- Serve coffee, listen to stories of modern orcs, elves & one socially-awkward mermaid
- Mechanically similar to VA-11 HALL-A, but spiritually very much like Midnight Diner
What are cafes and coffee shops if not places to escape? Here the ambience is relaxing, inviting, and the drinks warm and comforting. The world outside may be troubling and moving fast, but in a coffee shop you can slow down. There are drinks to sip, conversations to be had, or relative quietness to soak in. There’ll be jazz, if one is lucky.
If anything, Coffee Talk by Indonesia-based Toge Productions nails that sense of serenity. This isn’t a game about beating timers or gaining high scores. It’s about slowing down, squeezing in the troubles of the world into a tiny space so that it can be washed away with warm tea and lo-fi music. It’s a unique experience in its own right.
In Coffee Talk, you’re also the purveyor of such chill vibes. You play the barista of the titular Coffee Talk, a little joint tucked away at a corner of rainy Seattle.
But it’s not the Seattle one may be familiar with. In this alternate reality, humans mingle with fantasy creatures and characters from all walks fiction and pop culture. Your patrons range from a cheery human writer to a freelance photographer elf and socially-awkward mermaid. It’s a colourful cast, brought to life by terrific pixel art and design reminiscent of 90s anime, with subtle animations that add to their personality.
They all come in bringing in their troubles and an idea of a comforting drink, and you’re here to serve them and listen. It’s more a visual novel than a simulation game – this isn’t Cook, Serve, Delicious!, where you’re running an establishment with the intensity of managing a sinking ship on fire. Here, you experience stories that are punctuated by moments of drink-making. The coffee-making is just one mechanic – the real star is the ambience and the tales of each character.
Brewing up relationships
Each character has their own drink preferences. The brewing part of the game is simple – you pick a base (coffee, tea, milk) and then you add in ingredients based on your customer’s request. The game does the rest, though certain drinks allow you to craft some latte art. It’s not a requirement to make one, but it is fun and gratifying to do (I am terrible at it, however).
Soon you’ll start remembering the usuals for each character, though there’s a handy guide for you to refer if you do forget. Sometimes your patrons might make unique requests, like drinks that aren’t in your guide yet, or something to “surprise” them. That’s when you get to explore and experiment.
There isn’t really a fail state here – serving the wrong drink usually gets a frown and you might miss certain plot developments, but it’s not hard to reload a save point or a particular day (level) to try again.
There’s little else to do otherwise. You can change the music of the game or read up on certain social media updates by your patrons, but that’s it. Players that just want to brew beverages without the plot getting in the way can opt for the “Endless” mode, where you simply make drinks either on a timer or until you make the wrong drinks too many times.
But you’re here, really, to soak in the mood of a well-run café. The jazzy, lo-fi music combined with the rainy ambience is a potent mix. It’s a great game to wind down to, especially after an intense match of Valorant.
The game may be set in Seattle, but Toge Productions have found way to infuse it with a good amount of Southeast Asian-ness. Players might find familiar drinks like Teh Tarik, Chai Masala and STMJ (the Indonesian favourite comprised of milk, egg, honey and ginger).
Coffee Talk bears a lot of similarity to VA-11 HALL-A, the “cyberpunk bartender game” by Venezuelan-based Sukeban Games, which also balances drink-making while interacting with fascinating clientele.
Spiritually, however, Coffee Talk reminds me more of Midnight Diner, the manga-turned-TV series about a hole-in-the-wall restaurant operated by an unnamed chef (his customers lovingly call him The Master), who serves food to a curious collection of people. The show, like Coffee Talk, is less about the food and more about the people and their own personal stories.
The inherent question surrounding Coffee Talk is why is it set against an urban fantasy backdrop? According to Toge Productions’ chief executive officer (CEO) Kris Antoni in an interview, the semi-fantastical setting is so that they can create a mirror of our world to make the delivery and consumption of sensitive topics easier.
Sure enough, the concerns of Coffee Talk’s patrons are steeped in the familiar. A demon may be lamenting about the challenges of dating someone not of her “species”, while an orc deals with the plights of video game development.
Are the stories compelling? I suppose they can be, though personally I feel like it is not nearly fantastical or outlandish enough to be satirical – the issues discussed in Coffee Talk may reflect reality, but they’re not warped enough for us to see the absurdity or seriousness of it. It’s neither allegorical nor subversive enough.
Sugar and spice
I also wish that the player characters would have more interactivity with the patrons. For a game about listening to problems, I wish that there’s a way for me to provide an input to those issues. The barista responds to each character through a pre-set script – there are no dialogue choices here, no meaningful way to interact with your patrons besides making drinks.
This, I feel, would’ve added more intimacy to the game. Contrast this to Lucas Pope’s Papers, Please, which finds its humanity not just through the cast of characters, but the choices you get to make within the context of the game and its setting.
Still, Coffee Talk’s inherent charm and good vibes kept me going until the end. Kris Antoni says that Coffee Talk is inspired by the feeling of “watching the rain while holding a cup of coffee and listening to conversations”, and it delivers. Playing this in the midst of a pandemic, where going to a coffee shop now entails a certain amount of risk, Coffee Talk feels welcoming.
It also marks another solid entry from Toge Productions, which is steadily setting itself up as a powerhouse in the Southeast Asian games development scene.
They have just released Necronator, a rogue-lite with deck-building mechanics ala Slay the Spire, but with a real-time strategy (RTS) twist. It’s quite a far cry from Coffee Talk’s chill vibes, but Toge Productions also have their hands in helping the development of two narratively-driven games by Surabaya-based Mojiken Studios: When the Past Was Around and A Space for the Unbound.
One can hope that they can continue serving up something as memorable – and comforting – as Coffee Talk.
Play at SEA” is a collaborative series between Digital News Asia and Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC). These articles will shine a spotlight on Southeast Asia video games and their creators.