Coffee Talk: How to tell a story while still being a game
Have you ever played a story-driven game before? Something like Heavy Rain, Detroit: Become Human, or even Genshin Impact during some of the archon quests? If so, you probably have experienced the "movie-game" experience, as I call it. This video game narrative trope describes a story-driven game that decides it would rather be a movie, and treats any and all game functions as secondary to cinematic cutscenes or long sections of dialogue. Simply put: it's when a story-driven game gets boring. A minority of the most dedicated players will take the time to read the text, but the large majority of regular players will tape down their left click and go on TikTok until it ends. After all, this is a video game, not an audio book or movie. All games, driven by a narrative or not, are still games, and games need to have an interactive element to them. Otherwise, why not just make a movie?
Meet Coffee Talk, a Visual novel developed by Toge Productions. Here, you are the owner of a cafe only open during the night, where you meet and talk to various types of mystical creatures and humans. As described on the official website for this game, Coffee Talk-
"... is a game about listening to people’s problems and help(ing) them by serving a warm drink out of the ingredients you have. It is a game that tries to depict our lives as humanly as possible while having a cast that is more than just humans."
-and some notable game features for our discussion include:
- Tales of people around the alternative Seattle, a city where elves, orcs, mermaids, and many other fantasy races live together with humans in a modern world we are familiar with
- Branching story lines where the decisions do not come from the dialogue options you choose, but through how you treat and serve the customers of your café
So, as it seems just by the description of the game, this is far from your average Visual novel.
Coffee Talk is unique in not only its premise, but its game design decisions. You can influence the story, as with most visual novels, but you do so through unique mechanics that are interactive. Don't like someone? Fuck up their order! Do some fancy latte art for brownie points, if you can make it look good anyway. Or draw a phallic object in their cafe latte, why not!
The writing in Coffee Talk is also absolutely terrific. Each character feels real, the way they talk and how they interact with others is realistic (in the context of their character and the game) and engaging. Everyone has their own personality, and watching them merge and intersect as the days go by is incredibly fun.
But, Coffee Talk did not forget it was a game! Even during times where there are no drinks to be served and the narrative takes over, this game displays the text in an interesting way that keeps players engaged. The dialogue itself is short, in the sense that there is only ever one sentence on screen at a time. Even if a character continues to speak for a while, their dialogue is broken down so that the individual sentences aren't long. This prevents players from feeling bored through long sequences of dialogue, since it's easy to read and click through rather than a huge wall of text most will skip. Also, when conflict starts to arise during a conversation, the UI changes to emphasize the ~drama~...or as a tool to re-engage players if a particular conversation has been continuing for a long time.
You can visually see what I mean below. As Lua and Baileys start to have an argument, the UI goes from the typical layout above:
to this layout, that cuts between the two of them only: *note that this is not sequential, I just picked these screenshots of the whole back-and-forth randomly.
The overall presentation of the narrative is extremely important to this game's success as a Visual Novel, in my opinion. Coffee Talk avoids the "movie-game" trope that most story-based games fall into by incorporating fun gameplay aspects and UI choices into the story itself, which keeps the narrative as an important part of the game while maintaining the core functions of any video game. It also helps that the writing itself is very well done, taking into consideration the way the text would be presented to the player and more straightforward writing decisions (i.e. making the characters sound believable, writing in-character, that kind of thing)
...along with the art and score, but that discussion leaves the scope of this blog post (though both are VERY good).
Games like Heavy Rain and DBH (really any D*vid C*ge game works here), or just any story-driven video game or visual novel still has a duty to be a game. I feel that these games have a reputation for being "boring", which comes from this "movie-game" trope that rips all interactivity and fun away from the player. I would hope that more games would move in the direction that Coffee Talk is taking, to take away this negative reputation and allow for more high-quality visual novels to release!
all screenshots and other images are not my work, full credit goes Toge Productions, please go check them out!