I never fully considered the work that went into making my latte, until I was forced to learn how to do so. When my then job decided that, “Hey we’re going to start selling coffee, and on top of everything else you do, you’re going to have to learn how to work an espresso machine. No we’re not paying you more and yeah we’re going to need you to come in at 5 a.m. now.”
This job was not at an independently owned business or even a massive coffee chain, but at the corporate cafeteria for a big company. Not the romantic vision of a coffee shop as portrayed in developer Toge Productions’ Coffee Talk, a visual novel where you play the role of a barista in a fictional Seattle where you serve fantastical creatures such as orcs and vampires. Spending my nights with the game has made me reflect on my own experiences working behind a counter steaming milk.
I spent many moments in that role filled with a lot of resentment towards the directors, vice presidents, and team leaders that I had to serve. People who worked for the exact same company that prints off all of our checks, but I bet our morning routines couldn’t be more different. The start to their day was driving in their car that was manufactured in the last decade to their office, then visiting their company’s fancy new coffee shop. My day started by painfully waking up from four hours of sleep – as the resentment of the day that was to come had me tossing and turning – to make sure we were open on time so that our wonderful customers/colleagues had their four ounces of caffeine mixed with almond milk and chocolate to get them through a work day that, I would bet, was not as hard as mine.
This is of course the most cynical way to look back on my job, but it’s what I would guess goes through the mind of many a barista in those early mornings. Such as fellow colleague and professional coffee maker Michael Ruiz of Dualshockers, who describes his experience working in this profession well in his own review of Coffee Talk, “ …there have definitely been days where I question why I still work this job (it’s money — money and benefits are always the answer).”
I think I felt this resentment more than compared to when I would have to make sandwiches for these same people in this position. In my mind, there was something more personal about making a warm beverage for someone else. This distinction is probably arbitrary and exclusive to me, as there is certainly something special about an egg and cheese sandwich made at a local bodega, or a much needed old fashioned after a long day made by your favorite bartender. At the same time, making a great chai tea latte requires more attention to detail, skill, and time compared to the grilled cheese sandwiches my job also required me to make around lunch time. Mad respect to everyone who is paid to make grilled cheese sandwiches regardless though.
In between making espresso, pumping in the correct syrups, and steaming milk, there is conversation, which I enjoyed much more than actually making coffee. This is where I learned that maybe not all of those higher ups were as bad as I thought they were, some of them at least. I also learned that other people within the company who didn’t work with me were also just trying to make it through. People really trying to get hired after their internship period. People who work second jobs at the local grocery store. People who were trying to find something new, but were so busy with their current role and raising kids by themselves that they didn’t have the time.
Coffee Talk does emulate a version of the actual latte making experience, and while it is rendered beautifully in a 90s anime, pixel art style, it’s not the game’s strongest suit. The steps that go into making the in-game drinks are streamlined into just choosing ingredients. Yearning for a ginger latte? Simply choose coffee, ginger, milk, and hit brew, no stirring required. It’s all very simplified, but it’s clear that this isn’t what the game wants to focus on. What it excels at is replicating that warm feeling of having a brief connection with someone while you’re working. Seeing how the lives of your regular guests would change and evolve day-to-day is what really engrossed me. The same way I would think, “I hope X customer has a good vacation, she’s earned it” in real life, I would find myself wondering if one of Coffee Talk’s characters would get that big break in their career.
The game’s world is not just fantastical in that succubi and werewolves inhabit it, but also that every guest you serve is pretty chill that you maybe got their order wrong. This is very much not the case in my real world experience. This choice was probably made in service of creating a game based on the idyllic picture of a coffee shop, with all of the good and relaxing vibes associated with that. Which I greatly appreciated as I played most of Coffee Talk laying on my couch with a blanket, having the game wash over me after a long day. Focusing on those personal moments that do happen every once in a while when working at a coffee shop, clearly brings to attention how meaningful service work can be.
Yes, I am just providing you a consumable product in exchange for payment, of which doesn’t even directly go to me. But perhaps that small interaction and the product itself could make all the difference in someone’s day. That a caffeinated beverage and a positive exchange with another person were enough for someone to push through another day at work, which they need to do in order to pay rent, and maybe still have enough energy after they clock out to enjoy the rest of the day.
All of this is to say that I know that latte was already pretty expensive, but on top of being nice to your local barista, maybe also consider tipping them, and that if you’re looking for a slower paced game to unwind to, Coffee Talk may be what you need.
This game was provided by a PR representative of the game.