Games

Set in an other-worldly Carlton cafe and filled with thoughtful musings on life, death and loss, Necrobarista is a welcome antidote to the relentless dominance of American games. By Jini Maxwell.

Necrobarista

A still from Necrobarista.
Credit: Route 59 Games

At first glance it would be easy to mistake Route 59’s debut game title, Necrobarista, as a cynical joke at Melbourne’s expense. The game has all the Melbourne clichés: the coffee, the sarcasm, the rain. The darkness. Even the portmanteau title wouldn’t look out of place on a chalkboard on Degraves Street.

But its narrative is a thoughtful meditation on grief and mortality, told with a sensitivity shot through with dark humour. This cinematic visual novel follows the staff and patrons of The Terminal, a late-night cafe in Carlton where the recently dead spend their last 24 hours on earth before they move on to the afterlife.

From the perspective of a disembodied observer, the player experiences The Terminal primarily through the eyes of Kishan, a patron who has recently died. A few hours into his stay at The Terminal, after realising he is dead, Kishan chats enthusiastically with eponymous necrobarista and cafe owner Maddy Xiao, and promptly drinks himself to blackout.

A few hours later he returns, at first reckless and then reflective. Towards the end of the game, Maddy deflects a complex personal query with an offhanded, “Well, we all have our ways of coping with persistent, extreme stress.” As with Kishan’s question, most of the existential speculations that the narrative poses are never directly answered. Life, and death, go on regardless.

As the arbiters of a liminal space, The Terminal’s management is responsible for administering the 24-hour limit placed on the dead after which they must move on. When we meet Maddy and laid-back former owner Chay Wu, it’s clear that this is a responsibility they have consummately failed. Maddy guiltily allows extra hours to the “itchy” souls who cling on anxiously past their due date by wagering her remaining hours on games of five-finger fillet against the cafe’s bolder patrons. The rapidly accruing death-debt draws regular visits from Ned, bushranger-turned-helmeted-enforcer from the Council of Death, who seeks to right the balance.

Player interactions are simple, allowing the interplay of highly stylised visuals, synth score and sharp dialogue to take centre stage. The game’s interactive elements are sparse but highly polished; the player progresses through the story by clicking through scenes that play out between an eclectic cast of the dead, the living and the deathless.

The onscreen dialogue reflects emotional shifts, expanding and fizzing with the speaker’s tone, and the player’s engagement is rewarded at every moment with animations, close-ups or fresh camera angles. The melodramatic cinematography of dialogue sequences is balanced against muted chapter interstitials that allow the player to wander The Terminal at will. The juggernaut synths of award-winning anime and games composer Kevin Penkin’s original score perfectly mirror the narrative’s seamless ability to bounce between humour, pathos and reflection.

The studio is named after the Route 59 tramline that serviced the developer’s offices, an early sign of the production’s values. From the Henry Lawson quote on the title screen – “we drink to the name of the mate who is dead” – Necrobarista positions itself as a game intimately engaged with place. Drawing from the traditions of bush poetry, it employs Australian vernacular in a market dominated aesthetically and economically by American cultural exports. Just as Lawson’s writing protested against British cultural hegemony, Necrobarista speaks back, in its own voice, to a medium that is overwhelmed by United States cultural imperialism.

The result is, thankfully, never ocker, zany or forced. The dialogue reads naturally and the narrative offers asides in the form of highlighted words that, if clicked, offer context for particular phrases. As a narrative technique it feels almost conspiratorial; in a hyper-local game that’s released in 14 languages, it also contextualises Australian vernacular for an unfamiliar audience without gimmicky exposition.

At the end of each chapter – heralded by a motley Greek chorus of ghostly robots – the player roams the slick, dark wood interior of The Terminal. They may engage with the next narrative segment at their leisure, or delve into memory vignettes that are scattered around the cafe as snippets of conversation between The Terminal’s staff and patrons present and past.

These side stories are optional, but avoiding them would miss the point of the game, which deals directly with mortality and finitude. Throughout Necrobarista, the choices offered to a player don’t affect or prolong the outcome; rather, how the player spends their time shapes their perspective on the game’s events.

As in the main storyline, the player experiences these vignettes as an eavesdropper, not a participant, and – as with the time allowed a patron of The Terminal – their availability is limited. In both its structure and narrative, the game tells us that with all choice comes loss; no matter how judiciously a player chooses, there will be some stories left undiscovered.

Necrobarista’s lush soundtrack and stunning visuals combine with its naturalistic dialogue to create an atmosphere akin to being comfortably alone in a familiar bar; it feels local, as if it is a local itself. With this success comes the pitfalls of many settler-made media that deal with cultural identity.

The pleasure of seeing Ned Kelly offer someone a durry, or an acerbic barista mock a complicated drink order, is dampened by the game’s uneven approach to its own history. Despite the parochial environment of the game – even offering the Carlton 3053 postcode in a title screen – and its ruminations on loss, memory and legacy, the narrative of The Terminal exists in something of a vacuum.

As Dr Dakoda Barker points out at the games website Player2, while the world of The Terminal feels rich at first, its known origins do not extend further than Chay, who we learn migrated to the city during the 19th-century gold rush. Beyond this, the past is left empty: a 40,000-year-old gap in Necrobarista’s memory.

This isn’t a criticism that should solely be levelled at Necrobarista. Across Australian culture the larrikin identity excludes First Nations peoples. Recent examples in indie games include Boomerang Fu by Cranky Watermelon, which reduces aspects of culture to contextless props, or Mountains’ BAFTA-award-winning Florence, which elides them completely.

This absence is particularly noticeable in Necrobarista because of the care with which the game imagines its locale. The narrative is propelled by characters who are often excluded from nationalistic depictions of Australia: migrants, workers, people of colour and queer people. But the elision of Indigenous peoples from the world of the game is an act of digital terra nullius, allowing The Terminal to spring up unbidden, a neutral host to a cast who have histories only when it suits the narrative.

It’s a welcome rarity to see a local game that basks in familiar spaces and vernacular, rather than capitulating to the hypothetical tastes of an Americanised global audience. Necrobarista truly shines when the complexities of its present are contextualised in place and history. The relative simplicity of the game’s conceit isn’t a drawback; in this lush visual novel, it’s a gift. Rather than controlling the narrative, the player is positioned as a witness. In a story about accepting the inevitability of mortality and grief, the effect is humbling. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 5, 2020 as "True brew".

A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.

Jini Maxwell is a writer and arts producer based in Narrm.