge’s past work had been very mechanics-centric, after all, so they were worried that their existing fans might not be on board with a narrative-centric game — particularly if they specifically branded it as a visual novel.
“During a party on a river bank in Kyoto, we talked about how Sukeban achieved what they have from VA-11 HALL-A,” wrote Fahmi in a devlog post from August of 2018. “One thing they told me to keep in mind was not to add features just because you can or because you don’t think the gameplay is deep enough to be called a game.
“I never mentioned our anxiety about the lack of gameplay in Coffee Talk,” he continued. “And yet here they were, telling me that the first thing I needed to make sure of was something we’d been thinking a lot about for the past few months.”
The team remained true to this core concept throughout the rest of Coffee Talk’s development: the game doesn’t overcomplicate things or take the focus off the story at any point — but there’s enough interactivity there to keep things interesting, and for the player to feel like they’re actually involved with what is happening rather than simply passively observing.
The mechanical aspect of Coffee Talk revolves around selecting three ingredients to make a drink for a customer who requests one. The first is the base drink: coffee, green tea, tea or cocoa. The second and third are additional ingredients, which can simply be more of the base for a long, simple drink — a triple-shot espresso is simply three lots of coffee, for example — or it could be various combinations of the other ingredients. The only thing you can’t do is mix base drinks together; no coffee-tea-cocoa combinations here.
Each ingredient has an impact on up to four statistics: “warm” (implied to also mean “spicy” when incorporating ingredients such as cinnamon and ginger), “cool” (also “refreshing”), “sweet” and “bitter”. If a customer makes a vague request based on these characteristics, it’s fairly straightforward to fulfil in the main story mode of the game; in the narrative-free “Endless” mode, however, it’s a different matter, as customers ask for all sorts of combinations of these factors — and you’re against the clock, too!
Some customers will also ask for specific, named drinks. Early in the game, they’ll generally tell you how to make these, and once you’ve made them once they’ll be added to the in-game “BrewPad” app on your virtual phone, so you can quickly refer back to the specific combination of ingredients you need.
There are, however, a couple of cases where you’ll either need to know what a drink is or do your own independent research. An instance where a character asks for a Teh Tarik is a good example; she doesn’t give you any hints whatsoever on what this is, so you’re expected to either already know it is a milky tea drink from south-east Asia (you’re welcome), or to look it up yourself. There’s also a specific event later that makes it impossible to look at your phone while making the drink, so you’d better remember the ingredients you need for that one — you’ll probably be able to anticipate which one it is if you pay attention!
Generally speaking, there are no real negative consequences for getting a customer’s drink wrong, though as you play, correctly fixing up drinks will cause their friendship ratings in the in-game “Tomodachill” app to increase. Subsequent events in the various subplots and their respective “good” endings at the conclusion of the overall story are dependent on you having increased or maxed these out; they are persistent between playthroughs, though, and at any point you can choose to restart a day you’ve previously reached to try again.
A fun touch in the drink-making section is the fact that you can create latte art on top of any drinks that have milk as a component. The simulation of fluid dynamics in this section is surprisingly sophisticated — particularly considering the feature is entirely optional to engage with. It allows you the potential to create some quite complex designs if you know what you’re doing. Or you can just draw a big hairy knob on top of a particularly troublesome customer’s drink.
Not that any of Coffee Talk’s customers are particularly “troublesome” per se; in fact, they’re all thoroughly likeable, interesting people — and that’s a big part of what makes the game such a pleasure to play. You want to get to know these people, you want to hear their stories, and you want to see them reach some sort of resolution to the situations they’re dealing with at the time you meet them.
It helps that the game looks absolutely beautiful, adopting a distinctive pixel-art style with a deliberately limited colour palette and resolution. Lead artist and character designer Dio Mahesa clearly took great pains to avoid aping VA-11 HALL-A’s purple-tinged PC-98-inspired visuals, though; the team presumably knew that comparisons between the two would be inevitable, so it was important to do something a bit different.
“We all like ’90s anime,” explained Mahesa in a devlog post in February of 2019. “Thus we are trying to give the ’90s vibe by referencing Cowboy Bebop, Ghost in the Shell and Neon Genesis Evangelion. We made Coffee Talk’s colour scheme brown-ish, with low saturation tone. The design of the characters then follows the game’s vibe, including their colour palette so that they could come together nicely.
“Some parts of the game, such as the intro cutscenes, also took cues from PC-98 games’ art direction,” he continued. “Hence why some of the cutscenes in the game are showcased in a small frame with a black background, giving some kind of nostalgia for how classic games show story cutscenes.”
The music goes a long way to creating the game’s distinctive vibe, too. Heavily inspired by the popular 24/7 “chill-hop” channels on YouTube, composer Andrew Jeremy made a deliberate attempt to adopt a lo-fi jazz style similar to that which you would expect to hear in a modern café. The music is unobtrusive, but very pleasant to listen to, and it complements the on-screen happenings well; it creates the perfect atmosphere for pouring some hot drinks and hanging out with your regulars.
