Life sometimes feels like it runs a mile a minute. Shit never stops, there’s always a new crisis, and your jaw is clenched in perpetuity. In those moments, it can help to focus on the little things. Like coffee. A trip to the corner shop or a dirty cup from the office kitchen is like exhaling for a moment. The new indie game Coffee Talk seizes on that feeling. It’s cosy, calm, and a good break from your worries.
I first covered Coffee Talk in 2018. Back then, it was only a demo, but it showed a lot of promise. Coffee Talk is pretty much what it says on the tin: you make coffee and people talk to you. You play as a coffee shop owner in a fantastic version of Seattle populated by orcs, elves, and the occasional human. Regulars and new faces show up at the shop each day. You make their drinks and learn more about their lives.
Coffee Shop follows the format of 2016’s VA-11 HALL-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action. The most you’ll need to do is mix ingredients and remember recipes. That game opted for a cyberpunk world with a heaping dose of 4chan meme culture. Plenty of moments in it were heartfelt—I enjoyed it enough to name it my second favourite game of 2016—but in retrospect, there’s some real sloppy shit in there too. I don’t begrudge anyone who started that game intrigued by the core gameplay concept only to bounce off the content. VA-11 HALL-A had a mix of manic glitz and trash bar vibes. Coffee Talk is more relaxed and there are fewer internet in-jokes. It’s a perfect fit for players who like the idea of bartending games but just haven’t found one that’s chill enough yet.
Whenever a customer gives you an order, you need to select the proper ingredients and mix it together. If you’re making a latte, that’s easy enough: just select coffee and milk. Coffee Talk will do the rest. But sometimes you need to wing it. A customer might ask for something sweet or something to soothe their cough. It’s up to you to consult your drink guides and experiment to find what they need. As characters return, you’ll start to learn their regular orders. Those become automatic. Triple shot espresso, matcha latte with honey. Maybe add a little latte art as a treat. The joy of bartending games comes from the repetition and getting to learn more about each customer’s personal woes and hopes.
Before I worked at Kotaku, I split my time between freelance writing and a full-time job as a barista. The latter happened because I was planning to start hormones and healthcare seemed like a good thing to have. I got a job working at a Starbucks in a sleepy New England mall. It’s hard to imagine anything romantic about working in a mall, slinging drinks for the most ubiquitous coffee chain on the planet, but there are days when I miss it intensely. If you’ve never ran plates from a kitchen on a Friday night or opened a shop at four in the morning, then you’re missing out. You’re often miserable, but there’s something to be said for doing some goddamn work and seeing the immediate effect. When you give someone their morning tea, their gratitude is written on their face. You sure as shit don’t get that from publishing a blog post. (Editor’s note: We wouldn’t say no to any Kotaku reader who wants to send us a selfie of their grateful smile.)
Games like Coffee Talk and VA-11 HALL-A understand this. The rapport that builds between a bartender and regular, or a barista and that one dude who comes in at 10:15 every day, comes from sharing a small moment of solace. Repeat the process enough, and it does start to feel like a meaningful relationship. Coffee Talk and adjacent games populate their worlds with fantastic creatures and sci-fi oddities as a convenient way to have characters talk about certain issues—race, economics, family issues—but these shorthands also help capture the feeling of really recognising a person and their order. Yeah, it’s silly to know that the big werewolf dude likes drinks with ginger, but that’s also not far off from the reality of learning people’s real-life drink orders.
Customers are characters in the real world as well. I can still remember the old man who came in at the start of each day, back hunched and neck extended out like a condor, asking Picard-like for his “Earl Grey tea. Hot,” in a shaky voice that made it sound like his bones would shatter into dust if he sneezed. Not quite a werewolf or cyborg but just as distinct in my memory. And while customers don’t wander into a coffee shop talking about the woes of being a succubus or dishing the dirt on corporate espionage, they do open up. That’s how you end up as a twenty-something year old transwoman explaining to a 40-year old coffee-freak that even if she’s having trouble with the fact her son came out of the closet, a parent can’t ever stop loving their child. Advice from behind the bar to a stranger who somehow felt comfortable enough to tell you something that’s probably way too personal. You tell them how it is, even if you have no fuckin’ clue, and then you make them a flat white.
Coffee Talk’s the first game I’ve played in months that’s genuinely relaxed me. I don’t know if that’s the best endorsement, but it’s the realest one I can give. It feels good to play. I feel relaxed, and I want to learn more about these characters. There’s a sense of something I’d been missing, a gesture towards real world experiences that I value. If that sounds good to you, it’s worth picking up. It’s available on all major platforms and you can snag it on the Nintendo Switch for an extra chill experience.