I recently played through an interesting Taiwanese game called Food Girls. It’s a visual novel combined with a management sim about rescuing a street market from closure and demolition. You can read more about it in my feature over on Rice Digital; there’ll be more about it here when I’ve done a few more playthroughs!
As you might expect from the name, Food Girls primarily focuses on your relationships with the vendors who call the street market home. As you develop those relationships — and train up their important skills to ensure they’re making profit — you learn more about them.
For my first playthrough, I mostly focused on the tsundere bubble tea shop owner Bubbles. What can I say? I have a type. (I have multiple types, as it happens, but tsundere is a particular weak point.) So let’s take a closer look!
Bubbles is introduced as your common-or-garden tsundere, seemingly conforming to pretty much every defining characteristic of the trope that has been established over the years. Blonde? Check. Twintails? Absolutely. Perpetually furious expression? Uh-huh. Referring to the player-protagonist as “stupid” or an “idiot” at every opportunity? You betcha.
The thing with tsunderes is that there’s usually a reason for them being the way they are. Sometimes it’s because they don’t feel comfortable expressing themselves through anything other than aggression. Sometimes it’s because they genuinely don’t want people coming near them. In Bubbles’ case, it’s down to good old-fashioned pride.
Bubbles takes great pride in her work, you see, and genuinely believes her bubble tea is the best of the best. She pours her heart and soul into it, she makes a point of using prime ingredients — to the point that she’s losing money with every sale at the outset of the game — and she absolutely refuses to accept the fact that she, like the other stallholders in the street market, needs help.
She believes — perfectly reasonably, one might say — that a quality product should speak for itself and naturally become successful. She doesn’t want to sully herself with what she sees as deceptive practices such as marketing; she simply wants the thing she takes the most pride in to be appreciated for what it is. And, as we join the story, it isn’t.
It takes her time to come around to the player-protagonist’s suggestion that she look at ways of promoting her store — even when it’s made clear that she won’t have to do any of that work herself. And when she does finally agree to having a fan page on social media, she finds it impossible to resist taking the bait of mean commenters on the Internet, resulting in doing harm to her business when all she wanted to do was blow off some steam.
While there are times that Bubbles clearly behaves unreasonably and inappropriately, anyone who lives in the modern, interconnected world we live in today will have, at some point, experienced her frustration with Internet commenters. Pretty much all of us will have come across people who are rude for no reason; people who are negative about everything; people who make a point of stirring up trouble. It’s an unfortunate reality of modern online life — it’s one we shouldn’t really have to put up with, but it will remain a reality for as long as “engagement” — whatever the form — is seen as “success”.
One gets the sense that Bubbles, despite her seemingly tender years, just isn’t quite built for the modern world — and I completely understand that. It’s not unreasonable to expect to be able to just get on with your job and enjoy success that is commensurate with the amount of effort you put in. It’s not unreasonable to expect people to maintain a basic level of civility. And it’s absolutely understandable for frustration with the fact that these expectations are rarely, if ever, met to manifest itself as a somewhat standoffish attitude.
Through her relationship with the player-protagonist, Bubbles learns that there are times when you just have to switch off completely and let the absolute nonsense wash over you without saying a word. The Internet plays host to a storm in a teacup almost every day; almost as soon as what appears to be an Earth-shattering disaster occurs on social media, it’s forgotten about as the braying mobs move on to their next target. Unless, of course, you fight back and make matters worse for yourself.
That is, of course, no way to live, but it is a regrettable reality of today’s online society — and it’s something that has been drilled into us from an early age, too. Bullies want attention of any description, and the more you give it to them, the more they will demand it. It ends up as a cycle that can easily spiral out of control; the only reasonable solution is to just step out of it and let it disappear over the horizon. But it’s easy to forget that sometimes, especially if you’re dealing with something by yourself.
Bubbles comes to learn over time that she doesn’t have to deal with these matters alone, however. While prior to the start of the story she had been single-handedly running her business, by the end we see her willing and able to rely on her friends and the player-protagonist; we even see her acting as a proper manager and hiring some part-timers to help her out.
When you’re in a tough situation from which there doesn’t seem to be a straightforward means of escape, it’s easy to clam up and not let anyone in. But these are the times when you need other people the most; they might not be able to solve your problems for you directly, but at least they provide a safe means of you expressing your emotions and talking through your troubles.
More often than not, simply saying something out loud to another person who is inclined to listen to, respect and empathise with you is enough to make it seem like less of a big deal. And even if it is still a big deal, you know you don’t have to face it alone.
That’s probably the most important lesson Bubbles learns over the course of Food Girls.
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