The entire audio-visual aesthetic provides a superbly effective look and feel for the game as a whole. The vibrant characters, who each have their own immediately recognisable colour palette, stand out against the deliberately subdued (and rather coffee-coloured) backdrop, and the level of detail is incredible. As you let Jeremy’s chilled-out grooves wash over you, you can look out through the windows of Coffee Talk to see the rain falling on Seattle and the silhouettes of people of all shapes, sizes and races walking or running past, going about their business. It really provides the impression that your little coffee shop is a wonderful haven of peace and calm — and helps you understand why your regulars became regulars in the first place.
And what a bunch they are. There’s your most regular regular Freya, who is dissatisfied with her job churning out short stories for the local newspaper and wants to write a book; there’s Baileys and Lua, an elf-succubus couple who are dealing with all the problems you might expect from interracial dating in a world where humans aren’t the only bipeds; there’s Jorji the perpetually tired cop, who is always a great source of gossip; Hyde the vegan vampire supermodel who is in town for a couple of weeks; his friend Gala the werewolf hospital administrator; Myrtle, an orcish game developer in the triple-A sector; university researcher Aqua the mermaid, who works on indie games as a hobby; Rachel the teenage nekomimi pop star, who is trying to start a solo career after a successful period as part of a girl group; and her long-suffering father Hendry, a former producer and manager in the music business. Oh, and Neil, who is an alien that drinks through their fingertips.
Each of these characters have their own stories to tell, and over the course of the game’s 14 nights, these gradually unfold a tantalising piece at a time, sometimes intertwining and overlapping as different individuals have the opportunity to meet and discuss what’s been going on with each another.
Every one of these stories is meaningful and relatable to a diverse, modern audience, whether or not you have direct experience with the specific situation in question — be it the clashing traditional cultures of Baileys and Lua’s families or Hendry’s concerns over Rachel getting drawn into the seedy underbelly of the entertainment business.
Like VA-11 HALL-A, there’s a strong feeling of things going on outside the walls of the coffee shop as the game progresses. You start each day by reading the newspaper, and the characters will sometimes mention the big stories of the day when they come in. The main narrative unfolds around the time of music festival “Couchella”, which you never actually see, but you hear plenty about. And video gaming event MAX, which both Myrtle and Aqua have an obvious interest in, happens over one of the in-game weekends.
On top of these “background” happenings, the story is told in such a way that it’s clear the various characters are having independent off-screen interactions and developing their relationships with one another even when you’re not around; you just get an occasional snapshot of their lives when they happen to stop by. Sometimes things can be quite different from one day to the next; sometimes you’ll find yourself making assumptions; and sometimes people won’t tell you everything, because it’s none of your business, as good as your coffee is!
Much like Sukeban’s modern classic did so well, Coffee Talk does an excellent job of incorporating thoroughly modern, relevant and progressive themes into its various weaving narrative threads without ever feeling like it’s preaching to the player or telling them what they “should” think about something — the fantasy angle really helps with this, despite the various allegories used being fairly straightforward to identify.
Crucially, the characters in the game don’t let overly broad identity labels or stereotypes define them; they all feel like real people with their own unique outlook on life and things that concern them — and in numerous cases they subvert both expectations from popular culture in general and those carefully set up by the game’s narrative itself. First impressions aren’t always accurate, after all!
And once you make it to the end of the main story, it’s not over, either; besides the aforementioned Endless mode, which is just for fun, you can challenge yourself to try and uncover all the drinks in the BrewPad and max out any relationships you missed first time around.
Perhaps most significantly, though, a post-credits scene gives you specific reason to go back and check certain scenes again in order to uncover the truth behind a thoroughly intriguing mystery. I won’t spoil the details of that for now, but suffice to say there’s plenty more to discover — and the ability to skip back and forth to any of the game’s 14 days and fast-forward previously read text is very helpful when you get to this point.
Whether or not Coffee Talk comes to be regarded as a modern classic like VA-11 HALL-A remains to be seen. Some people will doubtless see it as an attempt to ride Sukeban’s coattails due to its mechanical and structural similarities — and, of course, the fact that Sukeban did the whole “service industry professional listens to people’s problems” thing first.
But make no mistake: despite the number of times VA-11 HALL-A has come up today, Coffee Talk is very much its own thing with its own distinct vibe, atmosphere, setting and characters… and it deserves to be enjoyed and appreciated on its own merits. Because those merits are considerable in number.
Toge Productions has created something truly special here. I loved the characters, I loved the atmosphere, I loved the audio-visual presentation, I loved the overall vibe… and I loved what a relaxing, friendly, comfortable game it is. It was exactly what I needed to play at the time I played it — and I suspect it’s going to stick in my head for quite some time after I hang up my barista’s apron for good!
Thanks to the folks at Toge Productions and Brown Betty PR for the review copy. And thanks to DeiSophia of Virtual Visions for the headline pun.
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