Recently, a game called Necrobarista caught my eye. It's about a cafe the dead return to for one last cup of coffee, and it's got an art style that screams Persona. That's no coincidence. Necrobarista's developers told me the game arose from their "love-hate relationship" with anime and visual novels.
"Back in the '90s, you had a bunch of very experimental shows," lead developer Kevin Chen told me during an interview at GDC. "I'm not saying there aren't any right now, but the industry at the time was still trying to find its place. That has slowed down in the past five years. Big companies have said, 'OK, this is the best way to generate good, steady revenue.' That's led to a stagnation, I feel. Hayao Miyazaki commented on this. He talked about how it's become a very circular, almost inbred kind of industry."
"We're big anime nerds, but we have this kind of love-hate relationship with anime," he added. "We love stuff from the '90s and early '00s. Cowboy Bebob, FLCL, Gurren Lagann. We wanted to do something that was different — both a throwback to old stuff we love, but also with its own direction."
Necrobarista is, at its core, a narrative game that owes a lot to anime and Japanese visual novels. Its main story takes place over the course of one night, beginning with a bit I got to play where three main characters bicker over the power in the cafe going out. Unlike many visual novels, however, the game is fully 3D, allowing for a dynamic camera, animated characters, and a general sense of style you don't usually get from this sort of game. The scene I played was brief, but it was full of clever dialogue and intrigue.
It goes deeper than technical bells and whistles, though. The Necrobarista team wants to tell stories that are human first and foremost, with the fantastical element as more of a conduit for interesting, authentic moments.
"There are lots of series about power fantasies or fan service [in anime]," said Chen. "Those can be done well and executed well, but they have become over-saturated."
"Our cast has a very diverse age range," he continued. "Ashley's a little girl in primary school. Mattie, our main character, is 23. We have other characters who are quite old, and others who are quite young. This is a setting that helps facilitate that. You get a lot of stuff you wouldn't normally see in anime. We wanted to tell very human stories about real people in semi-fantastical backdrop."
Oh, and about that setting: while Necrobarista is heavily inspired by Japanese media, it's set in Melbourne, Australia, where the game's development team is based. It might seem odd to set a game like this there, but Chen and co want the game to be rooted in a sense of time and place, ala Japanese games like Persona and Western games like Kentucky Route Zero.
"From the architecture to the way people dress and talk, even to the food they serve in the cafe — all of that is important," said Chen. "When you play Kentucky Route Zero, you really feel like the creators of the game knew that region. You get narrative segments where you, like, walk into a fishing shop, and they talk about a little aquarium with a dead fish inside. There's so much detail. That's the kind of stuff we want to put into our game."
The Necrobarista team is drawing on a pretty wide range of influences, but there's no denying the promise of what they have put together so far. They hope that, when the game comes out later this year, it will strike a cord.
"I won't be so presumptive to say that we'll change [anime and visual novels], but as fans, we want to create content for other fans who want something different," said Chen. "And we think there are anime fans out there with this same love-hate relationship."